Whether you’re monogamous, non-monogamous, or somewhere in between, dating is hard. No one enjoys the apps; everyone is disappointed by a perceived lack of good options; awkward conversations are still awkward, whether the topic is defining the relationship or deciding who not to invite to the birthday orgy. Basically, we all need help with relationships.
I’ve been openly and happily non-monogamous for over a decade now. That means I’ve given the non-monogamy sales pitch a kajillion times, and I’ve been turned down for being a relationship “weirdo” slightly less than a kajillion times. I’ve even taken the phenomenon of everyone in my life constantly asking questions about polyamory, and leveraged it into a full-time private coaching practice and a weekly relationship advice podcast.
Between my job, the podcast, and the circles I tend to run in on weekends, I meet a lot of “relationship weirdos” like myself – the ones who color outside the lines of relationship norms. What I’ve noticed is there are difficulties my monogamous clients and friends grapple with again and again that my non-monogamous clients and friends don’t seem to have much trouble with.
Don’t get me wrong, the polyamorous folks and kinky couples have plenty of their own unique issues. (A lot of hurt feelings when your partner’s wife’s metamour has put you on the “do not invite” list for the birthday orgy.) But everyone out there practicing monogamy, or dating in search of a monogamous partner, could stand to borrow some practices and beliefs that are more commonplace in non-monogamous culture.
1. Talk about sex before it happens
Let’s start with sex, since I’ve already got you thinking about birthday orgies. Studies suggest that people engaging in conventional dating or hookups don’t consistently discuss STIs and contraceptives before having sex with a new partner. (I’m giving you some serious side-eye right now.)
Here’s where I see my non-monogamous clients excel: They have to talk about sex. Spending a sexy Saturday night at the local dungeon means taking the time beforehand to discuss limits, fantasies, desires, and even whether or not anyone’s genitals will be involved. Choosing to have sex with multiple people, simultaneously or not, requires acknowledging the risks that multiply when more bodies are coming into contact. Everyone has to work together to manage that risk in a way that keeps everyone feeling safe – there’s no option to just cross your fingers and hope for the best.
My pro tip is discussing sex before clothes are off – before you’re within ten feet of a bed or other fuckable surface, before you’re worried about ruining the mood. Once you’ve established that both you and the other person are interested in getting down, here are some handy scripts to follow:
“Looking forward to later. Can we talk a little more about what we might be up for? How do you feel about ZYX - what are you into?”
“I really want to take this further, but let’s talk about STIs and protection first – have you been tested recently?”
If you’re already in a monogamous relationship, this advice still applies. Make regular time in your relationship for talking about sex at times that aren’t during sex. Even if your sexual connection feels strong, regularly checking in provides opportunities to reflect on what’s working well and what you’d like to try next. (Because no one wants their partner’s alien abduction roleplay fantasy sprung on them right before orgasm.)
2. Just be honest
Sure, “honesty is the best policy” has been drilled into our heads since the days of sticking crayons up our noses. But it’s funny how honesty acquires a bunch of caveats when it comes to our romantic connections: “Don’t talk about your insecurities – that’ll be a huge turn-off. Don’t bring up past sexual experiences – it’ll be awkward. Don’t ask about what type of relationship they’re interested in – that’s presumptuous.”
In other words, honesty is the best policy, unless honesty makes you come across as imperfect, different, or puts you at risk of rejection. In that case, avoid, avoid, avoid, baby!
Regardless of what relationship format is your jam, this is a universal quandary of human intimacy. In the early stages of a connection, part of the mindfuck is the contradictory tension: We want to open up and be vulnerable, but only when it feels safe to. But it’s impossible to know whether or not it’s safe, unless we take the risk of being open and vulnerable, and seeing how well the other person handles it. And breathe.
My polyamorous clients sometimes need help generating courage for honest conversations: Coming out to mom about the fact that they’ll be bringing a boyfriend and a girlfriend to Thanksgiving this year, telling a partner about a condom break that happened with a different partner last week. These are not easy conversations, but the main difference is while these clients may struggle with how to be honest, there’s no question that the correct choice is to be honest in the first place.
So how might this look for monogamous folks?
“Last night was really nice, but on more of a friend level for me I think. Where’s your head at?”
“What are your thoughts on splitting the bill - do you normally do that on dates?”
“I’m obviously so excited that we’re moving in together, but I’m also a bit nervous about losing alone time. Can we figure out how to create a balance of quality together time and solo time?”
You may be in a cold sweat just reading these examples, but trust, all it takes is practice. It’s also important to remember that this isn’t just about offering up honesty but also being someone who can receive honesty with kindness and respect. And speaking of…
3. Expect kindness and respect (even if it’s casual)
Traditional dating culture offers only two tracks to follow – commitment or casual. This binary makes it easy to assume that if you’re not searching for a life partner, then asking for anything beyond a no-strings bonk means that you’re being “clingy” or “needy”. But there’s a vast, rich middle ground of relationships in between the extremes of “soulmate” or “fuck buddy”.
This is where it helps to be inspired by relationship anarchy, the philosophy many people in the non-traditional relationship space ascribe to. In the briefest of terms, applying anarchist terms to relationships means being able to customize and negotiate your relationship with the other person – rather than feeling the pressure to match up to predetermined ideals of what shape that connection should take. Whether you’re connecting with a friend, a lover, a co-worker, or someone you hooked up with one time, your relationships are built on a foundation of kindness and respect rather than entitlement and assumptions.
What do kind, respectful, customized relationships look like? If you’re enjoying the vibes with your FWB, but you’d really like more cuddling after sex, then ask for it. If you aren’t sure you’re interested in exploring an emotional commitment with the person you just started dating, but you are sure you hate it when they only text you at 1AM, make that known. Wherever you see the relationship going (or not), you don’t have to put up with behaviour that makes you feel shitty.
Now, let’s be real. Are polyamorous folks enlightened beings sent to this earth to teach all the plebs how to relationship? Hell no. Could the non-monogamous community stand to incorporate some tried-and-true practices from the traditional monogamy world? Definitely. But we’re in the golden age of relationships, baby! We’ve got a treasure trove of resources and role models for all kinds of relationship models and practices. At the end of the day, the quality of a relationship isn’t determined by the structure or the rules, but the way each person feels about it. My hope is that you find and build relationships that are juicy, gratifying, and tummy-butterfly-insomnia-inducing, even if they are a little bit weird.
So go embrace your inner relationship weirdo – you can invite me to your very own birthday orgy later.
Mutiamory: Essential Tools for Modern Relationships by Dedeker Winston Jase Lindgren and Emily Sotelo Matlack is out now