How To Explore Non-Monogamy In Your Relationship

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We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto today's topic: how to explore non-monogamy in your relationship.

Q: “My partner and I have just started experimenting with non-monogamy. We have gone on first dates with other people, but nothing beyond that so far. We've have had some threesomes together, but doing stuff alone is new. How should we set up the rules as we go? It has been fun to be able to date, but I assume things are about to get a lot more complicated if we keep going.”

A: Thanks for the question! It’s great that you and your partner are taking some time to be thoughtful about the next steps in your relationship. There are so many different ways to be non-monogamous, and no set of guidelines that will work for every couple, so it’s important for you guys to remember that you can make your own rules. Here are eight steps towards setting up your non-monogamous relationship.

1. Get Clear On What You Want

Unfortunately, most people seem to think in a monogamy vs. non-monogamy binary. But non-monogamy isn’t one size fits all (neither is monogamy, for that matter). There are a million different ways to configure your relationship. If you and your partner haven’t already, it’s time to sit down and have a conversation about what you want to get out of being non-monogamous.

Start with the big picture philosophical questions first: what was the reason you guys decided to try non-monogamy in the first place? What has been working for you guys so far? What are your values and beliefs about relationships, love, sex, and commitment? Do you want a “don’t ask don’t tell” relationship? Do you just want to have multiple sexual relationships, or extend it to romantic relationships too? Do you want to have relationships together, or separately? Do you want hierarchical relationships, where your primary relationship takes precedence over your other relationships?

2. Learn More About The Possibilities

If all of those concepts have your head spinning, you may also find it useful to take a crash-course in non-monogamy. Read one of my favorite book recommendations, The Ethical Slut. Talk to any friends you have who might currently be in open relationships, or have had them in the past. Peruse forums or go to meetups in your area. Do some research separately, and give yourselves time on your own to process your feelings and reactions. Then come together to have a conversation.

Just to be clear — by recommending this research, I’m not suggesting that non-monogamy requires more effort than monogamy. It requires different types of effort. Plus, since our society defaults to monogamy, most people don’t have the opportunity to learn about all of the different non-monogamy options. It’s on each of us to educate ourselves, unfortunately.

3. Ask Lots of Questions

From there, you can get more into the nitty gritty details of how you want your version of non-monogamy to function. Some questions to consider:

  • What dating activities do you both feel comfortable with? Second dates? Weekend getaways? Meeting the parents?
  • What about having committed relationships with other people?
  • What sexual activities are on and off the table? Intercourse? Oral? Threesomes with other people?
  • Is there a limit to how many other people you can date at the same time?
  • How much do you want to know about your partner’s experiences with other people?
  • How will you keep yourselves safe from STIs and pregnancy?
  • What happens if one of you decides you want to renegotiate your boundaries?

There's lots to talk about! In general, I think a good rule of thumb is that if you both can't agree on it, you shouldn't try it.

3. Take It Slow

In general, I recommend taking baby steps when it comes to non-monogamy. Try going on a few second dates, or having separate overnight sleepovers. It’s kind of like losing your virginity again. You don’t lose anything by taking non-monogamy slowly, but you run a higher risk of things going poorly if you jump in too quickly.

4. Be Prepared To Learn As You Go

Even if you guys had your boundaries down pat before taking any additional steps, you can’t predict how you’re going to react to every situation. You might have thought you’d be totally cool with your partner having an overnight date, but realize after the fact that it’s too intense for you. It’s OK to get triggered, and it’s OK to change your mind. Nothing is set in stone.

5. ... And Be Prepared For Jealousy

Be forewarned that you will probably experience jealousy at one time or another. Jealousy is one of the most common experiences in non-monogamous relationships. It’s a natural reaction. Sometimes your jealousy is a sign that you need to renegotiate your boundaries, but sometimes jealousy is just an icky feeling that you need to sit with for a little while.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what you need, try telling yourself, “I give myself permission to feel jealous.” Repeat this every time those feelings come up. If you feel the jealousy dissipating a bit, it’s probably a sign that you just needed to acknowledge your own feelings. If it’s still feeling strong a few days later, it might be time to reconsider your boundaries.

6. Schedule Check-Ins

Since you can’t know how you’re going to react before the fact, I would recommend scheduling regular check-in sessions with your partner. Monthly is a good time frame, but you can do more or less time if you want. Or you can do it after certain milestones, like after a second date or after sleeping with someone new for the first time. You can check in more frequently at the beginning of your experimentations, and less frequently as you get more comfortable testing the waters.

Ask each other how you’re feeling. What have been the high points of the month? What have been the challenges? Is there anything you need from each other? Do you want to talk about or renegotiate any of your boundaries? Of course, you can talk to your partner outside of these designated times too, but just knowing you have these check-ins scheduled can help you feel more calm and grounded.

7. Always Choose Your Own Adventure

Perhaps the most important point that I want to get across to you is that you and your partner get to decide what works and doesn’t work for yourselves and your relationship. This isn’t even about monogamy vs. non-monogamy; it’s about taking ownership of your own life. If you guys like casually dating other people and don’t see the need to take it any further, keep your relationship as it is! If you’re curious about exploring other configurations, give them a shot! Just remember that you’re the only people who can make the final decision about what you want.

Good luck!

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