When I was growing up, I learned that there was only one “right” way to do relationships: to be monogamous with one—and only one—other person. I don’t think I even heard the word polyamory before my twenties, and my only exposure to multi-partner relationships was through media reports about cults, as well as storylines on television shows like Big Love and Queer as Folk.
The impression I got was that non-monogamy was a fringe activity that was primarily done in secret and inherently full of drama.
However, because I’m a sexuality educator and researcher, I later realized what I had learned was completely wrong. I’ve come to see that for a lot of people involved in non-monogamous relationships, these relationships can be just as happy and healthy as those that are monogamous, and that different people may be better suited for different types of relationships.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some of the key things I’ve learned about the world of consensual non-monogamy, how you can figure out what type of relationship is right for you, and some tips on managing multi-partner relationships if you’re curious about exploring them.
What is Consensual Non-Monogamy, and How Many People are in Sexually Open Relationships?
Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term that refers to any type of relationship in which all parties involved mutually agree that having more than one other sexual and/or primary partner is acceptable.
This includes a lot of different relationship structures that individuals can adapt to meet their own unique wants and needs, such as:
- Polyamory, which involves having (or being open to the idea of having) multiple romantic relationships simultaneously. Some polyamorists have a primary relationship that they invest more time in, whereas others are “relationship anarchists,” who strive to treat all partners as equals.
- Open relationships, which usually involve having a primary relationship with some negotiated ruleset that permits outside sexual activity. Some people in open relationships only play together (e.g., they might only have the occasional threesome), whereas others may be free to do their own thing within certain limits.
- Swinging, which usually involves swapping of partners, such as trading partners with another couple at home or at a swinger’s event.
Different people may define these terms in different ways—and that’s okay because there are no universal definitions. There are also other ways of being consensually non-monogamous, such as cuckolding, which involves watching or listening while your partner has sex with someone else. As you can see, there are a lot of options!
However, no matter how you look at it, consensual non-monogamy is common. Studies find that about 1 in 5 adults say they’ve been in some type of sexually open relationship before, with about 1 in 20 saying that they’re currently in such a relationship.
How Do You Know if Consensual Non-Monogamy is Right For You?
People seem to be increasingly curious about consensual non-monogamy. For example, Google searches for “polyamory” and “open relationships” have been rising in recent years. Some public opinion polls have found that nearly half of men and one-third of women say that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous to some degree.
But how do you know if it’s right for you? The answer may depend to some extent on your personality and your attitudes toward sex.
In my own research on sexual fantasies, I’ve found that certain types of people are more likely to fantasize about consensual non-monogamy than others. Specifically, people who have more positive attitudes toward sex and sexual diversity, who believe that sex and love do not necessarily have to go together, and who tend to enjoy more thrilling and exciting sexual experiences are those who tend to be more aroused by the idea of sexually open relationships.
Also, people who are high in the personality trait of openness to experience (those who enjoy trying new things in general) and low in the trait of conscientiousness (those who adhere less to established rules and norms) report more willingness to try consensual non-monogamy.
In other words, people who are less conformist, prefer variety in life experience, and are more sexually adventurous seem to be more comfortable departing from monogamy. Of course, this isn’t to say that you necessarily have to have this personality profile to pursue or succeed in having a sexually open relationship. Personality isn’t everything—it also depends on whether you have the right skill set for navigating these relationships.
And if you’re thinking about opening up a previously monogamous relationship, the strength of that relationship and what your partner wants matters significantly in terms of whether it’s a practical and realistic move.
How Do You Successfully Navigate a Consensually Non-Monogamous Relationship?
Here are a few research-backed tips for having happy and healthy open relationships:
1. It’s usually not a good idea to open a failing relationship with the goal of saving it.
Odds are, if the relationship is in a really bad place, pre-existing communication problems and conflicts will make for a sub-optimal experience and might exacerbate existing issues. So work first to improve your relationship before bringing other partners into the mix.
In general, research shows that when couples act on their sexual fantasies and desires, they tend to be far more successful when they approach this from a position of strength rather than weakness.
2. Communicate early and often. Define your new relationship structure, discuss the rules and boundaries, and consider doing some research.
One of the most significant predictors of success in a sexually open relationship is solid communication. It’s important to spend a lot of time at the beginning to talk things through, including the potential rewards and risks, to create healthy relationship boundaries. For example, what are the unique concerns that each partner has, and what steps will you take to address them? Are you concerned about jealousy coming up? If so, reading a book together like The Ethical Slut or The Jealousy Workbook might help anticipate problems that might arise and how to deal with them.
Also, what are the rules and boundaries going to be? Are certain sexual activities off-limits with other partners? Are partners required to disclose everything, or are you adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? Figure out what type of consensually non-monogamous relationship you want, and come up with a set of open relationship rules that works for you and your partner(s).
3. Take steps to protect your sexual health.
Having sex with multiple partners means that you’re going to need to think about protecting everyone’s sexual health. Different people may have different sexual health needs and concerns, but at a minimum, this includes having a regular STI testing schedule, a willingness to communicate about sexual history and infection status, usage of safer intimacy tools such as condoms, lubricant , and contraceptive use if unintended pregnancy is a concern.
In addition, it is worth considering vaccinations for certain infections that can be transmitted sexually (i.e., HPV and hepatitis), as well as PrEP, which can drastically reduce the risk of HIV infection.
4. Recognise that some trial and error might be necessary, and you may need to revisit your ruleset in the future.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that things don’t always go according to plan when people open their relationships. For example, rules are occasionally broken, jealousy sometimes arises, and desires can change.
Again, this is where communication is so essential. It’s important to check in with each other regularly about how things are going so that problem areas are addressed as they arise, rather than letting them fester and balloon into major issues. And don’t feel as though the initial ruleset is something that is permanently set in stone. It’s okay if you decide that you want to go back to being monogamous, that you want to try a different type of open relationship, or that you want to adapt the rules in a mutually agreeable way.
Above all, remember that your relationship (and sex life) can be anything you want it to be—but all good relationships, whether monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, require a good amount of work and effort to keep them healthy and strong for the long haul.
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Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell me what you want: The science of sexual desire and how it can help you improve your sex life. Da Capo Lifelong Books.
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Moors, A. C., Selterman, D. F., & Conley, T. D. (2017). Personality correlates of desire to engage in consensual non-monogamy among lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of Bisexuality, 17(4), 418-434.
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