Consensual Non-Monogamy: How Do I Bring This Up?

If you’re like many people, it might feel daunting to even think about bringing up the topic of consensual non-monogamy or opening your relationship with your partner. Just like with consensually non-monogamous relationships themselves, there’s not a perfect or right way to do it, nor a wrong way. A lot of this is going to depend on you, your partner, your relationship, what you want. But there are some ways of bringing it up or structuring the conversation that are more likely to result in a productive and rewarding dialogue, and some others that can lead to some predictable, avoidable challenges. In this post, I’ll lay out a framework that might be a useful starting point and give you some direction as you think about whether, how, and when you might want to open a conversation with your partner about consensual non-monogamy and how it might fit into your relationship. We’ll also examine some common obstacles and some ways to account for them, before we end with a few principles to fall back on when in the inevitable moments when you feel stuck.

Start With Consent
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the value of consent within any relationship, but especially within consensually non-monogamous relationships. It’s literally in the name. Consensual non-monogamy shouldn’t feel like something that’s being done to you, or your partner; it should feel like something that’s being done with. Each partner should feel that they have control over what’s happening within their own relationships (although not necessarily control over their partner, or their partner’s behaviors). It’s possible to start building this sort of consent and empowerment right from the very first conversation. 

That might sound something like, “Hey, there’s something I want to talk with you about; I’m kind of excited about it, but I also know you might have mixed feelings about it, so I want to make sure we’re both in a good headspace to talk about it. I can say a little more about it right now if that would be helpful, or we could check in later if that would feel better.” If your partner isn’t ready to hear/talk more now… GREAT! You sought consent and your partner exercised their right to decline. Your partner will trust you more because you’re respecting their boundaries and demonstrating that you care about your feelings. You’re off to a great start, and you haven’t even brought up consensual non-monogamy yet! That’s a win! 

If your partner is interested in hearing more now, great! You’ve got consent. If you’re not sure what to do next, think about this…

Elevator Pitch, Driveway Conversation, Exploratory Committee
Rather than thinking about one initial conversation, it might actually be helpful to think about three different conversations, or at least 3 different phases to the conversation: an elevator pitch, a driveway conversation, and a planning committee. You can maximize your chances of having a positive first conversation with your partner if you recognize the differences between those three, and you’re prepared to have any of them depending on how your partner is feeling. That way, neither of you feels like you’re being forced to have a conversation you’re not emotional, psychologically, or physically prepared for.

  • The Elevator Pitch You’ve likely heard of an elevator pitch in some context before: sales, networking, marketing, television. If you only have 15-20 seconds on an elevator ride with someone to communicate an idea, how do you present it in the most favorable, persuasive, inviting way? Obviously, if you’re in a position to be talking with someone about opening a relationship, you’ve got a bigger window of time than one elevator ride, but the principle is the same: our first impressions of an idea can really set the tone for what follows. I’m actually going to give two approaches to this. Pick the one (or the combination of the two) that you think would work best for you and your partner.

    The first approach is to just name the topic, (because depending on how/whether you sought consent, your partner might be expecting some sort of important conversation, but they might not know whether you want to talk about opening your relationship, adopt a rescue dog, move in together, or invite your whole family to visit for an entire week over the holidays). You could say something like “I’ve been learning more about different kinds of non-monogamous relationships, and I think there are some aspects of that that really interest me.”

    Then wait. Give them a few seconds to see what their initial reaction is. Your anxiety might tell you to jump in and explain everything right away, but I want to encourage you to pause. Or say something like, “Would it help if I said a little more?”

    The second option is to start with some persuasion, more like a traditional elevator pitch. You’re not trying to persuade them to open their relationship with you… that’s WAY too much for one conversation. However, it might be possible to persuade them that at least having the conversation will be worthwhile, and that talking about it might even help your relationship with each other. Help them understand why this has been on your mind, and why you’re bringing it up now, and what the benefit might be. If it’s feeling difficult for you to put words to that, try working with this as a template for starters, then check out some of the examples below to see how it might be applied: “This is on my mind because _____. I think if we can _____, it will help _____.”

This is on my mind because:
…a friend mentioned consensual non-monogamy.
…I’ve been feeling turned on by the thought of being with other people, and I realized that’s not something I have to keep secret from you.
…I recognize that I’ve always really liked meeting and dating new people. 
…I read a great blog about opening up a relationship.
…I’ve really been clicking with a friend/a coworker/a person on my Quidditch team (Quidditch is covid-safe, right? Flying around on brooms and what-not?), but I don’t want things to go further without talking with you about it.

I think if we can…
…talk about what parts of our relationship feel important to us, and which parts just kind of happened because we hadn’t really thought about other possibilities,
…find a way to allow some room in our relationship to explore sexual connections with other people, 
…talk about how both of us—and our relationship—has grown and changed from when it first started,…talk more about some of the things we feel like maybe we can’t talk about,

It will help…
…us feel like we’re not stuck in a routine.
…us understand changes that we can make in our relationship that will help both of us feel satisfied years from now. 
…me feel less guilty for having normal feelings.
…us find things in our relationship with each other that can help us feel more connected too.
…me feel like I have freedom to connect with people I encounter in ways that feel good to me and that don’t have to threaten the connection and commitments you and I have with each other.  

  • The Driveway ConversationYou’ve just given your elevator pitch. Nailed it! What now??? An elevator pitch is great, but you don’t want to be left stammering if your partner says “Tell me more,” or asks a follow-up question. Think of this next stage like you and your partner have just gotten home from grocery shopping together and you’re trying to find a good wrap-up point for a great conversation (because this is a great conversation) before the ice cream melts. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s possible that your partner was expecting something like, “I think we should adopt a puppy.” It’s understandable that it might take a few moments for them to catch up if you’re coming in with something more along the lines of “Hey, wanna date other people???”

    Give them space to ask their most burning questions, and give brief answers. “Do you want to break up with me?” “Is this because I’m bad at sex?” “Are you cheating on me?” “[fill in the blank]?” Think ahead a little and anticipate a few of the questions or concerns they’re likely to have.

    Give them space to also voice what they might find intriguing or exciting about that possibility too. “I’ve been thinking the same thing!”

    Remember, the ice cream is melting in the back seat, so you don’t need to take a ton of time here. If you have 5 minutes and they have 5 questions, it’s better to give them time to at least ask each of those questions and get a read on what you’re thinking than to have you spend 20 minutes answering one question. Your goal here is to set the stage for: 
  • The Exploratory Committee – Depending on how you brought this up and how the conversation has gone to this point, you and your partner might be feeling up to continuing it and starting to actually dig into the topic now. Or maybe you and your partner took advantage of the built-in off-ramps earlier in the conversation, and now you’re coming back to it at a time that works for both of you. Great!

    Keep in mind, you don’t have to figure everything out right now. The point of this part of the conversation is to just explore the idea a little. See how it feels to talk about it and get an initial sense of how aligned the two of you are on the topic. If you’re able to come away from this part of the conversation with 2 or 3 ideas of general interest that you both want to think and talk about more (as well as ruling out a few areas that one or neither of you is interested in at this stage)… that’s a success!
  • You might not be ready to create an online dating profile… but you might agree that it makes sense to do a little research about which apps might be best for the kind of connection(s) you might be interested in in terms of ease, cost, privacy, specificity.
  • You might not agree that it’s OK to have hookups with random strangers, but you might both give the green light for some guilt-free flirting with that person who caught your eye a few times down at the dog park, and a let-me-know-if-you-exchange-numbers agreement.
  • You might not be ready to bring someone home for a threesome, but you might learn that both of you find it really, really hot when you’re having sex with each other to start talking about what you might do with a third person if they were there. 

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
It’s understandable that you might feel that this conversation has to be different from other conversations you’ve had before because monogamy is so deeply ingrained as the standard in our culture. However, the reality is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Think about other difficult conversations you and your partner have navigated: What worked well in those conversations? Were you in the car driving together, or sitting on the couch? What helped to ease your anxiety and your partner’s anxiety? Did the conversations come up organically, or did one of you bring it up intentionally? Did you use humor, or was it more helpful to keep things serious? How did you and your partner connect/reconnect afterward? Did you learn anything about what not to do? You might make one or two conscious adjustments in how to approach this particular topic, but if something worked well for other difficult conversations, it’s likely to be helpful for this conversation too.

And if you and your partner have never had a difficult conversation that’s gone well… there might be some questions about your relationship that need answers that are completely separate from whether to try consensual non-monogamy. 

Some Pitfalls to Avoid

Don’t bring this up in the middle of a fight. “I think we should see other people” when tempers and tension are high is likely going to feel more like a threat than a solution. And if your partner feels threatened, it becomes waaaaaaaay more difficult to have the kinds of conversations you’ll need to have in order to open your relationship successfully. Even if the potential of consensual non-monogamy really does offer a possible solution to the problem you’re arguing about, your partner is not likely to see the connections if they’re already feeling defensive.

Instead, come back to your partner after tempers have cooled and say something like, “You know, I had a thought that I had when we were arguing about ____. I didn’t want to bring it up then because I thought it might be difficult to talk about productively when we were already upset, but I’m wondering if I could share it with you now.” (Look at you, checking for consent before launching in on a potentially-loaded conversation!) 

Don’t light the fuse and run. Consider what’s happening next for you and your partner, and don’t start the conversation if it’s going to feel like a time-crunch or there’s something that’s going to require your partner to have a certain kind of focus or mental state. Is your partner about to turn off the light before bed and try to drift off to sleep? Or are they grabbing a quick bite to eat before hopping on a big zoom call where they’re rolling out a new marketing strategy for their team at work? Do you have guests coming over in half an hour? 

Wait. Please wait. Please. 

Something like this is likely to set their mind racing (which is why it can be so helpful to get consent before diving in to the conversation, and leave time for a driveway conversation and/or exploratory committee conversation) but if they’re now needing to decide between needing to get the house ready for guests or trying to defuse the bomb their partner just dropped into their lap (please recognize it might feel like that), they’re likely to feel stressed and resentful either way. 

Maybe your partner is planning to go for a jog in 30 minutes. Great. That could be a natural transition point to pause the conversation, and the physical activity might help them process what they’re feeling and clear their head. Are you planning to cook dinner together? Lovely. Maybe the two of you continue sharing thoughts as they come to you while you’re chopping veggies, but it doesn’t have to be super pressured; go ahead and laugh with each other, or share your reactions to last night’s episode of the show you watch together, or queue up your favorite music playlist and sip something nice while you enjoy being around each other.

Avoid “little white lies.” Consensual non-monogamy—if it’s going to work—demands honest communication. This is going to be true especially if you think your partner might be a little (or a LOT) hesitant about the idea. There’s a tendency to shy away from telling the truth when we know it may upset our partner, and that’s an idea that’s reinforced in lots of ways—like all of the (terrible) advice on how to respond to the question “Do these pants make my butt look big?” (What’s that? Is that the sound of next week’s blog post??? I think so.) Telling a “little white lie” to spare your partner some difficult feelings at the beginning of a conversation about consensual non-monogamy might be tempting, but in the long run it’s likely to back you into a corner, and leave your partner either feeling suspicious now or blindsided later.

Instead of lying in a difficult part of the conversation, think about using one of these phrases instead: 

  • “I hadn’t thought of that.” 
  • “I’m not quite sure how I feel about that yet, but I’ll think about it more.”
  • “I’m not sure I’m ready to have that part of the conversation yet.” 
  • “I need some time before I answer that.”  

These types of statements serve the same protective factor that a “little white lie” would, but they all acknowledge that there’s an issue to come back to in one way or another. Our partners don’t have to know everything we think or feel, or every part of our stories and experiences. But they do have a right to know things that impact them. Although it might be frustrating at first when there are unresolved issues, if you consistently demonstrate that you’ll address those points of tension later, your partner will likely feel more secure in the long run because they know that you’re not going to lie to them just to spare their feelings.

For When You Get Stuck 

This has the potential to be an incredibly rewarding conversation—for both you and your partner. So keeping that in mind can help to take what might feel like a big risk. 

However, you’ll also probably get stuck at some point. Your partner will ask a question you don’t know how to answer. You’ll have moments of panic about is this really what I want? You might say something that hurts your partner’s feelings. Talking about the potential for connections with other people might lead to discussions about parts of your own relationship with each other that you’ve been avoiding for one reason or another. It’s normal and OK to feel stuck. When you do, I want to encourage you to come back to these four principles:

Patience: You don’t have to figure this all out now. If these conversations are new for you, you’re going to have lot to learn, both in terms of “What does consensual non-monogamy mean for us?” and in terms of “How do we talk about this?” Time is your friend.

Empathy: There are going to be a lot of feelings that come up for both you and your partner. Excitement, fear, anger, confusion, arousal, hope, and many more. If you’re the one bringing up the conversation, it’s likely you’ve had a bit of a head start thinking about some of these ideas. With that in mind, it might be really helpful—at least in early conversations about consensual non-monogamy or opening your relationship—to think of part of your role as being to slow things down and give your partner some time to catch up. It would be normal to feel like “Well, if I don’t push the conversation forward, we’ll never get there,” but the more you can put yourself in your partner’s position to think through how it might feel to have a partner bring this idea up, the more likely it is that your partner will feel understood and cared for. That helps to avoid a dynamic where you feel like you’re pulling and pulling and pulling and your partner is just dragging their feet. 

Curiosity: Wonder. Imagine. Do mental experiments. Whether your relationship is monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, creating a dynamic where you’re free to engage with possibility will be a huge strength of the relationship over time. Notice how you feel. What makes you excited? What makes you shy? What brings up feelings of contentment? Where do you feel insecure? Why does scenario A trigger jealousy, but scenario B turns you on?

Seriously… if you and your partner(s) can let your minds wander, keep the lines of communication open, and not over-react to any of the feelings that come up (the ones that make you want to turn and run away, and the ones that make you want to get started on finding an additional partner immediately), you’ll likely find that your relationship will be strengthened on its own, regardless of whether you decide to pursue consensual non-monogamy. 

Honesty: Like I mentioned earlier, lies—even “little” ones—force us to spend more energy trying to maintain the lie or cleaning up the mess it created. At times when you’re feeling stuck or afraid to say what’s on your mind, it’s often best to take a deep breath and a moment to collect your thoughts, then share what’s on your mind as clearly and as calmly as you can.

For more thoughts on how to bring honesty into difficult conversations like this—or when a partner asks if those pants make their butt look big—check out next week’s blog. Or, check out this post where I address the feelings that might come up for a partner who’s hearing this thinking “Oh, hell f***ing no!”

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