7 steps to healthy non-monogamy
“The point for me is to create relationships based on deeper and more real notions of trust. So that love becomes defined not by sexual exclusivity, but by actual respect, concern, commitment to act with kind intentions, accountability for our actions, and a desire for mutual growth.”
Intro: You want to open the window?
More and more people want to have less monogamous relationships. This can range from monogamish to open and all sorts of delightful non-monogamous and polyamorous relationship styles in between.
This article is primarily aimed at monogamous people to help them move towards non-monogamous relationships. It’s one pathway of many to work out and practice non-monogamy, whether you are single or partnered.
If you’re currently monogamous and want that to change, start at step 1. If you’re already non-monogamous, see which step is your strongest and which, if any, could do with a bit more attention.
Step 1: Imagine
In an ideal world, if you had it all your way, what would your relationships looks and feel like?
Often we start this process with a heavy monogamy hangover. We know what we don’t want but don’t yet know what we do want.
This step is not about action. It’s about daydreaming and feeling into what’s possible and enjoyable for you.
Do you want to come home to two or more partners? Do you want to have sex with more than one of them at a time? Do you want to listen to your partner talk about their hot date?
If you keep imagining then you’ll find yourself wondering how would you colleagues, friends, and family respond? Who do you want to introduce your partners to?
Give yourself permission to let go and imagine your unique best possible poly life. You may want to write this down so you can share it with partners or potential partners. Also, notice the areas of your imagined relationships you are avoiding thinking about.
Step 2: Explore
Now you have a sense of what you want, the next step is to talk about it.
If you’re already partnered, this step is all about being really curious about what each person wants. Be as clear and authentic as you can when communicating your imaginings. Be honest about what you truly want rather than what you feel your partner(s) can handle.
If you are single, you can talk about this with other non-monogamous people. There are many online communities if you don’t yet have non-monogamous friends.
Learn as much as you can about the imaginings of your partner(s), including how they want the relationship to feel, what they want it to look and be like, and what’s most important for them. Ask for clarification, check you really understand them, and don’t assume you know what they want. If you find this stage really difficult as a couple, I suggest you get professional help from a counsellor as good communication is key to healthy non-monogamous relationships.
For many people, especially those of us who are neurodivergent, it can be really difficult to put our imaginings into words. So be generous with your time and attention and allow yourselves to spend as long as you need on this stage.
Step 3: Negotiate
You’ve clarified your ideal relationship and now you need to start considering the practicalities. If you are partnered, now is the stage to discuss boundaries and make agreements. This is usually called contracting and therapists such as Tristan Taoromino are great to follow for contracting tips and advice.
It’s often worth writing this down, not as a binding document, but to have something to revisit, as it can be difficult to remember how you felt in the past when you’re in the throws of new relationships.
As a minimum, it’s worth discussing:
- Veto power (e.g. can you forbid your partner from dating or having sex with a specific person)
- Hard boundaries (e.g. about contraception or that nobody has sex in our bed except us)
- Soft boundaries (e.g. how much you share about metamours (partners’ partners) or what to do when one of you breaks this agreement)
Do you best to talk about everything you feel needs to be said, even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable. And don’t worry, you can’t plan for everything and you’ll have to revisit this step once you’ve started putting things into practice.
Step 4: Open the window
Finally, you get to put all of your hard work into practice!
This is the trial and error stage, much like a scientific experiment. Try new things, such as using apps such as Feeld, kink websites like good old Fetlife, joining swingers groups, play parties, or polyamorous events locally or online.
If you are in a monogamous relationship, make sure in step 3 you talked about what you’ll do together and what you’ll do separately, as well as how much you’ll share afterwards.
Be prepared for each of you to have different levels of success and enthusiasm, which can be very disruptive. So make sure that you’re putting enough attention into your old relationship to weather the discomfort and grow together. You will change, your relationship will change, and so will your partner.
Opening the window lets in plenty of fresh air and excitement, but we can get carried away and damage the relationship. To give a personal example, I cried myself to sleep the first night my partner spent with someone else even though we’d planned it and discussed it.
This isn’t necessarily about prioritising the established relationship, it’s more about not knowing how much discomfort and uncertainty you can handle. So my suggestion is, when something hurts or upsets you, whether it was intentional or accidental, talk about it together.
Step 5: Evaluate
Unlike the other steps, this one needs to be an ongoing practice. However, often something will happen that will naturally cause you to come together and evaluate what you negotiated in step 3.
Frequent, quick check-ins are important in keeping a relationship healthy and hygienic and I cannot recommend them highly enough. You’re going to feel differently about what you agreed to in principle now you’ve been doing it in practice. Maybe your partner only likes having sex with strangers and you only like having sex with friends? Maybe one of you wants more couple time and the other wants weekly polycule horror movie nights?
This is a great time to talk about envy, jealousy, excitement, and compersion, in yourself and your partners. Some people find it difficult to voice their feelings and others find it harder to hear others talk about theirs. Do you best to allow and acknowledge all feelings.
If done well, this stage should strengthen your relationships and increase intimacy. If you find your evaluations turn into arguments or you feel unable to say what you need to, try slowing down the conversations, listening more, speaking less, and validating each other’s emotions more. This is also a great time to read “The Many Faces of Polyamory” or get professional help. You can search online for terms such as polyamorous relationship therapist.
Step 6: Refine
If you practice the previous step well, you will naturally find yourself or yourselves refining your contract.
It might feel a bit odd but I would encourage you to keep revisiting your contract and writing things down. If nothing else, it will chart your personal growth as you move beyond monogamy and learn more about yourself and what emotional and psychological boundaries really work best for you. It can become a celebration and affirmation of your maturation and flourishing relationship skills.
Remember, just because you’re happy with how things are, don’t assume your partners are too. Pay as much attention to what makes you feel safe and secure as to what you find uncomfortable. Notice how you react to your partners, such as by being possessive, passive aggressive, or needy.
Make sure you address these behaviours as avoiding them typically reduces intimacy and often leads to feeling stagnant or distant. While it’s important to share your experiences with your partner(s), please don’t expect them to be your therapist! Get personal therapy or use other ways to address the behaviours you want to change.
Step 7: Enjoy!
If you’re new to non-monogamy and reading this, it might all sound like a lot of hard work. It is – but I truly believe it’s worth it!
Although the evaluating and refining is an ongoing process, you can now enjoy more stable and fun relationships. Bask in your new found confidence, take pleasure in your partnerships, and be proud of all the stretching and discomfort you’ve been through. Enjoy the smooth sailing! (For as long as it lasts…)
For some people, this is where they return to step 1. They start re-imagining their ideal relationships and wider life goals, then go on to make further changes. For others, they find they want to return to monogamy, or stick to just being swingers, or only going to specific types of events. This is the phase of being more settled after the earlier turbulence. Stuff will happen, and you’ll find you have more tools and resilience to deal with it than before.
If you’ve worked out what you want, you do you. You don’t have to justify your desires or wants. You don’t have to keep on sampling the whole buffet if you’re done with it. It might seem obvious, but you also don’t have to have the same relationship styles or structures as your partners.
Conclusion: Revolving Doors
Consciously working through these steps can be really helpful but you’ll probably find yourself going round them naturally anyway. The main aim is to get really honest with yourself and your partners and to clarify what your priorities are, such as what is most secure, nourishing, satisfying, fun, and satiating for you.
- Do you want to be monogamous and occasionally throw open the window and go to sex parties together or separately?
- Do you want an open relationship with regular casual sex and a revolving door of different lovers?
- Do you want to nest in a quad and live the polycule good life?
None of these are right or wrong or better or worse. You are the expert on you and you deserve to have the relationships that you desire and dream of. If you want help working that out, alone or together, please get in touch.