Whether purely sexual or involving romantic feelings with multiple people at once, non-monogamous relationships (like any type of relationship) have their own sets of challenges, many of which come up before the relationship even begins.
We asked three sex and relationship experts about some of the most common questions people have about starting a non-monogamous relationship or opening up their currently monogamous relationships, and about practical solutions they’ve found that work.
What is Non-Monogamy?
As non-monogamy, whether in the form of polyamory or open relationships (or in the more familiar context of swinging or threesomes), has garnered more discussion in the mainstream recently, many have relied on various metaphors or comparisons to describe how love (in its various forms) is not a limited commodity. To explain how a person can have affection and attraction to more than one person at a time, Sex educator and activist, Tristan Taormino likes to describe it as akin to how ‘you can really love a particular artist or musician like Prince. When you discover a new one, you can fall in love with that one, and it doesn’t take away from the love you feel for Prince.’
How we feel, however, can often seem a lot simpler than how we actually manage our relationships, and certainly if a two person relationship can have its own host of problems and miscommunications, wouldn’t adding more people just make it all the more complicated?
Dr. Zhana, sex educator and researcher says ‘I’ve seen a great metaphor…that likens different types of relationships to different types of sports. You could say monogamy is like tennis, two partners, volleying a ball back and forth. The sport, i.e. the relationship, has specific rules about where each player can go in the court, how points are scored, whether the players can do specific things while playing.’
‘Polyamory, on the other hand, is like volleyball. You’re still passing a ball over a net, but with different rules, different number of players, a different ball, even. For either game, everyone playing needs to understand the rules of the game and agree to them from the outset. You can’t play tennis against a volleyball team.’
‘Some people naturally gravitate towards tennis while some prefer volleyball. Some people have played both games. Some tennis players just can’t imagine playing volleyball, don’t get the appeal of the game. Some tennis players may be intrigued by volleyball. Some have played tennis their whole lives, never heard of volleyball, don’t know what to make of it, might be scared to learn about it, or have heard of it but aren’t interested.’
Of course, she adds: ‘This sports analogy is not perfect – there are no winners in relationships and they shouldn’t be [competition] among partners. On the other hand, practice makes perfect and one can always be improving one’s sports and relationship skills.’
It’s also important to note that there is no one ‘true’ comparison to make for non-monogamy, simply because there is no one way to have a non-monogamous relationship; non-monogamy is only defined by what it isn’t (monogamy, or, having only one sexual partner at one time) but what that actually looks like can change from couple to couple. Some couples are okay with having emotional relationships with others; and some are not. Some people will only add another person to their bedroom if both primary partners are present; and still others prefer not to know the details of their partner’s other sexual liaisons.
How Do I Bring Up Non-Monogamy to My Partner?
Despite what we know about the importance of communication in relationships, bringing up something as simple as ‘I actually don’t like the way you make spaghetti sauce’ seems impossible and better suffered in silence, so how exactly would one go about talking to their partner about opening up their relationship?
All our experts agree that this is not a conversation to have during sex, rather, as with all important conversations, when you’re both feeling calm, and relaxed.
Author Jenny Block stresses that you should only bring it up ‘when you are both feeling calm and safe and happy and supported. It’s not a conversation for the bedroom. It’s a conversation for the cozy couch on a lazy afternoon. It’s important to be prepared for a negative reaction, and it’s vital that you listen to your partner and respect his or her feelings. This is not a one-time discussion. It’s an ongoing conversation.’
The first conversation (of the many that are require to make non-monogamy―or any other type of relationship―work) doesn’t even need to be specifically about your relationship, you can start with, as Tristan Taormino suggests, by ‘asking “What do you think about non-monogamy?” or “Have you ever met someone non-monogamous” rather than putting your partner on the spot immediately about your own relationship.’
If you’re already both used to having conversations about your fantasies and trying out new types of kink, Dr. Zhana suggests that you try attending a play party.
There, Dr. Zhana says, ‘you can go as a couple and just watch, meet people, treat it as a regular party just full of people who like sex. You can remain sexually monogamous and just see an interesting range of other possibilities. Then, go home and talk about what you liked seeing and let the conversation go from there. Even if you decide to stay monogamous, you’ll have learned more about each other and strengthened your own intimacy.’
And, she adds, if that also seems like a lot of pressure, you can remind yourself (and your partner) that ‘non-monogamy is not an all-or-nothing situation (refer to the non-monogamy map!) and is unique to individuals and couples. Keep the conversation going and talk about feelings that arise. Then you can start talking about how you might want to open up your own relationship. Some couples talk about opening up for years before they actually do it!’
Once you start discussing the specifics about what non-monogamy might look like in your relationship, it will help you greatly later down the line is to talk about the worst –case hypothetical situations.
Dr. Zhana notes that, ‘ If these discussions are uncomfortable between the couple, that, to me, is a sign that they should work on building a stronger bond together before opening their relationship.[You need to be able to] talk about rules and comfort levels. Talk about why this is of interest to you as a couple. A couple needs to be able to handle the hypothetical results of non-monogamy before they jump into the actual action.’
What are Some Common Rules that Non-Monogamous Couples Have?
Talking about and setting hard limits and boundaries is important in any sexual relationship, but doubly so for creating rules that will make everyone (and we mean everyone, not just your primary partner) happy. These rules will change from couple to couple completely, and, it’s important to remember, it’s ok to change your mind.
Dr Zhana advises, ‘Keep in mind that any rules you set at the beginning will likely change over time, and that’s ok, be open to it. Sometimes things that we thought might be upsetting end up not causing issues, and vice versa, so be open to adjusting the rules. [If, for example] jealousy comes up, treat it like any negative emotion (like anger, for example) that needs to be processed and dealt with in a constructive way, rather than allow it to consume and destroy the relationship or the attempt at non-monogamy.
It’s ok to be uncomfortable with your partner having certain types of relationships, and also important for you to be able to recognize and stop behavior your partner might not be ok with, even if you haven’t specifically discussed it yet. (Trust us, things will come up that you won’t have foreseen!)
While there are different types of non-monogamous relationships, Jenny Block has seen some common rules in other couples: such as ‘some couples [requiring] that their paramours live out of town. Others…that they not be friends of the couple. Some people insist on meeting their partner’s paramours before anything sexual happens. Every couple is different. The trick is to discover what works – what really works – for the two of you.’
How Do I (or my Partner) Handle Jealousy and Time-Sharing?
If you’ve broached (or started to broach) the topic with your partner and they seem receptive, you’re not quite out of the woods yet. Feelings of jealousy, insecurity, desire to change or set limits will come up (just as they come in all relationships) and you will need some tools to deal with them.
As Jenny Block points out, ‘A couple should handle any issues that come up the same way they handle the initial discussion – with love and respect and understanding. If either one of you is not feeling safe and loved, it’s time to regroup. Nothing good will come of letting things fester. And whatever the two of you decide, you have to respect without falter.’
There are also plenty of external resources to help you and your partner navigate these new waters. ‘ Couples should seek support from other non-monogamous people who know what they are going through, seek out resources like books and workshops, and even find a therapist who has experience with non-monogamous clients,’ says Tristan Taormino.
Practically speaking, scheduling becomes your best friend when you open up your relationships. Make sure you have a shared calendar with your primary partner so you’re both aware of plans in advance. Of course, keeping a clear schedule isn’t just important so your partner knows when you’re on a date; it’s also crucial for making sure you’re spending enough time and energy on each other.
‘Maybe they keep a standing Friday night date to talk about everything that happened over the week. I know one poly couple who goes out to a fancy dinner once a month to talk about anything and everything in their relationship from who they’re dating, how their own couplehood is going, their work, their lives together’ says Dr. Zhana.
How ‘Out’ About Being Non-Monogamous Should We Be?
One of the perceived logistical issues of non-monogamy, particularly if you live in a smaller town, can be the fear that you will be ‘caught’ on a date with someone other than your partner. Discretion may be required if that is something you both desire, and ‘this is a very serious issue which people must consider thoughtfully. There is a still a stigma around non-monogamy in our society, and people can lose friends, community, and family over the issue,’ reminds Tristan Taormino.
Dr. Zhana agrees, ‘This is particular to each couple. I suggest people trust their gut feelings about how their non-monogamy will be received. There is certainly stigma around non-monogamy with swingers getting the brunt of the bad feelings.
Not everyone is comfortable being out about their non-monogamy to people of older generations particularly relatives or colleagues. I think that’s fine. People should not feel pressured to share their open relationship or non-monogamous status. But I think it’s critical for most non-monogamous people to find some sort of accepting community (whether offline or online) or even a few friends they can be out to. Feeling accepted and understood by others is important for our mental and physical health. And there are more non-monogamous people out there than you realize! ‘
You can refer to any of these expert’s blogs for more information for you AND your partner to learn about non-monogamy. If you’ve taken that plunge and are looking for tips on how to talk about your non-monogamous status with new potential partners, honesty is the best policy.
‘You should mention this on the first date with a new partner, if not before! If you’re doing Tinder or OKCupid to find people to date, put your poly status in your ad (OKC lets you tag your partner now, too). Open and honest from the very beginning is key!’ says Dr. Zhana.