What Does Consensual Non-Monogamy Really Mean — and Is It Right for You?

What Does Consensual Non-Monogamy Really Mean — and Is It Right for You?

Here are eight things you should know before taking the plunge into an open relationship, from someone who practices consensual non-monogamy herself. 

By Charyn Pfeuffer
Shamari DeVoe Reveals She's Been in an Open Relationship

Monogamy has been the default relationship model forever as the go-to, so-called superior path to coupled bliss. That said, there's been an uptick in interest in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) in recent years, with more and more people seeking (and wondering about this) on online dating profiles.

But what does it really mean, anyway — and is it just a cop-out to avoid commitment?

To get started, CNM is an umbrella term that encompasses a broad spectrum of relationship styles that entail multiple romantic and/or sexual dynamics — conducted at the same time — with the knowledge and consent of all people involved.

A 2018 University of Guelph study states that between three and seven percent of people in North America are currently in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship, and New York Magazine reported on a study of single Americans that found 20 percent of respondents practiced some form of non-monogamy during the course of their lifetime.

Google searches for the subject are on the rise, and series like Wanderlust and Unicornland explore what life is like beyond traditional monogamy. There’s even a lite version of CNM, dubbed “monogamish,” a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage.  

Although this relationship model is generally still looked down upon as less-than by mainstream society (see how the RHOA ladies reacted to Shamari DeVoe in the clip above as exhibit A), as someone who practices non-monogamy, it's refreshing to see this demographic getting attention. 

Is it right for you? Consider these eight factors below before getting started.

Do a relationship health check

If your relationship is on shaky ground, CNM probably isn't going to save it. I've seen countless couples try CNM as a last-ditch, Hail Mary pass, and it rarely works. Couples who have a solid foundation and strong communication skills are better suited to thrive in such dynamics. Like any relationship, CNM requires work, but it’s easier to navigate new territory if you and your partner can talk out the tough moments and are on the same page.  

Do your homework

There are a lot of resources out there to help you learn about non-traditional relationship styles like CNM. My go-tos are The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton and Opening Up by Tristan Taormino. 

Be clear on what you want

Take the time to flesh out what you and your partner mean to each other and what you want from a CNM dynamic. (You don’t both have to want the same things, either.) There are countless alternative ways to structure happy, healthy, and satisfying relationships that go beyond standard-issue societal norms. Not to get all Oprah, but if you dream it, you can achieve it.

Be honest with yourself, figure out what you want, establish your boundaries, and go from there. CNM doesn’t require a lot of rules: only consent and respect. In fact, I've found, the fewer rules, the better, especially when it comes to trying to control feelings and emotions.  

Take it slow

Don’t jump into the deep end of the CNM dating pool. There will be road bumps, not to mention new feelings, along the way, and it’s better to go slow. Take all the time you need to negotiate new dynamics and emotions.  

Uncomfortable feelings will come up

You can be the most secure person in the world, and scary feelings will come up. It’s how you deal with them that matters. Jealousy is a perfectly normal emotion, and of course, seeing your partner share emotional and physical intimacy with others can bring up some uncomfortable feelings. A useful tool for navigating these inevitable moments is The Jealousy Workbook.  

Show respect

If you’re in a loving relationship, this should go without saying: Treat your partner with respect. Ditto for any other partners you may date. There’s a thing in open relationships called couples privilege, which basically means one connection is more than equal than another. It's OK to practice hierarchy, but try and be a good human being and take everyone’s feelings into consideration. Once you start dating multiple people, everyone’s feelings matter. There’s a reason CNM is also referred to as ethical non-monogamy.  

Communication is key

I cannot emphasize this enough: If you’re thinking about giving non-monogamy a try, talk, talk and talk some more.  Successful open relationships require a commitment to communication. Be sure to check in with your partner regularly and be willing to talk about all of the things. I promise you, the ability to have these conversations will make life easier for everyone.  

Ditto for honesty

Transparency is key to CNM. Some CNM relationship styles don't involve full disclosure, like Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) agreements (I’m not a fan). My best CNM relationships have succeeded because everyone was honest with their feelings and in the loop with all the moving parts. If you’re juggling multiple relationships, that can be a lot of logistics to contend with, but it’s definitely worth the effort.  

Whether we decide to commit and couple up or scratch our sexual needs with multiple partners, there is a beautiful spectrum of ways to have our emotional and physical needs met. CNM is one of them and has dramatically improved my happiness and relationship satisfaction.

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