“Polyamory” is a big topic these days.

Monogamy, once the gold standard of a loving relationship, is now being examined, tested, questioned, and re-evaluated.

If you live in San Francisco, the leading edge of the polyamory culture (no surprise there!), you know that you can’t even go out at night as a couple without getting hit on by other couples!

The conversations around this topic include things like evolutionary biology (are humans non-monogamous by nature?), religion (is there a higher moral authority that prefers monogamy?), safety concerns (about bringing STDs into the relationship), the effect open marriages might have children, moral honesty (about our innate, biological attraction to others), and personal freedom and self expression (as a higher value than jealousy and possessiveness).

The common wisdom always used to be that “opening the relationship” to date other people was always the first step to destroying a committed relationship.

In fact, for decades, “I think we ought to see other people,” was the cowards way of breaking up– a cynically hopeful gambit to get your partner be the bad one who said, “If that’s how you feel, I think we should break up.”

But things have shifted dramatically as many couples are now earnestly considering the benefits of multiple sex partners, even in emotionally committed relationships, and there are, in fact, many couples successfully living in this lifestyle through years of happy marriage.

Typically, couples who are successfully monogamous look down on polyamorous couples as people who are emotionally dead and who are incapable of honest commitment, while successfully polyamorous couples look down on monogamy as a prison of lies that married people tell each other to placate the jealousy and possessiveness that rule them.

I invite you to reserve your judgements and allow yourself to be openly curious about why each of these choices might be right for different couples.

Understanding this stuff is going to help you grow YOUR relationship, regardless of whether you’d prefer to remain monogamous or you’re a die-hard swinger.

I’ve found that the simple way to make this entire conversation clear (both intellectually and emotionally), is to get that individuals and couples go through different stages of emotional and moral development around monogamy and polyamory.

To help understand this, I am borrowing Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of the stages of moral development, and roughly layering this issue on top of that model.

In super-quick summary, Kohlberg’s stages of morality are:

Pre-Conventional – The fear of punishment. I won’t shop-lift that 6-pack of beer if I think I might get caught.

Conventional – The law-and-order mentality. I don’t shop-lift because it’s against social norms and criminals are bad people (and I’m a good person!).

Post-Conventional – Universal ethical principals, conscience, and empathy. I don’t shop lift because I empathize with my fellow man, the shop keeper, who would feel harmed by this act.

An interesting side-note is that both pre-conventional and post-conventional morality tend to have some disregard for the written rules. The pre-conventional because they are selfish and trying to get away with stuff, and the post-conventional because they recognize the higher authority of their moral compass.

And here’s a fun bit: The conventionally moral person can not tell the difference between the pre- and post- conventional attitudes and disdain for their written rules.

If you’re a geek like me, you can read more here

So let’s look at the stages of moral and emotional development in committed relationships…

Pre-conventional monogamy and pre-conventional polyamory look almost entirely the same:

You swear to your partner that you are going to be faithful while cheating just as often as you can manage without getting caught.

Of course, you’d like THEM to be faithful, and you know that you need to tell them that you intend to be faithful…

But if you are out somewhere and meet an attractive person, and you think you won’t get caught, OF COURSE you are going to go for it!

As long as your partner would never find out, why wouldn’t you?

The pre-conventional monogamist operates this way in secrecy. It is the typical high-school or college relationship (everyone knows what goes on at Spring Break “doesn’t count,” and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas), and it is quite possibly the most common form of adult “committed relationship” as well.

The pre-conventional monogamist might never cheat… but that’s only because they are either afraid they’ll get caught, or they don’t have a clear opportunity for sex outside of the relationship. If they had the opportunity and the courage, they’d take it.

The pre-conventional polyamorist also lies to his or her partner, but they have some social circle where their perfidy is the norm, and they don’t need to operate in secrecy in that circle. This is the kind of relationship you’ve seen in mafia movies. All the gangsters have mistresses. Of course. Everyone knows. But they all have to lie to their wives about it, and they support each other in the practicality of the culturally accepted lie.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties sometimes work at this level too. The married guys hire a bunch of prostitutes and tell the wives they went fishing… and I hate to even put into writing the things I’ve seen bachelorette parties up to!

At the next level, the Conventional monogamist and polyamorist develop a sense of integrity around both their jealousy and their animal desires, and are forced to make a choice in order to be aligned with their beliefs.

The conventional monogamists try to keep their promises. They are possessive and jealous. The thought of having their partner experience physical pleasure at the hands of another lover is emotionally painful, ego-brutalizing, and anger-inducing.

So they enter a social contract with their partner: “I won’t cheat on you if you don’t cheat on me.” And they mean it.

Conventional monogamists often (but certainly not always) find themselves lying about their true sexual desires, either because their partner would get angry or jealous, or because they want their partner to feel guilty about their own biological urges: “I’m not attracted to anyone else, and if YOU ever feel attraction for anyone but me it’s because you’re a bad person and you don’t love me enough.”

This creates a tension and a dilemma for the conventional monogamist who always feel like they are “giving something up” in order to remain faithful to their vow.

When people say “marriage is hard,” this is what they mean.

Sure, they might be fighting about money or whether they need to replace the curtains in the living room, but the emotional intensity of those fights is being fueled by sexual frustration, and the deep, painful reality of living with a person that doesn’t really know the truth about who they are.

This is the hardest kind of relationship to make last, and because it’s also, along with pre-conventional monogamy, the most common here in the United States, this fact fuels the more-than-50% divorce rate in this country.

Conventional polyamorists have a similar moral dilemma, but they choose to prioritize their urge for sexual variety over their feelings of jealousy.

Often couples that are drawn to conventional polyamory have naturally low levels of jealousy or possessiveness, or, for one reason or another, do not emotionally link sexual pleasure with intimacy. Love and sex simply feel like different categories to them.

This is not scientific or statistical, but in my personal observation of couples that I’ve worked with, a great many conventional polyamorists were sexually abused as children and dissociated sexual touch and sexual pleasure (many experienced pleasure at the hands of their perpetrators) from intimacy and love as a matter of psychological survival.

But that’s absolutely not universal, and some conventional polyamorists just seem to be too cool and confident around their sexuality to ever feel threatened by jealousy.

The conventional polyamorist is a “swinger” and is driven by the self interest to explore their sexual curiosity. When feelings of deep intimacy arise that feel like they might threaten the fun, they suppress them.

They choose their sexual appetites over their desire for intimacy, sometimes because they are addicted to the thrill of new sexual experience, and sometimes because it simply feels emotionally safer.

These relationships sometimes (but certainly not always) have a lot of rules and structures around when it’s okay to play, and when it’s not. Things like, “you have to always inform me before you sleep with someone else,” or “I can only sleep with certain people that have your prior approval,” or “only when we all play together,” etc.

While conventional monogamists consider infidelity cheating (breaking the contract), conventional polyamorists consider bringing up feelings of jealousy to be cheating (breaking the contract).

Like conventional monogamy, conventional polyamory is not a recipe for lasting relationships.

While conventional monogamy flames out in epic fighting, conventional polyamory slowly dissolves and drifts away from lack of interest, or just finding someone newer or hotter.

And finally, post conventional relationships happen when both partners fully accept all aspects of their lover. Post conventional lovers accept jealousy and possessiveness right along with curiosity, freedom, intimacy, and love.

They recognize and embrace the humanity in themselves and their partners, without judgement.

These relationships are characterized by an “us” mentality that puts the relationship and the partners well-being, at the same level or above personal well-being and personal desires as a matter of preference, not as a matter of rule or obligation.

A post-conventional polyamorist might feel jealousy, but their commitment to their partner’s sexual freedom, growth, and self-expression is simply more important to them than their discomfort.

Likewise, their partner will receive their jealousy as an opportunity for them to demonstrate unconditional love and help them grow through understanding their feelings.

These are complex relationships fueled as much by the love personal growth and self-actualization, as they are by love and commitment to each other.

In the idealized form, a post-conventional polyamorist sees their partnership as the ultimate tool for exploring their highest self-actualization.

The post-conventional monogamist, by contrast, sees their partner as the ultimate tool for exploring intimacy with relationship itself.

Post conventional monogamists put their highest priority on knowing, accepting, and loving each other, and recognize the humanity of their partner as part of their completeness and beauty.

Sexual attraction to others is accepted simply as a fact of being human. If jealousy arises, it is accepted in the same way.

The choice of monogamy, however, is driven by a devotional impulse rather than a fear impulse or a contractual agreement.

The post-conventional monogamist feels and embraces the full power of their sexual desire for others outside of the relationship, and then offers it up as a gift to their lover, using it as fuel to access deeper aspects of the erotic world they experience with each other.

Post conventional relationships (both monogamous and polyamorous) tend to endure, often for life, and when they end, they always end on extremely friendly terms. The friendship often remaining one of the most important relationships in their lives.

So, which kind of relationship do YOU have?

It’s a bit of a brain-melter, but usually conventional monogamists can’t tell the difference between what they are doing and what post-conventional monogamists are doing.

Likewise, they can’t tell the difference between any of the polyamorists or the pre-conventional monogamists– they are just ALL a bunch of cheaters!

If you’re a swinger, all monogamists look alike, and you also can’t distinguish between what you’re doing and post-conventional polyamory.

Which kind of relationship do you aspire to?

Well, before you go too far down that path, it’s important that I explain that the lines between these categories are far from absolute. Not only are their grey areas in between these blurry lines, but some relationships have different aspects of different categories, and some will outside the lines completely.

As broad generalizations you’ll find these definitions extremely useful. Even if you are a jealous, conventionally monogamous couple, that occasionally explore threesomes together and fantasize about swinging because your feelings of jealousy really turn you on.

Remember that all models describe the world, they don’t define it.

In other words, a roadmap describes the roads, it does not dictate where they will be placed. And the map may be missing some new roads or some obscure, old paths. And it might even be irrelevant to your path if you are going off-road (or flying in a helicopter).

The value of the map is as a tool to help you figure out where you are now, not to limit the possibilities of where you can go!

And my goal with this article is to help you understand your past or present relationships, and to offer you some possibilities of directions you might want to go in the future, without judgement or limitation to your own personal journey.