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  • Writer's picturedrleephillips

Beyond Monogamy: Deciding to Open Up A Relationship

Recently in my practice, more and more couples are discussing and choosing to open up their relationship to consensual non-monogamy (CNM). And they’re not alone.

In a survey of more than 1,300 adults conducted by YouGov in 2020, 32 percent of respondents pointed to non-monogamy as their ideal relationship style, and 5 percent fewer adults chose monogamy as their ideal style than in 2016. Approximately 23 percent also said that their current relationship is already non-monogamous to one degree or another.

Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term to describe relationships where all partners consent to engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships with multiple people. Like sexuality and gender identity, it also exists on a spectrum. For some, it may mean having intimate and sexual relationships with other partners; for others, it may mean having permission to flirt; and others may fall somewhere in between. People have always engaged in CNM; what sparks curiosity now is why we’re seeing such an increase in its prevalence currently.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic seems to have played a part. Users of Feeld, an app that caters to open relationships, has doubled since January of 2020, with U.S. users increasing by 41 percent between January and September 2021 alone. The app’s CEO, Ana Kirova, says that for many people, the pandemic brought about “A wake-up call, like someone flicked a switch. Life is not guaranteed. Anything that you wanted to do for your happiness was just not worth postponing.”

Cultural shifts that make CNM a more socially acceptable practice may also contribute to the increase in couples opening their relationships. In June 2020, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts passed the country’s first municipal ordinance granting those in polyamorous relationships the same legal rights as married, monogamous couples. The nearby cities of Cambridge and Arlington also passed these ordinances in 2021, characterizing what social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D. calls “an early indicator of a very significant shift in public attitude and opinion.”

When couples are interested in opening up their relationships, I always recommend that they set and agree to incredibly clear expectations at the start (in writing so that both partners have something to refer back to) and put even more effort into communicating honestly and openly in their relationship. Yes, even more communication. Opening up a relationship is not an exit strategy or a way to make an inevitable breakup or divorce less painful. Likewise, non-monogamy is not a viable way to save a relationship that has other, deeper issues that need to be addressed.

Here are some points to consider when setting expectations for CNM with a partner. Some disagreement and negotiation can be expected, but having this dialogue at the beginning is essential.

  • Physical Boundaries: What are your limits for yourself and your partner when it comes to physical and/or sexual touch with another person?

  • Emotional Boundaries: What emotional line, if crossed, would damage rather than enhance your relationship? This could have to do with levels of intimacy, how activities with other partners are disclosed, or what forms of contact are OK.

  • Who Is Off-Limits: Is there anyone or any groups of people (mutual friends, exes, etc.) you would consider off-limits?

  • What Places Are Off-Limits: Are there any places you or your partner should not bring or be intimate with another person (e.g. your home)?

  • Safety: If the CNM relationship is sexual, do you have any expectations around protection and birth control?

  • Disclosure: Who will you tell or not tell about your CNM relationship?

In addition, here are some best practices for keeping your CNM relationship strong:

  • Check In Regularly: It’s important to set aside time specifically for checking in about the relationship so both partners can discuss what’s working, any changes that need to be made, and ask questions.

  • Care for Your Relationship: Opening up your relationship can bring with it a time-management adjustment when you’re bringing new people into your life. Make sure that you and your partner are both making time to nurture your own relationship.

  • Be Willing to Adjust: If something doesn’t feel right, even if you agreed to it when setting expectations, it’s important that both partners are willing to revisit their expectations. They may decide to change them, or they may not, but knowing that they’re open for discussion creates a greater sense of safety for both partners.

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