Recently in a radio interview, a sexologist suggested that flirting with other people could be a very positive addition to a monogamous relationship if both parties were confident in themselves and the relationship. Flirting can indeed be titillating for a couple, sparking their own romance and intimacy. It can be seen as complimentary (someone is interested in my partner, which means that my choice of partner is a desirable one). Or it can be just plain stressful: one more thing to fight or worry about.
We sometimes make the assumption that monogamous couples don’t step outside the relationship; but it depends entirely on their “deal.” The deal can be no stepping outside. Or it can be no stepping outside without telling me. Or no stepping outside without sharing all the details for our mutual enjoyment. Or no stepping outside without using protection. Any of these permutations can work—if you work it out beforehand. U.S. sex columnist Dan Savage likes to use the term “monogamish” for couples who are mostly monogamous.
Teenagers and young adults tend to engage in serial monogamy—one partner for a period of time, followed by a break-up, mourning period, and then a new relationship.
There are other types of long-term relationships which are not monogamous.
Casual sexual relationships (CSRs) were the topic of two articles in recent issues of The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. They were identified as “one-night stands, booty calls, fuck buddies and friends with benefits.” CSRs are quite common amongst young adults. I haven’t read any studies on other age groups, but I can assure you, casual sexual relationships exist at all ages from teenagers to seniors.
For young adults especially, the articles outlined two main concerns: emotional protection and physical protection. In terms of emotional concerns, the studies looked at participants’ desire for an increasing level of relationship intimacy, and whether they would engage in another casual sexual relationship when one ends. Not surprisingly, women scored higher for the former and lower for the latter.
In examining the rules and scripts of these relationships, the article arrived at the second concern. If it is understood that you are not your partner’s only partner, given the prevalence of some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), you can negotiate barrier protection as well as getting tested to protect yourself. If there is no discussion about other partners, you are putting yourself at risk.
But casual sexual relationships are not the only alternative long-term relationships. There are also polyamorous relationships: what we used to call “open” relationships. In my clinical work, I found (anecdotally) that people involved in relationships with more than one person, where the partner was aware and agreeable, tended to be much more careful than any other group in terms of physical safety (barrier protection and testing).
There are also couples who “swing” or “play.”
Any of the above can work when there is honesty, good communication and openness.
In the absence of frankness and trust, jealousy may creep in. I often paraphrased Maya Angelou to students when discussing jealousy: it’s like salt; a little can add flavour, but too much can hurt you, or even kill you. Once you start snooping in your partner’s computer or phone, it’s like the classic rifling through their pockets, looking at or smelling their clothes for clues. No matter what the original rules are, if you think one of you has broken them, it’s time to fix it—or end it. There are no guarantees in this game of love; there is only the expectation of good behaviour.