Source: Photo by Luwadlin Bosman on Unsplash
If I were to write an article that detailed all of the relationship arrangements that exist out there, we’d have to get comfortable and prepare ourselves to read for quite some time. For that reason, in this article I decided to focus specifically on the umbrella term of consensual/ethical non-monogamy (CNM).
Before we dive headfirst into this subject, let’s start with definitions of monogamy and non-monogamy and how they differ:
Monogamy: the practice of having a sexual or intimate relationship with one partner at a time.
Consensual non-monogamy (CNM): any non-exclusive romantic or sexual relationship that individuals form with more than one partner. Examples of CNM include open relationships, swinging relationships, and polyamory.
Monogamy tends to be thought of as the default “moral” relationship arrangement which begs the question: Are you intentionally choosing to opt into it? If monogamy is your chosen relationship arrangement (for reasons that do not have to be justified) – great! Continue to fully enjoy reserving that table for two, and acknowledge that monogamy itself is of course not an issue as long as it is intentional and satisfactory to you and your partner. While more recently explored and talked about, CNM certainly is not the sexual and romantic roadmap every individual needs or wants to follow.
The term “consensual” is central to CNM. There is no “right” vs “wrong” relationship arrangement so long as both (or multiple) partners have consented and agreed to it. Talking about expectations, emotions, desires and wants is important regardless of where you fall on the relationship spectrum.
Principles of CNM
It is important to note that the principles which are crucial to the healthy practice of CNM can also be productively applied to monogamous relationships.
Communication and consent is key. The individuals involved in the relationship must make clear and collaborative agreements regarding what the dynamic will look like. The objective is to make all partners (whether that is two, or multiple) feel heard as they voice whether they want their relationship to be casual, long term/short term, sexual, romantic, etc in whichever way they subjectively define it.
On that same note, honest and transparent communication is absolutely necessary. This requires directly voicing boundaries, expectations, and limits. Scheduled check-ins can ensure dedicated time for honest discussion of any pleasant or unpleasant feelings or thoughts related to the relationship, and whether adjustments are needed.
Acknowledgement that a partner or partners cannot play every role or meet every need. It is not uncommon in monogamous relationships to assume that your partner is a combination of your best friend, lover, support system, caretaker, amongst various other roles. Whether in a CNM or monogamous relationship, the pressure can be lifted from one partner by proactively seeking other individuals to meet one’s personal needs. If your partner despises trying new restaurants, call upon your fellow foodie friend to join you. If you enjoy BDSM and your partner is not game, consider mutually-agreed upon ways in which these sexual needs may be met by another partner.
On that same note, allow one another time and space to engage in hobbies or interests that are completely independent. Allow for autonomy and a sharing of pieces and parts of yourself that exist outside of the relationship. As Esther Perel notes in her book Mating in Captivity: “Fire needs air. Desire is like fire. For it to stay lit, it needs some air, some space.”
Prioritization of safe sex practices. Whether in an exclusive or ethically open relationship, safe sex practices (i.e. using condoms, dental dams, latex gloves, and other barrier methods; regularly getting tested for STDs and STIs) are a way to keep both yourself and your partner(s) protected. It is not unusual for those in CNM relationships to experience stigma related to their sexual health; however, those engaged in CNM tend to report high levels of safer sex strategies and ongoing conversations with their partner around safe sex comfortability. These practices and discussions with your partner also apply to monogamous relationships.
Common myths about CNM
The conversation around CNM is certainly not without myths, assumptions, and preconceived notions. While there are a variety of messages around CNM, the myths discussed below are particularly common. As you read about them, consider checking in with yourself whether any resonate and if any additional assumptions come up.
Myth #1: CNM and cheating are synonymous, or people have CNM relationships because they’re dissatisfied in their monogamous relationship and are seeking a way to “fix” it. CNM requires consistent open and transparent communication, which is inherently the opposite of cheating. Cheating is defined by secrecy and has an element of deception. CNM, if engaged in appropriately, can actually help strengthen the relationship between partners. Keep in mind that individuals ought not to seek out CNM relationships as an “acceptable form of cheating.”
Myth #2: Sex, sex, and more sex is at the root of CNM relationships. Contrary to this popular belief, some partners within CNM relationships choose not to have sex at all and instead have a strong companionship and non-sexual intimacy, some may choose one primary sex partner and multiple emotional partners, and others opt in to group sex. Types of sex, frequency of sex, sexual boundaries all differ from partnership to partnership. These topics are discussed initially and on an ongoing basis, and inevitably involve quite a bit of planning and thought.
Myth #3: Those in CNM relationships do not experience jealousy. The commonly held assumption is that a monogamous relationship can protect partners from feelings of insecurity as they’re only navigating one romantic/sexual relationship. While those in CNM relationships report relatively high levels of trust, they are not immune to feelings of jealousy. These feelings do not dictate whether you’re “good” or “bad” at engaging in CNM; rather, these are common emotions to have! They can actually help initiate important conversations with your partner and lead you to review boundaries/rules of the relationship. Simply put, how partners manage jealousy matters more than the feeling of jealousy itself.
Questions to consider with your partner
Again, relationship arrangements should not necessarily be assumed. Having these conversations can feel uncomfortable, and so consider some of the following questions as a start-off point.
Have you had conversations about the definitions of monogamy and CNM?
What do each mean to you, and for your relationship?
What is the function of and what do you want from monogamy or CNM?
What is appealing about monogamy or CNM? What are the benefits?
Do you have any concerns about monogamy or CNM?
What does your ideal relationship arrangement look like?
There is absolutely no “one-size-fits-all” approach to sexual and/or romantic relationships. Monogamy is a fantastic choice for many partnerships as is consensual non-monogamy! Whether you decide to remain in your monogamous relationship, or consensually agree to explore other relationship arrangements, I’d encourage you to acquaint yourself with one or all of these books:
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert