An Overview of Relationship Organizing Models


This essay uses the lens of Marxist dialectical historical materialism and Gramscian cultural theory to examine the differences and development of relationship organizing styles. Specific focus is given to economic modes of production, the function of the models within society, and hegemonic cultural norms influencing attitudes and ideas about these models. I will argue that the relationship structures individuals pursue are resultant from their social conditioning and the material conditions that they have to work with (which, as Marx and Gramsci would point out, are very much intertwined). The essay will be divided into three essential parts: 1). Contemporary and historical dominate relationship organizing styles,  2). Contemporary forms of ethical non monogamy (ENM), 3). Why ethical non monogamy might be increasing in practice and popularity.  

Part 1: Contemporary and Historical Relationship Models

The three forms of dominate relationship organizing styles that have been practiced historically are all rather similar. The three types are polygamy, classical monogamy, and serial monogamy. Polygamy is defined as a heterosexual relationship in which one head of household engages in ownership based romantic and sexual relations with multiple partners who do not engage in any romantic or sexual relations with each other. Polyandry is when a woman is head of household, polygyny is when a man is head of household (Barber, 2012). This was commonly practiced in many ancient pastoral and agrarian societies, and contemporary societies that have codified this style into religious and cultural norms. It is primarily useful for agrarian and pastoral societies due to its following functions: 

1. keeps land within the family  (Fenske, 2012)

2. limits spread of STDs by creating a closed grouping of sexual partners (Barber, 2012)

 [the following traits are specific to polygyny]

3. More people to work fields and raise crops. (Barber, 2012) (Fenske, 2012)

4. larger production of offspring to balance out infant mortality.  (Fenske, 2012)

5. Men dying en mass in regional battles doesn’t effectively limit the ability for population growth because the amount of men needed for family structures across society drops several fold. (Fenske. 2012) 

 [the following trait is specific to polyandry] 

6. Is more effective at creating a sustainable population rate that does not expand too quickly, and is therefore especially useful in pastoral or agricultural societies where there is a limited amount of workable land. (Willet, 1997)

An example of why polygyny came into effect can be seen in West Africa. The transatlantic slave trade targeted men more heavily than women, and so birth rates and population growth would have plummeted had native Africans not adopted polygyny. Many people in West Africa still practice polygyny, showing just how entrenched social practices can become (Fenske, 2012) An example of why polyandry is used can be seen in Tibet. The specific type of polyandry practiced in Tibet is known as fraternal polyandry, where many brothers have a single wife. This allows for land to be passed down without division, ensuring the next generation will have enough workable land to survive on (Willet, 1997).

Classical Monogamy is defined by a heterosexual relationship, where one head of household engages in an ownership relationship with one other partner and commits solely to that relationship until death, except under rare and specific circumstances for annulment. This organizing style was/is suited for strict wage labor based modes of production (especially those without child labor restrictions). The functions of this organizing style are:

1. Limits mouths to feed, which is necessary due to wages being kept low in an effort to drive up proffits. (Marx, 1848)

2. Limits spread of STDs by limiting sexual groupings to just two people.

3. Creates strong separation in the roles of household labor. (Marx, 1848)

4. Subjugation of women into the role of a means of production for future laborers in society, creating predictable and steady growth in laborers, markets, and the reserve army of labor. (Marx, 1848)

A specific subset that applies to both classical monogamy and polygamy is arranged marriages. The function of these in society are:

1. Allows for women to be traded away by their family of origin, getting rid of a mouth to feed, and in exchange for taking on the responsibility of feeding her, the new husband is awarded with a dowry. 

 2. Allows for familial coalition building to exchange resources and consolidate power.

Societal reinforcement for polygamy and classical monogamy largely overlap in method, but not necessarily in all details, as details of reinforcement must adjust somewhat to suit the parameters of the organizing style.

1. These societies often build in mechanisms of consolidating power  into the gender that is labeled as head of household, typically men. This rigid patriarchy creates a system where there is no other option for the women in these societies. (Federici, 2004)

2. In polygyny, social power can be denoted by the amount of wives a man has, leading to the reification of the system by incentive to participate in mass, and the most aggressive adherents having the most social capital to enforce norms. (Fenske, 2012)

3. Persecution of variants from model (queer people, adulterers, those who have sex before marriage, women who work, women who hold roles outside of the family). In monogamous societies this can be seen in the legal limitations on multiple partners (bigamy laws), in both forms this can be seen in the dominant organizing model being codified into religious norms (Federici, 2004)

4. Both classical monogamy and polygyny use mass killings and patriarchal norms to subjugate women into their organizing model. For an example of this, look into Silvia Federici's book Caliban and the Witch, which discusses how the witch trials subjugated women into monogamy and capitalist modes of production. 

 I have often jokingly said that the only difference between serial and classical monogamy is that the former comes with a trial period. There is some truth to this, but the implications of it are much larger. The ability to end a relationship without repercussion has done a good bit to expand the ability for people to form more informed and fulfilling partnerships. I would also suggest that this style of monogamy suited to societies where economic and social capital are more intrinsically tied, such as in neoliberal capitalism where every aspect of social life has been commoditized, than classical monogamy could have been. I would propose that because we are in a society that has only relatively recently moved from classic to serial monogamy, individuals tend to form a strong cognitive bias in favor of monogamy, without ever considering other options. This can largely be explained by the bandwagon effect. If everyone you know practices monogamy, and you are taught in school, church, and at home that it is normal, you may never really ask if it is right for you. (Sheff, 2014)

Part 2: Contemporary Forms of Ethical Non-Monogamy

Here I will break down some contemporary models of ethical non monogamy (ENM), explaining some of their traits and the benefits they may provide to those who practice them. 

  1. Couple Models
    1. Swingers
    2. Open Relationships
      1. Both allow for increased sexual freedom between consenting partners, allowing for couples who may have otherwise moved toward companionate love to keep a more active vein of passionate love as part of their relationships. The drive to do so could be influenced by media images showing passionate love as being desirable over companionate love. These types of ENM are rather distinct, as their primary focus is on enhancing an otherwise monogamous relationship instead of on building a fully distinct method of organizing a romantic relationship. (Sheff, 2014)
    3. Primary partners
      1. Allows for individuals to still fit largely within the hegemonic norm of monogamy, as they have the option to appear monogamous on legal documents, in religious settings, and just generally around anyone who has exclusionary ideas towards non monogamous people. It also grants many of the benefits of having multiple partners, such as having multiple sources to have one’s emotional, social, and sexual needs met, as well as potentially providing extra help in the physical and financial rearing of children and keeping of a household. (Sheff, 2014)
  2. Group Approaches
    1. Polyfidelity (also known as the group or cluster approach)
      1. Is a multiple partner model where all people within a group date one another, and any new partners must be accepted into the relationship by all existing members of the cluster. This allows for specific rules and boundaries to be observed and upheld uniformly, and also ensures that individuals within a cluster don’t have to worry about someone being brought in that they do not like. This model is also very LGBTQIA+ friendly, as it would be nearly impossible for everyone in the cluster to be straight, thus fostering queer acceptance within the polyamorous community. (Sheff, 2014
    2. Polyamory (also known as the polycule approach) 
      1. Is a multiple partner model where individuals within relationships agree that they can all pursue relationships with others. This differs from the polyfidelity model because new partners do not necessarily need to date every member of the existing cluster. A polyamorous group is often called a polycule. This is because when the relationship is drawn on paper it looks similar to a molecule, with clusters branching off through relationship after relationship, often connecting to other clusters. This allows for quite a bit of personal freedom, but also provides a wide social support and emotional intimacy structure. Almost all other models of ENM are somewhat compatible with the polycule approach. (Sheff, 2014)
  3. Individual approaches
    1. Relationship anarchism 
      1. Just like classical anarchism, seeks to eliminate all hierarchies. Relationship anarchism attains this goal by breaking down the hierarchy between sexual/romantic relationships and friendship relationships, treating each as equal to the other. Many relationship anarchists also reject setting up any external boundaries on partners, meaning that they do not operate with any hard rules about what their partners can do outside the relationship. (Sheff, 2014)
    2. Hookups
      1. Are often glanced over in the discussion of ENM, but many variations of hookups could be considered to fall under the umbrella. These are primarily sexual relationships which do not require exclusivity between partners. Hookups can often be mutually beneficial, with both people getting some form of their needs met such as sexual satisfaction, physical touch, and the release of certain hormones, such as oxytocin, that encourage positive feelings, without having to devote the time for a full romantic relationship. (Castleman, 2016)

Part 3. Why Ethical Non Monogamy?

Ethical non monogamy is rising in popularity and in the public view. There are many potential reasons for this. Primarily, I would put forth that ENM is a change in the family institution to better accommodate child rearing in neoliberal capitalism, a better practice for anyone with an egalitarian mindset, and is also more accessible and viable due to sociocultural shifts and technological advances.

Rising gender equality socially, through several waves of feminism, has lead to women being highly involved in the workforce. However, household labor did not suddenly become an even split just because women started working. This should collapse the models of  monogamy, but it has not entirely done so, do to women often managing to pull off working and raising a child simultaneously. This means that many women essentially have two full time jobs, their work away from home, and their work at home. This is referred to as the Second Shift (Hochschild and Machung, 2012). Low wages and the high price of childcare also put a large economic strain on families (Bird, 1997). ENM should be able to virtually get rid of the second shift, as a large enough cluster or polycule actively participating in child rearing would be able to provide more time and resources for childcare, and have it be less centered on one member of the relationship.

Anther factor allowing for increased practice of ENM is the ability and education to be tested and treated for STDs, and the ability/education to prevent them. A large benefit to previous models of relationship organizing was that they created closed circuits of sexual activity, meaning that STDs were rather limited in their ability to spread. However, due to contemporary education and technology, this is much less of a concern. ENM people are now able to practice their organizing style of choice with limited to no risks.

In the past, organizing a cluster or polycule may have been very difficult. Communication is extremely important to any relationship, and the more relationships, the more communication needed. Today, however, we can simply choose from hundreds of group messaging services, some even with video chat. The[1] same goes for finding partners. Before the internet, it would certainly have been difficult, perhaps even dangerous, to put oneself out there as non monogamous and ready to mingle. Now one simply needs to download an app and start swiping. This allows for people to not only find partners, but to choose them. 

ENM is heavily associated with LGBTQIA+ people. The reason for this is that many models of ENM simply cannot be practiced without a queer person involved, such as any model that involves a cluster. The rising acceptance of queer identities in society, however, could be part of the reason for the growth in knowledge and practice of ENM.


The institution of the family is subject to change in the same way that all other social institutions are. Changing economic, cultural, and technological conditions encourage (and often necessitate) shifts in our institutional organizing structures. Previously existing forms of relationship organization are no longer effective for raising children in neoliberal capitalist society, and are also becoming further removed from our cultural ideas of gender equality, sexual freedom, and personal psychological fulfilment. Different styles of ENM adjust to specific changes in the material and cultural conditions of our contemporary society. Depending on how society develops on the fronts of feminism, sexual liberation, communication technology, and economic modes of production, we may see one of these forms of ENM become the new standard model for the organization of the social institution of the family.  

EXTRA: Fun terms to know!

Cluster: a group of people who are all dating one another. 

Metamore: latin for “adjacent love”, metamores are individuals who are dating the same person/people but are not dating each other.

Chain: The way that two people who are in a polycule but not dating each other are linked together. This can either be rather direct, such as with metamores, or individuals could be several relationships removed from one another. 

Compersion: a feeling of joy upon seeing or knowing about one’s partner(s) achieving some form of happiness, joy, or fulfilment with someone else. Often seen as the opposite to relationship jealousy. 

Nesters/nesting partner(s): Nesters are a group that live together. This can be an entire cluster, a small part of a cluster, or even an entire polycule. Nesting partners are those partners that one lives with.

Exclusively poly: Individuals who will not enter into a relationship where they are expected to practice monogamy, and will only date other polyamorous people.

Inclusively poly: Individuals who will enter into either monogamous or polyamorous relationships.



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