Non-monogamy is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of non-traditional relationship styles – all the way from “monogamish” to polyamory, relationship anarchy and everything in between. It isn’t superior to monogamy, or necessarily practised by people who are more enlightened or well-rounded. It’s just a different way of approaching love and romance, that veers away from the norms and values associated with a traditional relationship.
Serial monogamy (AKA having one exclusive partner at a time) is how most relationships are depicted in films, TV shows and books, and it’s the reason your gran relentlessly asks if you’ve “settled down yet”. We’ve been socialised into believing that this is the gold standard of relationships: If you really love someone, then you wouldn’t fancy someone else. But what if your idea of domestic bliss involves toggling between getting railed by strangers and then going home to snuggle with your primary partner?
Alternative relationship styles have always been around, but interest in them has increased rapidly since the pandemic. And while one of the UK’s largest family law firms reported a 95 percent rise in divorce enquiries last year, sex-positive dating apps like Feeld have also soared in popularity. But what exactly does a non-monogamous relationship entail? There’s a common belief that they revolve around orgies and group sex (they do for me, because I’m a slut) but it’s just as much about shared calendars, time management and getting more comfortable with having difficult and honest conversations.
If you’re thinking about exploring other options but don’t know where to start, read on to learn some more about how non-monogamous relationships can function.
Work out what you want, then communicate it
Before dipping your toe – or any other extremities – into the world of non-monogamy, it’s important to figure out your boundaries and then immediately and clearly communicate them with your partner. It’s hard in a new relationship, because nobody wants to call a “serious talk” when you’re still spontaneously fucking in nightclub toilets. But humans are not mind readers, and you’re doomed from the get-go if you don’t explain your boundaries.
Having said that, boundaries should have some level of flexibility. My previous six-year relationship started off monogamous, but soon developed into a monogamish arrangement involving partner swapping and group sex. Soon, we were contributing to a Google Doc titled “Our Rules” with commandments like “wash your sheets if you’ve had someone round” and “no getting with mutual friends”. We committed to getting a sexual health check-up every three months, but even our rules on STI protection evolved; “condoms for anything involving someone else” eventually morphed into “condoms for everything other than oral”.
In my current relationship, we have scheduled chats where we talk about how we feel and whether we’re happy with the current parameters of the arrangement. People grow, relationships shift; what worked yesterday might not work today or tomorrow.
Opening up a relationship VS starting one open
From my experience, it’s easier to begin as a non-monogamous relationship than it is to open up a monogamous relationship. It’s less alarming to hear about your partner hooking up with other people, if that’s the way it’s always been. But opening up a closed relationship requires a series of painful conversations followed by cautious baby steps, and it can take years to get it right.
Janet Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut and author of 13 books on non-monogamy, told me how healthily opening a monogamous relationship might look. “There's nearly always going to be one partner who is more adventurous about outside relationships and one who is less so,” she says. “If you’re doing it right, you wind up with one person feeling just a little bit stretched and pushed, but within their tolerance, and one person who's feeling a little bit constrained, but within their tolerance.
“So if everybody is just a little bit unhappy, that's a good sign that you're doing it right. If one person is delighted and the other person is unhappy, then that's a good sign that you're doing it wrong.”
Own your emotions
There’s a common misconception that people who practice non-monogamy are like emotional zombies who never feel insecure or jealous. It’s not true – the difference is that they’ve learned (or, at least, aspired to learn) the knowledge and tools that can help deal with jealousy in a productive way. It’s pretty much impossible to control the initial feeling; you’re going to have a wobble, or, as Hardy calls it, a “jelly moment”. My partner and I call them “blobby moments”.
Jealousy is a natural emotion: acknowledge it, feel it, and don’t try to shut it out. “Own your jealousy and figure out what it is that you might need in order to feel more secure,” says Ruby Rare, a sex educator, author and podcaster. “The times in my life when I've felt jealous in romantic relationships is because I didn't feel like I was getting the kind of comfort and reassurance that I need in order to feel secure.”
Hardy adds: “Initial jealousy starts feeling like a terrifying thunderstorm. And then, with practice, it becomes a gentle rain; you're still gonna get wet, but it's gonna be a lot less scary.” She advises that when you’re explaining your feelings, try writing “I” messages as opposed to “you” messages. “Don't say ‘you’ did this,” says Hardy. “Say ‘I feel frightened because when I see you doing this, I worry that you might leave’, or ‘I feel angry because I thought we had an agreement.’ That's an easier place to start from than trying to blame.”
Beware of ‘new relationship energy’
One of the toughest parts of a non-monogamous relationship is what poly people call new relationship energy (NRE): the intoxicating emotional, physical, and sexual response you feel when you first get with someone new and you’re rapidly falling in love. It’s a lot like the delicious part after you come up on MDMA, when your fists are clenched, your eyeballs are going north and there’s nothing in the world that matters other than the next tune the DJ drops. Obviously, it doesn’t feel great when your partner has this with someone else.
“They’re all sparkly and happy bringing this joyful energy,” Hardy says. “It is tough. You’re in the bathroom cleaning out the cat box and he’s come back from his hot date with someone who still wears makeup.”
That means it’s the responsibility of the person with the shiny new relationship not to flaunt it. “It's just rude to come home and tell your partner, ‘Wait until you hear about the great time I had with them’,” says Hardy, “particularly early on, while they're still feeling insecure. Find someone else to lay that on – your partner is not your cheerleader.”
Rare is quick to point out the pitfalls of becoming too consumed with the endorphin-soaked NRE experience. “NRE is a lovely feeling,” she explains, “but also know that it is an unsustainable way of feeling and you're not going to feel like that forever. Don’t make any big life-changing decisions – like moving to another country or buying a house – while at the height of NRE. Wait for those feelings to settle.”
Non-monogamy is a tough path to follow, but a rewarding one if you’re willing to work on yourself. There are going to be conflicts and difficult times, but that’s the case for monogamists too. In the end, it’s up to you to shape your relationships – and the world is full of potential when you put fewer limits on love.