Investigating Bisexual Relationships: The ‘Question of Monogamy’

Why is it that bisexuals are assumed to be non-monogamous? Is it because we are “greedy”? We will “never be satisfied” with a single partner of a specific gender? Because we are “more likely” to cheat? Or is it because we “don’t actually exist” unless we are visibly holding hands or making out with people of multiple genders at the exact same time? 

If you hadn’t already gathered, these are just a few common negative bisexual tropes (though, I’ll admit, that last one does sound like fun). 

In the same breath, non-monogamous people are stigmatised with a whole host of similar stereotypes, such as “the hypersexual”, “unable to commit”, and deemed as threats to the social order of relationships.

In Dr. Balzarini’s study, half of the bisexual and pansexual people interviewed were polyamorous. This compared to 36% of heterosexuals, and 14% of gay and lesbian participants. While we see people of all sexual orientations living non-monogamously, I can’t help but wonder, is there something unique about the bisexual experience that calls for further investigation in relation to monogamy? Well, as a bisexual researcher, I’m here to do some inspecting. Detective Lipski at your service. 

I spoke to activist, writer, and author of Bi Notes: For a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner who suggests that we probe into “patriarchal norms” of monogamy, and PhD candidate and bisexual researcher, and Dylan Stanford proposes we look at the “temporal norms” of monogamy. 

Exploring My Own Bisexual Non-Monogamy 

In most of my young adult relationships, being bisexual was often seen as a threat to the monogamous relationship I was in. I was pinned as a cheater, as someone who would always leave them for another gender, not to be trusted. As you can imagine, this had a direct impact on my mental health, and relationship anxiety. 

My personal experience with non-monogamy was a polyamorous relationship with a primary partner that fluctuated between sexual and romantic openness, complicated by difficult emotions of love, jealousy, ego, and plenty of tears. 

For me, this journey of non-monogamy was in part inspired by the Bisexual and Queer Theory I was reading at the time during my studies as a student of Sexual Dissidence, and desire to make my bisexuality more visible and accepted in a world that sought to erase my existence. And I’ll admit, even though I continued to experience biphobia within my non-monogamous relationship experience, I’d never felt more visible in my bisexuality. 

However, my mental health took a turn for the worst. While anxiety had been present in my life, the open relationship dynamics and the continued biphobia, along with the lack of the helpful education and support that you might find today online, I came out the other side with a diagnosed General Anxiety Disorder. 

Subsequently, I explored monogamish relationships, and solo-polyamory in that I dated couples, attended swingers events and kink parties, until I embarked on a more monogamous lifestyle—finding a relationship style that most suited my needs and soothed my anxious tendencies. 

This narrative is of course not the case for the 50% of bisexual people who choose to live non-monogamously, like this anonymous person, who shared with me (in my survey) that their relationship anxieties were in fact relieved: 

Polyamory “allows me to find pleasure, desire, and romance in the encounter with strangers, while not sacrificing the love of a stable partner who knows and supports me. It also helps relieve the anxieties that monogamy brings up, which I learned through previous monogamous relationships that were controlling and queerphobic.” 

However, what does seem to be a common theme for bisexuals—due to the “strong cultural connotation between bisexuality and polyamory”, says Eisner—is the exposure to the ~Question of Monogamy~ itself. 

Having undergone a process of questioning our own queerness, it is only reasonable that as bisexuals, like other members of the LGBTQ+ community, we have to question everything else. 

Eisner says the very presence of the ~Question of Monogamy~ encourages bisexuals to truly explore the option and discover for themselves. Making polyamory “far more accessible for bi people because, for most others, it isn’t presented as an option at all.” 

Stanford goes on to say that—while there is not enough research done in this area—the tight relationship between bisexual erasure and temporal norms of monogamy, “could create a double-bind for bi-spectrum individuals who may feel that they have to choose between expressing their bisexuality or adhering to mono-temporal norms” (my emphasis). 

The Temporality of Monogamy Explained 

You know that Hollywood narrative of finding our ‘one true love’ or ‘soul mate’. Well, this is presented through the lens of monogamy which exists as an exclusive commitment with one person in the past, present, and future. 

It “tends to elevate a current relationship as the most significant and serious, and recast all previous relationships as interim mistakes,” all the while “eliminating the possibility of other future lovers,” suggesting that norms of monogamy operate across time, “or temporally,” says Stanford. 

When it comes to bisexuality, these norms don’t sit comfortably, forcing bisexuals into the realm of the fantasy, the non-existent, monogamous bisexuals even more so. 

What is interesting is that non-monogamy, while able to make bisexuals visible to a degree, Stanford’s study found that temporal norms of monogamy also acted to erase the bisexuality of non-monogamous bisexuals. 

This is evident in the familiar trope of the erotic triangle, where it is assumed the bisexual will eventually choose a particular partner “or a particular gender” to settle down with, “resolving their bisexuality as either heterosexuality or homosexuality.” Casting bisexual non-monogamy as a temporary phase that will ultimately result in “a mature monogamous union.”  

It is important we understand that bisexuals suffer from biphobic erasure, some more than others depending on gender, race, and class, and Stanford suggests that this erasure could help explain some of the high rates of mental illness and distress amongst the bisexual population. Simply food for thought. 

White Supremacist Patriarchal Monogamy

To understand monogamy as a system, we have to understand the role of patriarchy. Eisner explains, in patriarchal traditions, enforced “monogamy has really only ever been applied to women,” while “men’s infidelities were, and largely still are, tolerated at best and encouraged at worst.” 

Thanks to the white supremacist and heteronormative frameworks embedded during colonisation, white, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamy is treated as default, while all other relationship structures are “demonised, pathologised and viewed as inherently immoral.” 

This continues to contribute to maintaining heteropatriarchal order. “Monogamy’s function within patriarchy” promotes conversative family norms, and maintains social order for the benefit of capital. Thus non-monogamy is often seen and practiced by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour as a direct form of decolonising relationships from a culture of “toxic” monogamy

Similar to the risk queer people have faced, and still face today, is the stigma surrounding non-monogamous people. Intersectionally marginalised populations face the additional risk of “isolation, employment termination, losing custody of their children, and judgement by community members and family,” says Amber Butts from the Black Youth Project. “They may also be labelled as unsafe, perverted, and/ or mentally unstable.” 

Nevertheless, community building is one way to counter that and support people’s well-being and livelihoods. Just as the queer community are able to challenge cis-heteronormativity, polyamorous communities feel like they are growing – especially in online and sex-positive spaces. 

Queering Those Damn Norms

In order to challenge bisexual erasure via temporal norms of monogamy, Stanford discovered special applications of bisexual assertion and expression: repetition and reminder. 

The bisexual participants in Stanford’s research knew how easy it was for them to be misread as straight or gay, or “rounded-up” to heterosexuality or homosexuality, “so they would do small things to repeatedly remind those around them that they weren’t monosexual.” This could include commenting on a history of loving, being attracted to, having relationships with people of more than one gender, or talking about the possibility of future lovers being of any gender.

Nevertheless, bisexual histories or potential futures with partners of different genders are inconsistent with the dominant narrative of monogamy that would minimise or deny sexual and romantic pasts or futures, “in service of the current relationship,” says Stanford. 

This results in the dismissal of bisexual people, as those who engage in monogamous relationships with people of different genders, as the past relationships are read as “coming out” or “going straight” narratives. 

When it comes to polyamory, one of the basic values is the idea of building your own DIY relationship, “setting the rules as you need them to be and adjusting them as you go,” says Eisner. This same process can lead people to choose monogamy, and within those monogamous relationships, unlearning its patriarchal rules and assumptions “to undermine its power as an oppressive structure.”

If you are on the journey of exploring polyamory, there are incredible resources out there (much better than back when I tried it). So follow non-monogamous educators, and do your research. There are elements that non-monogamous communities practice that all relationships could benefit from learning. Such as unlearning the normalisation of jealousy as an indicator of love, the idea that one partner can fulfil every need, that attraction to others automatically stops when you’re in love, and that our insecurities are our partner’s responsibility.  

Challenging monogamy, not as just a relationship practice, but as an ideological and organising structure within our society. The hierarchy posits the aspiration and reward of committed and monogamous relationships, while penalising all other groups who are marginalised by monogamy, which Stanford says could equally include:

  • Single people
  • Polyamorous people
  • Sex workers
  • Non-sexually related caregivers and co-parents
  • Asexuals
  • And anybody else whose practices of intimacy and belonging fall outside of the sexual-romantic dyad and nuclear family. 

Striving towards a world where the possibility for various relationship models to exist equally as opposed to one relationship model being “elevated above all others as the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘right’ way of doing intimate relationships,” Stanford believes this would have a positive effect for bisexual visibility as well.

Choosing Monogamy

While celebrating those who choose polyamory as a relationship style, I also wanted to include some quotes from my survey of bisexual people in monogamous relationships, in part to validate my own experience (possibly to alleviate any underlying shame I feel for “failing at non-monogamy”), but also to really share the complexity of relationship dynamics; how and why we might decide to choose a particular relationship style; that humans are not linear beings; and we may have varying and potentially conflicting desires within ourselves and with our partners. And all of that is okay. 

*For anonymity, some names have been changed. 

Choosing Monogamy For Myself

Chris – “I’m in love and he’s the only person I want to be with.”

Elesha – “I willingly give him so much of myself, that I don’t want to share with anyone else!”

Carolyn – “Monogamy is something I lean towards instinctively.”

Choosing Monogamy For My Partner

Shireen* – “I would [choose polyamory] but only for myself. My partner is heterosexual and monogamous so I am conscious of being fair to them as well.”

Charlie* – “My partner was struggling with non-monogamy so we are trying a period of monogamy to take the pressure off them [and] see if it can work for us”

Choosing Monogamy For the Time Being

Emma – “Currently I’m in a place of happiness in my relationship so it’s not something I look at and wish to explore. I think about having sex with other people quite regularly and I would love to experience this with my boyfriend. We continue to have open discussions about this but for now, it is a fantasy.”

Hannah* – “I think if there was a moment in which it felt right to be polyamorous, then I would explore it. We have discussed potentially being open in the future.”

Choosing Monogamy For Ease 

Julia* – “It seems way too emotionally messy for me, personally.”

Nina* – “I find it to be both very rewarding but also demanding to handle one relationship and one other person’s emotional needs.”

Harley* – “I struggle with jealousy in an open relationship.”

Choosing Monogamy For Comfort, Safety & Security 

Carolyn – “I had long discussions with polyamorous friends about everything from dating logistics to jealousy. I read numerous first-person online articles… Hearing their perspectives as well as doing some introspection about what I want from my relationships, I ultimately felt more secure in what I feel best aligns with monogamy.”

Emma – “I would feel worried about losing him which I think is a natural reaction to polyamory.”

Bisexual Self-Expression Within Monogamy

When it comes to bisexual self-expression, I have ultimately learned that one does not need to be non-monogamous to express their bisexuality or to queer their relationship. Yet, I am glad to have had the experience of it in the process of learning more about who I am and how I relate to people, and how my queerness is something deeper than who you are dating or sleeping with—it’s an act of resistance to the norms. 

In my survey I asked how other bisexuals in monogamous relationships found ways to express their bisexuality and queerness—some of which can be particularly empowering for those in “straight-passing” relationships: 

  • By being your authentic self (a great point for anyone wanting to live a happy and fulfilled like)  
  • By just existing 
  • Expressing attraction to people of multiple genders 
  • Coding with colourful hair dyes, wearing the bi-pride colours, or bisexual pins 
  • In fantasy and self-pleasure
  • Bisexually affirming memes 
  • Repetition and reminder 
  • Making jokes about it
  • Correcting people 
  • Engaging in queer politics and social life, music, events, literature

The key takeaway, love is not finite. Choose your own path. Not a default one bound by time or patriarchy. See what feels right for you, right now. Be okay with relationships changing, particularly the one with yourself. 

A beautiful message I took away from Ruby Rare at the Sex Talks panel in London, was that polyamory helped them form a better relationship with herself. And I believe that all relationships, with the right amount of reflection and communication, can be a healthy container for us to come back to ourselves, and how we can give love infinitely, platonically, romantically, and sexually. 

As I am most definitely not the best spokesperson for non-monogamy, here are some further resources on navigating bisexuality and nonmonogamy if that is something you are looking to explore:

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