Sex on the Square: Negotiating non-monogamy

When healthy boundaries are established early on, non-monogamous relationships can offer an alternative to seemingly one-size-fits-all romantic norms.

Shreya Tomar, Contributing Writer

An illustration of three female figures hugging each other against a purple background. The center figure and the right figure are kissing on the lips.
(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

One of the first lessons we learn about romance is that the perfect relationship comes in one shape and one size — with one person. But healthy romantic and sexual relationships are not one-size-fits-all. The beauty of forming intimate adult relationships in college is that you get more freedom to customize them!

Fitting into a monogamous mold never worked for me. If anything, it seemed strange and burdensome to ask one person to fulfill all my sexual, romantic and emotional needs. I wanted to have relationships, but the monogamy norm sounded inadequate for my need of sexual exploration. All I could ask myself was, “If not monogamy, then what?” 

During my sophomore year at NYU, in Zhana Vrangalova’s Human Sexuality class, I learned that monogamy was not the only way. She said that “negotiated non-monogamy — having multiple sexual and/or romantic partners — allows you to have your cake and eat it too,” and I wanted to try. 

“Many students freely talk about monogamy not being a right fit for them for various reasons in my class,” Vrangalova said. “Many others who say that right now they are not considering or ever considering non-monogamy, they still tend to have favorable attitudes toward other people having non-monogamous relationships, especially after they take my course.”

Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for all types of relationships involving more than two people. The concept includes but is not limited to open relationships and polyamory. If you so choose, you can be in a relationship with one, 10, 20 or even 100 lovers. Every student has specific needs and desires, meaning that they each may have different understandings of negotiated non-monogamy.

Vrangalova is the only adult that has ever conveyed the importance of crafting your own ideal relationship to me. Her lecture was like opening Pandora’s box, but instead of releasing curses, it blessed me with hope — hope for healthy sex and relationship standards. 

“Almost 80% of students are going to be having sex and relationships, and most of them have no clue on how to do that well in a safe, healthy, ethical way for everyone involved,” Vrangalova said. “It’s great for them to be aware of these different options so that they don’t lock themselves into decisions that are hard to back out of.”

Approaching others with the intent to start a non-monogamous relationship can feel difficult, but non-monogamous relationships are more common than you may expect. Nearly 17% of people wish to be in a polyamorous relationship, while 10.7% of them have already engaged in consensual non-monogamy — these relationships are as common as owning a cat in the United States. It is the lack of education about them that can often lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics.  

Partners in non-monogamous relationships can make decisions and agreements on their boundaries. In some relationships, partners might only allow each other to flirt without sex, while others might enforce zero restrictions. Vrangalova’s webinar “Free Training on Open Relationships” provides a great entry point to learn more about forming these various non-monogamous boundaries.

Tisch junior Ricky Kapoor recently made his relationship with his partner non-monogamous. He said that at NYU, many students advocate for freedom and independence. He argues that monogamy can strip away.​​

“The idea of an open relationship initially terrified the life out of me,” Kapoor said. “But as I unlearned the infamous lesson we were all taught growing up about the interchangeability of love and sex, I could see non-monogamy suiting me more than monogamy.” 

Even with increasingly positive attitudes toward non-monogamy, conversations with my NYU peers reflected a lingering stigma around the success of these relationships. Many still believe that non-monogamy is just another excuse to cheat, or that people in non-monogamous relationships cannot experience infidelity, as partners are allowed to form other kinds of relationships. That is far from the truth. Cheating is an undisclosed act, where the trust of a relationship is broken and the partner is often deceived. On the other hand, in a healthy non-monogamous relationship, all partners are aware of and actively consent to established boundaries, guidelines and commitments.

“Non-monogamy gives me space for personal growth and unlearning toxic masculinity traits,” Kapoor added. “There are times when I still question the open nature of my relationship because it is hard to process all the jealousy it brings. I have to constantly put in work not to let my learned unhealthy masculinity come into play when my partner discloses her sexual experiences with other men.”

As NYU students come to better understand non-monogamous relationships, NYU should step up and help facilitate this learning process.

“NYU can have some sort of mandatory class, like a freshman seminar [covering] healthy relationships, lust, infatuation and attachment,” Vrangalova said. “These classes would help maximize their potential to make smart choices about what kind of sex and relationship lives they want.”

When beginning relationships, it is important to consider every person’s unique sexual and romantic boundaries. Knowing that you want a non-monogamous or a monogamous relationship isn’t enough to guarantee a healthy relationship. You cannot simply begin a relationship and let it run on its own — that is neither healthy nor fair to your and your partner’s needs and wants. These boundaries are often communicated much more openly in non-monogamous relationships than in monogamous ones.

“If you’re going to do monogamy, figure out how to do that well — and the same for others,” Vrangalova said. “Be intentional about your sex and relationship lives.”

For many undergraduates, NYU is the first step toward adulthood. The sooner we approach relationships — monogamous or non-monogamous — in a more ethical way, the better it will be for our long-term mental health. 

Contact Shreya Tomar at [email protected].