Consensual Non-Monogamy: The Bare Basics

Interest in, & the practice of, Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) has risen in recent years. We see it in TV shows such as You Me Her on Netflix, we read about it in newspapers & see it on social media.

However, what we don't see much of is how to 'do' CNM in ways that respect & honour all the people involved so that it works well enough for everyone concerned, so that feelings are not hurt, boundaries are not breached & relationships are not ruptured. It is, often, a lot harder than it looks or might seem to be with more issues to take into consideration that most people realise.



I've been working with individuals & couples, as well as other relationship constellations, on the issue of CNM since 2011 and in that time I've learned a lot. While there is a lot that could be said for how to successfully, respectfully & lovingly navigate Consensual Non-Monogamy it is possible to distill the major issues into a handful of points that I consider important, which I intend to, very briefly, cover here. If you're interested in diving more deeply then I'm happy to discuss the issues & coach you, & perhaps the others in your life, in a private online video call. Email info@bethwallace.org to discuss.
Please bear in mind that other relationship therapists & researchers will have differing ideas, of course, what I've concentrated on here is distilled from years of both personal & professional experience. 

I do want to begin with one caveat - consensual non-monogamy, done in an ethical, respectful & loving way is much harder than most people think & it can, if not 'done' well, be the cause of much misunderstanding at the very least & much emotional damage, including relationship rupture, at worst. If you are new to it I strongly advise seeking the support of a relationship professional BEFORE you enter into it.


LANGUAGE
The most important and first issue to broach is language, initially to define the terms we are using because often people can have significantly differing definitions of the same words.

Firstly, let's look at the most common forms of Consensual Non-Monogamy and, very briefly, their definitions.

Polyandry - the practice of one woman having several male partners

Polygamy - the practice of a man having several female partners

Polyamory - being open to or having several committed relationships at the same time

Open Relationships - a primary relationship, or relationships, that are open to sexual exploration with others not usually on a long term basis

Relationship Anarchy - no rules relationships (most people practicing RA would likely not define what they experience with others as ''relationships'')

Swinging - usually, though not always, a couple in a romantically monogamous relationship who engage sexually with others, often other couples & usually together to some degree

Monogamish - a primary couple who, for the most part, are monogamous but may have occasional exceptions to that rule

Polyfidelity - those who are in polyamorous relationships who do not engage sexually with anyone outside of the polyamorous relationships they are in

There are, of course, more terms & definitions, but these are the basics & so it's important to define the terms we use with others instead of assume what another person means or assume they know what we mean when we use a particular term. I cannot stress how important clarity & transparency are when any relationship or connection is non-monogamous.


Let's get into more definitions.....
For example, when many people talk about ''relationships'' they often have quite fixed ideas about what that is, what it is supposed to look like, how it's supposed to feel & what it's supposed to mean.

 However, in my experience, it's really not useful or helpful to assume what another person thinks, feels or believes in this regard without actually hearing in their own words what their thoughts, feelings and beliefs are. Not only do we need to hear what another person means when they use the word, we need to ensure we've understood correctly.

''Nothing interesting begins with knowing, it begins with not knowing.'' Beau Lotto

Here are some words you could discuss to see if you have different, similar or the same definitions, I would encourage you to get as detailed as is possible, including giving several examples:

Of course, the first question is, what is ''Consensual Non-Monogamy''? What makes it Consensual as opposed to 'cheating' or 'don't ask don't tell'? The most commonly accepted definition is that people give their informed and explicit consent for those they are in connection with to have some form of intimate relations with other people. Exactly what is included in that varies from person to person & relationship to relationship but it is vital to be transparently open about it & to discuss it. Secrets and the telling of limited truth has no place here as they are a recipe for misunderstanding & potentially hurt feelings.



Monogamy - what is it? What activities does it include or not include? Is kissing outside monogamy? is touching genitals with hands? where is the line between monogamy & non-monogamy? It is physical or emotional or both? If you go down the road of a CNM relationship these are vital points to consider, discuss & understand about both yourself & those you are involved with.

Non monogamy - What is it? Is it about sex? about love? about both? Maybe it's different with different people? In my experience, this conversation cannot be too detailed! What's the difference between CNM & cheating? Where is the line? What is or can be given consent to? What is the difference between consent & informed consent? What do people need to be ''informed'' about?


Relationship - what is it? How would you describe it to someone who's never heard of one? How does ''relationship'' differ from being lovers or does it? This is a useful conversation for any two people involved with each other sexually, intimately and romantically. 
For example, for some people, ''relationship'' does not automatically mean a trajectory of dating followed by living together followed by marriage etc. Some people do not want to live with a partner or lover and have no interest in marriage. For some people ''relationship'' does not necessarily mean monogamy at any stage & for others they absolutely assume it does, from the very beginning.


Sex - it might sound odd, but, what constitutes having sex with someone varies for a lot of people, the same is true for ''sexual''. What is it for you? What is it for your partner/s? How do you know you've had 'sex'?


Next, how about exploring your thoughts, feelings & definitions of.....
Love
Loyalty
Commitment
Honesty and Transparency

and add whatever terms you think are useful to discuss here too.

Pay attention to discussions that you and/or your lover/s are either uncomfortable having or unwilling/unable to have. This is where you may see potential problems for the future of your Consensually Non-Monogamous relationship. It is the topics we find difficult or impossible to talk about that our most significant challenges will, likely, be found and, if we're really honest with ourselves and each other, we can see those from the very beginning. The question is, do we have the courage to name and explore them at the beginning so they don't fester over time and become larger, perhaps too large, problems later on.


~*~


A PRACTICE TO TRY: In conversation, listen to the other person's perspective. Listen to understand, to really understand, not to reply or respond. Repeat back to them what you have heard in your own words & ask them if you have really understood what they have said. Continue to clarify until they have told you they feel you have understood them correctly. Then, do this the other way around with the other person speaking. Yes, it will take time, but being understood & understanding are worth that time in the foundation stages to avoid problems further down the road.


~*~


METHODS OF COMMUNICATION
It's vital to establish how you plan to communicate with the various people you need to communicate with.

My strongest recommendation is that important topics, for example anything involving feelings & emotions, should always be discussed in-person. If in-person is not possible then have a video call. Nothing of any emotional significance should be discussed via text, voice message or email etc. If something is important give it & the person the attention it deserves, give yourself & the other person the best possible chance of understanding and being understood.

If another person is not willing to give you the in-person time you need for those conversations then perhaps it's worth considering & taking stock of how they consider & value you in general as well as how much they're actually investing in the connection between you.


~*~

A PRACTICE TO TRY: Regardless of your relationship configuration, discuss & then expressly & explicitly agree between you how all communications are going to happen, for example: if one of you has something important to say to the other that you agree it will only be in-person. Maybe you agree that text is only for making arrangements, light conversation, flirting & fun. Whatever you agree, ensure that it is explicitly and expressly agreed with both people clear on what's been agreed, leave nothing to assumption because that is precisely where misunderstanding, miscommunication & the possibility for relational damage can happen.

~*~


LOVE
Of course, for everyone involved in CNM love is not necessary or necessarily a factor, however for some people it is. It's important to be clear, for you, what it is you need & what you're looking for when considering CNM.

Are you looking for connections that are mostly sex-based? Are you open to the idea of being in a loving connection with more than one person at a time but you're not interested in one night stands or casual sex? Notice I said ''loving connection'' not ''in love''.

Get as clear as possible on what you want, what your own boundaries are, & ensure you communicate that clearly to the others you're involved with, and, ensure they have understood and you have understood them, clearly, what it is all parties want and need.

The potential for hurt feelings in all intimate relationships is significant, of course, we cannot enter into any intimacy with another human being without the risk of some emotional stretch & potentially some emotional hurt. It is the risk inherent in intimate connection. That said, if we do not risk we do not live. However, the more people we engage with intimately (and the more people they engage with intimately) the more possibility there is for misunderstandings, boundary crossing, unmet needs & unspoken expectations as well as rejections and not getting what we want.


A PRACTICE TO TRY: Talk with others, friends, family etc, about what love means to you & listen to what it means to others. What does it mean to be ''in love'' or does that expression even mean anything to you? (it doesn't mean something to everyone!) Can you define ''love''? How do you know you love someone? Is it love or limerence? (click here to find out what limerence is if you've never heard of it)



SEX
This is where things can get tricky, to say the least! Sex is one of the most potent forces in our world, why do you think the attempts to control it, to control how people explore and express it are so strong & clear across cultures and time?! It is also where and when most of us are at our most open & vulnerable. Some people can, of course, separate love or emotion from sex and some can't.

For some people love in some form must be present for sex to happen, for others love is unnecessary and sometimes even unwanted. The key here is to know yourself & what sex means to you, as well as why you want to have it, then to be able to communicate that clearly to the people you're intimately involved with, to ensure they understand it and that you also understand their perspective - being careful not to assume that others think and feel the same as you, or indeed assuming anything about what they think & feel.

Remember, no one else is responsible for finding, holding or asserting your boundaries - only you can do that. Of course others should respect those boundaries but we cannot expect them to hold them for us, that's our job.

People are interested in Consensual Non-Monogamy for a wide variety of reasons & want different things from it. Some people want the possibility of more than one ongoing intimate relationship but they have no interest in casual sex or one night stands with other people. Others want to have a wide variety of sexual experiences & they have no interest in an ongoing relationship with anyone other than their primary partner, if that. Others believe that love is expressed through sex & it shouldn't be confined to one person for the majority of our adult lives & others simply don't have the emotional 'bandwidth' for long term romantic relationships with one person. When we begin to discuss or explore or think about CNM it is best not to assume that there is only one way to be or to assume that another person is interested in one particular aspect of it. Talk. Listen. Then listen some more, both to yourself & others.


And, of course, safer sex is crucial when having any sexual contact with more than one person. We need to know if that one person is having sexual contact with others, and if so, what is the nature of that contact - crucially, is there an unprotected exchange of body fluids or not. 

People very often use the term ''fluid bonded'' when referring to sexual partners they do not use condoms or other forms of protection with. These are usually long term or regular partners whether in a committed on-going relationship or lovers or whatever terms they want to use. Generally, it's accepted that all other sexual encounters should be ones where safer sex takes place & that if unprotected sex happens that it's disclosed to the other partners so they can make informed decisions about what to do in order to take care of their own health. This is a crucial aspect of the ''consensual'' aspect of non-monogamy as well as an essential building block when it comes to trust in connections & relationships. If there is no foundation of trust in a relationship the contentment, satisfaction & intimacy it can offer is, severely, limited.


SAFER SEX - STIs and CONTRACEPTION
Many people are unaware of exactly what safer sex is, they're also unaware of the prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections & how those infections are transmitted as well as their possible consequences & symptoms. This varies across cultures with some cultures having almost zero information, some having information that is factually incorrect, some having accurate information available but it's not easily accessible etc.

Unfortunately, a lot of people think you can tell by looking at someone, or their genitals, or you would ''just know'' if they have an STI, this is incorrect. Many STIs have no outward signs or symptoms & some may have no symptoms for years including:


Chlamydia
Gonorrhea
HIV
Genital Herpes
Trichomoniasis
HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
& Hepatitis B
.

Some of these can have serious long term implications, particularly for women's sexual & reproductive health, including HPV which is a leading cause of cervical cancer in women.

 If you are involved in a sexual relationship with more than one person, or the one person you are involved with is involved with others, it is vital that you familiarise yourself with factual evidence-based information on the topic & take responsibility for the risk you put others at as well as yourself. This is a crucial ingredient of CNM, without it a piece of important care & respect for others, and yourself, is missing - which does not bode well for trust or intimacy, apart from anything else. A lack of transparency or honesty when it comes to safe or safer sex is something I would consider a relationship 'red flag'.


Key sexual health recommendations:

- brush up on your knowledge of safer sex (more info. below) to ensure you know what sexual activity is a risk and what isn't. Did you know oral sex is a risk for some STIs, including ones that have no initial symptoms?

- make sure you discuss safer sex with all sexual partners before having sex! What protections are you going to use, do you have what you need to hand? what activities are not possible? What is your agreement about testing if you've had unsafe sex with someone?

- ask about your sexual partner's sexual history - when was the last time they were tested? When was the last time they had unprotected sex? If they're uncomfortable answering questions easily, openly & honestly pay attention to that. Do you feel you can trust this person to be honest with you? Do you feel you can trust this person enough to be physically and/or emotionally intimate with them?

You'll find basic factsheets, in both Engish and Spanish, on Sexually Transmitted Infections by clicking here

You'll find basic information here about how to make sex safer for the transmission of STIs if you do not know the STI status of your sexual partner/s.

You'll find information here about some contraception options that may be available to you, bear in mind that not all forms of contraception will be easily available in all countries at all times.


SELF AWARENESS & SELF COMPASSION
For most people CNM will, inevitably, bring up every single insecurity we have about ourselves, it will illuminate to us all the places within ourselves, & from others, particularly from childhood, where we have not felt loved or actually not been loved. This is, dear friends, absolutely inevitable (unless you have mastered the undesirable art of complete disconnection from your emotions!).

A PRACTICE TO TRY: Stretching ourselves, emotionally and psychologically, can be challenging & difficult. Talk about how you're feeling with people it feels safe to talk with about your experiences of CNM, whether that's friends, other people who are in CNM relationships or a professional. Bear in mind, though, that not every professional counsellor or therapist will be sympathetic or experienced in CNM relationships &, equally, friends can often be judgmental too - choose wisely.

I strongly recommend speaking with a professional therapist with experience in the area before engaging in consensual non-monogamy, especially if moving a previously monogamous relationship to a non-monogamous one.



ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Personally, I've spent much of the last 11 years in some form of CNM relationship. They have varied over time and varied to the degree of non-monogamy. It has been, without a doubt, the most challenging relationship path to walk. If we do it well, with conscious awareness, we cannot help but come face to face with all of our own unconscious shadow, insecurities and flaws. The question is, then, can we be compassionate enough with ourselves, & can those we are in connection with be compassionate enough with us to weather the inevitable temporary storms. If we do it well, if we go gently & slowly with ourselves, we can & will weather those storms and reap the rewards of deeper intimacy as a result, both with ourselves & others.

That said, CNM is absolutely not for everyone. My strongest advice here is to, again, know thyself. If it is not for you it is not for you, there is no need for you to justify or explain that to anyone regardless of their opinion about it or your relationship with them.

If it's not for you it is not a failing, it is simply your truth. Likewise, if Consensual Non-Monogamy feels like a good fit for you & you can navigate it ethically, with love for yourself & care & respect for others, then it is for you &, equally, that is not a failing. Bear in mind too that some relationships may feel like they are ones suited to Consensual Non-Monogamy & others may not, equally, our desires change over time and what felt like a good fit 10 years ago may not be a good fit now. Can you open to what's present now as opposed to the past? Can you keep up with how you, yourself, are changing, developing and growing & can you share that, openly & honestly, with those close to you in your life?



THE BOTTOM LINE

1. Self awareness - know thyself as deeply and as intimately as you possibly can & develop a regular self-inquiry practice so you continually ask yourself questions about who and how you are. Know what it is you are and are not looking for. Know your own limits and boundaries. If you're feeling on shaky ground with yourself, in any way, get professional support. Ultimately, the longest & most intimate relationship of our lives is with ourselves so that is the one to put most attention on.


2. Communication - know how to communicate who & how you are to others so that they can, as easily and as cleanly as possible, see who you are & make informed decisions for themselves about how they want or choose to engage with you.

And
Be the best possible listener you can be. Don't assume you've understood the other person, repeat back to them what you have understood in your own words until they tell you you've heard them correctly.


3. Be honest & transparent with everyone involved, yes, this includes offering information before it's asked for. Others don't always know the right questions to ask but you know if there's something they should know (yes, you really do!) so they can make the best possible informed decision for themselves - be empathetic and tell them what you know they should know before they need to know it!


4. Remember we are not taught how to successfully, smoothly & easily navigate adult human relationships and we certainly aren't taught (unless we go looking for it) how to navigate anything outside the mainstream ideas of relationships according to the culture in which we live. You are forging a new path - go gently with yourself and go even more gently with others. What is done cannot be undone but we can prepare well and put supports in place if things don't go to plan, which often they don't!


If this is something you would like to explore of discuss in an online private session email info@bethwallace.org to inquire.


Last updated: 04/07/22