The Curious Couple’s Guide to Occasional Non-Monogamy

Monogamy, Non-Monogamy, Hall Passes, Threesomes, More-somes, and Swinging

In the 2011 romantic comedy, Hall Pass, two wives grant their husbands one week of unlimited sexual escapades with no marital consequences. The movie itself is forgettable, but it raises an enduring issue—couples’ commitment to sexual exclusivity.

Our culture reveres monogamy—and demands it. For many couples, any breach of sexual exclusivity spells disaster. “He cheated. It’s over.” But some people feel stifled by absolute monogamy, and if their spouses insist on it, well, that explains many divorces.

Monogamy is not the only way. Only 9 percent of mammalian species are monogamous, and given the number of extra-marital affairs and men who patronize sex workers, it’s difficult to argue that sexual exclusivity comes naturally to Homo sapiens. Humans are descended from apes whose alpha males maintained harems. In the Bible, polygamy was common—several wives or one official wife and several concubines. Mormons were publicly polygamous until 1890 (and reportedly some still are). Other cultures have practiced polyandry—one woman, several men. Julius Caesar noted that polyandry was widespread in ancient Britain. Meanwhile, the Lusi of Papua, New Guinea, believe that healthy fetal development requires pregnant women to have intercourse with many men. And some cultures have institutionalized sexual near-free-for-alls.  In 1985, anthropologist Thomas Gregor counted 88 ongoing sexual relationships among one Amazon village’s 37 adults.

But non-monogamy is not just for remote tribes. Most U.S. cities—and many rural locales—boast sex and swing clubs. The former are open to anyone, the latter, to couples and single women. Or check Craigslist Personals under Casual Encounters. Some couples virtually everywhere advertise for threesomes, partner swaps, and group sex.

Strict monogamists often claim that non-monogamy in any form “just doesn’t work,” but I know several long-term couples who have happily practiced occasional non-monogamy for decades. One couple is basically monogamous, except that the woman spends a long weekend each month with her secondary man an hour’s drive away. Another is generally monogamous, but each year, to celebrate the woman’s birthday, the man arranges for another man or two to join them in bed. In a third, the two spouses are monogamous at home but grant each other hall passes when they travel solo for business. And in a fourth, each spouse gets together with a secondary lover or two about once a month or when the spouse is away. “I’m in love only with my husband,” says the woman of this couple, who have been married for 30 years, “and he’s in love only with me. But we both enjoy playing a little outside our marriage. Our arrangement may be unconventional, but it keeps our marriage fresh and sexually exciting. Occasionally, we run into one of our secondaries around town. We say hello and make introductions. It’s fine.”

Non-monogamy is not cheating.

It’s based on full disclosure, diligent safe sex, and mutual consent (though one spouse may be more into it).

Non-monogamy doesn’t mean constant orgies. 

For the vast majority of couples, it’s an occasional break from monogamy.

How many American couples are committed to occasional non-monogamy? At any moment, about 1 percent, sexologists estimate, with another percent or two “curious” enough to visit sex or swing clubs now and then. Currently, the U.S. has 60 million married couples. If 1 to 3 percent play with occasional non-monogamy, that’s 600,000 to 1.8 million couples—enough to support sex and swing clubs in most metropolitan areas, which is what we have.

If you’re interested in occasional non-monogamy, the first issue is mutuality of consent. Ideally, both partners should be equally into it. If not, couples typically try it once or twice, then the one who’s less interested says, “Never again.”

Assuming you’re both interested, ground rules are key. What exactly do you want to do? What can you tolerate your spouse doing? And are you more into clubs or private get-togethers? Couples happiest with non-monogamy discuss all the what-ifs extensively beforehand. The fact is, adventurous sex accounts for only part of non-monogamy’s allure. Equally compelling are the what-if discussions that deepen partners’ emotional intimacy. Be as specific as possible, and work to prevent freak-outs. “I’m okay with you kissing a stranger, getting naked, and giving hand jobs, but not oral or intercourse.”

Another issue is spousal presence. Many non-monogamous couples insist on same-room play to keep an eye on each other. Others feel comfortable with separate rooms or hall passes. Threesomes are popular, but while one plays, the other may feel ignored. Discuss this. Remember, the goal of non-monogamy is to draw couples closer, not drive them apart. But despite careful emotional preparation, when one sees the other cavorting naked with strangers, freak-outs are always possible.

During same-room non-monogamous play, it’s prudent to arrange a “safe word,” a discomfort signal, for example, “red light.” When one utters it, the other immediately stops everything and attends to the partner’s concern. Abide by your safe word absolutely.

If you’re curious but nervous, a good first step is to visit a club and watch others play while touching only your spouse. Clubs go out of their way to make newcomers feel comfortable. Just watching is fine and rules are clearly posted, typically: No alcohol. “No” means no. And condoms required for insertion. Most clubs provide free condoms and lubricant, and have monitors who enforce the rules. If watching works for both of you, during subsequent visits, you might become more adventurous. A slow, step-by-step approach usually works best, with plenty of what-if discussions along the way.

To find clubs, Google “sex clubs” or “swing clubs” and the locale. For swing clubs, you might also visit the National Association of Swing Clubs of America.


  • DaveA says:

    We were swingers for about 7 years and can attest to knowing many happily non monogamous couples. Where it breaks down is when there is a large gap in attractiveness within a couple. At least this seemed to be the most common break down because it created a huge imbalance in how much ‘attention’ each partner received. One couple in particular comes to mind. By her early 40s, the female had nearly a perfect body and had become outstandingly beautiful. She swears she did nothing different but her body aged VERY well. Her husband looked 15 years older than he was so super handsome men would approach her and he would get nothing for action. It works best when you find a couple who is cross attracted. What I mean is that all are attracted to all. Usually, there is one person out of the 4 that someone does not find attractive. I’m also not talking about bisexual attraction unless that is your thing, but feeling as though your partner is having sex with a very unattractive person can be an issue for some couples. More often, one person ‘takes one for the team’.

    That was our issue and why we quit. The more we were in the swinging life style, the more I wanted to not feel embarrassed about my body so I lost weight and exercised a lot. I would practically be attacked by near super models while my wife could not entice the less attractive men. This is NOT something I thought would happen nor did I attempt for this to happen. It just did. Soon, going to clubs or meeting couples became a self esteem blow for my wife. Compound that with the fact that most men in swinging she slept with were 7 minute wonders and were not very well endowed. If you plan on an evening of sex, it is tough when one couple is done in 8 minutes and the other couple is good for 4 hours. Even as I write this I hear what it sounds like but I promise you that if you are unequal in your attractiveness you can experience this. Now, personality might make up for looks so be sure you understand that as long as it does not have to be just looks.

    Finally, the other issue I saw was that in some couples, only one of them was actually a thrill seeker. One of the couple loved the thrill of a roller coaster ride and the other just wanted a book and a quiet day. As long as you both want and crave the thrill of swapping partners you are once again equally matched.

    Swinging was by far the best sex I’ve ever had by an order of magnitude(10x). This was not the case for my wife so now we carry this disparity for the rest of our lives.

    I should point out that our story is odd. Normally, this happens in reverse. The woman runs the show and gets all the attention while the man realizes his wife can have anyone.

    If you do this, take it slow. If you find things you like that aren’t full sex swap scenarios, enjoy that and there is no need to go further. Many couples go to clubs for the freedom to see and be seen having sex and never physically engage others. There are no rules but your own and those you connect with. Some couples don’t kiss and save that for each other. Others only kiss… to each their own.

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