Monogamous relationships are challenging enough in their own right, but not everyone finds them to be compatible with who they are intrinsically. There’s often a moral stigma centered around ethical non-monogamy (ENM) or consensual non-monogamy (CNM), and with that comes a disconnect and generalized misconception of what it means to practice it, including equating non-monogamy to commitment phobia, devaluation of multiple partners, and/or sexual promiscuity. According to recent research published in Frontier in Psychology in 2020, people tend to wrongfully assume that those in ENM relationships have worse sexual health than monogamous individuals, when the reality is the former’s sexual health is often no different than anyone else’s.
Now, to be clear, ENM or CNM (which are often used interchangeably), is defined as “a relationship style in which all individuals within the relationship agree to not being monogamous, and all individuals involved in the relationship are aware that it is not a monogamous relationship,” according to The Affirmative Couch, an online platform that advocates for the mental health of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Being in a non-monogamous relationship can actually be of benefit for some people and their partner(s), depending on one’s needs, says Helen,* who works for the video game industry and has been in an ENM relationship with her husband for five years. “The appeal of an ethical non-monogamous relationship [is that it embraces] the idea that love is not a finite resource,” she says to TZR.
People decide to become non-monogamous for various personal reasons, whether that be a lifestyle choice or a part of their identity, and how that is defined depends on the individual. David* (husband of Helen, mentioned above) tells TZR, that the couple originally opened the relationship when he came out as bisexual prior to proposing to his now wife. “She was incredibly supportive, and after listening to a lot of Dan Savage, attending couples therapy, and talking things through, we decided to open our relationship to allow me to explore my bi side,” he explains. “However, our version of an open relationship has evolved significantly over time.” The two now currently define their relationship as a cross between relationship anarchy (a term coined by author Andie Nordgren, meaning the union does not adhere to traditional standards or expectations) and polyamory (a relationship style based on the belief that one can love multiple people).
If you do a little digging, you’ll find that there are many forms in which non-monogamous relationships can take shape. Ahead, ENM partners share tips on how they navigate the style and offer insights on how to be successful in opening up your union.
Establish Boundaries Everyone Involved Can Agree On
Every consensual non-monogamous relationship has its own set of agreements that works best for everyone involved. “I’ve found that mutually creating and establishing a clear set of boundaries of what is comfortable for each person is crucial,” says Elaine*, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, who is in an open marriage with her husband of one year, which allows them to date other people non-exclusively. “We are newer to non-monogamy after having been together for almost 11 years and are learning that these agreements can change over time.”
Helen explains that it took her a while to learn that traditional monogamy rules were a crutch for her. “I was using them to provide the illusion of control, and when I realized that the rules were arbitrary and [led to] some deep-rooted insecurities, I challenged myself to unpack and process them over time.” Doing so has allowed Helen and David to be brutally honest about their intentions without asserting any sort of constraint or need for control over the other person involved.
“For me, it's less about primary versus secondary [rules], and more about what kind of commitments are being made,” says David. “‘Let's get together when we can’ is different than, ‘I promise to set aside a day per week to see you.’ And ‘our relationship will influence my decision to move somewhere,’ is different than, ‘I will not move without you.’ My relationships have hit all those styles. But the potential for growth is often there — it’s just important that everyone be aware of intent and desires in order to let things evolve ethically.”
Communication Builds A Healthy Foundation
Given the nature of time invested with multiple romantic and/or sexual partners, communication is imperative. “Talking through things, with each other and those who are familiar with non-monogamy, provides a lot of introspection,” David says. Helen agrees, saying ethical non-monogamy has challenged her to keep an open mind and appreciate other people and partners on a deeper level. “I truly had to take a hard look at myself and process a lot of my own insecurities and unlearn a lot of detrimental behaviors,” she says. “I had to become a candid communicator, and I strive to always bring that into all relationships. I try to be more self-aware to understand my reactions and emotions rather than defaulting to something fleeting or thoughtless.”
Suzanne**, who is an actor and works in animation in Toronto, says that it’s freeing to be able to speak frankly on what she’s feeling, as well as her needs and wants, and it allows her to listen and be moved by her partners’ without judgement. “For me, it’s important to all be on the same page,” she says. Suzanne is in a polyamorous triad with her high school sweetheart, Ryan**, and Jayme**, whom she met at her first animation studio job. “We’re polyamorous by definition, but our relationship isn’t open. Sometimes, we fondly refer to it as ‘double-monogamy.’” Suzanne and Ryan decided to open up their relationship to Jayme once she realized she was developing feelings for her and coming to terms with her own bisexuality. “The three of us have found it within ourselves to be able to be supportive to more than one person. It’s just nice to be in love with my two best friends.”
Trust & Patience Are Indispensable
“All the conflicts typically seen in monogamous relationships — jealousy, insecurities, what we’re unhappy with or find lacking, possible infidelities and/or desires, etc., are all brought to the table and openly discussed,” Elaine explains of her non-monogamous arrangement. “It forced us to confront those issues, so we have a better understanding of each other’s intent, while assuring one another our love has not dissipated. In fact, our love and trust has grown significantly in doing so.” She adds that opening up her union alleviates the pressure of having to be everything to one person, something people often tend to unrealistically expect of themselves and their partners while in monogamous relationships.
“Non-monogamy made our relationship more secure,” says David. “We trust each other to raise concerns as needed, and try to not make assumptions. After we realized that our relationship wasn't threatened by other relationships (be it platonic, sexual, or romantic), the ‘rules’ faded away. At this point, it’s more, ‘I trust you to act in your best interest and not do things that would make others uncomfortable,’ while also being respectful of privacy for the other relationships.”
Helen agrees with her husband. “It required a lot of patience and time to make sure we were evolving together while growing these other relationships,” she says. “I like to meet people where they are without expectations about who they should be or what they should provide. Trust is also a cornerstone of my relationships, and continuously finding ways to build and nurture that are very important to me.”
Tune Out the Naysayers
Facing the possibility of pushback from friends and family who do not agree with or have trouble understanding consensual non-monogamy is challenging, which means supporting one another and even finding a community within the CNM realm is paramount. “There’s some skepticism from a handful of friends and family,” Suzanne shares. But there’s hope as more people openly discuss what it means to have a successful relationship, monogamous or not. “Everyone close to us has come around, especially when seeing how well we work together as a team. It turns out we have many friends who are also polyamorous, so it’s encouraging to see the ways other people choose to shape their relationships beyond what gets touted as the societal default [monogamy].”
For others, it’s sometimes difficult to be open about their relationship without facing some sort of judgement. “We haven’t told our family for this very reason and have learned to filter out any sort of negative noise to focus on what matters, which is each other,” says Elaine. “People are always going to have something to say about things that typically go against the grain of conventional societal expectations.”
Love Yourself First
As is with any relationship, making sure you are whole is ideal, but that’s often easier said than done when another person of significance enters your world and can lead to negative patterns, such as co-dependency. “One of the key factors in maintaining a healthy, non-monogamous relationship for me is ensuring that your relationship with yourself is solid,” Helen discloses. “It can be challenging to navigate relationships when you are dealing with your own issues of self-love, and a lot of that negativity can project on to your partners, if not addressed.” David agrees and adds, “It’s made us more independent, as it requires a good deal of personal growth. In that respect, it has not only benefited our relationship, but our individual lives as well.”
In a way, monogamy and ethical non-monogamy are a lot more similar than one would think, and that’s a beautiful thing. “I find a lot of joy in building unique experiences with people that can evolve however we decide, without any preconceived notions,” Helen says. “I have discovered a much deeper love and appreciation for my husband that I do not know I would have found if we had decided not to open up. It has truly added another dimension to my life and I am always grateful for having the tools to better myself and share my best self with the people around me.”
*Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.
**Last names have been removed per the participant’s request.