Non-Monogamy: Who Sets the Rules?

Non-Monogamy: Who Sets the Rules?

Written by Paula Brečak for Self Studies

To choose your own relationship is a modern concept. Only some decades ago, the rules were pretty clear on what love and relationships should look like. You married young, stayed married, had children, aimed to be monogamous or at least appear so. Everyone was supposed to be and was assumed to be straight. There was a social script to follow, both constricting and straightforward. Effortless if you fit within the parameters of that heteronormative society and its rules of love and relationships. Painful beyond measure if you did not.

Today, our options for romantic and sexual relationships are endless and they are only expanding to include numerous ways to create your own love and relationship style. This month, we explored what that can look like in an article that Discovers Relationships beyond Monogamy. Non-monogamy might sound all compelling and exciting, but how do you really get it started? How do you realize what you want? How do you initiate that conversation with your partner? And ultimately, if you are stepping out of the traditional social rules on love and relationships, who then sets the rules and how?

Should I be monogamous or not?

Discussing contemporary non-monogamy often brings up the question whether people are naturally monogamous or non-monogamous. There are theories for both, we cannot know for certain, and it does not really matter. Some people will feel their happiest being with only one person their whole lives. Others will have several great loves at different times throughout their lives. Some will very much enjoy having sexual relations outside of their relationship and with the consent of their partner. And others yet, will be most fulfilled when romantically involved with multiple people at the same time. We are not all the same so we do not all feel our best and happiest in the same relationship type. What the right relationship style is for you, only you can know.

Finding your answer begins by realizing that we all live in a society that tells us monogamy is the right and honest choice, the only choice really. We internalize that belief and live our lives monogamously, some of us not ever questioning whether a different choice would be more suited for us. While monogamy is surely a valid choice, it is not the only one. You have to ask yourself what do you want. You outside of the expectations of others. You when not worrying whether you might be judged. You when you really listen to your needs and intuition. Doing this work is not easy. It includes a lot of unlearning, deconstructing, and reflecting, whether alone, with a close person you can confide in, or with a therapist. But once you untangle all that is holding you back from realizing what you really need and want, a myriad of options opens up.

How do I talk to my partner about opening up our relationship?

Once you have an idea of your own reasons for non-monogamy, it is a good time to talk to your partner. Your partner might have a lot of questions and it is beneficial if you have at least some answers. They will want to know why you want to try non-monogamy and might worry this means you are not attracted to them or don’t love them anymore. They may wonder whether this is a getaway for a break up and whether you are only searching for someone better before leaving them. Or they might get all excited and giddy. Perhaps they were also curious about non-monogamy but felt they might be judged for trying it out. Either way, you will need to tell them exactly what you mean by non-monogamy. Since there is really no one social script on non-monogamy, people rarely have the same idea of it. This is the moment to address all the burning questions and concerns, to reassure them of your love and commitment, and to create a safe space where you can both be honest and vulnerable.

After the initial conversation, give your partner some space and time to process. Same as you needed to solemnly reflect on what you might want and need and why, so does your partner. If you have familiarized yourself with non-monogamy through some books or podcasts, share them with your partner. And then just be patient. While you might be awaiting their response eagerly and anxiously, pressuring them won’t do any good. It could only make them feel like they have to say yes to whatever your suggestion was. But really, they do not have to and you shouldn’t expect them to.

What if me and my partner want different relationships?

Once your partner has thought about your suggestion on opening up your relationship, they will come back to you with, essentially, one of the following three answers: 1) They might be all up for it, loving your ideas and can’t wait to dive into it all; 2) They might be on the fence, interested but unsure; 3) Or they might reject it entirely, with a conclusion that they are exclusively monogamous. When your expectations for your relationship and future do not match, it requires some open conversations and personal reflection. Whether the topic is non-monogamy, having children, moving to a different country, or adopting a cat, the point is always to see where you can compromise and where you cannot. 

If your partner rejects your idea of non-monogamy, have them explain why and talk about what they want or need. Maybe they are afraid of being excluded - you could make sure to schedule your time together, so you do not end up neglecting them if you start dating other people. Maybe they are worried that you will hide things from them - you could agree to be very transparent and keep them up to date on your relationships with others. Maybe they are very jealous and possessive - this could be a perfect opportunity to see why that is so and to work on and through that. There is a reason for their decision and it is valid, whatever it is. But if trying non-monogamy is important for you, your partner should understand that and give it an honest thought.

Finally, your partner might just not be interested in non-monogamy themselves. Maybe they don’t have the time, the energy, or the will. A relationship where one partner is monogamous and the other is not is perfectly all right, if it works for you. Keep checking in and communicating honestly to adjust your relationship and needs as you go.

How do we set the rules?

There are some things that we don’t usually think about when entering a normative monogamous relationship. We assume that relationship means exclusivity but we don’t discuss what that really means. No sex with others, sure. But what about kissing or flirting? Is it worse if there is no sex, but there is romantic attachment, or the other way around? Does watching pornography or masturbating count as cheating? We each have our own ideas, and without talking about it with our partner, we make assumptions.

In non-monogamous relationships, there is no normative. There is no script to what the relationship should look like. It is up to each of us to come up with those answers: Are we going to open our relationship up for sex or also for dating? Can we bring other partners to our home? Is it okay if we fall in love with other people? Are we going to tell each other about our new partners or not? Would we like to meet each other’s new partners? How will we reassure each other when insecurities and jealousy show up?

You probably won’t have all the answers right at the beginning. Talk about as much as you can think of before opening up the relationship, but be kind to yourselves and each other when you are faced with a situation or emotions that you have not had the chance to discuss. Keep honesty and openness as your main tenets, with each other as well as with your new partners. Tell everyone you are involved in what your relationship situation is. Just like you and your partner have to consent to non-monogamy, so do any other new partners.

Over time, your wants, needs, and circumstances will likely change and it is alright to adjust your relationship and rules as you go. It is alright to close your relationship, then open it up again, to change what you mean by non-monogamy and how you practice it, or do not. After all, what defines modern love is that it is you who sets the rules.

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