For many, opening up a previously monogamous partnership can promote growth, broaden community, heighten intimacy, and be incredibly rewarding. Nonetheless, there is no roadmap for consensual non-monogamy and many find their new relational experiences to be different than expected, sometimes painfully.
I encourage people exploring the possibility of non-monogamy to think about and discuss the following factors. These considerations are not exhaustive, but can help lay foundation that minimizes harm to all involved in the process of redesigning a relationship.
How non-monogamous relationships look and function are endless. It is important to consider, negotiate, and agree upon the when’s, where’s and what’s okay. Examples of some types of relationship structures include closed monogamy, swinging, open relationship, monogamish, polyamory, or relationship anarchy. People may move between different structures depending on what makes the most sense at a given time, or what new connections are made or desired. Consider hierarchy, emotional involvement, and what types of activities are welcomed with new partners (e.g., sex, sleepovers, dates, vacations, shared hobbies). For example, a couple may designate their relationship as primary and will reserve certain privileges for them only (e.g., cohabitation, shared finances, marriage, unprotected sex). Approaching non-monogamy as quid pro quo isn’t typically advised. Different preferences and levels of comfort for each individual are inevitable, poly-monogamous relationships exist for example. It’s yours to design and subject to change but agreeing upon structure and acceptable behaviors before opening up smoothens the process.
Time is the biggest limiting factor in non-monogamous relationships, so much so it’s been joked that some polyamorous people have a scheduling kink. When considering if it’s a good time to open a relationship, assess whether you’re available to invest in new relationships while simultaneously tending to your existing commitments (e.g., spouse, work, children, hobbies, etc.). Depending on what is practical for your relationship or season of life, amount of time with additional partners may vary anywhere from three times a week to once a year. Perhaps you’ll have time for an occasional date, but not for a new a boyfriend. This is especially important to understand and communicate with new partners, who benefit from realistic expectations about your capacity and availability.
More relationships mean more communication. Reflect upon communication in your existing relationship, as well as your capacity to effectively communicate with additional partners. Are you able to hear or express potentially challenging information, such as a boundary violation or having feelings for another person? Honesty without compassion is cruelty, but gifting others with honesty ensures that all involved are informed enough to exercise agency. If you’re already struggling to connect or communicate in your existing relationship, it’s likely that these challenges will be magnified. Therefore, I recommend improving communication prior to opening up, which may involve learning nonviolent communication skills, learning how to effectively resolve conflict, active listening, exercising curiosity, or seeking support from a therapist.
It’s normal for opening up to evoke big emotions including fear, insecurity, anger, jealousy, or new relationship energy (NRE). Some of “the work” that goes into non-monogamy is retraining the nervous system to remain calm amid experiences or conversations you may previously have found triggering. Understand how to care for yourself, soothe each other, and lean on others (e.g., friends, therapist) for support. Though non-monogamy can help with the following concerns for some, consider whether one or both partners is contending with anxiety, depression, loneliness, or other issues that could be exacerbated by major changes in the relational system and compromise one's ability to cope healthfully. Also consider the emotional intensity of new relationships, like whether a deep emotional connection is possible (e.g., polyamory) or if your non-monogamy is more of a consensual sex only enterprise (e.g., swinging, monogamish). Learning about non-monogamy can mitigate tougher emotions; lean into the wealth of podcasts, books, and online forums, or consult with other non-monogamous people.
Non-monogamy is a foreign concept for many and may be new for you, therefore mistakes are inevitable. Are you prepared to respectfully navigate conflict and repair? Beyond your primary partner, it's essential to be considerate of the feelings and experience of people outside your relationship so they don’t feel used, hurt, or disempowered. Don’t drag new partners into your existing relationship drama. They should not be used as a target or outlet for your issues. Protect others by being honest about what you want and what’s possible for the relationship to manage expectations and ensure someone is informed enough to provide genuine consent. Integrity is integral to finding success in non-monogamy. Don’t violate boundaries or established rules in anyone’s relationship- and if you do, take accountability.
By virtue of living in a society where monogamy is the norm, non-monogamous relationships are stigmatized. At worst stigma may result in losing friends, conflict with family members, being fired from a job, or lack of legal protections and privileges. More commonly, be prepared for misunderstanding and microaggressions. You may hear comments like, “it’s weird; I could never do that; don’t you get jealous?; what about the children?” Impact of stigma may be mitigated by identifying affirming allies, immersing yourself in like-minded community (in person or online), therapy with a competent provider, or leaning into non-monogamous educational resources (e.g., books, podcasts, websites).
These are just a few considerations I encourage folks to examine when taking steps to open a previously monogamous relationship. If you believe you would benefit from professional support, I would love to hear from you.