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Is Monogamy Over? Inside Love’s Sharing Economy

How consensual non-monogamy became the new till death do us part.


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It had been 15 years since Megan Bhatia had sex with anyone but her husband, Marty.

In 2018, the Bhatias, 38-year-old college sweethearts, were following the prescribed path that sex researchers call the “relationship escalator.” They met at the University of Illinois at Chicago, married in 2004, and bought a house they could scarcely afford in the West Loop. Megan underwent three rounds of IVF in three years to welcome their twins, Kira and Sebastian. After the Bhatias’ jointly-owned real estate business collapsed in the 2008 financial crash, Marty hatched a digital training consultancy but eventually grew disillusioned with the work; Megan was traversing the country as a full-time executive-leadership coach while a nanny logged 50 hours per week watching the twins. Getting married, having children, and striving in corporate careers, the Bhatias “bought into that American dream,” says Megan, now a fresh-faced 42 with long, beachy waves. But the traditional roles of worker, wife, and mother subsumed her: “We shut a lot of ourselves off as we live,” she tells me. “The life that started as a wide-open slate can become this little pinhole.”

Throughout the course of their marriage, Megan and Marty buried the rebel-heartedness that initially bonded them. Marty remembers a traumatic early childhood and his late mother’s alcoholism, and grew up wild and hard-partying. Megan was driven by wanderlust, living in Belgium for a year at 17, then in Spain during a year of college, where she dated men during breaks in her on-and-off premarital relationship with Marty. “I felt so free. I was exploring. I was learning new languages, meeting people,” she recalls. “I felt like everything was possible.” In the years that followed, that unbridled part of her faded into a rarely seen alter ego that she and Marty referred to as “Barcelona Megan.” Both children of divorce, Megan and Marty committed to monogamy, vowing—especially after their children were born—that their marriage would last forever.

However ironically, it was that pledge that began cracking the long-closed door of their union. By 2018, Marty started to notice, as he told Megan, “your heart is off.” Determined to reawaken his wife’s deadened spirit, Marty suggested splashes of novelty. They went on dinner dates in which they pretended, for hours, not to know each other: “I got to see him in that ‘new person’ light,” Megan says. The couple had always shared their crushes with each other—“we realized, just because we were married, it didn’t mean that we didn’t find anyone else attractive,” Megan says—but they started fantasizing about inviting anonymous people, or even people they knew, into their bed for shared sexual experiences, a practice long known as “swinging.” “Part of what’s sexy about it is how open you feel,” Megan says of their conversations. Things escalated when Marty found a private party organized through a local swingers group: The Bhatias’ behavior there was “vanilla,” Megan says, with Marty seeking her permission to kiss another woman. Megan nodded him on, and soon after, was kissing the woman herself.

Swinging offered a jolt of newness, but the Bhatias craved something more than hookups. Megan divulged to Marty her simmering attraction to a new, single friend, Kyle Henry, a man-bunned, contemplative complement to Marty’s magnanimous presence. The couple had recently met Henry at a mutual friend’s party in Chicago and talked to him for hours, with Megan walking beside him under the twinkly lights of a holiday festival at Lincoln Park Zoo. “One person can’t be everything for someone else. It was clear that my all was not good enough,” Marty would later explain on Megan’s podcast, Amory. “There was something missing, and I couldn’t provide it.”

One night, the Bhatias invited Henry over, and Marty unsubtly encouraged his wife and Henry to kiss, which led to a threesome in which both men focused on Megan. The experience felt transformative: “It was like reigniting the curiosity of a teenager,” Megan remembers. Questioning the confines of her marriage “was like coming into Technicolor,” she marvels, referencing the movie Pleasantville, in which rainbow hues begin to populate a puritanical, black-and-white town. Megan was alive with excitement and energy; she describes the feeling of returning to her body, as if she’d been previously numb. “I remember looking back at them at one point, and both of them looking at me,” she says of that first encounter. “It was like, Oh my God, this whole other world is out here.”

Opening their relationship sparked a stream of existential questions for the Bhatias, according to Megan: “Whose life are we living? What do we want?” Entrenched systems were equally open to debate. “We are in a time of questioning institutional structures like health care, education, and, yes, monogamy,” she says, referencing the rise of a vocal, progressive political movement demanding sweeping structural change. The swelling impulse to challenge the status quo, from systemic racism and criminal justice to #MeToo’s reckoning on sexist abuse, had crept into her sex life and relationship style: “I think people are disillusioned with life right now and really starting to write their own rules,” Megan says.

So began the Bhatias’ winding path into consensual non-monogamy or “CNM,” the modern umbrella term for the practice of mutually and ethically agreeing to open an exclusive relationship to other sexual experiences, and in some cases, serious romantic partners. As “conscious uncoupling” was to divorce, consensual non-monogamy—sometimes called “ethical non-monogamy”—is to open relationships. In contrast to the free love of the ’60s or suburban key-party ethos of the ’70s, consensual non-monogamy in 2022 is a thoughtfully considered, typically therapized practice, complete with tidy acronym. CNM is rooted in open relationships that aspire to be “honest, moral, and trustworthy,” says Jessica Wood, Ph.D., a sexuality and relationships researcher at the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN), who has studied CNM since 2018.

The Bhatias are not alone: In a national survey conducted by data analytics firm YouGov in 2020, only 56 percent cited complete monogamy as their ideal relationship style, a 5 percent drop from 2016. An estimated 23 percent of respondents said their relationships were already non-monogamous, echoing breakthrough 2017 research published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, which found that more than one in five single Americans in their study had tried consensual non-monogamy. “You could go to the grocery store, close your eyes, point at someone, and as long as there’s at least five people in that grocery store, one of them is probably engaged in non-monogamy,” says one of the study’s authors, Amy Moors, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. At a minimum, the CNM community is “as large as the LGBTQ population in the United States,” Kimberly Rhoten, a founding member of the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition, tells me.

Nor is aspiring to monogamy any longer the societal default: When asked about their relationship ideal, from completely open to completely monogamous, the number of people who replied “I don’t know” more than doubled in the 2020 YouGov study, leaping from 5 percent in 2016 to 12 percent. “More people are starting to question,” says Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of human sexuality at New York University, who researches non-monogamy. “There are a couple of cultural shifts that are really making monogamy—complete, strict, lifelong monogamy—a very difficult thing to pull off.”

Though a pandemic might seem inimical to meeting new partners (social distancing and swinging hardly mix), Feeld—an app catering to open relationships, founded in 2014—has “bloomed” during COVID, according to its CEO, Ana Kirova. The company reports its monthly active global users doubled after January 2020, and U.S. users increased 41 percent between January and September 2021. Kirova theorizes that the pandemic sparked a kind of global identity crisis: “A wake-up call, like someone flicked a switch,” she says. “Life is not guaranteed. Anything that you wanted to do for your happiness was just not worth postponing. Humans are what make life worth living.” Along with the reconsideration of careers and jobs and a migration from cities to suburbs, the pandemic has occasioned a cultural shift in the bedroom: “Maybe I want to have sex with other people,” Moors says. “Why am I just skipping along to these unwritten rules? Monogamy, and how people navigate their intimate life, is part of that.” For Tina, a 33-year-old product designer in Essex, England, 2020 was at once “the worst year for meeting people” but also, “weirdly enough,” the year she and her partner of four years decided to try consensual non-monogamy. (For privacy, Tina requested Vogue use only her first name.) The meticulous couple, who gleefully log their spice rack via an Excel spreadsheet, had considered it, but “the pandemic changed our routines, meaning we stopped going to the office and actually had time to meet and build relationships with new people,” Tina says. “I suspect six months of lockdown helped my introverted partner open up to the idea of meeting new people, too.”

Speaking for myself, as a (reluctant) participant in the suburban migration from New York to Connecticut, I saw a shift too: new friends and neighbors piercing the ennui with titillating talk of swinging, including the rumor that displaying two red Adirondack chairs on one’s front porch, or placing a pineapple (a symbol of hospitality and warm welcome) in your grocery cart, signals willingness. (The pineapple code is real, one consensually non-monogamous couple confirms, though more often communicated through pineapple-emblazoned T-shirts than fresh fruit at Whole Foods.)

Sex scholars studying CNM are beginning to explore the possibility that the desire to be non-monogamous is a “relationship orientation” unto itself, or may be part of sexual orientation. Creating a more nuanced definition of sexual orientation could mean asking: “Do you want no partners, or do you want to be exclusive in sexual and/or emotional ways to one partner, or open with multiple?” Moors says. As with gender and sexuality, relationships can exist on a spectrum, Vrangalova argues. “We’re not dealing with a binary world of ‘Oh, you’re monogamous,’ or ‘You’re totally open.’ There’s lots of different things in between.”

That can mean swinging—or simply permission to flirt. Consensual non-monogamy “is almost like a buffet that you can pick from,” says Vrangalova. She adds that polyamory, which the Bhatias eventually adopted, is the most challenging form because it allows falling in love and entering into romantic relationships with multiple partners—an advanced emotional juggling act. Henry has become Megan’s second partner since that first, electric night together; he, the Bhatias, and the Bhatias’ now six-year-old twins are currently living—in separate homes—in Costa Rica, after Megan and Marty quit their corporate jobs to travel the world. When they were younger, the twins liked to call Henry “Uncle Kyle.” Marty, too, has a second partner who is not out publicly; in polyamory lingo, she is called Megan’s “metamour.”

Megan considers herself a better parent now that she’s polyamorous, saying she’s a more loving person in general. She and Marty give their son and daughter an age-appropriate explanation of their unconventional relationship structure or “polycule” (CNM is only the beginning of a seemingly endless glossary of terms). “At one point, when we lived in New Zealand and Kyle lived with us for about six months, they knew I might be in Kyle’s bedroom or I might be in Daddy’s bedroom,” Megan said. “We talk about ‘Mommy loves Kyle and Daddy,’ and ‘Daddy loves Mommy and Daddy loves his partner’…and they don’t know it’s not normal yet.” She likens it to the kids’ simply accepting the Bhatias’ gay friends.

Links between the CNM and queer communities abound: The Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 chipped at the foundation of husband-and-wife as gold standard, according to Moors, “allowing us to have conversations about different transformations of family life.” It’s also true that the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities are twice as likely to practice CNM than their heterosexual counterparts, according to research. “People who don’t fit into the world as it is are the ones who imagine different worlds that might work out better,” Janet Hardy, coauthor of The Ethical Slut, the seminal 1997 book on polyamory, told me. But any connection between CNM and LGBTQ was downplayed during the fight for marriage equality, Moors says—a “purposeful silencing,” she calls it. The emphasis was on marriage equity, not the questioning of its conventions.

It took five more years, but in June 2020, the liberal city of Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, passed what was believed to be the country’s first municipal ordinance recognizing polyamorous relationships of three of more people, granting them the same legal rights as married, monogamous couples. The neighboring cities of Cambridge and Arlington followed suit in March and April 2021. Moors cites late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s “slippery slope” argument that striking down anti-sodomy laws could lead to queer marriage and legal unions between multiple people. She laughs a little: “He wasn’t wrong.”

These public policy moves are “an early indicator of a very significant shift in public attitude and opinion,” says Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire. “This is the next wave of inquiry,” Moors agrees. “This is going to be up for national discussion in the coming decade, if not sooner.” It all amounts to a migration to the mainstream: At Hardy and coauthor Dossie Easton’s earliest book events for The Ethical Slut, in the late ’90s, “audiences were mostly geek culture—Renaissance Fair, science-fiction conference attendees, old hippies like us,” Hardy said. Now, the crowds are much more diverse: “When I speak in cities, and I look out over the audience, it’s much younger and more materially successful. We get a lot of young professionals and people who would never have considered this back in 1997.”

A celebrity face of non-monogamy emerged when Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, a couple exalted and admired for their rare-in-Hollywood 24-year relationship, began publicly discussing a period of non-monogamy in their marriage, with Smith telling GQ that they both were “miserable” with the trappings of traditional marriage. “We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way,” Smith said. “Marriage, for us, can’t be a prison.” Their daughter, Willow Smith, who is bisexual, also came out as polyamorous in 2021, praising “the freedom to be able to create a relationship style that works for you and not just stepping into monogamy because that’s what everyone around you says is the right thing to do.”

If the Smiths’ openness felt like a watershed, the terms they used were not new. Freedom is the oft-cited benefit among the consensually non-monogamous. “It’s about allowing freedom in the most respectful way,” says the Feeld CEO Kirova. “I don’t want to put any borders around the way my partner explores the world, neither do I want borders.”

Joli Hamilton, Ph.D., a research psychologist, told me CNM is about “returning agency” to your partner. She and her second husband, Ken, who have seven children between them, live in small-town Massachusetts. They “look like soccer parents,” she says, and when we Zoom she’s in a perky high ponytail and Ken wears a Grinch-printed holiday hoodie—but their shared Google calendar is alight with plans with other partners, mostly friends with benefits, sometimes boyfriends or girlfriends. (All but one of their adult children are supportive.)

Like pineapples and Adirondack chairs, cake is another symbol linked to CNM: a nod to having it and eating it too. And yet CNM is not without complications. The English designer Tina’s first CNM relationship fell apart due to a lack of communication: “We didn’t check in with each other. We just thought, Well, if something is not working, we could go get it elsewhere.” (Tina only half jokes that CNM is “99 percent talking and 1 percent sex.”) Opening relationships that are already flailing rarely saves them—“like having a kid to fix a relationship, it’s not going to work,” said Moors—and social stigma persists. Members of the CNM community worry that they could be ostracized by family, attacked as parents, or lose their jobs, as polyamorous people are not legally protected from discrimination.

Koe Creation grew up with polyamorous parents in Seattle in the ’90s; “I was the child who got to be raised by the tribe,” says the 31-year-old activist. It included a set of five parents, including Creation’s biological mom and dad, their partners, plus an orbit of chosen aunties and uncles. “There was always somebody to ask how to help me learn a skill, always somebody to give a piece of advice,” says Creation, author of the memoir This Heart Holds Many: My Life as the Nonbinary Millennial Child of a Polyamorous Family. But Creation also remembers the stress and anxiety of being othered by classmates. ​​“There was the feeling that I was wrong, not because of anything I did and not because of anyone I was, but because of my family,” they say. Creation worried they didn’t share the same security as a monogamous family. Child Protective Services “was thought of as a villain,” Creation recalls, feared to “not have our best interest at heart.”

Old-fashioned jealousy is a concern in CNM circles as well. Because it is so deeply entrenched, “the tendencies of monogamy still flare,” says Kelvin Pace, a licensed sex therapist who specializes in CNM clients. “Like, ‘I own you. I own your sexuality. I own your love.’ ” The Bhatias contended with this. On Marty’s first solo date, Megan felt “like my heart was being torn out.” In an email she describes “dark times,” citing long stretches apart from Henry and a tendency to push Marty away when they hit rough patches. They practice “kitchen table” polyamory, in which all partners interact; in an adoring Instagram post, Henry praised Marty as a “mentor” and “role model,” but there was a six-month stint when the two men didn’t speak, each needing a break from the entangled nature of their lives.

Others experience the opposite of jealousy, a term called “compersion,” pleasure at the thought of your partner’s pleasure. For Joli and Ken Hamilton, jealousy and compersion aren’t mutually exclusive: Joli remembers a time she found herself anxious and upset when Ken was out on a date; when he came home, she asked him to recount the story while she masturbated. “I actually want the jealousy, because it’s electric,” she said.

You could argue that CNM is simply evolution, like fins morphing into arms: commitment adapting to an era of questioning and change. “Shrugging off the presumption of monogamy,” according to Ken, has only made the Hamiltons’ marriage stronger. Ken acted as an unwavering support to Joli last summer when she suffered four breakups with women. “The process of learning to trust each other this way means that our relationship just continues to deepen,” she says. “We’re not judging this relationship based on whether it lasts. We’re judging it on how much it helps us grow and how gracefully we can transition as we change. Because we change all the time.” 

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This post originally appeared on Vogue and was published April 5, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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