How to talk about non-monogamy


December 6th, 2021

Just how do you start this trickiest of conversations? Dr Zhana advises

The Open Smarter Social is a free virtual monthly event where people from all over the world come together to deepen their knowledge about non-monogamy, share experiences without judgment or shame, and build community. The Socials are hosted by Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a professor of human sexuality at New York University, and the creator of Open Smarter, an online course that helps people make smarter decisions about their relationship choices. Each month, Feeld is bringing you some of the best content from that month’s event. 

More and more people are looking to open up monogamous relationships. Many are already non-monogamous and looking for new potential partners. How do you bring up the topic of non-monogamy with established or prospective partners without scaring them away? 

How you bring up non-monogamy can make a big difference in how receptive to it the other person might be. Once the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ (one partner has disclosed they are interested in being non-monogamous), it cannot be shoved back in. This is now a topic that may need to be visited and revisited throughout the duration of the relationship. If you’re unsure of what you want or how to navigate this conversation, you can cause a lot of unnecessary pain. 

Bringing up non-monogamy—it’s not an easy conversation to have, especially if this is new to you or your partner.  It’s also hard to provide hard and fast rules about how to go about it, since all couples are different and results are dependent on personalities, communication styles, individual histories, and the history between the couple. How long have you been together? Has this topic ever been discussed before? What is driving the desire for a non-monogamous relationship? How badly do you want this? Do you need this? Has there been infidelity in the relationship? What’s your sex life like? How are the trust, intimacy, communication, and happiness levels of your relationship currently? Let’s try to prepare you as best as we can to have this conversation. 

“People just don’t know what they don’t know and we don’t know so much about nonmonogamy.” - Dr. Zhana

If you’re going to have a monogamous relationship, it has to be “consensual monogamy, not ‘default’ monogamy.” - Dr. Zhana

If you’re in a monogamous partnership

The stakes are high, especially if this is a good relationship you don’t want to lose. Think about the five factors important when having difficult conversations: time, location, mental state, the issue, and the goal. First of all, spend some time beforehand thinking about the issue: why do you want to open up? Do you have a higher sex drive than your partner? Are you in a long-distance relationship? Do either of you travel often? Do you have sexual and/or romantic fantasies that your partner can’t fulfill, such as kinky play or playing with people of different genders? Is there some romantic passion lacking? Do you simply want more variety than any one person can provide?These questions can help you determine which of your needs are not being met in your current relationship, and having the answers can help your partner better understand what you need. 

Then spend some time thinking and educating yourself about the goal of this conversation: what are you trying to accomplish? There are many different ways to do CNM or consensual nonmonogamy: monogamish, swinging, polyamory, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, open-mono arrangements, open, solo CNM, etc Which one(s) are you thinking about? ‘I want to open up’ might mean very different things to you and your partner, so it’s important to know what you’re asking them for. The Open Smarter course is an excellent resource for this.  You should also know for yourself: Is this a deal-breaker, or simply a ‘nice to have’ that you could live without if your partner says no? How much time and patience do you have for the process?

Finally, find a time and place when you’re both going to be fairly relaxed and unburdened by other stresses, with enough time, energy, and emotional bandwidth to have this convo. Provide as much reassurance as you can for your partner, assure them you love them and the relationship you have, and this is not an attempt to end things. Take a break from the conversation if and when you need to. Keep in mind that this is only the first conversation. Know that you can, and likely should, revisit this topic over the days, weeks, and months to come. There is usually no rush to open up right away, so have patience for your partner and their process. 

“What we ‘know’ is very much coloured by what we want.” - Dr Zhana 

If you’re single or already in a non-monogamous relationship

If you’re single and looking to establish a nonmonogamous relationship, have the ‘relationship type conversation’ shortly after meeting someone. You don’t have to open up right away; in fact, I would advise most couples interested in forming a serious long-term relationship to go through a period of monogamy while they build a strong foundation from which to open up later on. However, if non-monogamy is important for you at some point, you don’t want to get too deep into it before realising you’re not compatible with your partner.  Have the conversation early to set the stage for a more serious discussion later on. 

If you’re already in a non-monogamous relationship and looking for other sexual or romantic partners, let those people know sooner rather than later. Many people will be upset if you had them invest a significant amount of time and energy into you under false pretences. And yet many people will be open to it if given the right kind of information in the right kind of way. Present non-monogamy as something positive and expansive, something that adds to your and your partners' lives as opposed to something shameful. 

If you’re using online dating apps like Feeld, consider putting ‘ENM (ethical nonmonogamy)’ or ‘CNM (consensual nonmonogamy)’ in your bio—this can help weed out folks who aren’t interested in non-monogamy. Or let your matches know about your relationship situation soon after you’ve matched. The same goes for meeting people offline.  

See you at the next Open Smarter Social!

Femmeish Feminist 

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