Terminology: monogamous, partner, infidelity


I am using the word ‘monogamous’ in this blog to mean ‘having sex with only one person over a period of time’. A person who is monogamous is someone who, over the course of, say, a year, has sex with only one person. I will usually mean ‘sexually monogamous’, that is, if someone has a romantic attachment to more than one person but has sex with only one, they are strictly speaking being monogamous. Of course there is plenty to discuss in all this, but this definition is where I am starting from.

Helen Fisher, in Anatomy of Love: a Natural History of Monogamy Adultery and Divorce, defines the term differently, as ‘having only one spouse’ regardless of any short-term sexual relations with other people. This is more of an anthropological definition, used in discussions of forms of marriage in different cultures.

I think the definition I am using is the more widely used one in general western culture, and so will make more sense to people. Besides, we need words that distinguish people who have sex with only one person from those who have sex with more than one person.


I generally talk about partners in all my writing, rather than about husbands, wives, girlfriends or boyfriends, for two main reasons. Firstly, what I am talking about applies just as much to same-sex relationships as it does to relationships between men and women. And secondly, whether a couple is married or not is not usually relevant to the argument, as nowadays many couples live together (or even separately) without being married but the same issues surrounding monogamy still arise, just as they would if the couple were married. I am aware that ‘partner’ can mean ‘business partner’, but here it won’t mean that.

The problem with the gender-neutral approach is that you can end up with lots of ‘they’s and confusion about who is being referred to. I don’t think it is useful to use ‘he or she’ all the time, and grammatically I don’t have a problem with using ‘they’ in the singular (it is very commonly used). If you talk about a husband and a wife, you can they say ‘he did this, she said that’ and it is clear, but with two partners, ‘they did this and they did the other’ is not. I will try to make it as clear as possible, sometimes by using examples with names when no other method works. Please add a comment if a particular sentence isn’t clear to you, for this or any other reason.


One of the main arguments I will be making is that ‘fidelity’ shouldn’t mean the same as ‘monogamy’. For the purposes of the next few posts, however, while discussing the status quo, I will use ‘infidelity’ to mean ‘having sex with someone who isn’t your partner without your partner’s knowledge or permission’. Someone who does this could be called a ‘cheater’ and their partner has been ‘cheated on’. These terms are not ideal but I choose to use them because they are generally understood.

2 Responses to “Terminology: monogamous, partner, infidelity”

  1. “Infidelity” to me is concealing something from my partner, or doing something with the intention of concealing it from my partner.
    Nothing particularly to do with sex, everything to do with honesty, openness, and communication. If it had specifically to do with sex, that would be “sexual infidelity”.
    Was I unfaithful to my wife? Very occasionally, in trivial ways. Sexually? No.

  2. I agree! The definition in this post is a temporary one, specifically for the subsequent few posts that talk about cheating, because I want to use terminology in a more conventional way to start with. Very soon I will be writing about redefining what fidelity means, so keep reading! (And commenting of course.)