Most people think of sexual orientations as pretty straightforward: hetero/homo/bi/pan/asexuality may exist on more of a scale than as fixed points, and many people, particularly older ones, are confused about some of them, but at least conceptually it’s understood what someone means when they say “sexual orientation.”
I think “relationship orientation” would be a beneifical frame to normalize as well. While non-monogamous people don’t face the same level of hardship as those of non-heterosexual orientation, there are many similarities. Like heterosexuality, monogamy is the “default” expectation of most people, and many friends or family, particularly religious ones, will judge someone who is open about having anything but an exclusive orientation. Many polyamorous people tend to hide their true selves to fit in with a society that would not legally recognize their relationships, and, particularly in more puritanical times, pretend to be monogomous, as would be expected of them. Aromantic people, like asexuals, struggle with flip sides of the same social expectation: that romance and sex should be intrinsically linked.
And good luck finding media portrayals of things like polyamory, let alone positive ones; at best you’ll see swingers, open relationships, or harems, all of which are different romantic orientations, and all of which lead to blurred lines and misunderstandings about what people who are not monogamously oriented want. Even bringing up that you feel romantic love for more than one person could cause massive stress, anxiety, and jealousy in monogamous partners, and scare off any who don’t have the same orientation.
To clarify here for those unaware, polyamory is specifically the feeling of romantic love for multiple people. There’s a wide range of how this manifests and how polyamorous relationships can work in practice, but it’s more than just having a consensual open relationship where either person can have sex with other people.
But the point is that “open relationship” is also an orientation, as much as monogamy is, or polyamory. This is distinctly different from simply a life of perpetually dating multiple people: many couples specifically want a partner who they can live with, raise a family with, and build their life around, but also enjoy flirting, dating, and sleeping with others.
I’ve spoken to many friends and clients who realized they were some form of non-monogamous fairly late in life, and always there’s a sort of shock in the self-awakening, followed (for those who were already in monogamous relationships) by fear and sadness about their partner or spouse’s reaction if they found out. Some of these relationships endured through omission, others adapted once the truth came out, and of course some broke apart as people realized their relationship orientation did not match.
Another parallel to sexual orientation is that romantic orientation exists on a spectrum. There are some people who are “bi-relational,” so to speak, who note different tradeoffs between a monogamous relationship and polyamorous one, but can be happy in either. These people might still not enjoy an open relationship, however… someone who would be happy in basically any romantic relationship type, though they may still prefer certain relationships based on the people involved, would be “panrelational.”
How does the orientation frame help?
Knowing your orientation can be useful when you’re trying to figure out what makes you happy. People often experiment before they figure it out, and some people feel pressured into trying relationship types they don’t actually fit in… most commonly monogamous ones, of course, but sometimes open or polyamorous ones. And some people compromise as best they can; I know a couple where one person is “monorelational” and the other is “openrelational.” It’s genuinely difficult for the openrelational person to reduce how much they have sex outside the relationship, but they make an effort to restrict it for their partner’s sake. The monorelational person tried dating others as well and ended up preferring exclusivity, but is okay with their partner having an occasional fling as long as they feel the commitment to their relationship is maintained.
Still, the monorelational person finds it hard to talk to friends or family about their relationship, since they know it would invite a lot of dislike toward their partner or even judgement toward themself for “allowing” it; to many people, particularly of older generations, the very idea of consensual-non-monogamy is a myth, and those who engage in it can be seen as immoral on one end or being taken advantage of on the other. And so having to be deceptive to people they care about is an additional strain, as is having to be careful what they say in the workplace or on social media.
Needless to say, both people are very emotionally mature, self-aware, and open to communicating honestly about how they feel and what they can do to help each other be more comfortable. If one of them took the approach of “why can’t you just stop going on dates with others” or “why don’t you just go on more dates yourself,” or even blamed themselves for not being able to change who they or their partner were, the relationship would never have survived as long as it has.
Another two people I know have struggled to maintain monogamous relationships throughout their lives. What finally clicked for them, one through self-discovery and the other through extensive conversation and self-reflection, was a harem-style relationship, where they felt comfortable being in the role of, in one’s case, the head of the household, and in the other’s, part of a romantic group without the more high-maintenance demands of being anyone’s “primary.”
A bisexual friend of mine realized they might not ever be happy in a monogamous relationship because it would mean cutting off a whole “part” of them and the sorts of experiences they craved, but was afraid to talk to their partner about it because they know of that stereotype/worry that people have when dating someone bisexual. It wasn’t until they realized this went deeper than a simple desire to have sex with different people that they stopped trying to fit into a mold that didn’t fit them, and had a “second coming out,” but there are other bisexual people who stay happily married in monogamous relationships for life, because monogamy is their relationship orientation.
Words have power; they are the main form our thoughts take, the primary way we make sense of our intuitions and feelings and desires and fears, and share them with each other. Of all the things I think should be treated and spoken about as orientations instead of preferences, this feels like the most important one.