Photographs by brooklyngrace/Unsplash; Sindy SÃ¼Ãengut/Unsplash; Collage by Kaz Fantone/NPR
When we think about our love lives, there's a certain script that comes to mind. Person A meets Person B, they start dating, move in together, get engaged and get married.
Must all romantic relationships follow this narrative?
This question is at the heart of consensual non-monogamy, a term that describes relationships that are romantically or sexually open, with the consent of everyone involved. People in these types of relationships believe that “one person doesn't have to be all the things,” says Liz Clark, a clinical psychologist and director of counseling at The New School.
What is ‘consensual non-monogamy'?
Instead of dating one person who checks all the boxes for an ideal relationship, people who practice non-monogamy may seek out variables like sexual attraction, romance, parenting and lifestyle among different partners, says Clark. For example, a person might have one partner who they co-parent with, another who helps them explore their sexuality and a third who simply shares their interests in rock climbing.
As you can imagine, these relationships can get complicated. They require constant communication among all parties to work through feelings of say, jealousy, says Clark. And practitioners may face stigma and discrimination from others for choosing this alternative lifestyle.
But these relationships can also be very rewarding. “Just for a moment, imagine that absolutely anything is possible and see what comes up,” says Clark. “Let your mind think about the idea of having meaningful connections with more people in your life.”
If you're curious about exploring consensual non-monogamy, here's what you should know.
Be open to meeting new people
Keep an open mind as you meet people. It can help encourage relationships to develop in ways you wouldn't expect, says Mischa Lin, the founding president of Open Love NY, a social and educational group that serves New York's polyamorous community. Polyamory is a subset of consensual non-monogamy that refers to romantically open relationships.
“Go meet people, get to know them and see if there's any real connection first,” says Lin. “If the answer is yes, then you can figure out how to incorporate them in your life.”
If you have an existing partner, be honest with them
If you've met someone who you're interested in dating, but you're in a monogamous relationship that you don't want to end, talk about it with your partner, says Clark.
Tell them why you're interested in opening up your relationship and exploring non-monogamy. Maybe you're in a straight relationship and want to figure out your sexuality. Maybe you're figuring out your gender and want to form romantic relationships with people who are doing the same. Maybe you'd like to have more sexual partners.
Then give your partner time to decide how to move forward. They may not want to continue the relationship. Or they may be interested in joining you on your journey.
Whatever they choose, remember that “not everything has to be figured out in one conversation,” says Kori Bennett, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with queer, trans and nonbinary patients, and is in a non-monogamous relationship with Clark. Keep talking until you and your partner are on the same page.
Talk about relationship structures, safe sex and more
If your partner is open to exploring non-monogamy with you, here are some helpful questions to discuss among yourselves and your future partners.
What kind of relationship structure do you want? Consensual non-monogamy comes in many forms. Are you interested in a triad, a partnership with three people? A “closed V,” in which one person dates two people who aren't involved with each other? Or would you and your partner like to each have your own partners?
This overview of non-monogamous relationship structures from Brook, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization that supports people with their sexual health and wellbeing, may be helpful. And if you and a partner can't agree on a configuration, where can you compromise?
How much do you want to know? Do you just want to know that your partner had sex with someone and it was fun, “or do you want the play-by-play of everything?” asks Clark. “For some people, knowing more is part of what helps them feel secure.”
How involved do you want to be with your partner's partners? There's no right way to have a relationship with them. You might want to be friends with them as a way to understand your partner better, or you may not be interested in interacting with them at all.
Is everyone committed to safe sex? If sex is on the agenda, make sure you understand your partners' expectations around sexual health, says Bennett. Get tested for sexually transmitted infections regularly and talk with your partners about their safe sex habits. Here are some prompts to help you start that conversation.
Reframe the role of jealousy
If you're in a relationship with more than one person, jealousy may be an issue. That's natural, says Clark — and it may even be helpful.
In polyamorous communities, people think of jealousy like “the warning light on your dashboard. It's a sign that there [may be] something unresolved in your relationship that you haven't addressed,” says Lin.
If you can follow where those feelings take you, it may help point you toward what you actually want. For example, instead of getting mad at your partner for spending too much time with another partner, question why you feel that way. You might realize that you feel left out. So you might ask your partner to prioritize a date night with you.
“It may not make the jealous feelings go away, but it'll make me feel like I'm acknowledged,” says Crystal Byrd Farmer, the former website editor of Black & Poly, an online magazine for Black polyamorous communities.
Find a community that will support you
Research has found that non-monogamy is subject to many myths and stereotypes in society. That includes the assumption that these types of relationships are “not natural,” “primarily motivated by a desire for more sex” and “inherently oppressive to women,” according to a 2022 review of consensual non-monogamy in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. There is no evidence to support these claims.
For this reason, you may have to find a community that will support you, says Farmer. One place to start is on social media. You may be surprised at how many non-monogamous groups there are in your area. “Finding those groups and just being open and vulnerable will attract other people who are willing to share their experiences with you,” Farmer adds.
Lin of Open Love NY agrees. Her group has about 11,000 members in New York. She says communities like hers can help you break through the monogamy bias and “live your life.”
Apply these lessons to all relationships
Even if non-monogamy is not for you, “there are lessons to be learned from the polyamorous community,” says Lin. That includes “open communication, being honest, being willing to compromise, being willing to negotiate.”
If you apply this advice to your monogamous relationships, they'll be stronger and more secure too, she adds.
This episode of Life Kit was edited by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone.
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