By Dr Zhana Vrangalova
As discussed in the first part of our series, there are many ways to structure a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship. There are hundreds of rules, boundaries and agreements we could set for ourselves and our partners when we get into the details of who, when, where, and how we get to play with other people.
How do we begin to consider all the options and make smarter decisions about our love life?
Luckily, there are a few key dimensions that distinguish between different CNM relationship types. Once you answer these few big questions for yourself and your partner(s), many of the other decisions on your way to designing your ideal CNM relationship will become clear.
The first key dimension is the question of partnered versus solo: do you want to explore non-monogamy as someone in at least one primary or committed relationship, or as someone who doesn’t have any primary or committed partners?
Many people skip this step and just get into serious, long-term relationships which are often expected to progress to cohabitation, marriage, and kids; something that's known as ‘the relationship escalator’. That is the only framework society has for how to be sexually or emotionally intimate. But not all of us are built for such closely intertwined partnerships. There is a solo option, and some of us are better off keeping things a bit more casual.
Let’s look at these two relationship options, their pros and cons, and which might be right for you, given your unique personality.
Partnered CNM means having at least one serious, long-term, emotionally intimate, romantically-committed partner, someone we typically consider our primary. Primary relationships often include (or are building towards) things like living together, sharing finances, being married, having kids, buying a house, building a life together. Because of the important role primary and committed relationships play in our lives, partnered CNM means that you and your partner(s) will be negotiating virtually all the terms of your sexual or romantic openness together. You have a big say in what they do or don’t do with other people, and they have a big say in what you do or don’t do with other people.
A major benefit of partnered CNM is that, in many ways, we can have our cake and eat it too. Primary committed partnerships provide us with levels of closeness, specialness, security, belonging, family, and support that most humans crave, and that most casual and secondary partners cannot provide. And we get to have sex with or date other people to infuse much-needed excitement into our lives, and meet other needs our primary cannot meet. It’s the best of both worlds.
At the same time, in partnered CNM, there is always someone else’s feelings to take into consideration when we’re deciding what we can and cannot do with other people. Since all extracurriculars are negotiated with our primary partner, if there are things we really want but our partner doesn’t or can’t handle, we might have to give that up. Ideally, we’d partner up with people with similar or compatible non-monogamy needs and limitations, but in reality we often have to make some difficult sacrifices. More generally, primary partners exert a huge influence over many other areas of our lives, restricting our freedom and independence to some extent.
Solo CNM humans don't consider themselves part of a couple, triad, or another primary relational unit. They may have sex with, date, or even fall in love with people, but none of those relationships reach the status of a deeply committed or primary relationship. Solo CNM folks are their own primary partner: their primary allegiance is to themselves.
Some solo CNM folks are focused on having relatively casual sex and dating, including any mix of one-night stands, casual dating, sex parties, and other low-commitment play partners. This can look similar to single people who are ‘dating around’, but solo casual CNM folks are honest and transparent about their lifestyle with their play partners rather than lying or leaving room for misinterpretation.
Other solo CNM folks do ‘solo poly’, meaning they may have (or are open to) ongoing relationships that can include companionship, intimacy, emotional support, friendship, even love in addition to sex, but don’t progress to a primary partnership. Solo poly humans typically don’t cohabit, get married, share finances, have kids, or follow the other expectations of the ‘relationship escalator’.
A huge benefit of solo CNM is the greater freedom it gives us over our lives, how we spend our time, and the decisions we make around sex and relationships. We don’t have to make many or any major compromises in order to please or soothe someone else. We still have to negotiate with each sexual or dating partner what we do with each other, but they don’t have a lot of say in what we do with other people or with the rest of our time.
The main challenge with solo CNM is that it can get lonely. Casual or secondary partners can be fun and helpful, but they rarely provide the level of intimacy, belonging, and support that primary partners do. Solo CNM folks might also find that their pool of potential partners is rather small because most people are looking for committed or primary relationships.
Which one is right for me?
There are many factors that determine which of these versions of CNM is better for you. One key factor is our long-term relationship (LTR) orientation, the extent to which we are driven towards forming committed, long-term romantic relationships or pair bonds with people.
Romantic pair bonding has been an essential survival strategy for humans throughout our long evolutionary history. This is why most of us have relatively high LTR orientation levels, investing a lot of time and energy into seeking and maintaining pair bonds. But there is a substantial minority of people who are only moderately or weakly driven to pair bonds. For some people this could be a lifelong orientation, for others it might be a temporary life stage. In both cases, low and moderate LTR orientation folks would be happiest when they make different relationship choices compared to people with high LTR orientation levels.
Take the LTR Orientation quiz and find out what your level says about your non-monogamy choices.
Next time we address another key CNM dimension: only sex or love too?
Curious to learn about some of the other personality factors that determine which type of CNM is right for you? Check out my online course Open Smarter. Use discount code FEELD30 for 30% off at checkout!
Want to discuss (non)monogamy with a non-judgemental community of people from all over the world? Join my FREE virtual Open Smarter Social monthly event series.