Consensual Non-Monogamy and Taking the Pressure Off

Is opening my relationship going to take pressure off me or my partner, or will it cause a breakdown in the relationship?

Before I dive into that question, which I introduced at the end of my previous post, I want to lay out a few of my assumptions about relationships:

  1. No one person (or relationship) can meet all of a person’s needs
  2. As an adult, it’s my responsibility (not someone else’s) to make sure that my needs are met, but I can’t meet them on my own (I need other people to help me meet those needs)
  3. Monogamy and non-monogamy aren’t that different in many ways. However, the main difference tends to be that within monogamous relationships, lines are drawn around sexual or romantic needs where only one partner is expected (or allowed) to meet those needs.

I also want to be clear: when I make these assumptions about relationships, I don’t just mean romantic or sexual relationships (monogamous or non-monogamous). They’re also true about friendships, family relationships… therapy relationships. As humans, we depend on relationships with others to meet many (most) of our basic human needs.  

I’d like to think that the first two assumptions are not that controversial. As a human, I have a need for belonging, and a partner can help me meet that need; but so do my family of origin, my chosen family, and my friends. I need exercise and movement and physical expression, so I can take walks and play volleyball with my partner; but I also can join a soccer game in the park, sign up for a dance class, or do yoga by myself. I need physical touch and intimacy, so I can cuddle and kiss and be sexual with a partner; but I can also embrace a friend, get a professional massage, or read a book to my child snuggling on my lap. (Of course, I could also deny my need for physical touch, and get that need met by fighting strangers in a bar or risk traumatic brain injury on a football field or boxing ring but like totally “no homo,” right?) I need emotional support, so I can talk with my partner about what’s going on in my life and the things that are hard; but I can also talk with a trusted friend, work with a therapist, or find an online community of people who are going through the same struggle.

We ask a lot of modern partners. But if we ask them to do it all, on their own, we’re setting them—and ourselves—up for failure.

So before we start talking about sex, back up and use a quick example about how this shows up in other ways in relationships: let’s talk about camping. While there are definitely people at the extremes of the camping spectrum (“I wanna live my entire life with the bears and the wolves, under the stars, 100 miles from the nearest human” or “I’ll never, under any circumstances, spend a night outside of a fully furnished bedroom”) most people are somewhere in between. We have parts of camping that we might like, and we have parts of camping that we might not like so much. 

Now let’s think about you and a partner (a real partner, an imaginary partner… whatever.) If you and that partner made separate lists of things you like and dislike about camping and then compared notes, I’m pretty confident that you’d find:

  • Some areas of mutual interest (you both like some of the same things about camping
  • Some areas of mutual disinterest (you both hate some of the same things about camping),
  • Some areas of disagreement (one of you likes something, the other doesn’t) 

If that’s the case (again, I’m pretty sure it would be) you’d likely be able to come up with some sort of camping excursion that would fall somewhere between excellent and not excruciating. Maybe it’s one night at a campground a few miles from the grocery store in case you forgot to pack something, or close to home so you can bail if the weather’s terrible; maybe it’s a 5-day backpacking trip where you’re sleeping under the stars and only living off what you can carry, catch, or forage; maybe it’s a campfire and tent in the back yard; or maybe if it was just the two of you, you’d do the 5-day wilderness trip, but now you’ve got kids so you’re just going to do a weekend trip to a campground with showers, electricity, and a playground. 

Does choosing one of those things to do together mean that you don’t still have your ideal version of what “camping” means for you? No. You can spend a weekend glamping with your partner one month, and plan a “real” camping trip with your outdoorsy friends the next. You can agree to do a backpacking trip one year, with the agreement that next year you’re vacationing in a city, going to restaurants and clubs and museums, and spending the night in a hotel with room service and a hot tub. You can camp with your partner in the way that your partner likes, but still imagine other kinds of camping you might like to do or remember the different kinds of camping trips that you’ve taken in the past with other people. 

Does being with a partner where there are no overlapping areas of interest (you’re both into some form of camping but don’t like any of the same things, or one of you is totally disinterested in camping altogether), or it’s not possible to camp together (you’re on opposite sides of the country or world, or one of you can’t go camping for physical or medical reasons) mean that you have to give up camping with other people? Probably not. At least, I haven’t heard of partnerships where they’ve agreed not to camp with other people, and I can’t really think of a reason why people would make an agreement like that. 

So now, let’s switch gears mentally and talk about sex instead of camping. That same pattern occurs in most sexual relationships: some areas of shared interest (compatibility), some areas of shared disinterest (compatibility), and some areas of disagreement (incompatibility). I’ve made some Venn diagrams to illustrate. Let’s take a walk, shall we?

a. We both like the same stuff, and dislike the same stuff
This is a fairy tale. It’s not real. However, White Christians (and Disney?) have spent a LOT of time and energy over the past 500 years or so trying to make this fairy tale a reality, colonizing sexuality at the same time they (we?) have colonized indigenous lands, bodies, minds, and souls in the name of Jesus. And money. And capitalism. And democracy. And “civilization.”

In this scenario, one of us has a penis, the other has a vagina (and uterus/fertile ovaries), and we have sexual intercourse for childbearing purposes, and we can enjoy it a-little-bit-but-not-too-much, and we do it in one God-approved position which is of course as the name suggests: missionary.

b. We both like sex, and we like some of the same stuff
This is more realistic. In fact, most sexual/romantic relationships are probably some version of this. Some overlap. Some divergence. Some pleasure. Some tension. Cool.

c. We both like sex, but none of the same stuff
It happens. Maybe we like different kinds of genitals. Or maybe one of us isn’t aroused by genitals at all, and is interested in traditionally non-sexual body parts (or objects). Or you’re only interested in certain kinds of role plays or power dynamics, but that stuff makes me uncomfortable and tanks my libido. If we don’t like the same kind sex, let’s not force ourselves to try to be sex partners, OK?

d. I’m interested in all the sex you’re interested in, and then some
This definitely happens. One partner has a higher sex drive… is more sexually adventurous… is bi-, pan-, omni-sexual. They’re able to meet all of their partner’s needs, and their partner meets some of theirs, but there’s not necessarily the same level of (sexual) satisfaction or mutuality within the relationship. 

e. You like some kinds of sex, but I don’t like any*
One partner is asexual. Doesn’t experience sexual arousal or desire or interest.

f. Neither one of us likes any kind of sex*
Both partners are asexual. 

g. My sexual interests have grown including more of what you like
As partners explore their sexuality together, one (or both) will often learn that there are certain kinds of sex that they like but may not have tried or known about before. Sexual compatibility increases over time.

h. Your sexual interests have changed (or decreased), and we like less of the same stuff now
This. Happens. All. The. Time.

Sexual identity, energy, chemistry are not static; they often change over time for an individual, and almost (almost?) always ebb and flow within a long-term sexual relationship. Stress, physical health, child-bearing, child-rearing, age, mental health, medication, boredom, domesticity, smelling someone’s farts, global pandemics, conflict in a relationship… all of those things can absolutely impact the level of sexual connection and compatibility within a partnership. And while it’s a normal thing that most long-term relationships encounter at some point(s), it can also be a real challenge to figure out what to do about it.

*It’s not the same thing as asexuality, but this same situation (e or f) might also arise when one partner has suppressed any sort of sexual desires… they might feel sexual feelings if they allowed themselves to, but they don’t allow themselves to for some reason, like spirituality or internalized sex-negativity or homophobia, shame, or potentially a trauma response.

So let’s bring this full circle and come back to the original question: how can I know whether opening my previously sexually monogamous relationship will decrease the pressure on one or both of us, or whether it will cause a breakdown in the relationship. My answer is, you can’t know for sure. But… 

You can start by asking yourself why (or if) sex feels different than camping. Do you worry that if you go camping without your partner, that you won’t be interested in camping with them anymore? Are you worried that if you agree to let your partner go camping once, they’ll want to do it again and again and again? Are you worried that your partner will leave you for weeks at a time to care for your kids and not pay your rent? Or that they won’t want to live in a house with you anymore? Do you worry that there are just so many logistics in planning a camping trip and it feels too complicated? Do your family, your faith, or your friends have really strong beliefs about camping, and it feels uncomfortable to make your own decisions about how, when, with whom (or whether) to camp? Do you worry that your partner is going to spend all their time researching and planning the next camping trip and making online camping profiles, and isn’t going to make time for other things like going to the movies or picking the kids up from school or sweeping the goddam floor for once?!? Does talking with your partner about camping push all of the buttons in your relationship about who makes the decisions and who has control and who makes the peace and goes along with it? 

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but… if you’re worried that your partner’s going to quit their job and stop paying the bills and run off to go camping for weeks at a time and leave you to take care of the rent and your kids by yourself, that says way more about your relationship and your partner’s ability to uphold the commitments they’ve made than it does about camping. If your partner is an asshole in a monogamous relationship, they’re going to be an asshole in a non-monogamous one too probably. And, if your partner is thoughtful, considerate, passionate, committed, and patient in a monogamous relationship, they’ll likely bring those same qualities to non-monogamous relationships as well. 

Consensual non-monogamy doesn’t take away risk in a relationship. It doesn’t take away fear or insecurity. But consensual non-monogamy—when practiced well—can help clarify what it is that we’re actually afraid of, or insecure about. An affair in a previously-monogamous relationship (non-consensual non-monogamy) is often devastating to the partner who wasn’t aware of it, but the reasons why it’s devastating are often very different. For some, it’s the sex itself. For others, it’s the deception, denial, or gaslighting. Or the toll it takes on self-worth. Or the sense of naïveté, and “I should have seen this coming.” Or the realization that a relationship has gone cold or drifted apart—regardless of whether someone else was in the picture or not. In her book The State of Affairs, relationship therapist Esther Perel talks about one partner for whom the deepest impact of the affair was needing to re-remember years worth of life—holidays, birthdays, vacations, day-to-day memories—with the new knowledge that their partner had been having an affair the whole time. 

My earlier question, “why does sex feel different than camping??” That’s not meant to be rhetorical. I’m not trying to suggest that there isn’t a difference. What I am trying to say is that it seems strange that we would offer ourselves such a wide range of options for how to structure something as simple as a camping trip—because we recognize that what our partners want and need from a camping trip might be different from what we want—but when it comes to something as important as our intimate relationships and sexuality we feel pressure to choose one very specific, pre-packaged, “just-add-partner” template… and then we feel that there’s something wrong with us (or our partner) if we realize at some point down the line that actually this pre-packaged option isn’t doing all of the things I want or need it to do. “Why does sex feel different from camping… to me?” is a way to start clarifying what you really want from relationships.

Consensual non-monogamy isn’t about having no-limits, anything-goes, free-for-all intimate relationships. It’s about identifying, setting, maintaining, and—maybe sometimes—thoughtfully adjusting the boundaries of our relationships so that they actually reflect our wants, needs, and values. It’s the process of building relationships around the knowledge that the parts of ourselves that allow us to make new, meaningful, passionate connections with others don’t just magically switch off just because we’re partnered, and that it doesn’t have to threaten our existing relationships if we continue to nurture those parts of ourselves rather than disown or hide them… regardless of whether we’re partnered or not. In fact, one of the most common objections to consensual non-monogamy is that people worry they’ll have less of their partner if their partner is “allowed” to make connections with other people; I understand where this is coming from, but I think it’s asking the wrong question. Or maybe it’s asking the right question but in the wrong way. 

I think a more helpful question is: “Is it possible for me to experience my partner more fully if they aren’t required to turn off parts of themselves to be with me?” Or maybe slightly differently still: “Is it actually worth it to me to trade parts of myself (or parts of my partner) in exchange for the perception of security?” If your answer to those questions as you weigh them over time is still “no,” consensual non-monogamy is probably not for you. And that’s fine. But if, as you ask yourself those questions, you start to see connections between the ways that your relationship feels stuck and the parts of self that you (or your partner) have needed to turn off or hide away to try to make monogamy work, then it might be worth doing some thinking, talking, and exploring about how to start nurturing those parts again instead of disowning them. 

Next week’s topic (probably) :
Ok, so I think I might want to open my relationship. How do I even bring that up with my partner?

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