Right now, you probably know a friend, partner, or date who's thought about trying an open relationship. It's just as likely that you've entertained the idea yourself, even if it's wandering thoughts about dating your significant other and their cute neighbour, or a go-to fantasy of being the designated unicorn in a three-way with Drake and Nicki Minaj (or maybe that's just me).
Look, I'm not a scientist or a sexpert, and at the risk of sounding like a dirtbag ex-boyfriend, I won't argue whether or not non-monogamy is "natural" or "just the way I'm wired, baby," but as NPR's Barbara King writes, creative couplings certainly seem to be having somewhat of a cultural moment. Media representations of non-monogamy are becoming more dynamic and nuanced, with shows like House of Cards, I Love Dick, Orange Is The New Black, and the web series Unicornland bringing depictions of polyamorous relationships to viewers who might start to wonder if traditional dating practices are right for them.
If you're thinking about dipping your toe (or whatever else) into the poly pool for the first time, chances are you'll benefit from some basic etiquette while you figure out what you want and what you don't. So open your mind, forget what you think you know, and let's begin, shall we?
What is "consensual non-monogamy?"
It's important to clarify what consensual non-monogamy means. Contrary to what you might believe, consensual non-monogamy doesn't necessarily equal a no-rules, free-for-all fuckfest, unless that's what you're going for, in which case you should probably just call whatever you're doing a no-rules, free-for-all fuckfest. It does mean that everyone is on board with the relationship's parameters, whether you're open with one partner, dating multiple partners at the same time, being a free agent of casual encounters, or any other variation. As Michon Neal writes for Everyday Feminism, consensual non-monogamy is "a community that prides itself on offering healthier solutions regardless of relationship orientation." Polyamory can be a way to build a family, or spread out your sexual and emotional needs so that they don't fall on one person's shoulders alone.
Consensual non-monogamy comes naturally for some, and others not so much. Either is cool and normal, and no one is more or less enlightened for feeling one way. The only thing true non-monogamy should be is consensual and ethical for all parties involved. "It isn't for everyone," says Kyle, a comedian in Los Angeles who has experience with consensual non-monogamy. "But it's for way more people than you think."
It's not a free pass to be an arsehole.
Understand that fantasising about dating or banging two or more people (at the same time, or not) is not the same as actually dating or banging two or more people who have real feelings, needs, tastes in TV shows, and vastly different work schedules. Just like a relationship with anyone you care about even a little, consensual non-monogamy should be honest and kind. It isn't a pass to go ahead and cheat or be dishonest with a partner or partners—which can still happen in open relationships—or flirt with someone on the low when you know your special person would be hurt. When done correctly, consensual non-monogamy is meant to be a mindful, communicative practice that a lot of people find incredibly fulfilling. (And sexy! And fun!) Ali, a researcher in New York, describes her current poly relationship as "the most honest relationship I've been in. Having the option [to date other people] makes me want other people less."
The only thing true non-monogamy should be is consensual and ethical for all parties involved.
Speaking from personal experience, I can point to a few ill-advised situationships with guys who said their girlfriends were "cool with it" (SPOILER ALERT: they were not). They made excuses for their shitty behaviour by telling me there was "no wrong way" to do poly, my feelings of being left out were the fault of "society," and I was just too much a normie to "get it." Unfortunately, the use of gaslighting and general dishonesty violate both the "ethical" and "consensual" part of the whole "ethical and consensual non-monogamy" thing. It's about welcoming people into your life, not using them up and throwing them out.
Never assume what your partner wants or doesn't want.
One of the core components of consensual non-monogamy is talking candidly and honestly about everything—face to face, not in angry emails. Be honest about your own boundaries, but never assume anyone is cool or not cool with something just because you are.
Occasionally, ugly, uncomfortable feelings like jealousy toward a partner's partners will arise. Jera, a friend from Chicago, offers that eliminating any kind of hierarchy of "primary" and "secondary" partners can be helpful, but everyone's response to feeling jealous, pushed out, and undervalued is different, and sometimes severely problematic for everyone involved. Jetta Rae, a writer and activist in Oakland, tells me she once dated two women who "absolutely loathed each other" and would copy Jetta on their angry email correspondence to each other. Don't do that.
Activist and porn star Kitty Stryker says any kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy is a recipe for disaster. As she told the blog Poly Role Models, "I have learned that a policy like that is a big red flag, if not for drama now, for drama in a few months."
Respect feelings, bodies, and boundaries, even in a casual relationship.
While there's nothing wrong with casual non-monogamy (if that's what all parties want) or hunting a consenting unicorn on OKCupid, you have to maintain "a standard of comfortability—that I'm not a fuck buddy or someone they're hiding," says Jera. Even casual poly relationships require serious work and emotional honesty. Ignoring the disparity in privilege between partners can be a cop-out to avoid uncomfortable discussions about how race, misogyny, and transphobia can influence a relationship, so it's best to "have that conversation now" Jetta tells me, because non-monogamy "isn't a cure-all." "But," she adds, "it has transformed my life."
Be honest about your own boundaries, but never assume anyone is cool or not cool with something just because you are.
Own your mistakes and know when to let go—no one's perfect.
As we all know, relationships fail, and non-monogamous ones are no exception. If there's a knot that can't be worked out, it's just as important to be honest with yourself about when it's time to move on. "There are times when love isn't enough," Jetta explains. And that's okay!
If you want your open relationship to work, and if you care at all about your partners, you have to invest time and energy into them. In return, as a friend from undergrad told me, "The journey is rewarding as hell... I feel super loved!"
Be honest, be respectful, don't be an ass. Basically, try to leave people better than you found them. Not only is this the decent thing to do, but it will help build your network of hotties, potential hookups, and future cuddle buddies. It's a win-win.
For more information on consensual non-monogamy, some great resources include Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy's The Ethical Slut, Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert's More Than Two, and Tristan Taormino's Opening Up: A Guide To Creating And Sustaining Open Relationships, as well as the blogs Poly Role Models and I'm Poly And So Can You.