2022 has been a year. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was awful. The overturning of Roe v Wade was unthinkable. The sex negative response to Monkeypox. There are so many moments to cringe at when reflecting on this year. But with all of the negativity that we experienced, there were some positives as well. Our world continues to become more fluid in gender and sexuality, which is a huge plus when looking at reducing shame. Recently, same-sex marriage was codified, which provides lasting protection for the queer community. So as we wrap up this year, I thought I would talk about my favorite topic, Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), and how our world still seems to struggle with understanding it. Let's start with defining it. Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term used to describe various forms of non-traditional relationships that operate outside of traditional, exclusive relationships. Everyone is aware that they are not in a monogamous relationship, yet our world still feels upset and confused when people engage in this relationship style. So I am here to help clear up those misconceptions and hopefully help those struggling with understanding this (perfectly healthy) relationship style feel more comfortable.
Author’s note: For the purpose of this article, I will be interchanging the following phases: consensual non-monogamy, ethical non-monogamy, and polyamory. As polyamory can be used as both an umbrella term and a relationship style, I will do my best to identify instances when I am referring to it as one of the other.
It’s not all about sex.
One of the biggest misconceptions about CNM is that it solely revolves around sexual pleasure. While some forms of CNM can be centered around physical intimacy (e.g. open relationships, swinging, monogamy-ish), at the core of CNM is the idea that one partner does not have to fulfill another person's needs. It is a belief that openness, exploration, and intimacy outweigh exclusivity. The CNM lifestyle centers itself around freedom of choice and expression. Emotional intimacy is just as paramount as physical intimacy. So the next time you meet someone who identifies as “poly” or “ethically non-monogamous,” remember that they are more complex than just wanting to bang someone else.
Love is not a “zero-sum” game.
Alongside the myth that CNM is all about sex is the idea that humans are incapable of loving, or engaging in a meaningful "romantic" relationship with, more than one person. When researchers conduct research on the hormones released when someone is feeling the emotion of“love,” there is no distinguishing between “romantic love” and other forms of it. The same hormones of oxytocin, acetylcholine, dopamine, and many more are released into our bodies that help us build these bonds with others. As humans, we are capable of producing an infinite about of love. I do not wake up every morning and think, “I am going to give my partner 25% of my love today because I must give my best friend 45%, and then my cat OBVIOUSLY needs the remaining 30%.” If you choose monogamy, I love that for you and will defend that choice for you until the end of time. But don’t put down those who want to and choose to engage with their “love” in a different way.
Cheating can occur.
As with all forms of relationships, mistrust and deception can occur. Cheating can be defined as an action in which there is a lack of consent by one or both members to engage in sexual or romantic actions with another person. This often involves betrayal, secrecy, and mistrust. No matter the style, relationships are hard and require a ton of communication and boundaries to succeed. If we stop talking to one another about our wants and desires we can easily lose our way and start acting from places of insecurity, jealousy, and/or fear.
Jealousy still exists.
Jealousy is not exclusive to monogamy. In fact, jealousy tends to show up quite frequently at the beginning of a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Unfortunately, because monogamy is solely promoted in our society, the idea that we need to compete with others to be in a relationship with another person can be a tough feeling to comprehend. What we do know about jealousy is that it is a secondary emotion. What tends to be behind it is either fear, sadness, anger, or a combination of the three. We will never rid ourselves of jealous or envious feelings, but if we can understand and process them, they will start to not feel as sticky to us.
There are still rules/boundaries.
Even in the freest and most open form of CNM, relationship anarchy, there are still boundaries that are in place. People think that forms of CNM do not have rules due to their lack of understanding of relationships. We grow up with monogamy, which has inherent rules built into it (although even these boundaries can be renegotiated). No matter what form of CNM you practice, there has to be a frequent discussion over boundaries and rules so that everyone participating can feel safe and free to explore and build intimacy. Rules/boundaries could range from no “fluid bonding” to prioritizing primary relationships over secondary ones. If you think you are going to enter a polyamorous relationship and just go wild, you will reach failure a lot quicker than success.
It is more common than you think.
One of the best parts about being alive at this moment in time is that all of the work around equity, gender, and sexuality has started to pay off in a number of ways. Sexual and gender fluidity is more common today than it has ever been in the past. Most people are starting to feel more comfortable exploring their feelings and desires. We have more representation than ever of CNM and fluidity in our media. Back in 2015, a study conducted concluded that up to 21% of the population has engaged in at least one form of CNM in their lifetime. Can you imagine what that number looks like today? My guess is a lot higher.
It is not "bad" for children (per research).
Dr. Eli Scheff has spent most of her career conducting a longitudinal study of polyamorous families. She is one of the first people to study polyamorous families and what they experience. In her research, she followed several of the same polyamorous families for up to 20 years to research the impact of CNM on sexuality, children, family dynamics, and their overall relationship dynamics. What she concluded should not be too shocking. Children tend to be able to express emotions better than those who grew up in exclusively monogamous families and these children also felt more comfortable expressing themselves and their sexuality. For more information, check out her book called, “The Polyamorist Next Door.”
Not everyone in the relationship has to be “open.”
Although not as common as both people engaging in a poly relationship, “mono/poly” relationships do exist. Remember, at the core of polyamory is the idea that freedom of expression and openness is encouraged. We as humans are complex creatures and have the ability to think and act differently from our partners. Research shows that if a monogamous person is high in their autonomy, they tend to be able to navigate dating a polyamorous person.
It can always “close” back up.
Some couples fear the idea of polyamory because they assume that once they “open up,” they are not able to close EVER AGAIN IN THE ENTIRETY OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP! Although many couples find a home in the polyamorous lifestyle, not everyone does. Polyamory is very hard to do and until our society openly supports it across all ecosystems, people are going to feel the pressure to conform to monogamy. One of the goals of all relationships is happiness and satisfaction for all of those involved. If you try to “open up” and find that it is not for you, do not worry. You are not a failure. Close back up and reevaluate what you both need.
There is no “right way” to be in a CNM relationship.
Although we all may feel pressure to conform to certain societal expectations in our relationships, that is simply not true. No matter the relationship style, monogamous or polyamorous, the “right way” is defined by those who are in the relationship. I know monogamous couples who are allowed to flirt with other people and there is no threat detected in their relationship. I also know polyamorous relationships where there are very strict rules and boundaries in place that may be perceived as restricting to others outside of the relationship. We need to pay less attention to how others run their relationships and more attention to our satisfaction within our relationships.
One final thought: Just because someone is not currently practicing or in a consensually non-monogamous relationship does not mean that they do not identify as polyamorous. We don’t go around telling single people that they are not monogamous anymore, do we?
So as we enter 2023, let's do our best to do our part and not only understand those people who practice polyamory, but also stop shaming them as well. Who knows, maybe you will want to start exploring the waters of consensual non-monogamy.
Cleveland Sex Therapy is owned by Matt Lachman, a licensed professional clinical counselor, supervisor, and certified sex therapist who specializes in working with individuals, couples, and polyam folx on their concerns relating to sexuality, intimacy, and overall sexual health. The goal of Cleveland Sex Therapy is to promote inclusivity and nurture sex positivity. For more information, feel free to contact him at Matt@ClevelandSexTherapy.com