Is it a terrible idea?
Maybe. I dunno. It depends on your relationship. On you. On your partner. On why you want to open it to begin with. On what you’re hoping to get out of it. On what alternatives you and your partner feel you have.
How’s that for an evasive answer?
The reality is, ultimately, your choices about your relationship(s) and what will work for you (or not) are up to you. However, there are definitely some elements that can make that process easier, and some that make it harder. So let’s dig in and focus here on at least a few of the factors that can help make the process of opening a previously monogamous relationship more manageable.
Having time is a big support to navigating the challenges of consensual non-monogamy. And when I’m referring to time, I’m not just referring to having openings in your weekly calendar (although I do mean that too). I’m also referring to having time to let things unfold, and grow, take shape. There’s a LOT of change, growth, and cognitive restructuring (that’s a fancy term for learning new ways to think about things) that needs to happen to successfully transition from a monogamous framework for relationships to a consensually non-monogamous one.
Change is inherently stressful—even exciting change. And the reality is that the stress caused by too much change to your relationship all at once can end up damaging your relationship. Damaged doesn’t necessarily mean over (although it might); but if your existing relationship is damaged by the process of opening it, but you’d rather keep the relationship then end it, it will be important to take care and (you guessed it) time to work to repair that damage so it doesn’t get worse. In the end, you might find that rushing things and then needing to repair damage to the relationship actually takes longer than slowing down and giving your relationship (and your partner and yourself) time to process and shift and bend and process and communicate and pause and connect and fight and wait and process and renegotiate and connect and process… is actually the faster option.
Let’s face it: the process of shifting from a monogamous relationship to a consensually non-monogamous one is obviously going to be simplified if your partner is on-board with the idea. And I’m just talking about the idea of CNM right now, not the nuts and bolts of how you and your partner would put it into practice. When I refer to a partner having “buy-in” though, I mean that it’s a situation where the first partner doesn’t need to convince or compel or persuade the second partner that CNM might offer something to their relationship; the second partner can see for themself that CNM would also offer them greater autonomy to shape and explore their own relationships and identity outside of their existing relationship. “How can we make this work for us both?” is a more stable starting point than “How can I convince my partner to let me do this?” or “I don’t see what’s in it for me.” That doesn’t mean the process is easy—even if both partners see the potential benefits—just that it’s easier. There’s still a lot of processing and communication and clarification that needs to happen to establish what kinds of agreements will help both partners (and new potential partners) feel safe, respected, and informed enough to give consent.
Low Overall Life Stress
There’s not necessarily a “right” time or “wrong” time to start the process of exploring consensual non-monogamy. For every scenario I’ll mention here, there are no doubt exceptions and examples of people who have made their relationship work. However, on average, it’s going to be an easier process when other life domains and dynamics in the relationship are relatively stable and low-stress. There will inevitably be stressful conversations within the process of exploring consensual non-monogamy—especially for people who are new to the lifestyle and are navigating each step for the first time—so not having other things that are also demanding your time, energy, focus, and emotional resources can decrease the risk that things will feel completely overwhelming as you move forward. On the other hand, factors like job stress, acute medical issues, having a young child at home, unexpected financial hardship, processing grief and loss… all of these things (and more) can sometimes make people decide that the timing for adding something else to further stretch already-strained emotional, psychological, physical, relational, financial, or logistical resources isn’t quite right, and to at least wait for a while before revisiting the conversation.
Support can look like a lot of different things. It might be a trusted friend, a network of friends, family members, a therapist, a podcast, a book. It might be other friends or people you know who are already practicing various forms of consensual non-monogamy that you can observe and learn from. It might be one of the communities that have grown—online or in-person (or a combination of the two)—to support people who are interested in building their relationships differently from the predominantly monogamous model(s) we’ve been taught to value. Sometimes, the support might come from within the non-monogamous relationship constellation itself: a patient partner who’s willing to guide and validate and model, or a metamour (basically, a partner’s partner) who also becomes a friend… or at least is respectful and warm, even if they don’t become a friend. There are absolutely challenges inherent in trying to form meaningful, intimate relationships with multiple people—just like there are challenges in trying to form a meaningful, intimate relationship with one person—but the inherent challenges are often intensified by the social pressure to be monogamous, and a sense of secrecy that people who are interested in non-monogamy often feel they need to maintain to protect themselves, their partners, or their families. Having spaces—physical, virtual, or relational—that offer the chance to be authentic and open about desires, struggles, vision, and connections are vital to long-term “success” in consensual non-monogamy.
Definition of “Success”
The final factor I’m going to reflect on (at least in this post for now) that helps people who are exploring—or actively living—consensual non-monogamy be successful in their relationships, is to be clear about what “success” actually means for them. And to be honest, if we’re using the same broken standard for success with non-monogamous relationships as we often do for monogamous ones, it might be helpful to rethink that definition. Sex and relationship advice columnist/podcaster Dan Savage often remarks on the ridiculousness of only viewing a relationship as successful if one partner doesn’t make it out alive; I’d absolutely agree. There are plenty of factors that can make a relationship—even a very brief one—very successful; and conversely, there are plenty of things that can make a relationship detrimental to the partners in it—even if that relationship continues for decades.
A relationship can be successful if both partners are honest about what they’re looking for and what they can offer, and one partner (or both) decides “that’s not for me,” and they move on and both parties respect that. A relationship can be successful if it transitions from a romantic/sexual connection to a strictly platonic relationship built on common interest. A marriage can be successful if it ends in divorce but both partners honor their commitments to co-parent and respect each other as each builds a new life and new relationships.
Shifting the definition of success within a relationship away from an outcome, and instead starting to think of success as a process, can help success be more achievable and provide a more realistic set of expectations as people consider whether to open their relationship and pursue some form of consensual non-monogamy. Outcome thinking might sound like: “I want my partner to be cool with me finding casual sex partners when I’m traveling for work,” or “I want to have a threesome with my partner and someone I find super sexually appealing.” Framing it this way, “success” depends on persuading a partner to go along with what we’re envisioning; their choices are A) yeah, sure that’s exactly what I want too (unlikely, but possible I suppose), B) no, I’m not OK with that, but fine, go ahead (not able to hold their boundaries, likely to lead to resentment or hurt), or C) No, I’m not OK with that, and I’m not going to agree (now it’s their fault that the relationship wasn’t successful).
Outcome thinking might also sound something like, “I want to be married ’til death do us part.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a marriage that lasts until one partner dies, focusing just on the longevity of the relationship disregards the factors that are keeping the partners in that relationship. Hopefully, it’s mutual satisfaction, security, well-being, and connection. But it could also be financial dependence… or threat of violence if one partner left… or pressure from family or religious traditions that make divorce something deeply shameful… or low self-worth that causes one partner to believe that they don’t deserve to have relationships that are fulfilling.
Process thinking on the other hand is more focused on how we want something to happen than it is on the thing we want to happen. Those same examples from above can be reframed as process goals, over which the person would actually have control: “I want to talk with my partner about clarifying the boundaries and limits in our relationship to find out if it’s possible to maintain this relationship with my partner and explore sexual connections with other people,” or “I want to find ways to introduce sexual novelty into my relationship with my partner,” or “I want to work to understand myself and my partner so that we can continue growing our relationship in ways that make it a relationship we’ll still want to be in, even decades from now.”
Each of these factors—time, buy-in, life stress, support, and even how we define success—play a big role in how likely it is that the experience of opening a previously-monogamous is a satisfying one. They’re far from the only factors, but they are at least a starting point that most people who are thinking about trying to open their relationship will need to consider. Next week, I’ll put together a post that focuses on the other side of the issue: weighing up factors that often make it more difficult to open a relationship [read it, here].
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