Writer M. Christian takes a look at Non-Monogamy, offering advice for starting out and maintaining polyamorous, open and ENM relationships
One of the most valuable things we can learn from open sexual lifestyles is that our programming is changeable.
– Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, The Ethical Slut.
Polyamory, ethical non-monogamy, open relationships…whilst these all might sound like they’re talking about the same thing, each term means something unique. There is of course general overlap – each is referring to a kind of non-monogamy, and how you choose to label your relationships is ultimately up to you and your partner(s) – but the specifics of each term reveal subtle differences.
Ethical Non-Monogamy: The broadest of the terms, Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) refers to any arrangement where people have multiple romantic, sexual and or intimate connections. Sometimes also referred to as Consensual Non-Monogamy.
Open Relationship: This tends to refer to a couple who have sexual relations outside of their couple. Simplistically, this kind of model is generally understood as being sexually non-monogamous whilst being emotionally monogamous.
Polyamory: Poly – multiple, amory – love. There are many ways of having a polyamorous relationship (this article goes into detail about some of the different poly relationship structures) but essentially polyamory is different to open relationships, or other kinds of ENM such as swinging or being monogamish, in that diverse emotional or romantic connections are at its core.
What Non-Monogamy Is Actually About
Non-monogamy is not about compensation for lack. It’s about addition and abundance – of affection, love, and or desire. It also isn’t some shadow of monogamy, or a fringey offshoot of the established monogamous norm – a norm that only exists as such because of centuries of patriarchy. ENM, polyamory, and other non-monogamous relationship forms exist in their own right, as ways to live and love – and like any way of living, loving and having relationships with other people, there is plenty of potential for things to get complicated.
Even for people who’ve been doing it for decades, when they’re honest about it, some will admit that for all its potentially wonderful points (and there are many) there’s plenty of opportunity for frustration, arguments and heartbreak.
There is a common conception that, because there are potentially more people involved in non-monogamy, that there is correspondingly more opportunity for difficulty and heartbreak. Perhaps this is something that makes you feel nervous about approaching polyamory, or that is preventing you from fully engaging in another kind of non-monogamous lifestyle.
Everyone’s experience of non-monogamy is unique. There are no easy generalisations that can be made. However, it may make things easier to consider a few ways to possibly minimize or overcome some of the various hurdles that may show up. With that in mind, here are my two cents on how to create and nurture a polyamorous, ENM or open relationship, and when to listen – or not! – to the advice of others.
Where can I get advice about non-monogamy?
A few decades ago, the number of non-monogamy guidebooks I knew of could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now, there are too many to count. On the one hand, this is great news – information is available in a way previously never seen before. On the other hand, this has the potential to make things more confusing than they already are, particularly for anyone pondering an entry into multiple relationships, with each book seeming to offer its own, unique, and sometimes contradictory approach to non-monogamy.
This book’s direct and non-theoretical approach brilliantly gets to the heart of what non-monogamy is all about. What matters is everyone is happier rather than not; whatever’s going on is consensual; there’s the freedom to express needs and desires, and a universal willingness to change the arrangement when necessary.
Aside from all that, no one should tell you how your relationships should look, feel, or how they’re structured. As long as due consideration is being given to all parties, and everyone is consenting, it’s up to no one but those involved in the relationship to figure out whatever works best for them. What you can do, perhaps particularly if functioning in one of these types of relationship structures, is take the advice and recommendations of people and educators who have more experience into consideration. See what resonates and what doesn’t. And know that we all make mistakes in our relationships. How we recover from these mistakes and how we work to make repairs and amends is an important part of developing our relationship skillset.
Jealousy Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
You may, in those books, or blogs, or the global soapbox of Twitter, periodically stumble across the idea that the green-eyed monster is a sign of emotional immaturity, and that “successful” non-monogamous relationships mean that no one, ever, gets jealous (gasp!)
This is not just inaccurate, but it can doom things before they even start, causing couples to blame each other for ruining an initial exploration into non-monogamy for expressing this understandable emotion.
Like non-monogamy itself, jealousy may seem too labyrinthine to easily understand. It can hide itself in a fight over who’s not doing the dishes or lurk under complaints about work. It can even escape the awareness of the person feeling it, understanding and processing it only after time spent digging deep, deep down into their subconsciousness. Many argue that jealousy itself isn’t an emotion, as such, but rather is a sign of another need not being met or an insecurity bubbling up. In this way, the arrival of jealousy can be seen in a different light, as the purveyor of an important message.
To help get a handle on it, I recommend beginning by respecting the right to be jealous and avoiding judging those who experience it – including yourself – as this will likely make the situation more difficult. You might need to work hard to identify jealousy as the actual source of tension. Was it really dirty dishes, or feeling your partner’s other partner is getting something you’re not? Is it actually job stress, or fear you’re not good enough for your significant other?
When jealousy happens, use it as an opportunity to sit down with your partner(s) and listen to their concerns, anxieties, and worries. Work together to try and arrive at a mutually satisfactory way to move forward. Jealousy is not something to be quelled or avoided, but to be curious around. This might be a total reconfiguration of how you’ve been taught to think about jealousy, so allow yourself time and again hold back on the judgment if you find it tricky to readjust to this new curiosity centred approach.
Allow me to introduce you to the most effective and powerful tool at your disposal, in non-monogamy or anywhere else in your life: communication.
Critical Communication Skills
It’s sometimes said in this day and age we prefer to talk at and not with people. Learning to communicate effectively has made and saved many relationships, whether polyamorous, monogamous, platonic or of any other nature.
It may take time to get used to communicating openly, not only with other people but also with yourself. Many of us aren’t all that great at expressing the ups and downs, the ins and outs of our sexuality, sex lives and emotions, often least of all to our current partner(s) who we may worry about upsetting or putting off with our needs, our uncertainty, or our desires.
So, if you’re new to non-monogamy, please factor in this learning curve before you do anything.
Practice may someday make perfect and an excellent technique to engage in is active listening. Here, a person speaks from their heart, and someone else sits there and does little else but try and understand their feelings. Then the listener will repeat what was just said to show how they took the information in, with the speaker politely advising them if they missed or misinterpreted anything.
This is followed by flipping the roles to provide the other partner with an opportunity to say how they feel. The goal here is to set up an interpersonal communication system with less judgment or hostility, where everyone is more comfortable expressing themselves. When the goal is clearly focused on this exchange, it can help to take the emotion out of a conversation. The listener has a role to listen and then repeat, whereas the speaker has to take some responsibility for conveying the message as they wish it to be conveyed.
It’s worth the practice and patience, and when, or if, your polyamorous, open or ENM relationship meets rocky points, it can go a long way towards getting things back on track.
Love Is All You Need
The reasons behind wanting to try having multiple romantic or sexual relationships are like the forms they may take: practically infinite.
Whatever brought you to it, however it may be organised, the real measure of any non-monogamous relationship is how much happiness it generates for everyone involved.
M. Christian (they/them) has been a writer, editor, publisher, and teacher for all things sex and kink-related for over 25 years: having written six novels, 12 collections, edited 25 anthologies, M. Christian is also a columnist for numerous publications and sites, and has lectured at various events all across the country.