Photo illustration of non-monogamy relationship

Navigating the Benefits and Pitfalls of Non-monogamy, Polyamory, and Other Forms of Open Relationships

Non-monogamy, polyamory, “poly,” CNM (consensual non-monogamy), ENM (ethical non-monogamy), swinging, and open relationships are becoming increasingly popular relationship structures. Do they work? Are they real? Why would someone want that? Can my relationship survive it? These are all legitimate questions.

Let’s start with what non-monogamy is:

All of the above relationship types have some overlap. In many cases the titles are interchangeable. They all support the possibility of having more than one partner, be it sexual, romantic, or both. Additionally, they are all rooted in a foundation in which there is a mutual agreement between partners that they are not each other’s “one and only.” From there, the nuances begin. Oftentimes, people will choose one of the above titles based on how their relationship demonstrates their values on the matter. For example, individuals who emphasize the consent aspect of their non-monogamous relationships are more likely to identify as CNM. Those who prioritize the ethical aspects of how they practice non-monogamy might lean towards ENM. People who identify as polyamorous or “poly” acknowledge being capable of experiencing deep love (sexual or romantic) for more than one individual. Within poly, there is sometimes a hierarchical structure amongst partners (ie one might be “primary” whereas others are secondary, tertiary, etc.), but not all who identify as poly engage this way. Open relationship tends to mean exactly that; the relationship is open to having outside partners. But unless otherwise specified, it’s unclear in these circumstances how much or how little someone’s other partner(s) know about the individual’s various partners.

What non-monogamy is not:

-Non-monogamy is not unnatural. Many mammals in nature are non-monogamous (https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/are-animals-monogamous).

-Non-monogamy is not a solution to all relationship woes. Many of the challenges that individuals face in monogamous relationships can still be present in non-monogamous ones.

-Non-monogamy is not a free-for-all. When done responsibly, consensually, and ethically, non-monogamy is practiced with honesty, communication and mutual respect for all partners involved.

-Non-monogamy is not easy. Dating in general is not easy. Finding a partner is not always easy. Finding multiple partners is also not easy, particularly when you are juggling multiple!

-Non-monogamy in its most literal sense of the term does include cheating and affairs. However, that is not what we are talking about here. Ethical non-monogamy, Consensual Non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging, and open relationships do not condone or normalize dishonesty, betrayal, or deceitful behavior.

I cannot tell you how many clients have expressed a desire to depart from monogamy because they believe it will solve all of their relationship problems, make their partner happier, or it will address all of their unmet sexual needs. While it can do all of the above for some relationships (and it does for many), the piece that often gets overlooked is the volume of work that needs to be put into the process to yield said benefits. These changes don’t just arrive on your doorstep the minute you open the relationship up. Rather, all of the above benefits result from intentionality, communication, and effort.

In order to define non-monogamy, we have to address what monogamy is (and isn’t)!

Monogamy is:

-The most common and legally recognized relationship structure

-An agreement between two individuals that they will partner sexually and romantically only with each other

-A choice; it is a decision to commit to a partner

Monogamy does NOT mean:

Coercion. Just like healthy non-monogamy is based on consent of the participants, so is monogamy! If you feel like you were coerced into a monogamous relationship, I assure you it won’t end well. Likewise if you feel like you had to “coerce” your partner into monogamy.

Your partner won’t cheat or betray your trust. People who identify as monogamous can still cheat or betray their partner.

You don’t fantasize about other people/partners or notice other people sexually. Fantasizing is natural. Plenty of people who commit to monogamous partnerships still find themselves fantasizing about others. The difference is that people who are committed to their monogamous partners do not act on these fantasies.

Your partner is responsible for your sexual needs and sexual fulfillment. At the end of the day, every individual is responsible for their own sexual needs and fulfillment. Nobody “owes” their partner sex because they have agreed to monogamy. If you believe your partner is not willing to work with you or hear your needs and desires, you may need to speak to a sex therapist to find common ground. There are a variety of ways couples can work together to meet each other halfway.

What are some benefits of engaging in a CNM, ENM, polyamorous, or other open relationship?

  1. – Increased Self Awareness and Understanding One’s Needs/Wants/Interests:
    • Non-monogamous relationships are the most functional and fulfilling when you know yourself, your limits, and your boundaries. Engaging in this relationship structure forces people to be acutely aware of what they are and aren’t ok with in regards to partner(s) behaviors. Engaging in these relationships promotes ongoing self reflection in order to understand oneself and one’s desires
    • Variety and Exploration: These relationships allow individuals to explore and experiment with different aspects of their sexuality and romantic interests. This can lead to a more fulfilling and diverse set of experiences as well as more frequent sexual interactions (potentially)
  2. Stronger Communication Skills:
    • Successful non-monogamous relationships are all about open and honest communication. By regularly practicing honesty and communication, partners have multiple opportunities to hone their communication skills
  3. Reduced Pressure on One Partner:
    • Ever heard of the term “diffusion of responsibility”? By having multiple partners, individuals can distribute their emotional, intellectual, and physical needs across several people, reducing the pressure on any one partner to fulfill all these roles.
  4. Community and Support:
    • Many non-monogamous communities offer strong support networks, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance.

What are some potential pitfalls of a non-monogamous lifestyle?

  1. Jealousy and Insecurity:
    • Despite consenting to engage in non-monogamy, these relationships can still trigger feelings of jealousy and insecurity. Navigating these emotions requires significant emotional work and maturity.
  2. Complex Dynamics:
    • These relationships can be complicated to navigate, with multiple partners needing attention and time. Multiple partners can mean balancing multiple sets of needs and priorities. This can also lead to logistical/scheduling conflicts and feeling “spread too thin.”
  3. Social Stigma:
    • Non-monogamous relationships are often misunderstood and stigmatized by society. This can result in social isolation for fear of judgment, and discrimination.
  4. Risk of Relationship Instability:
    • The complexity and challenges of maintaining multiple relationships can sometimes lead to instability. Just like monogamous relationships are subject to breakups, so are non-monogamous ones!
  5. Legal and Practical Challenges:
    • Non-monogamous relationships are not always recognized legally, which can complicate matters related to inheritance, medical decisions, and parental rights.

What are the benefits of seeing a sex therapist trained in non-monogamy, polyamory, and other open relationships?

At the end of the day, it is every individual’s decision as to whether or not a non-monogamous lifestyle is for them. Many of our clients have expressed feeling judged by their therapist when they mention wanting to open the relationship up.  If you or you and your partner(s) are considering entering into a relationship structure other than monogamy, consider speaking with a sex therapist trained in non-monogamy. We can help you navigate the nuances of ENM, CNM, and polyamory to help you have your best possible relationships.

All the staff at Creating Change LA are trained in working with ethical non-monogamy and consensual non-monogamy. Additionally, our staff therapist Jessica Idoine, AMFT, is an expert on the topic. Jessica was featured as a guest lecturer for The Buehler Institute, providing continuing education to therapists on how to best support clients in their non-monogamy journey. Click here to schedule an appointment.