The LoveLife Blog: guidance on mindful, bodyful, soulful loving!

#104: Consensual Non-Monogamy

Jacqueline Hellyer - Monday, October 13, 2014

I’ve written elsewhere about how humans are not necessarily naturally monogamous, and that’s it’s a social norm rather than a biological imperative.

It’s a very strong social norm, and anyone who goes against that norm risks pretty severe social disapproval, particularly if it’s done in a deceitful way. Unfortunately most non-monogamy is deceitful, one party has an affair, or several, and when the other finds out it can be ruinous for the relationship. I am completely against non-consensual non-monogamy, ie cheating on your partner.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other though, monogamy or cheating. If monogamy works for you, great, if not, there are more options than being unfaithful to your partner in a deceitful way.

It is possible to be non-monogamous – with consent. That’s the difference, it has to be consensual. When a couple both agree to be non-monogamous and continually assess the situation and their own rules and boundaries, then it can be a successful approach to living and loving.

I do want to stress though, that in this society it’s not easy to be non-monogamous, and I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone should be. However, it does work for some people. I often work with couples (and triads) exploring non-monogamy and help them decide if it is for them and if so how to go about it safely and respectfully.

Whether it’s something you’re considering for yourselves, or if you’re just curious about possibilities, here is a description of different approaches to consensual non-monogamy.

This is where a person has more than one committed relationship going on at the same time. The founding belief is that you can love more than one person at a time and you can have a committed loving on-going sexual relationship with more than one person at a time.

In this situation you generally don’t have a primary ‘couple’ as such, although it can be that two people are married and one or both of them also has one or more other committed relationships. (You can imagine that polyamorous ‘families’, as they’re often termed, can get quite complex in structure!) These types of relationship structures can be quite fluid and organic as partners grow and change.

This is where a committed couple have sex with other people at the same time. They do not have sex with other people on their own or without their partner being present.

Each couple will have their own rules about what they agree to do. Generally the options are;
  • play with other people, but no intercourse or no genital interaction; 
  • play with other women only; 
  • play with other men only; 
  • one plays while the other watches;
  • only play with other couples; 
  • watch other people but only have sex with themselves; 
  • play freely within a certain situation such as at a swingers party or swingers club.
It’s important that a couple who get into swinging continually check in on each other to make sure both are comfortable with what’s going on and take it slowly.

Open Relationship
This is where a couple agree that one or both of them can have sex with other people. They remain the primary couple at all times and each is the primary partner to the other. Any other sexual interactions are secondary and the primary relationship takes precedence.

Each couple will have their own rules around how this is possible, such as:
  • only when you’re out of town;
  • not with friends;
  • only with people of a certain sex;
  • tell all;
  • tell bits;
  • don’t tell all;
  • ask me first;
  • only once a year (or some other time frame).
The key thing to successful non-monogamous relationships is that it is done:
  • respectfully
  • safely
  • with continuous communication
  • with continual openness to renegotiate.
When done like this, non-monogamy can offer a broader, more satisfying approach to relating than the serial monogamy approach to relationships that are the norm in this society. As I've mentioned before, I believe we are all on a continuum of monogamy, with some of us completely monogamous and some of us completely non-monogamous and most of us somewhere in-between.

If you choose the standard monogamy option, that tends to be easier as the 'rules' are established by society rather than the couple (although even then most couples will have to set their own rules around levels of acceptable interaction and friendships with people of the opposite sex). If you choose non-monogamy then you have to set your own rules, and that means complete honesty and excellent communication, plus a willingness to experiment, make mistakes and continually reassess and evolve.

It's not for everyone, but it can and does work. And one thing's for sure, the standard dual option of pure monogamy or deceitful infidelity is not the answer.

If you’re interested in finding out more I recommend the excellent books The Ethical Slut by Easton & Liszt and Polyamory – the new love without limits by Dr D M Anapol.


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