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What Is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

Wider society has a sneaky way of conveniently leaving anything that doesn’t fit tightly within the status quo outside of its margins. Only remarkably recently have folks in our country — including clients and friends — started speaking more openly about, and engaging openly in, non-monogamy. Many don’t know that the human race never evolved to be solely monogamous. Theories and research surrounding the history of non-monogamous societies–and their transition towards a monogamous lifestyle– is vast. Now the question arises, ‘Why the shift back to non-monogamy?’ Reasons for this are endless, one being the feminist and women-in-the-workforce movements. Essentially, coupling up was almost necessary (even as close in history as a few decades ago) if you were a woman and couldn’t legally work because someone had to finance the household. Maybe a relationship wasn’t always about connection but necessity. Today, we are still sold images solely of marriage and together-forevers, even though society is significantly different, and some are arguing that this model is outdated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with marriage and being with your sweetheart forever if that’s your cup of tea. However, what’s wrong is that this is the only way many are taught is the right way.

So what is consensual (also called ethical) non-monogamy? It is a relationship where more than two adults consent to the arrangement. Other forms of relationships, like open and polyamorous, fall into the umbrella of non-monogamy. The terms “consensual” or “ethical” distinguish the relationship from one of cheating, infidelity, or coercion, for example. Consensual non-monogamy uses socially acceptable guidelines, moral principles, and tools to form an intimate relationship. The meat of this kind of relationship is not doing anything without the absolute full consent of your partner(s). Engaging in this form of a romantic relationship, or having a desire to do so, is completely healthy and natural. Biologically, humans mate for the pure reason of livelihood. Though we have evolved quite a bit, some things never change, except that now sex and intimacy can also be available for pleasure and relationship-building.

The central question: what is the best way to have this kind of relationship, and how do you engage in a way that will support the upkeep of mental and emotional health? Take a peek below at a few helpful tips: 

What’s clearer than crystal?

Consensual non-monogamy is not dissimilar to any other relationship regarding its need for agreements and consensus around some vital topics, no matter what those topics are. When those in the relationship agree to partake, they also have to talk about what each envisions for the relationship. Ideas about whether or not there is a primary partner, what kind of connections are okay to pursue, or whether there will be dating of other people or just sex may be essential to discuss. There are baseline parts about romantic relationships that generally are agreed upon in some form for it to have a chance at being successful. These agreements should be crystal clear. And, a gentle reminder: agreement, by definition, is the absence of incompatibility between two or more things, which means that all involved need to agree and collaborate on what is acceptable.

Open and honest communication cannot be taken lightly. 

Solid communication skills can take you to lots of places in this world. They can get you what you advocated for at work, they can give constructive feedback, awe future colleagues at a job interview, and they can even land you in a fulfilling consensual non-monogamous relationship. Take it even a step further from communication skills and think about comfortability by sharing how you feel. Equally as important as sharing how you feel is the ability to receive what your partners hold. Those together can result in your partners feeling heard, seen, and cared for. A non-monogamous relationship itself does not equate to the absence of care. Goals cannot be achieved if compassion and honest communication don’t exist. Because engaging in a consensually non-monogamous relationship will almost inevitably add more variables like emotions, thoughts, and interactions, communicating openly and frequently will aid in preventing conflict. Think of it this way: When in an open relationship, the term “open” does not only apply to sexual or intimate partnerships but all that comes with it to stay afloat.

Check-in frequently.

In the spirit of open and honest communication, why not create a streamline via frequent check-ins? How often to engage in check-ins is subjective and personal. Check-ins can also remove the heaviness and stress around the phrase, ‘We need to talk.’ If the check-ins are scheduled or had at an agreed-upon time, all parties will come prepared and (hopefully) not caught off guard. Communication in relationships with loved ones can be open and comfortable, not only contentious or defensive. 

Compersion vs. jealousy. 

Emotions do not exist on a hierarchy, meaning one is not “better” than the other. All emotions that we feel as humans are good and natural — it’s what we do with them that counts. Anger can be productive when managed effectively, and so can an emotion like jealousy. Our emotions are a roadmap to what’s important to us and what may need extra attention. Jealousy in a consensually non-monogamous relationship happens, especially when many of us are deeply programmed for monogamy. Comparable to an emotion like anxiety, jealousy may remind you of that alarm that goes off in our brains when we sense a threat or danger. 

Compersion is the opposite of jealousy — it is a sense of happiness for a partner when they have a new sexual or emotional experience. Essentially, you feel happy for someone about something that has nothing to do with you, like maybe when your ex gets married. Compersion is a skill that takes lots of practice for many — after all, jealousy is evolutionary and biologically part of our make-up. Learning how to practice compersion takes a dash of patience, empathy, and some cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing can include reminding yourself of the relationship agreements mentioned above, reasons why your relationship is secure, why you trust your partner(s), etc. Compersion, regardless of the label on your relationship, will only serve it well. And if you find yourself experiencing jealousy, don’t be so hard on yourself. Perfection is an illusion in every form.

Whether you’ve been in consensual non-monogamous relationships before or you’re simply pondering on it, you did it! You immersed yourself, in some capacity, into something that the greater public may insult and frown upon and, that dear, takes strength in itself. That means you have the muscle to overcome any nuances or challenges that this open relationship throws your way. After all, you aren’t arriving empty-handed — you’ve got plenty of tools in between these lines.  


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here