Whether you are wanting to open your romantic relationship, explore polyamory as a single person dating, or you’ve been in non-monogamous relationships for a while and feel like you just can’t quite get a handle on it, this short guide will help you understand what components you may need to work on to make the experience a little easier and a lot more satisfying.
What is Nonmonogamy (Consensual Non-monogamy or Ethical Non-monogamy)?
Non-monogamous relationships don’t necessarily mean having multiple relationships or sexual partners – it’s OK to be without a partner for long periods. Also, having multiple partners doesn’t automatically make you nonmonogamous; even if there’s no sex involved! It is possible to stay nonmonogamous and connected to your partner(s) without having to involve physical intimacy. Asexuality and aromanticism have plenty of places in nonmonogamy!
Examining Your Internalized Monogamy
Internalized monogamy, or mononormative beliefs, consists of all the messages we get from our families and culture about the way we should exist in a committed relationship with others. We are bombarded by messages of assumed monogamy from our family, religious institutions, social media, intake forms in medical offices, television and movies, workplace conventions, advertising, and just about anything else you are exposed to. A study done by Moors, et al in 2013 found that most people thought nonmonogamous people would even be less likely to do their taxes on time or floss their teeth daily than monogamous people. What?
Consider the following ways internalized monogamy tends to show up:
- The function of jealousy – Often people consider jealousy to be a sign of love and commitment in a relationship, when really it’s a sign of insecurity. Jealousy doesn’t magically go away in nonmonogamy, but nonmonogamous people do tend to work on the sources of jealousy and end up being less insecure when they stick with that work.
- The way we stack different levels of relationships against each other – We will often stack our friends, other family, or community members, as less important than our partners, despite the very important emotional connection and support other people can play in our lives.
- The signs of commitment – Society tends to use the framework of the relationship escalator to provide predetermined landmarks of increasing commitment. But what happens when you choose to step off the escalator and don’t know how to determine what commitment looks like? Now you have to come up with your own waypoints of commitment, or figure out how to feel the commitment without the external validation society has given you.
- Belief that they have to find “the one” or that being in a relationship means that the other “completes them”. If you believe that you are a puzzle piece looking for its match, you’ll accept relationships with people who seem to fit, but aren’t necessarily healthy for you.
- The signs of a healthy relationship – Do you know what it means to be in a healthy relationship? Do you think there are good examples of healthy relationships in the media or in your family? Most people think that unconditional love without boundaries or consequences is one sign of a healthy relationship, but it really isn’t. Love should have conditions, like not engaging in abusive behaviors, or being lied to. If you would not allow a friend to treat you this way, why are you allowing a partner to? Most people also think that a relationship without sex also means the relationship is dying, but not always.
- The end of a relationship – Often people think that their relationship ending is a statement of personal failure. Sometimes they will hold onto a relationship regardless of how bad things are because they don’t realize ending the relationship is the healthier option, or they simply do not know how to function without being in a partnership and their self-worth is tied up in always being a “partner” to someone.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways internalized monogamy shows up in your romantic relationship or in your thoughts about yourself and your partners.
Internalized monogamy can also show up as couple privilege, which is especially important to recognize when you are trying to date new people. If you want to have a hierarchical relationship that includes a primary partnership, that’s fine. Just make sure you know how that is likely to play out with other relationships, and most importantly, communicate that as you are entering new relationships. Hierarchy isn’t inherently problematic, but it is vital to communicate your set up, expectations, and limitations with others you are trying to date so they can make an informed decision about entering into the type of relationship you are seeking.
Several of the ways couple’s privilege might show up include:
- Emergencies with the primary partners will be honored while they are less likely to be honored for secondaries, for whatever the definition of emergency is.
- Introduction to extended friends and family may be limited or non-existent.
- Canceling of dates, plans, or even veto power may be possible with secondaries but not acceptable with primaries.
- Reduction of access to the primary couple’s home or having parts of it off limits because those are “their spaces”.
- Reduction of access to time for vacations for secondary partners.
- Restrictions on places the secondaries can go on dates to “protect” the primary partners’ special places.
Holding Steady Through Hard Conversations
One of the hardest skills for anyone to master is holding your own emotions steady when someone else is telling you that you’ve hurt them, or that you are doing something that is harmful. This often puts us on the defensive, and we start either getting caught up in our own feelings of shame, or we get caught up in proving the other person wrong. Learning to listen to someone and finding the nugget of truth, even when we think they have some part of the story wrong, will do wonders to strengthen your relationship.
A great way to get acquainted with expressing emotions through language is a simple exercise I give to my clients. A few times a week, you and your partner can take turns telling each other about your day. It’s important to be descriptive and incorporate lots of emotion like, “when I woke up this morning, I was already in a bad mood from a horrible dream,” or, “I was scared when I saw all the email from my boss, but then I was relieved when I opened it, and it was just about ordering lunch for the office.” Spend around five minutes giving every detail of your day. During this time, the person listening should just remain silent and not interrupt. This can be the harder part. The listener’s brain often wants to insert their own thoughts and narratives, but try to let go of those and just really pay attention to what the other person is saying.
When you’re done talking, it’s a good idea to follow up with questions – but try to avoid trying to solve the problem. Try clarifying what went on – for example, “YSo, you had a bad dream so you weren’t feeling great this morning, but then I made you happy and work was okay, though your emails can stress you out sometimes. Is that right?”
Clarifying something might be helpful here: “I don’t find all emails stressful, just my boss’ ones”. After the first person feels like the second person completely grasps how their day went, it’s time for the second one to go. This practice of listening and questioning again and again has to be perfected. Remember though, the secret is being totally attentive when your partner talks, not disturbing until they’re done, seeking input about things that are still unclear or require additional info and not trying to provide solutions. Of course, this does take some exercise.
Learning to Negotiate for your Needs and Desires With a Partner
Let’s break needs and desires down a little bit more. Plenty of theories out there exist as to core human needs, and we could spend a lot of time debating the merits of each of them. I like to simplify things a bit and give clients a list so they don’t have to pull things out of thin air. You can break down core needs into nine categories: Survival, Safety, Empathy, Leisure, Autonomy, Mutuality, Meaning, Love, and Creativity. Each person needs some amount of each of these aspects in their lives to thrive. Desires are the ways in which you connect with your needs. You need food to survive. You might desire to eat cheesecake or fancy ramen the most, you may be okay with a fresh salad or last night’s leftovers in a pinch, and you might find frozen corndogs to be utterly unacceptable. You need Autonomy. You strongly desire your own house with fourteen housecats and your partners visiting you on occasion, you’ll accept your own bedroom to save on housing cost in this market, you will never share another bedroom again.
Behaviors are strategies to get our needs met. Emotions are indicators of our needs either being met or not being met. You eat food to meet your survival need. You sometimes work a job you hate to meet your survival, safety, leisure, meaning, or creativity need. You engage in addictions to meet your leisure, love or meaning need (or others, this one gets complicated and dark). You get sad or angry when your partner stays out late and your love and mutuality needs aren’t met. You get happy and joyful when your friend takes you out for your birthday and your empathy and leisure needs are met.
When you exist with other people, your needs start competing with each other, and now you have to learn how to compromise and negotiate. Negotiating successfully is about identifying what need you are trying to meet and identifying multiple strategies to get that need met, and then talking through which strategies work for both you and your partner. Some strategies you will need to attend to yourself, and some strategies you can ask for help from your partner.
Many people who have been emotionally neglected as children or adults, or who have learned to put aside their own needs for others, often have difficulty even naming what they are desiring when it comes to negotiating. Sometimes they can name what is missing, and sometimes they just feel a void. Others who have grown up with immature or narcissistic parents may feel like negotiation with others is impossible. Either you get what you want, or I get what I want. They may have even learned they are selfish if they ask for what they want directly. Sometimes when first beginning this work it is easier to start with what you don’t want and work towards identifying the need by eliminating things. This can be especially true for those who grew up with parents who dismissed expressed needs, or who were not safe to ask for needs to be met. Undoing all of these learned patterns can take a lot of work.
Balancing Autonomy With Mutuality in Polyamory
There exists a spectrum of operating that ranges from individualistic to relational. There is a wide line between the two that can be considered a flexible and healthy middle. Trauma tends to set people up to engage in extremes of thought, emotion, and behavior. On the traumatic end of individualism, one might feel like they can’t trust anyone and must only do things on their own without ever asking for help. On the traumatic end of relational, one might believe they exist in a world where they are only allowed to consider the needs and emotions of the other person while ignoring their own. Still others lean heavily on the other person to get all of their needs met (especially validation). The ability to build true intimacy is about balancing these extremes, though there is a wide range along the spectrum that a relationship between any two people could fall into and still be considered healthy.
Part of learning to negotiate is about balancing autonomy with mutuality. Which things should I be expected to do on my own and which things should I expect my partner to help me with? Have I communicated with my partner on the things I expect them to help me with? If your partner doesn’t know you expect this from them, they are always going to be letting you down. If you’ve been living on one end of the spectrum or the other, it can be very difficult to learn how to move towards the middle.
Learning to Hold Your Boundaries
It can be helpful to think of boundaries like walls – set in place and unmoveable. They are there to protect you from other people and sometimes from yourself. Most importantly, they can’t be expected to control the behaviors of other people. A boundary doesn’t stop someone else from taking action. It triggers you to take action the moment someone else touches the boundary. If you have the boundary of no kisses on first dates, then it’s up to you to say no if you are asked for a kiss. If they persist after you say no, there’s a problem with that person, not with you, and it’s best for you to remove yourself from the situation.
People often struggle to hold their boundaries because they are afraid they will lose their relationship unless they become a doormat to whomever is pushing on the door. In reality, that is rarely the case. Besides, do you need or even want to keep a relationship with someone that keeps pushing that door? There are a lot of beliefs about self-worth that play into holding your boundaries, as well as holding yourself accountable to your boundaries. Sometimes people think that they have to have flexible boundaries and accommodate others, or that they are being selfish or even ungrateful for having boundaries at all. If you fall into this category, there’s a good change you’ve spent most of your life trying to find pleasure in serving others, because it’s the only way you can find pleasure. It is not unusual for these people to have been taught from a young age that in order to get their needs met they had to sacrifice their comfort, and do what the other wanted.
It can also be helpful to differentiate between boundaries, agreements, rules, and limits. I’ll do so very briefly here.
A rule is something you have the authority to impose on another person since you can enact a consequence on their behavior. For instance: If you run around the pool, we will kick you out. Trying to make rules in your relationship creates power dynamics, and is only good if you want a power dynamic in your relationship.
An agreement is where two or more people have agreed to an expectation of behavior. Both people have come to the agreement without coercion and with full understanding of the facts. The vital key here is without coercion. The moment one party feels pressured to accept an agreement, it becomes someone trying to impose a rule.
A limit is similar to a boundary, but is much more flexible and dependent on moment-to-moment factors. You might generally be okay with hugs, but after 10 of them at a loud party, you’ve reached your limit, and you can’t give out any more hugs.
Learning How to Talk About Sex
No matter your sexual relationship, communication is key! Polyamoroues people care about sex and intimacy in the same way, and face similar worries. Starting conversations around sex can be difficult but it’s essential. When entering a sexual relationship, here are some topics you may want to be ready to discuss:
- Discussing your STI status and hearing the STI status of others without judgment.
- Holding firm to boundaries around safety in regards to STIs and pregnancy.
- Discussing what brings you pleasure and what are your hard no’s.
- Being able to take feedback and hear ‘no’ without taking it personally.
- Identifying your needs and desires or being willing to experiment to discover them.
In the United States, talking about sex in any sort of healthy way is generally frowned upon. All we get is crappy sex ed in high school and depictions of objectification in the media. Very little training or modeling of healthy sexual attitudes or discussions happen anywhere. I imagine it’s not a whole lot better in the rest of the world. If you want to get better at this, you basically have to be motivated to go find all of the information on your own, and most of the trustworthy information is in boring websites run by the CDC, WHO or Planned Parenthood. Fortunately, the tides are turning on this, and there are a lot of great sex educators creating more entertaining content out there.
Understanding the Influence of New Relationship Energy in Non-monogamy
Many people who are new to nonmonogamy get caught up in the giddy excitement of new relationship energy without fully understanding what is going on. One moment, they think they don’t possibly have time to fit any more people in their life, and they are just looking for a short term hook-up. Within a few weeks, they are completely sucked into a new person and nothing else in their life exists. Meanwhile their existing partner feels blindsided and emotionally abandoned.
New Relationship Energy has been around for a long time, and Dorothy Tennov’s 70s research into romantic love resulted in the term Limerence. We now refer to it as New Relationship Energy in Polyamory circles. Her studies revealed key elements of romantic love that are seen when looking at monogamous prairie voles and other oxytocin studies. People experiencing limerence reported intrusive thoughts, needing reciprocation, mood dependency on someone else’s action, fantasizing, feeling intensification with adversity, magnifying the positives and minimizing the negatives, and wanting exclusivity – all signs of increased oxytocin levels associated with monogamous relationships. The same effects are felt in polyamory though.
In a nutshell, NRE should be thought of as a self-produced drug that convinces you to trust someone and bond with them long before you would do so without its influence. It biases you to ignore red flags and think someone is greater than they are. It may also convince you that you just want to hide away with this one person and forsake everyone else. But not everyone experiences NRE the same way, or as intensely. Some people bond plenty deeply without the roller coaster high. They are likely driven by a different set of hormones.
But NRE doesn’t have to yank you around by the emotional collar. It can be a lot of fun if you apply a lot of mindfulness and reflection as part of the process. Understanding the ways that NRE affects you is of vital importance. Also useful is to keep a list of common red flags and ways that you normally like to operate in long term relationships. You can then refer to this list when you are in the thick of NRE to see if you can identify if you are minimizing what is potentially a mismatched relationship.
Managing NRE doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. With a bit of reflection, NRE can be an enjoyable experience. It’s useful to understand how NRE impacts you and recognize potential red flags. Keeping a list of what works for you in committed relationships also helps when navigating through NRE. This reference point can help identify if things potentially don’t match up.
Understanding How to Navigate the Transition into an Established Relationship
Once the NRE wears off, people often find themselves wondering what happened, and who is this person they ended up with. The fantasy bubble created by the NRE bursts. Trust and libido can drop quite a bit. The average length of a relationship is 2-4 years because most relationships don’t survive the transition into an established relationship. Now is the time to examine if the person is actually long term material and if it’s worth it to hold onto the relationship. Suddenly or gradually, all the reasons you fell in love with this person become all the things that annoy you about this person. All those annoyances pile up, and it snow balls into everything being annoying. One day, their panties lying in the middle of the bedroom floor was a reminder of the hot sex. Now it’s just a reminder that they never use the laundry basket that’s just right freaking there. Doing the hard work through these transitions often feels too overwhelming for people, especially when there are so many other people and things to do.When the NRE wears off, trust and libido levels may decrease suddenly. Now it’s time to evaluate how the other person measures up as long-term material. Often, all those endearing qualities you initially fell in love with start to become irritating annoyances that can eventually snowball into a feeling that everything is annoying. Their clothing items left laying around might have once been seen as cute reminders of intimate moments, but now they’re simply signs that they don’t know how to use the laundry basket that’s right there! Many people find sorting out these transition periods too daunting and choose to move on rather than put in the hard work.
Learning the Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism
Figuring out how to balance mutuality and autonomy in a relationship is tricky. Criticism is often used when needs and desires are not expressed or even accurately identified – a result of unmet needs from caregivers, or difficulty asking for things. If this is something you experience, it’s good to examine what you really need, and also consider speaking up when someone hurts you without assuming the intention. It’s important for rebuilding trust between people if we can be both empathetic without becoming defensive. Struggling with these skills? Seek support through relationship therapy!
It’s important to not react in a negative way when receiving feedback. Staying calm is both challenging and essential. Avoiding discussing criticism can happen through using tears, changing the topic, or shutting down. This kind of reaction should be addressed instead of swept under the rug.
Unpacking Your Jealousy
Jealousy often stems from insecurity. When we experience it, it’s a sign that our needs aren’t being met. However, these needs could be from past relationships, childhood or elsewhere. To overcome jealousy, you need to really understand the source of the feelings and then discern if this is something repeating in your life. Once you figure out the need and where it’s coming from, you start to discern whose responsibility it is to attend to this need. Learning to ask for help, creating strong agreements, understanding your needs, and expanding your strategies for getting your needs met will lessen your jealousy.You can also ask for help, create agreements and find strategies to meet your needs and reduce jealous feelings.
Learn How To Navigate Relationships With Metamours
Navigating non-monogamous relationships can be tricky, especially if you and your metamour are looking for different things out of the relationship. Your metamour’s request may also differ from what you’re comfortable with. The key is to respect the level they ask for – not force them to meet your higher preferences. Levels of connection can shift over time due to personal growth, comfort, dynamics and more. While it might be hard to let go of the status quo, it opens up the possibility for deeper connection and understanding. You don’t have to like your meta but respecting them and their relationship with your shared partner will help your transition ease grow in nonmonogamy smoother!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many skills you need to employ in order to get better at navigating nonmonogmy. We dive deeper into all of these skills in our “Nonmonogamy 101” 6-part Course found here. We include worksheets that have many insight questions, skill practicing suggestions, and resources. We also give you plenty of examples of how these scenarios play out in nonmonogamous relationships.