Demystifying Consensual Non-monogamy (CNM)

We all have heard about monogamy, right? Monogamy is defined as a relationship between two individuals where they are emotionally and physically committed to each other. Exclusivity is key here. This kind of relationship is not-biased towards any one gender or sexual orientation and can be seen across all species, human and animal alike. Most people know this to be the “traditional” path when it comes to categorizing relationships. Our society agrees with this notion as well. In movies and television, books and news articles, you consistently see a promotion of this belief and way of life. This is not a bad thing whatsoever. People subscribe to this way of living and if it works for them, great! The problem is, our society tends to shun other, “non-traditional,” relationships that are proven to be just as healthy as monogamy. If monogamy is on one end of the spectrum, then consensual non-monogamy (CNM) takes up the other 99%. So, how do we define CNM? Well, it really depends on what kind of relationship you are referencing. But to make it simple, CNM is an umbrella term used to describe relationships that do not follow a standard, exclusive partnered relationship. Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Swinging are just a few examples of CNM.

Humans have had a complicated relationship with monogamy. The research points to many different reasons behind this fact. In the book, The Ethical Slut, written by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, they point to this research quite often. From an agrarian perspective, monogamy was seen as a working proposition. A heterosexual, cis-gendered man had to find a heterosexual, cis-gendered woman to impregnate and help him with all of the work that had to be done so nobody starved to death. This is where we see the beginning of “traditional family values.” A woman needed a man to provide for her and thus in return, she would provide for him by giving him children and helping with the needs of the family. It makes sense when you think about it. Marriage and monogamy started as a survival technique for both people involved.

But then what happened? When did love and intimacy enter the picture and how did we get to where we are today? It is hard to pinpoint the beginning of this trend. Most religions promote the notion of one “man” and one “woman” marrying and raising a family as the only path towards happiness and if you do not follow this path, you are shamed and considered a failure amongst the greater community. Others point to the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the sex-negativity movement as another cause. This Revolution saw people moving into cities and the need for reproduction was not the number one priority anymore. But at the end of the day, understanding how we arrived at where we are today can only help so much. What is important is that if you do not believe in traditional monogamy, then you should feel safe to explore other avenues and not feel shame because of it.

Let's look at some statistics. Roughly 5% of the population practices CNM. That number is growing as well. With the older generations dying off and the younger ones being more open to concepts such as gender and sexual fluidity, the pressures of monogamy are beginning to dissipate. One misconception that challenges a lot of my clients is the notion of a “normal relationship.”  People say that CNM is not “normal” or “healthy,” and that it is simply a way for people to cheat on one another. Their friends and family police and shame them into thinking they are abnormal. They question their commitment to their partner and call them “weak” because they cannot stay “faithful” to one person. They are stuck with the thought that physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are connected and cannot be separated. It is tough for a lot of people to grasp this notion. All we have to turn to is the infidelity rate. It is reported that this rate is anywhere between 60%-80%, depending on how you define infidelity. By looking at these numbers, it can be hypothesized that people would rather engage in secretive behavior behind their partner’s back than communicate their authentic desires. Although physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are a part of CNM, both do not need to be present at the same time for each partner. That is the beauty of these kinds of relationships.

As mentioned previously, there are various different forms of Consensual Non-Monogamy. Below are a few of the more popular kinds that you may have heard:

Swinging: Couples engaging with other couples. Typically for physical pleasure.

Monogam-ish: Term created by Dan Savage. This kind of relationship values monogamy above all else, except for a few specific scenarios that partners agree to (i.e. threesome on Valentine’s Day).

Open Relationships: Committed relationship between two individuals who are allowed to act on physical desires with other individuals.

Polyamory: Individuals having multiple romantic relationships at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It may be hierarchical in nature (e.g. primary, secondary, tertiary partners).

Relationship Anarchy: Basically, throwing all traditional relationship rules and values out of the window. The goal of the relationship is to have as few rules as possible. This kind of relationship values freedom of the individual above all else.

The above list is not an exhaustive list by any means, and note that the definitions given are simplistic in nature. I wanted to provide some examples of CNM to display the wide variety of relationships in our world today.

There is no single place to start when wanting to explore CNM. For some people it is easy. For others, it takes time. I encourage reaching out to a sex positive therapist and one who has experience working with the population. When individuals are ready to get the ball rolling, keep in mind that your partner may not be in the same headspace as you are and it may take some time for them to comprehend what you are asking. One of the main ingredients needed for opening up a relationship is trust. Trust is essential. If we do not have trust in our partners, then the road becomes more treacherous. One of the ways we build trust is through authentic and open communication. Again, this is where a therapist can come into assist. Couples therapists are trained to help individuals navigate the wide variety of emotions that develop when this conversation begins. Think about it, you did not know how to ride a bike the first time you tried, did you? You should not automatically expect to know how to navigate a new kind of relationship that is foreign to you.

Once you and your partner feel comfortable communicating with one another and you feel a good sense of trust in the relationship, it is a good time to talk about creating rules and guidelines to help the relationship blossom and succeed. Again, there is no one particular order that you have to follow. I just find that when we are feeling comfortable with the background noise that is filling our heads, we can then set up a game plan. Having a checklist handy would be helpful. Therapist Tammy Nelson provides a detailed checklist that couples can use in her book, The New Monogamy. But even if you do not use her checklist, start a conversation with your partner about particular situations that would be considered off-limits for each of you. Feel free to use the “stoplight” method. In this method, we label something “green” when we both agree upon a rule. “Red” would be those actions that are completely off-limits, and “yellow” would be those that we would be open to, but not at the current moment. Take your time with this activity and allow yourself to really explore your desires.

As I wrap up, here are a few tips I can pass along to you:

1) Do not try to protect your partner from hurt or pain. As humans, we strive for connection. The more we take the time to build a relationship, the closer we become. It is almost impossible not to hurt your partner when you are deeply connected. So, stop trying to avoid the hurt, and just be you. Remember that you two are on the same team and are not intentionally trying to inflict pain on one another (unless we are talking some fun BDSM play).

2) Don’t forget that we are constantly inundated with media that promotes monogamy. It is programming that is hard to avoid. If you find that you are struggling with your thoughts, reorient yourself back towards your true feelings. You are allowed to want marriage and still be practicing CNM. Give yourself a break and don’t forget that you and your partner are taking the steps towards your true relationship.

3) Check-ins are a necessity. These are often referred to as a “State of the Union.” I recommend it once a month. Use this time to address any issues that are arising within yourself or your relationship. But do not just focus on the negative. Talk about what is working for you two as well. These check-ins will help you attune to your partners' needs and then rewrite any rules in your agreement.

4) When feeling defensive, try not to act. Remember the three previous reminders. You are in the process of reprogramming. There are going to be moments that are extremely challenging for you and your partner. When these feelings arise, stop what you are doing, listen to your partner, and think about what is being said. This is a process you and your partner are undergoing. There are going to be fun times, and times that feel less than fun. Be open to hearing one another and curious about what possibilities may arise because of it.

At the end of the day, Monogamy and CNM are here to stay. Whether you want to stay completely exclusive to one another, or you feel like exploring from time to time, what you want is completely healthy. I tell my clients all the time that just because you explore CNM and open up your relationship, does not mean that you can’t close it back up and focus on your primary relationship. This is not Pandora’s Box after all. You have every right to want to explore your desires, kinks, and build emotional connections with other people if you want to. Love does not have a limit on it. There is not a finite about of love a person has and once they run out, that is it! Take some time and re-evaluate what you want in your relationships, and then do whatever feels the most authentic to you.