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Establishing Ground Rules for Ethical Non-Monogamy

written by Andre N. Casas, M.A.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Establishing Ground Rules for Ethical Non-Monogamy

Open relationships aren’t for everyone, but neither is monogamy. Some people who might prefer an open relationship sometimes avoid asking for it as their emotional commitment develops with their partner. However, if monogamy isn’t something you think you’ll be capable of for five or six decades, author Dan Savage suggests that maybe you should be anxious to get rejected. The point being, staying quiet about your needs can lead to problems down the line and result in infidelity. For individuals like Savage who is in a non-monogamous marriage, his husband initially rejected the idea; but it was his husband who later suggested they try it.


Why people choose ethical non-monogamy.

An article from better help (link at the end of this article) has a really great list already put together to elaborate on some of the reasons why people choose ethical non-monogamy:


  • They want to explore their sexuality. To some people, one partner at a time makes them feel like they can’t explore their sexuality or romanticism to the fullest. Ethical non-monogamy allows them to explore their sexuality while still being fully committed to one person.
  • They love more than one person at a time. Some people are programmed to romantically love two or more people, and feel monogamy holds them back from their truest self.
  • Partners believe monogamy is the product of jealous or possessive feelings. Non-monogamy involves letting go of these feelings to experience more love.
  • Some people like having variety in their sex and romantic life. Opening up their relationship allows them to do so without some of the limitations found within monogamy.
  • One partner may not be able to meet all of their needs. In some cases, a partner may not be in a position physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally to satisfy sexual or romantic needs. For example, one person may be more turned-on by kink or a certain type of sexual/romantic playfulness, and non-monogamy allows these desires to be fulfilled by another person.


Of course, it’s also possible to want to open a relationship for reasons not listed here. Maybe it just feels right for you and your relationship. Like the evolution and development of one’s personality, interests, and identities (e.g. gender, professional, romantic), situations and rules can change. For some, non-monogamy can provide a wide range of possibilities. It can be expressed in a variety of ways: some couples only have sex with other people, others date them and fall for them, others are open about being open, and yet others keep their openness “in the closet” socially. Sex and relationships columnist Karley Sciortino has described non-monogamy as boundless. For her, pushing her boundaries and talking about them forced her to be honest with herself about what she prefers, and to learn to communicate with her partner well and clearly.


Develop a relationship contract.

That’s right, a contract. With respect to trust and honest communication, these agreements about consensual non-monogamy make everything we expect from our relationships and partners very explicit. A relationship contract outlines what every party is agreeing to in order to make space for getting their own needs met, while maintaining and respecting boundaries for their partners. Many couples will decide what places may or may not be off-limits for taking dates (e.g. a special restaurant or museum), what consent looks like for everyone involved, and what kind of sexual and/or romantic acts might not be okay.


  1. Safety

One area to consider in your contract is sexual safety. These can include your expectations when it comes to protection, regular testing, and birth control. Some consider this a great place to start because couples often already have experience with this topic and it is more readily defined. This area of your contract might discuss STD/STI testing and forms of contraception (e.g. condoms, birth control, etc.). It is critical to understand what your and your partner’s personal limits are. This might also be a great opportunity to create a safe word if you don’t have one already; this word can be used during sexual play as well as when you are interacting and socializing with new people, or discussing a romantic interaction that takes place outside of your primary relationship. The use of a safe word can be something you both instantly recognize as a moment to stop and discuss what further action needs to be taken, if any.


  1. Physical Limits

Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, and kinks, non-monogamous situations will inevitably push your boundaries at one time or another. Taking the time to assess and understand your limits can prevent a great time from turning into an emotional whirlwind. Ask yourself honestly what your own “hard no’s” are; what are your definite “not-okays?” Then ask the same of your partner. This may be tougher than you realize, and it is encouraged that you and your partner both visualize scenarios in which your partner is with another person. What might you feel if you saw your partner hug or touch someone else? Over time and with more experience, you may re-negotiate and expand your comfort level, but it is important that you try and be as realistic as possible at the start. If the idea of your partner kissing someone else gives you anxiety, do not just assume that you will “get over it.” Knowing you and your partner’s physical limits is essential.


  1. Emotional Boundaries

This may be one of the hardest conversations for partners to have, as well as to admit to yourself. What is the emotional line that would ruin what you currently have if it were crossed? For many who are polyamorous, the idea of sleeping with someone who treats them as nothing more than an object of sexual gratification is a complete deal breaker. For others within consensually non-monogamous relationships, particular places, activities, or forms of contact and communication are unequivocally off-limits. The chances that you and your partner disagree on these boundaries is likely, and negotiation, communication, and being open to having an ongoing dialogue about this is key. For one couple, it was important for them to only communicate via group messages that include individuals from outside the existing relationship; if feelings progressed, they would discuss the potential for and impact of branching off into one-on-one conversations. It should be clear that a no, for any reason and from either partner, will be respected. Another example of emotional boundaries might be only wanting disclosure whenever either partner had sex; for this couple, one member requested that the other keep all feelings to themselves to protect emotional boundaries.


  1. Who to Tell

Regarding privacy, a frank discussion about who it is permissible to tell (e.g. family, co-workers, friends, or no one) should be a point of discussion in your contract. Some members of a couple may be uncomfortable with the idea of others knowing this aspect of your relationship. If you have children, it is also important to make decisions together on what to tell or not tell them, and when. While some parents elect to wait until their children are adults to tell them, others choose to have open and honest conversations about non-monogamy, much like the way parents talk to their children about sex or puberty. Whatever is decided by you and your partner, it is important that you are both on the same page: this is one topic that cannot be taken back. If you are a private person or have concerns about how a non-monogamous relationship orientation might impact your career, religion, or social circle, one thing you might consider is creating a secret social media account(s). This may allow you to have discussions, get/give support, and perhaps even meet new people. Creating a sense of community is imperative to a healthy relationship, and there are ways to do it in public or in private. Wherever you and your partner fall on this topic, make sure you discuss this before you accidentally announce your extra-curricular activities during a family holiday dinner.


  1. Who Not to See

One final possible topic of discussion to consider is to talk about who would be off-limits to pursue a relationship with. Such rules come to mind as no exes, no close mutual friends, no co-workers, no one night stands, or no one that your partner has not met. This is rarely renegotiated at a later time, but of course every couple may develop their own contractual agreements and experience their own relationship evolution. A no is a no, and discussing who is completely off limits or “deal breakers” from the onset is crucial.


Open relationships are not an exit strategy.

Open relationships are not a way to soften a blow, avoid breaking up, or transition out of a committed situation. Pretending to be happy with a situation while suffering inside doesn’t work for anyone, and doing something with other people before discussing it is essentially a form of betrayal to your partner’s trust. As you might have heard more than several times throughout your dating life, trust and communication are imperative to any relationship, whether they are monogamous or not. Opening up a relationship requires a lot of trust and radically honest communication.


Dr. Eli Sheff, an educational consultant and expert witness serving sexual and gender minorities, emphasizes that prioritizing a primary partner is key when practicing non-monogamy. When two compatible people are getting to know each other, they sometimes want to spend every minute together, “which can leave a long-term partner feeling hurt if you’re taking your relationship for granted,” Dr. Sheff says. “Wear your special lingerie, surprise them, bring them flowers.” For some, it’s not a big deal if their partner has sex with someone else, but they can feel slighted if they are being emotionally neglected. Dr. Sheff adds that in her experience, the most successful non-monogamous relationships are the ones in which the lover’s partners (the ones who aren’t sleeping with each other) get along.


In most cases, jealousy is the rule and not the exception.

Experts on ethical non-monogamy talk about how monogamous commitments aren’t force fields that protect one from jealousy; jealousy is a universal emotion that transcends relationship orientations. Dr. Sheff suggests taking a closer look at the underlying causes of jealousy, and to confront jealousy in an open relationship the same way in most other relationships: write down your thoughts, discuss your feelings with your partner, or see a counselor. Ultimately, the best way to feel comfortable is up to individuals and their partner(s).


Have fun, stay safe, and communicate.