Ever since I started dating non-monogamously three years ago, I’ve experienced my fair share of highs and lows. Much of that has to do with learning to navigate my own desires and emotions, but the assumptions of people I’m dating have also proved challenging. Things I never communicated when I was single now have to be made very clear very early on, including my expectations for how I’d like to be treated.
I’ve noticed a similar set of misconceptions and assumptions about non-monogamy pop up in online messages and on dates again and again. While this list could be as never-ending as the many different ways it’s possible to practice non-monogamy, these are my top beginner picks for what you should know about dating someone who’s openly and ethically non-monogamous. I add the “openly and ethically” here because most people who are dating online are actually already practicing some form of non-monogamy — they just aren’t communicating about it, and call it “dating” or “keeping their options open.”
Everyone practices non-monogamy differently.
If someone says they’re non-monogamous, don’t assume you know what that means. Some people might be polyamorous, looking for multiple ongoing and loving relationships with more than one person, while some might be open to falling in love but not be looking for a partnership at all (sometimes called “solo poly”), while some may be in an open relationship with very specific rules and boundaries as to what kind of non-monogamy is “allowed.”
“There are as many different variations of non-monogamy as there are different variations of people,” Dedeker Winston, author of ““The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory” and co-host of the (incredibly helpful) non-monogamy podcast Multiamory, says. “If someone lists non-monogamy on their profile, ask for more information with an attitude of open-mindedness and curiosity.”
That said, no one wants an interrogation on their first date. Winston suggests starting out by saying something like, “I notice that you mention non-monogamy in your profile. How do you practice that in your life and relationships?” If they’re mature enough to practice ethical non-monogamy, they should be more than happy to let you know.
If someone’s openly non-monogamous, you don’t need to be shy about asking respectful questions.
If someone is practicing ethical non-monogamy, that means honesty and communication are the cornerstones of their relationships. They should be able to answer your respectful questions clearly and honestly and understand that if they’re going out with someone who doesn’t have experience with non-monogamy, patience is required.
“The key here is respectful questions. Often it comes down to tone — there is a big difference between, ‘Tell me about your relationships because I’m curious and want to learn more,’ and ‘Tell me about your relationships because you need to defend this to me,’” Winston notes.
Texting is not the best medium for demanding someone explain their entire situation and approach (nor is it the easiest opening message to respond to). If someone asks, I usually give a short two-sentence version so they know what they’re getting into, and then add that the rest is a conversation best had on a date.
Just because someone is non-monogamous or already in a relationship, doesn’t mean they’re looking for casual sex or don’t have feelings.
This has been one of the most frustrating aspects for me of being openly non-monogamous. Many men assume I’m immediately DTF and don’t always treat me with the same emotional consideration they used to when I was single (which, as women who date men know, often wasn’t so stellar to begin with).
“Even if the person you matched with already has a romantic partner, they may still be seeking other partners to form a deep, romantic connection with as well,” Winston says. “There’s also a significant number of people who identify as some form of non-monogamous or polyamorous that are also asexual or demisexual, so they may not be looking for any kind of sexually based partnership at all.” Don’t make assumptions or treat someone with a lower level of respect just because they’re being open and honest about their sexuality.
Having an openly non-monogamous profile isn’t an invitation for online harassment.
I’ve encountered more disrespectful messages in three years of non-monogamous online dating than I ever did in all my years of dating as a single woman, combined. At first, I just laughed them off, but as more and more men treated me as if I had a different standard for common decency, it began to upset me.
If you wouldn’t say it to a single person, don’t say it to us. We no more want to hear about your desire to be “sloppy seconds” or get the message “DTF?” as an opener than anyone else would. This also goes for harassment about being non-monogamous itself.
“Honestly, anyone who has been openly non-monogamous for any length of time has already heard all the insults. If you have a desire to harass someone because of their relationship style, it’s highly unlikely that A) you’re going to say anything original, and B) you’re going to say something that makes them change their mind about how they do relationships,” Winston says.
Just because a woman is non-monogamous and queer, doesn’t mean she wants to be your “unicorn.”
Look, personally, I’m open to it — but not if I’m going to be treated like a prop or automatically approached for sex and nothing more. Monogamous queer and fluid women get messages like this all the time too, but say you’re openly non-monogamous and fluid, and people assume they can be even more forward and objectifying.
“If you’re running your profile as a couple, bear in mind that any woman you send a message to has probably already received 20 proposals similar in nature, and your chances are slim. If you are really gunning for a threesome or other form of group sex, try connecting to local sex-positive or kink communities first to learn the right etiquette and best practices,” Winston suggests.
If you’re going to date someone practicing ethical non-monogamy, be ready for safe sex and open communication.
If you’re looking to get involved with someone who’s ethically non-monogamous because you think it will be easier or more casual, think again. They might be down for a casual relationship or casual sex, but you’re likely going to talk about sex and feelings way more than you would in a normal hookup. Before I was non-monogamous, I rarely asked someone’s STI status, when they’d last been tested, or how many other partners they were sleeping with. Now, that’s all standard conversation before we get to bed. The fact that my partner’s health is also on the line has made me more serious about protecting my own health.
This kind of emphasis on safe sex may be why one large research study showed that people in consensually non-monogamous relationships are actually more likely to use safe sex practices and less likely to spread STIs to others, despite having a higher number of sex partners.
Interestingly, Winston notes that the original findings of that study were that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships were more likely to wear condoms and less likely to transmit STIs than anyone in a monogamous relationship — not just cheaters. “However, when the study was submitted for review and publication it was rejected for having a bias toward non-monogamy. The researchers submitted the paper again, didn’t change any of the data, but simply changed the focus to be on cheaters rather than on monogamous people as a whole. The study was accepted for review and publication without question. Nuts, right?”
You may end up meeting their other partner(s).
Depending on the situation your non-monogamous date is in and how they practice non-monogamy, they may have a partner(s) they’d like you to meet. Some couples in more hierarchical relationships have strict rules around this, like that you’d have to meet their partner before they can sleep with or seriously date you, or that you’d need to be willing to have some sort of friendship with their other partner(s) — while others might have no rules around it at all.
“If you’ve never met a partner’s other partner before, don’t worry. It probably won’t be as awkward as you think it will be,” Winston notes. In fact, it can often help with jealousy.
Either way, if you have a preference around meeting other partners, know that your opinion and preferences matter too, and don’t let yourself be bullied into something you’re not comfortable with. If the idea itself makes you upset and jealous to the point that you refuse, that’s also worth noting — perhaps dating someone who’s non-monogamous is OK with you in theory, but not in reality. How you feel about meeting their other partner(s) is a good litmus test for how you actually feel about the reality of their relationship model, which brings me to…
You may need more help navigating this than you expect — and that’s totally normal.
If you find yourself unsure about how you’re feeling as you get more involved with someone non-monogamous, be sure to keep communicating — with the person you’re dating, a counselor or relationship coach like Winston, and friends. Listen to podcasts like Multiamory, read books like “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory”, “The Ethical Slut”, “Designer Relationships”, “Love in Abundance”, “Sex at Dawn,” and the other many sources of information about non-monogamy out there.
And remember: ethical non-monogamy should always be consensual. Don’t keep secrets or make assumptions without communicating. Apply the same level of common decency, safety, and care to a non-monogamous partner as you would anyone else, and expect the same consideration in return. Dating someone who’s non-monogamous doesn’t mean you have to forever adopt the label yourself — so keep an open mind, and see where the adventure takes you.