This article is meant for couples who have already decided that they are both curious about non-monogamy and want to give it a shot. Having that talk with your partner is a topic which I will discuss another day. With this piece, I want to provide guidance for humans who are interested in all kinds of non-monogamous relationships. From my experience, this whole thing is a looong journey of self-discovery and growth. It's impossible for you to predict where you will end up. Embrace the uncertainty. Life is about to get a whole lot more exciting. Ethical non-monogamy is not just about opening your pants, it's about opening your mind. So, don't restrict yourself too much. Else, you might miss a masterclass in becoming yourself.
The thought of your partner experiencing sexual ecstasy with someone else is beyond scary. The first time I opened up a monogamous relationship was nothing short of blood-curdling. My whole system was flooded with jealousy. My legs were shaking, my hands jittery. Yet, I was convicted that I was doing the right thing. I was proud of myself that my emotions weren't restricting the freedom of my partner. A two-day holiday fling under the night sky of Rome, Italy.
I will use the term open relationship to describe all kinds of non-monogamous setup, including polyamory, swinging, and everything else.
Understand why you want an open relationship
Sometimes we want something without knowing exactly why. A happy open relationship starts with self-awareness. So carve out at least an hour of your schedule and think about why you want to open your relationship. Some of the most common reasons are:
- Personal growth: Opening a relationship means expanding your comfort zone by a light year. Not much will make you grow as quickly.
- Mutual trust: In a way, you will become much closer to your partner and you will learn to trust them to treat the freedom that you've granted each other with respect.
- Sense of freedom: You are liberating yourself from what society thinks you should do. The number of things you can do without compromising your integrity to do expands drastically.
- Pressure Reduction: A monogamous relationship comes with many expectations for a single human. Meeting other people means that your partner can share the responsibility to fulfill your, not just sexual, needs with other people.
- Sexual-expression: Yeaahh, I think this is pretty self-explanatory. 😌
Non-monogamy is a crappy band-aid
Opening your relationship won't fix a broken relationship. If you think you can just legalize fucking around to reduce the opportunity cost of your relationship then I got bad news for you. Things will crumble faster than you can chew a Leibnitz cookie. An open relationship of any form requires more work than a monogamous setup. If you had problems with infidelity in your relationship, non-monogamy is not a solution for it. The whole thing requires trust and if you don't have that then go and repair your relationship first before you think about pulling off any stunts.
Develop the commitment mindset
Non-monogamy is only a viable relationship mode for people who are committed to their partner. Are you willing to let a partner fool around if they are still looking for something better? No, of course not. You want to be sure that your partner is not going to replace you as soon as the opportunity arises. The same is true for you. You also need to be real with yourself. Are you committed to your partner or are you secretly still on the fence?
The commitment mindset prioritizes the integrity of your primary relationship over everything. You see opening up the relationship as an evolution that you do to increase your mutual happiness. With that, you align your actions according to what you and your partner need so that you are both happy in your healthy relationship. Everything you do with other people needs to be screened through that lens. Is my relationship still as strong as before if I follow through? That is commitment. If you practice that you are allowed, and only then, to dismiss the criticism that some monogamous people just can't keep to themselves.
Learn more about Ethical Non-Monogamy
You got to spend time soaking up these ideas and making sense of them for yourself. Do your research. Learn about common practices (this article from Sílvia Bastos is fantastic, it's written with polyamoury in mind, but helpful for any non-monogamy). Read a book (e.g. Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy) Immerse yourself in communities (e.g. r/nonmonogamy. Have a chat with couples that practice this stuff in real life. Again, it takes time. You are in your relationship for the long run anyways - no reason to be impatient now. 😉
Create your open relationship framework
What works for me, may or may not work for you. It's your life, your relationship, your rule. I don't have a fits-all plan for the perfect non-monogamous relationship. The only way to find the right system that maximizes everyone's happiness is by iterating. Opening up a relationship is a bit like building a startup. You come up with a hypothesis of what could work for you and then you go out in the world and give it a shot. How did you feel?
Not so great? - Pivot!
Pretty good? - Maybe we can take this further!?
Note that, in non-monogamy, there are different types of relationships. However, you don't necessarily have to attach one of these labels to your construct. The most important thing remains that you agree on your relationship status and its implications. As long as you have the commitment mindset and follow what comes next, you will eventually end up with a relationship dynamic that is freaking awesome.
Establish communication guidelines
Honesty is the rule
The time where you can let the truth slide is over. This whole thing only works out with a strict no lies policy. Of course, lying sometimes seems like it makes your life easier. Especially if your partner is jealous and you think you are protecting them because you don't see a reason for them to be jealous. It's easy to fool yourself and legitimize not telling the truth. Intentionally leaving things out is already half a lie. Stick to being transparent about your emotions and actions. Trust me, it's worth it.
Transparency is scary but worth it
You got to decide on the degree of disclosure for a sexual relationship. Do you want to know all the nitty-gritty details of the interaction or do you feel more comfortable being left in the dark? In my experience, full disclosure has helped me to cope with jealousy. We tend to exaggerate things that we don't know. Our mental cinema is more often than not much scarier than reality. Talking things through can bring so much-needed relief. Once you talk through it you realize that the other guy, chick, or whatever also puts their trousers on one leg at a time. Having disclosure has always been an emotional sanctuary for me. Plus, I find it super hot to picture what exactly happened. I recommend starting like this.
Pro tip: Please respect the privacy of the people you are meeting. Ethical disclosure is a fine line. Especially when they've been vulnerable with you. When you are in doubt, ask your dates what kind of disclosure they are comfortable with.
Anticipation of good intentions creates stability
When we feel jealous, we are hurting. Then, we tend to frame our partner's deliberation negatively. The tendency to retaliate for some of us is undeniable. When you are experiencing negative emotions, try to recognize that your partner only wants your best. Express gently but directly how you feel and if things are too overwhelming find a compromise that works for everyone. Never cast blame. Missteps happen and are a sign that your system still needs fine-tuning. Talk it out and tweak what you got instead of burning it to ashes.
Define your boundaries
The fundament of the regulatory framework of your relationship starts with each other's boundaries. They are the key to creating the ground rules. The word boundary is thrown around in relationship columns. Yet, most people only have a vague understanding of its meaning. The definition of healthy personal boundaries of Mark Manson (n.d.) is pretty good:
"Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others."
In a relationship that means that you clearly separate yourself from your current partner. You will realize that you two have vastly different boundaries. While you are aware of how the actions of your partner make you feel make sure to intervene when it gets to a point that threatens your well-being. You don't have to endure an emotional ironman to make non-monogamy work for you. It's okay to speak up. Vice versa, you are empathetic of your partner's boundaries and try your best to honor them.
The three areas that I think you should clarify from the start are:
- Sexual boundaries: What are your safe sex practices? Do you want to limit the frequency of sexual relationships or interactions with others? Are there certain types of sexual practices that you want to keep exclusively?
- Communal boundaries: Do you want to exclude mutual friends and family? Are there any people you are not comfortable meeting? Are there non-sexual activities you want to exclude?
- Emotional boundaries: Are you fine with spending the night with a sexual partner? Are you allowed to develop feelings for or an emotional connection with your dates? What level of emotional intimacy are you willing to share?
Consider this as a starting point. There are many more questions that you want to agree on. Try to keep your relationship rules as simple and easy to follow as possible. You can start the discussion by simply asking your romantic partner what non-monogamy means to them and how they'd like to implement these ideas in your relationship.
Discover yourself and your partner
I've said it before and I'll say it again. A non-monogamous relationship is a journey, a catalyst for personal growth. Navigating it correctly requires self-awareness and work.
Accept that there will be some unpleasant emotions
Yeah, it's going to happen. There is no way around it. A boxer that goes into the ring has to expect to get hit and be okay with it. That's part of the game. Similar to how boxers prepare and train, you can train too.
You want to create your own personal inner work regime that helps you to manage and navigate your emotions. Meditation, journaling, and scheduling time with nothing to do are all things that help you with becoming in tune with your feelings.
Respect each other's boundaries and iterate
Showing your emotions is not a sign of weakness. Realizing that what you thought was okay is in fact not okay for you at this moment and expressing that is a sign of courage. You are always allowed to change your mind.
You thought you would be cool with granting your girlfriend a sleepover? Yet, when it happens you feel anxious, and getting through the night was worse than your fiercest nightmare.
It's okay. You are not overly boring or conservative for taking the right for a sleepover back. Maybe some time in the future sleepover will be okay. Maybe they never will. It's all okay. Just try to grow so that you can maximize your partner's life satisfaction. They are doing the same for you. Treat the boundaries of your primary partner with the highest respect. Trust is quick to lose and difficult to replenish. You are carrying responsibility, don't gamble with that.
Tip: Expect that you and your partner will make mistakes and break boundaries. It's normal and okay. Shit happens. We are all human. The key is to acknowledge that it happened, forgive the "culprit" and then work together to prevent this misstep from happening again.
Communicate openly and iterate
You will find that broken boundaries are often a result of suboptimal communication. Regardless of what happens don't give up on your honesty and your expectation of good intentions. Sílvia Bastos (2018) names Non Violent Communication (NVC) as a good strategy for sorting out negative feelings here. I personally use these techniques myself and as a German who is as straightforward as a brick, love them. Sílvia defines NVC as:
"a strategy for communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg which guides us to re-frame how we express ourselves, how we hear others, and how we resolve conflicts by focusing on the real meaning behind the words we say."
You can find more details about this in her article under section 4. Tiny spoiler, it has much to do with active listening.
Get started and listen to your gut
Going from a closed relationship to an open one is a big step. Not small, big. You want to design your ride as smoothly as possible. Many people suggest starting with a threesome. Sounds enticing, it’s one of the most common sexual fantasies of humans (Lehmiller, 2020). However, pulling off a good threesome is difficult at best. Simply finding and vetting a good third is an art on its own. There are three people and often one is at the center of the attention. Quickly, one person feels left out. Everything that includes more than two individuals who are all actively doing something is advanced territory. If you still want to do one, I got you covered and you can find my guide on MMF threesomes here.
At the end of the day, your goal is to get used to the idea that a different person can provide pleasure to your primary partner without threatening your committed relationship. The easiest way to achieve this is by going to a tantra studio and treating yourselves to a couples tantra massage. It’s not exactly cheap. Here in Berlin, it costs about 180€-250€ per person. However, I want to urge you to see it as an investment in your growth. You will learn a lot about yourselves and your relationship. In a good tantra studio, you are in a safe space. The humans working at the studio are specifically trained to make you feel comfortable and come from a place of compassion. They treat your trust in them with great care and respect. They are also no threat to your relationship because they are just providing a service. There is more. I promise you that it will be an eye-opening experience. Please discuss openly with your partner and the staff how you feel most comfortable.
Rattle your hocks!
Be persistent, don't give up if things don't work out the first time around. You didn't give up on that sex thing while the first few times weren't that great either. Ultimately, realizing that non-monogamy is not for you counts as a victory too. Nonetheless, enjoy the ride, enjoy your growth. Life is and continues to be beautiful.
Bastos, S. (2018). How to Master Communication in Open, Polyamorous and Other Relationships. Medium. Retrieved 11 November 2021, from URL
Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Fantasies about consensual nonmonogamy among persons in monogamous romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(8), 2799-2812.
Mason, M. (n.d.). The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries, Retrieved 11 November 2021, from URL