Monogamy has been the default relationship model forever — the go-to gold standard, a so-called superior path to coupled bliss. But that may be changing.
There’s been an uptick in interest in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) with Google searches for the subject on the rise and shows like “You Me Her,” “Unicornland,” and “Polyamory: Married & Dating” hitting the airwaves. There’s even a lite version of CNM, dubbed “monogamish,” a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage. Between three and seven percent of people in North America are currently in a consensual, nonmonogamous relationship.
The meanings of the terms “consensual non-monogamy,” “nonmonogamous” and “polyamorous” are highly personal and vary from person to person. To me, CNM entails having open relationships that are transparent to all parties involved and usually center around sex. Polyamory involves deeper care and emotional commitment, and oftentimes, love. It’s a different level of closeness.
While I’ve been practicing non-monogamy and polyamory on and off since my late teens, it took me a long time to develop the vocabulary to describe my tendencies. Adapting a wholly nonmonogamous and polyamorous lifestyle, which I’ve done over the past five years, has dramatically improved my happiness and relationship satisfaction. There’s incredible trust, respect, and communication between myself and my partners. I’m able to love whomever I want, however I want, for as long as I want. My emotional and physical needs are fully satisfied, and I love the love and experiences that being flexible brings. Nothing is lacking in my romantic life, and I’m damn grateful for it.
If you’re looking to explore CNM, here are eight things you ought to know and do first.
Build a solid foundation.
First and foremost, you need to make sure your primary relationship is stable. “CNM strains relationships, adds additional layers of complexity, and requires a tremendous amount of trust,” says Xanet Pailet, a sex and intimacy coach and author of “Living an Orgasmic Life.” “If a couple is entering into CNM to try to save a relationship that is falling apart, it will most likely end in disaster.” The most successful CNM relationships are ones in which there is strong communication between partners and a deep and profound level of love, acceptance, and trust, Pailet explains.
Negotiate relationship agreements upfront.
While some experts suggest a written agreement that covers every possible scenario, Pailet is not a fan of this approach because the possibilities are limitless, and it can make CNM feel more like a legal arrangement. “However, you do need to make some basic decisions about how you would like to operate,” she says. For example: Are there activities that are off limits? What information do you want your partner to share about a new lover? Must you meet the person before your partner dates them? Is there ever a time when a don’t ask, don’t tell policy is appropriate?
Think about your sexual health.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 million new STIs are contracted every day. That means that in the U.S. alone, 110 million people — about one-third of the population — have an STI at any given time. “You and every new partner need to have sexual health exams before beginning a sexual relationship,” says Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. For me, that means getting tested for a full battery of STIs every three to six months. (Note that if you want specific testing, you need to ask for it. Most clinics do the bare minimum unless a patient requests otherwise.) If I bring a new partner into the mix, I get tested a few weeks afterward. In dynamics with multiple partners in play, I don’t think you can ever be too cautious.
Make communication a constant.
Talking about sex in any capacity can be nerve-wracking. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it. Communication is especially key in a CNM relationship, where multiple dynamics are being managed at any given time. In my experience, honesty and transparency help make these relationships work. “You need to talk to your partner before you begin a CNM relationship, set expectations, and then continue to check in and talk through issues as you learn more,” says Kayla Lords, sexpert for Jack and Jill Adult and co-host of Loving BDSM, a podcast about BDSM and kink relationships. “Like any other type of relationship, CNM only works when there’s trust between you and your partners.” I swear, the more often you talk about sexual topics, the less awkward the conversations become.
Acknowledge that boundaries shift.
“If you agreed to a boundary or limit and you’re finding that you want something to change — the reality is often different than what you imagine it will be in the beginning — you need to talk to your partner,” says Lords. “CNM is a journey, and what you want will morph and change as you learn more about yourself and meet new partners. Listen to your partner, who will also learn more about what they want and [themselves] through this process.”
Use your words.
If I have specific wants or desires, whether it’s how to model your relationship or what you want in the bedroom, it’s on you to clearly express that. Your partner may be the most intuitive human on the planet, but they are by no means a mind reader. In CNM relationships, there are many added layers of communication. From safer sex talks to figuring out how all the moving parts will work — thank goodness for shared Google calendars — there’s no shortage of sharing feelings and working through conflict. If you don’t ask, you don’t get — plain and simple.
Accept that jealousy will happen — and it’s normal.
“Feeling jealous is a very common and normal experience when you enter into a CNM relationship,” says Pailet. Societally, we’re not programmed to get aroused when our partner has a date with or bangs another person. “The good news is that there is a lot of support in the CNM community for these feelings, and even workshops and books on the topic. It’s extremely important to share these feelings with your partner so that you can get the reassurance that you need.” The go-to in my jealousy toolkit is Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux’s “Polyamory and Jealousy: A More Than Two Essentials Guide.”
You can stop or hit pause at any time.
“A decision to explore CNM is just that — an exploration, not necessarily a whole new lifestyle,” says Pailet. “You’ll know within the first couple of months whether this relationship paradigm is something that can work for you.” For some couples, it super-boosts their relationship and sexual connection, and for others, it does the complete opposite. My advice? Trust your gut. If things are going well, go with it. If things are weird, wonky, or not sitting well with all parties involved, it’s perfectly okay to stop, pause, or slow down. Unlike most relationships that come with a whole slew of rules, you can DIY a CNM relationship and take it at your own pace. “The only way you’ll know is if you try it out in some form or another,” says Pailet.