For the last five years, Consensual non-monogamy (CNM), also referred to as Ethical non-monogamy, has been having a moment. While hard data is somewhat elusive, some estimates say upwards of five percent of Americans engage in forms of CNM, from swinging to polyamory to open relationships. Americans are clearly curious about adopting a more modern open style of relationship, with internet searches for CNM spiking over the last decade. There’s no shortage of media attention for CNM, either, with Buzzfeed wondering if monogamy is entering a flop era and the implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried’s corrupt FTX cryptocurrency exchange launching the concept of polycules — or a polyamorous group — into business press orbit.
With CNM being so normalized, it’s natural for couples to wonder if opening up a relationship would be right for them. If so, Eli Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families and globally recognized expert on non-monogamy, recommends proceeding very slowly and with great care.
“It’s good to ask whether it’s something that will work in your current relationship or if it’s just something you really want,” Sheff says. Before rushing into something that may inflict serious damage or discomfort for either or both partners, Sheff says couples should ask themselves “Can we do non-monogamy together?” And there’s a good chance the answer will be no.
The reason for that answer is simple: CNM is a complex proposition. It entails a lot of effort and maintenance. When we asked Sheff and other experts for signs that couples might consider non-monogamy, the biggest advice was caution about what you might be getting yourself into.
“Non-Monogamy is certainly not right for everyone,” Sheff says.
But if you think it might be right for you — or are simply curious about what must be considered — give serious thought to questions like your relationship to your partner’s pleasure, how you handle jealousy and how your professional life would be impacted if you were outed as a non-monogamist.
Here’s how to know a non-monogamous relationship may be the right move for you.
1. You’re Thrilled By Your Partner’s Pleasure
CNM enthusiasts use the term “compersion” to describe the happiness a person experiences when their partner being with someone else. “It means you take pleasure in your partner’s pleasure, regardless of whether you are the one giving it to them,” sex and intimacy coach Leah Carey says.
Compersion can grow as a relationship becomes increasingly polyamorous, but generally it doesn’t come out of nowhere. If you’re not sure how much you’re starting with, Carey suggests a thought exercise. “Say you’re at a dinner party and your partner is sitting with somebody who’s their type and they’re obviously just having a ball,” she says. “Would that bring up for you a sense that it’s a threat or you are happy your partner is getting to have this time that is clearly making them happy?”
2. You’re OK With Staying Home While Your Partner Is With Someone Else
You might thrill at the sight of your spouse’s moment of pure erotic rhapsody. But what happens when that rhapsody occurs miles away from you? Because at some point during a polyamorous relationship, someone’s going to find themselves at home alone, scrolling their Netflix menus, while the other is out having a fun sex adventure. “You’ve gotta be able to manage that or polyamory is not right for you,” Sheff says.
But this scenario is more or less inevitable and if you can be chill about it, great. If you’re apt to spiral into jealousy and a brand new, insanely potent sense of FOMO, less great. Sure, you can try to arrange to have your third party date nights coincide but, as Sheff says, people have car accidents, get the flu or have to work late.
“Something at some point will happen and they will be left to manage their emotions,” she says. For successful non monogamists, jealousy isn’t a national emergency. “It just means I’m feeling jealousy and maybe I’m gonna play a video game and deal with it.
3. You Can Handle Radical Relationship Discourse
The work required to maintain an open relationship makes cheating seem incredibly easy by comparison. Ethical non-monogamy entails creating a long string of agreements with every person you are intimate with to make sure everybody’s boundaries are respected and needs are taken care of, which means successful ethical non monogamists have to be skilled diplomats and patient negotiators.
“There’s a joke in the community that people think that being non-monogamous means you have tons of sex,” sex and relationship therapist Leah Carey says. “And what being non-monogamous actually means is that you have tons of conversations.”
4. You And Your Partner Are Both Interested
Badgering a spouse into open marriages is such a terrible idea it has its own acronym: PUD, for polyamory under duress. It’s possible to convince hesitant partners to give non monogamy a go but it takes years of slow, careful negotiations. But the person you’re with may flatly not want to break from monogamy, which means your vision for breaking out of the relationship diad is just wishful thinking.
“People need to distinguish from whether non monogamy will work with their current relationship or if it’s just something I really want,” Sheff says, adding: “Mostly, people don’t want to break agreements, but if one partner badgers the other one into an agreement that isn’t equitable, isn’t fair, doesn’t feel comfortable, is not sustainable then it’s a booby trap. They’re setting themselves up for difficulties in the future.”
5. Your Relationship Has A Pristine Bill Of Health
Non monogamy only works for relationships that already work. Both partners need to be able to and work through conflict without retreating into passive aggressive coping mechanisms. “Do you experience conflict and give each other the silent treatment for two months and hate each other,” Sheff says. “That won’t work. Every relationship has conflict, particularly ones involving the complexity of managing multiple and potentially competing demands.” Couples should have well-developed relationship skills when they embark on non-monogamous journeys and be able to pick up new skills as their travels continue.