In my previous post, I outlined a few factors that can make the process of transitioning a previously-monogamous relationship to some form of consensual non-monogamy easier. In this post, I want to explore the other side of that: factors that make a transition more difficult.
A sense of urgency—we have to act now!—is one factor that can really throw the process of opening a relationship out of balance and make it less likely that partners will be able to navigate the challenges successfully. Let’s be honest: you’re gonna have feelings. A lot of them. And they’re probably going to be intense. A lot of intense feelings all at once is not usually a recipe for stability in a relationship. Consensual non-monogamy is a lot of things, but I’ve not heard many people describe it as “simple” or “uncomplicated.”
In the previous post, I discussed how having (or creating) time to allow the process to occur more slowly is a helpful factor. This is the opposite of that. A sense of urgency can cause partners to neglect important conversations about limits, assumptions, expectations, needs, fears, safety, and “what-ifs?” You’ve likely heard someone say “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission*.” I’d like to go on record as saying that’s a terrible approach to consensual non-monogamy—or monogamy, actually. Even non-monogamous arrangements like “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (where partners have consented to the other having additional partners, as long as they don’t find out about it) require some level of forethought, planning, and clarification of limits (as well as a method of checking in periodically if/when things get rocky). If preserving your current relationship isn’t a priority for you or your partner, by all means: dive in headfirst. But if your relationship is one that you value, and you’d like to maintain, taking the process slowly and erring on the side of over-communicating and over-processing—especially at the beginning—is more likely to help you avoid crises that threaten your current relationship.
*There’s also definitely a blog post to be written here about the idea of “permission” within consensual non-monogamy, and how that can decrease partners’ autonomy over their lives and relationships. Another day, perhaps.
The reality is that many people only examine their assumptions about monogamy in their relationship after those assumptions have already been shattered and they’re trying to put together the pieces after their relationship has been rocked by an affair—or possibly multiple affairs. It can be tempting for a partner—or both—to sort of give permission after the fact… a sort of “Well if our relationship is open now, then it wasn’t really cheating then.”
While there are absolutely examples of people who have successfully transitioned an originally-monogamous relationship to a consensually non-monogamous one in the aftermath of a crisis event like an affair, in almost every case there are some very difficult conversations that need to happen before that can really work in the long-run. Affairs cause deep psychological, emotional, and relational wounds, and it’s unrealistic to expect that those will just go away without some intensive work to unpack and heal the damage caused by the infidelity. I would argue that consensual non-monogamy makes that even less possible rather than more possible; consensual non-monogamy requires open, honest communication, and it’s going to push a lot of buttons. In relationships where there are unhealed wounds, non-monogamy is likely to create a cycle where partners are either arguing about all the other stress-points that it [non-monogamy] brings up but not recognizing the underlying hurt; or they may just avoid those conversations altogether to keep the peace, but then feel more pain or resentment because it feels like their boundaries are being violated (because the boundary-setting and -clarifying conversations didn’t happen).
So while it’s possible that a relationship where there has been infidelity can transition to a satisfying consensually non-monogamous relationship, taking the time to really work together to understand the infidelity and start to identify and heal the damage it caused to the relationship before trying to transition to consensual non-monogamy is likely to be an important step.
To use a somewhat clumsy metaphor, think of your relationship as a car. Now imagine that that car is in a traffic accident (an affair). You’re going to have some things you have to figure out:
- The car is obviously damaged, but am I ok?
- Is this car totaled and ready to be scrapped, or can it be repaired?
- If I can repair it, can I repair it enough that I can trust it for a long interstate road trip? Or am I only going to trust it for trips to the grocery store where it’s not a huge deal if it breaks down?
- Maybe it’s safe for me, but do I trust this car to transport my kids safely?
All of those metaphorical questions would apply to any relationship where there is infidelity. We haven’t even touched on the possibility of consensual non-monogamy yet. Consensual non-monogamy would be like adding the questions:
- I bought this car thinking that I was only ever going to drive it on smooth, well-paved roads; do I trust this thing to do some off-roading, especially after an accident?
- Is it going to break down or get stuck when it encounters the predictable obstacles of off-roading?
- Is it possible to get to places that would have been unreachable if I had simply stayed on the paved roads everyone else seems to be following?
I initially had this as a paragraph under the “crisis” section above but realized as I wrote more that it deserves its own section. What I’m referring to here is when one or both partners are unfulfilled and unsure they want to stay in the relationship, so consensual non-monogamy is suggested as a way to keep the relationship afloat. I’ll repeat the disclaimer that I’m sure people have managed it and have gone on to open a previously-monogamous relationship that they were uncertain they wanted to be in, but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. I would caution against the idea that consensual non-monogamy will allow someone to lower their standards for relationships. If anything, it should raise the standards: allowing ourselves to prioritize connections with people who bring value to our lives will start to shine a light on relationships that don’t.
I often think about consensual non-monogamy in terms of what skills are needed. To navigate consensual non-monogamy with any semblance of success, you’ll need the ability to end a relationship that isn’t working for you. I would strongly encourage people to deal with the question of “Do we actually want to be together?” before you decide if you also want to be with other people. Forming connections with other people isn’t an alternative to breaking up, and it shouldn’t be treated as one.
It’s also worth pointing out that this scenario is one that actually may have shaped a lot of people’s beliefs about whether consensual non-monogamy is actually a viable framework for relationships; if partners in a relationship “try out” some form of consensual non-monogamy to see if they can “save” their relationship, but aren’t invested in the underlying beliefs about relationships that consensual non-monogamy is built on, it would be really easy to attribute the failure of their “consensually non-monogamous” relationship to “inherent flaws” in consensual non-monogamy itself, rather than a reflection of the quality and viability of their individual relationship or their compatibility as partners.
High Life Stress
I discussed this from the opposite perspective in the previous post—that low overall life stress levels help when opening a relationship—so I’ll try to avoid just repeating the opposites of everything I said there… although this will obviously be some repetition.
The short version is: if your life is super-stressful already, trying to open your relationship is likely only going to make it more stressful. New babies. Injuries and illness. Grief and loss. Overwhelming work stress. Global pandemics. Disaster recovery (like a fire, flood, hurricane, etc.). Recent trauma. All of these things demand attention, time, energy, patience, presence, support, recalibration, and adjusting to a “new normal.” That’s not to say that consensual non-monogamy is untenable if you have experienced—or are currently experiencing—these things. (In fact, many people who are in consensually non-monogamous relationships will point to these sorts of life stressors as some of the exact reasons that they find their relationship structures so fulfilling: when things are stressful, there are more people to lean on.)
However, three unhelpful potential outcomes that are more likely to occur in this scenario are:
- Resources (time, energy, emotion, attention) are directed into the process of opening the relationship at the expense of dealing with the other stressors,
- A couple tries to take on everything all at once and ends up feeling like they’re not doing any of it well, or
- Resources are directed toward the other stressors, but conversations about boundaries, expectations, assumptions, and agreements related to opening the relationship are neglected, making it more likely that some part of the process will eventually become a major stressor in the future.
Very Different Goals
Even within relationships where partners agree that some form of consensual non-monogamy could be a welcome change to their relationship, it’s still possible that partners will have a wide difference in what that actually means for them. Consensual non-monogamy is a big, big umbrella, which can be great because there are so many potential arrangements (some might say, infinite); for two partners who are relatively flexible in what they’re looking for, or in how they’re willing to go about it, it’s often not too difficult to identify some areas of overlapping or shared vision that can allow them to start taking steps toward building connections with others—whatever that looks like for them.
However, if partners find that they’re only interested in a very specific vision for what they want consensual non-monogamy to look like in their relationship, and there isn’t much—or any— overlap, there’s likely to be a lot of tension in the relationship without much to show for it. Some examples might be one partner who is only willing to open the relationship if they can date together, while the other partner is only interested in dating separately. Or, it might look like one partner who wants to build on-going, consistent connections with new partners, while the other partner is only willing to consent to intermittent, one-night-stand type connections while traveling for work.
Sometimes, it’s possible to bridge that gap and find potential overlaps that might not be immediately obvious; therapy can be a helpful tool for that process. However, when there is this sort of disagreement about what each partner is looking for and willing to agree to, it’s important to resolve that before attempting to open the relationship—if it’s a relationship both partners are interested in staying in for the long-term at least.
Bonus: A Gray Area
This topic deserves its own blog post, but I’m going to reference it here too because I think it’s an important consideration, but—unlike the other topics I’ve discussed in these two posts— i’s not always easy to classify as a help or a hindrance in opening a relationship. Here’s the thing: relationships have tension. Healthy relationships find creative, flexible ways to resolve, grow through, or accommodate that tension. Consensual non-monogamy—and the potential to get needs met by forming connections with others—forces partners to ask the question, “Will meeting this need in another relationship strengthen our relationship with each other because it takes some of the pressure off and challenges the assumption that one person can meet all of our needs? OR… is trying to meet this need in another relationship just a way to try to avoid addressing an underlying issue in this relationship?”
In next week’s post, I’ll come back to that question and explore some productive ways that people can engage the tension it might highlight in their relationship.
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