My last relationship was monogamous by default: Neither of us had ever experienced or seriously thought about nonmonogamy. But after three years, I was feeling held back by this relationship model. I asked my partner if he’d be open to creating some flexibility in our arrangement, and he wasn’t. This led to us breaking up, which was actually the best thing that has ever happened to my love life.
A few months later, I started dating a number of people, including one I became particularly close with. He and I agreed from the beginning that monogamy wasn’t what we were looking for at this point in our lives. I made it clear to him that I was dating other people and tested the waters by gradually telling him more and more about them and gauging his reactions. He also told me when he met somebody else, and we both surprised each other by being OK with it all. Because we communicated clearly and caringly from the beginning, there was no room for misunderstandings or letdowns.
Defining Ethical Nonmonogamy
Ethical nonmonogamy can refer to many different situations, from polyamorous relationships where both people have other romantic partners to open relationships with specific limitations. Some couples, for example, allow each other to have physical relationships outside of their primary one but not to actually date other people. Others are allowed to date other people, but there are restrictions on what they can do sexually.
While nonmonogamy has not been traditionally accepted in many communities, it’s becoming increasingly popular with almost a fifth of Americans under 30 reporting in 2016 that they’d engaged in sexual activity with someone else with their partner’s knowledge. Discussions with your partner about relationship models can be difficult, but they’re worth it.
“We live in a world full of stigma, where it is ‘OK’ to act without anyone knowing it but ‘not OK’ to be transparent and have a heart-to-heart talk about it,” says mental health counselor Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, who has a postgraduate degree in clinical psychology. “When we are in a deep and mutually respectful relationship, talking about anything shouldn’t be a big deal. Who knows? It may actually help us gain more clarity. And if starting an awkward conversation with the partner stresses us, then it is really the relationship that needs more work, rather than the topic of discussion.”
Starting The Discussion
If you’ve never spoken to a partner about nonmonogamy before, love and sex coach Audria O’Neill suggests doing some research beforehand so that you can explain what exactly you’re asking for and suggest some guidelines. “The key to talking about such a sensitive topic is to be empathetic and playful when discussing it, because if you are serious or act ashamed, then the person will subconsciously get the message,” she says.
You can test the waters by bringing up nonmonogamy more generally and gauging your partner’s feelings about it, rather than suggesting you two be nonmonogamous right off the bat, says Chowdhury. You might even introduce the discussion with a pop culture reference if you’re tongue-tied, says Jessica O’Reilly, Ph.D., sex and relationship expert and host of the Sex With Dr. Jess podcast. For example, you can say you heard Jada Pinkett and Will Smith are in an open relationship and ask your partner if they’ve ever thought about that relationship model.
Once you’re ready to have a more serious conversation about your own relationship, prepare your partner by prefacing the discussion with something like, “I want to talk to you about something about our sex life, and I feel a little nervous to do so, but am doing this because it’s important to me and so are you,” says Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., sex therapist, psychologist, and professor of psychology at the University of Florida. “Then, using an ‘I’ statement, simply say, ‘I’d like to open our relationship up’ or ‘I’d like us to explore nonmonogamy’ or whatever you want to say.”
Make sure to have this conversation in private during a time when neither of you has to be somewhere, and listen closely and compassionately to your partner’s response, even if you don’t like it, says Mintz. You can try repeating what they tell you to make sure you’ve got it. Let them know that should you agree to be nonmonogamous, they’ll remain your priority. This means you’ll talk about and consider their feelings and even cancel dates if they need you, says O’Neill.
If you know before you even begin a relationship that you want it to be nonmonogamous, you should tell the other person as soon as possible — or even put it in your online dating profile so they know before you meet. “You could avoid a lot of trouble by realizing you have very different beliefs around jealousy and possession,” says O’Neill.
If Your Partner’s Not On Board
Whether either of you is willing to compromise on what kind of relationship you want is entirely up to you. “If you are interested in opening your relationship and your partner is not, you will need to do some sexual soul-searching to decide if this is something you can live without or if this signals long-term sexual incompatibility,” says Mintz. “This is an individual decision with no rules except to be honest with yourself. It might also be helpful to talk this through with a trusted friend or therapist.”
If you can’t reach an agreement, it may be wise to end your relationship or shift it to become close friends or casual partners, says O’Reilly. “Regarding if you can stay friends or keep that person in your life, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer, but it will depend on a number of individual personality factors for each person, as well as the tone of the breakup,” says Mintz.
If Your Partner Is On Board
A few things you’ll need to discuss with your partner, whether they’re new or long-term, are what exactly you want the terms of the relationship to be, why you’re interested in nonmonogamy, what appeals to you about it, what concerns you have about it, and what your ideal relationship looks like, says O’Reilly. “Allow the conversation to flow freely, and don’t feel that you have to answer all of these questions in one go. The conversations will be ongoing over the course of your relationship.”
You should also talk about boundaries around safer sex and how much each of you want to hear about your other relationships. O’Neill recommends talking to each other about your other relationships, or else each of your fantasies about each other’s love lives can be more upsetting than the reality, and one of you might end up surprised if another relationship goes somewhere. “Part of being ethically nonmonogamous is accepting and learning about human nature and the true desires of the person you’re involved with, and building empathy, understanding, and a deeper connection,” she says.
You might establish specific policies, like asking your partner before you schedule dates and trying to do so only when they’re busy — preferably when they’re on dates of their own. You could even text them while you’re on dates if that makes them more comfortable or set limitations, like that you won’t have sex on your first date with someone else. “There’s no need to rush things and stir up your partner’s emotions,” says O’Neill.
Even if you and your partner are monogamous and plan to remain that way, it’s a good idea to discuss what monogamy means to each of you. “Research continues to confirm that there is no universally accepted definition of monogamy, and no two relationships are alike,” says O’Reilly. For example, someone might consider flirting perfectly OK while their S.O. may feel differently.
It’s possible that talking about nonmonogamy could lead you to realize you’re incompatible — but it’s also possible that it’ll get you the exact relationship you’ve been wanting. “You won’t be able to find out if you and your partner are sexually compatible or get your needs met unless you put them out there,” Mintz says. For me, the conversation may have ended a relationship, but it got me what I wanted and more — just with other people who are even better suited for me.