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How to Have a Non-Monogamous Relationship

The seminal book on non-monogamy, <i>The Ethical Slut</i>, was published in 1997—but that shit is hard to read. So we made this easily digestible A-to-Z guide to understanding non-monogamy instead.

Monica Heisey

Monica Heisey

All photos by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

All photos by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

Non-monogamy can get complicated. You can be polyamorous, a swinger, a friend with benefits, in an open relationship, practicing “the new monogamy," in a group marriage, a triad, intentional community, or tribe. Your relationships can be sexual, emotional, kinky, or some combination of each. You can be already partnered and dating around, married but happily having sex with a few friends, or single but aware that conventional monogamy isn’t for you. It’s a lot! Here is a handy A-to-Z guide on the topic to uncomplicate things a little, so you and the rest of the tribe can get to business.

Abundance
If you want to boil down non-monogamy to its simplest premise, it is this: There is enough. There is enough space in your bed for three people. There is enough love in your partner’s heart that his or her love for another person isn’t going to take away from partner's love for you. There is enough lust in your loins to have sex with someone and then go home and have sex with someone else and then, if you want, to leave your house again for sex because it’s Wednesday night, baby, and you’re alive. This is called an abundance mentality, and is the opposite of a scarcity mentality, the kind of thinking that presumes finding out your girlfriend finds someone else sexually attractive means she somehow finds you less sexually attractive.

Honorable Mentions: Adultery, Acronyms, Agreements

Banal
While open relationships tend to conjure up images of 40-partner love tribes and wild orgies at swingers' clubs (more on those later), the reality is often a lot more mundane. Open relationships involve most of the same work required in regular relationships, except, as you might expect, more frequently. At their cores, most open relationships feature the same needs (love, some sense of security, sex) that drive conventional relationships. Sorry, folks, it’s just not that exciting (except when it is, but more on that later).

Honorable Mentions: BDSM, Bisexuality, Binaries, Boundaries, Big Love

Compersion
A warm, gooey feeling elicited by a partner’s emotional or sexual interest in someone else. Occasionally called the “opposite of jealousy,” compersion is sort of like having a crush by proxy. Whether or not you share your partner’s attraction to this other person is irrelevant; your partner's happiness makes you happy.

Honorable Mentions: Contraception, Conflict, Cheating, Cuckoldry, Coming Out

Dialogue
As discussed up there in B, non-monogamy involves even more communication than your average relationship, which is to say, it involves the same amount, just in more instances. Also, there aren’t a great deal of models to follow, which means you and your partners have to decide among yourselves what works best, and navigating relatively uncharted romantic territory requires some Big Talks. Dialogue is kind of a misnomer, duh, because you could be talking to any number of people, over and over and over. Non-monogamy equals more conversations about your emotions (and other people’s) than you could ever have imagined. Truly.

Honorable Mentions: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Dates; Divorce Rates; Dan Savage

Evolution and Other Arguments
There are those who would argue that non-monogamy was humankind’s earlier, more natural state—that bonobo-inspired communities who interchangeably banged each other and raised each other’s kids wandered the earth happily scavenging and conducting multi-partner relationships until the rise of land ownership, patriarchy, capitalism, and all those other known bads brought about monogamy. Despite occasionally falling prey to oversimplification, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn makes this case convincingly (though not uncontroversially), with lots of important bonobo-sex info as a bonus.

Honorable Mentions: Extramarital Affairs, Emotional Libertarianism, Exclusivity, Europeans

Fluid-Bonded
A sci-fi-sounding term meaning that the partners involved do not use condoms or other barriers during sex.

Honorable Mentions: Flirting, Full Disclosure, Feminism, Fetish, Friends with Benefits, Free Love

Google Calendar
It’s not uncommon for multi-partner relationships to have one big ol’ group calendar, so everyone knows when the others are free or out on dates with another person or at a work thing, avoiding pronouns while talking about their partner or pretending to be busy so they can steal some alone time in a house where five adults live. All I'm saying is that time management is vital if you’re planning to get actively non-monogamous.

Honorable Mentions: Gender Neutral Pronouns, Group Marriage

Hierarchies
Some non-monogamous relationships use a hierarchical structure to delineate what each partnership means to everyone else. A “primary partner” is usually a more stereotypical relationship, with the two partners living together or planning to be together in the long term. A person can have a whole host of secondary partners. The obvious argument against these terms is that it’s kind of rude to literally rank people based on how close you are to them, but it’s really just the poly equivalent of declaring someone your BFF, with no disrespect meant to your other friends.

Honorable Mentions: Hundred-Mile Rule, Hedonism, Hegemony, Hippies

Invasive Questions About Your Sex Life
Disclose your non-monogamous status and you are up for a lot of them. A fun thing to remember is that you do not have to answer and that you are completely within your rights to be like, “So you’ve been married for seven years—how, and how frequently, do you guys do it? Do you ever get worried they’re not into it anymore? Tell me about your most intimate experiences, and do it casually at this loud bar.”

Honorable Mentions: Infidelity, Intentional Community

Jealousy
The most common argument against non-monogamy is, “I couldn’t do it… I’d get jealous.” People in non-monogamous relationships get jealous too! It’s perfectly natural to feel jealous when your partner announces he or she is attracted to/going on a date with/trying to sleep with someone else, especially in a society that treats coveting thy neighbor’s wife as the worst thing you can do to someone you love. However, after a bit of thinking (and a few of the aforementioned conversations), jealousy often reveals itself to be a host of other feelings—chief among them, personal insecurity.

Kink
Not everyone who’s non-monogamous is also kinky, but there is undeniably a crossover between these crowds. This is probably because kinks are so individual and can be incredibly niche. It’s not always easy to find one person you love having dinner with who also wants to be your human toilet after the meal is done. BDSM and fetish relationships can also be nonsexual, so a person could theoretically remain emotionally and sexually faithful to his or her partner while also visiting a "daddy" on weekends for age-play.

Honorable Mentions: Kids, Key Parties

Long-Term Couples
I’m speaking exclusively from my own experience (as a white, cis twentysomething lady living in a large urban center), but I know very few long-long-term couples who do not have some kind of ~*arrangement*~ regarding sexual fidelity, even it’s just once-in-a-blue-moon separate encounters or a very rare threesome together. The idea of romantic longevity as something made more possible via occasional sexual or emotional infidelity has been called “the New Monogamy.

Honorable Mentions: Love, Lust, LGBTQ, Long Distance

Millennials
A generation born at the height of America’s divorce rate (which peaked in the 80s and has actually gone down during our lifetime), millennials seem to be as suspicious about conventional monogamy as they are about traditional work hours, mainstream politics, and prejudice against male top knots. Whether or not today’s young adults consider themselves non-monogamous, they are certainly getting married later and “dating around” or hooking up for longer, making them more likely to experiment with different types of partnership.

Honorable Mentions: Mormons, Metamours, Misunderstood, Marriage, “Monogamish”

Nerds
We’ve been over this. Some of the earliest adopters of non-monogamy are hard nerds, and there’s no way around it. As with the kink community, not all non-monogamous people are nerds, but they are certainly a demographic with a higher-than-average number of Doctor Who tattoos.

Honorable Mentions: New Relationship Energy, Norms

Orgies
These aren’t just a thing from stories about the 70s—orgies happen in real life in a variety of locations and styles. From clichéd aging swinger “key parties” to piles-on at sex clubs to at-home play parties for groups of friends, group sex is alive and well in 2014.

Honorable Mentions: Open Relationships, Orgasms, One-Penis Policy, Oxytocin

Poly-er Than Thou
I don’t know if the term above is actually a thing, but there are definite pockets of the non-monogamous community that look down on monogamy as a repressed road to celibacy and unhappiness. While monogamy is not for everyone, neither is non-monogamy, and setting yourself up as some kind of hyper-enlightened being just for doing your own thing sucks.

Honorable Mentions: Ponytails, Primary partners, Play Parties, Polycules

Queer
The queer community was on to ethical non-monogamy (and non-monogamy in general) way before the straights got involved. The most chilled-out people I know are gay dudes with long-term partners who still have sex with whomever else they want to.

Honorable Mentions: Queen-Size bed, Quad

Rules
Rules, like hierarchies, are kind of a touchy subject in the world of non-monogamy. While some object to placing any limits at all on the behavior of their partner(s), others insist rules are crucial for managing the plethora of potential conflicts that can arise when only two people are dating, let alone four or five, each with his or her own other relationships as well. In my experience, rules evolve over time, but having agreements in place as a starting point for conversations about what does and doesn’t work for you is important.

Honorable Mentions: Real Talk, Robert Heinlein

Swinging
Swinging is a purely sexual form of non-monogamy, and like kink relationships, poly (or anything else) can exist in about a million forms. “Soft swinging,” for instance, involves couples who fool around with other people together, but don’t have penetrative sex with anyone other than their partners. Swingers are also responsible for the term “adult buffet,” a private party where everyone involved is free to have sex with everyone else in attendance, and for this perfect and hilarious term, I’m willing to ignore the whole shag-carpeting thing.

Honorable Mentions: Status Quo, Sex Clubs, Solo Poly, Safe Sex

The Ethical Slut
Dossie Eaton and Janet Hardy’s book about responsible non-monogamy can be a little tough to read. Basically, it is rife with the kind of language you’d expect from a late-90s text about alternative sexualities written by two people who describe themselves in the introduction as “lovers, dear friends, co-authors and co-conspirators.” However, if you can get over the moonstone/Earth Mother vocab, the book is a great introduction to non-monogamy and a very practical primer on communication and honesty within any kind of relationship.

Honorable Mentions: Tinder, Triad, Tribe, Tilda Swinton

Unicorns
A kind of gross term interchangeable with the acronym HBB (Hot Bi Babe) (I told you it was gross), and referring to the stereotypical white, cis, heteronormative non-monogamist’s dream: a sexy bi babe willing to exclusively date and/or live with a couple, more or less becoming their threesome sex slave. They’re called “unicorns” because this is a very common type of relationship for couples dipping their toes (etc.) into non-monogamy to seek, whereas actual bi women willing to put up with it are few and far between.

Honorable Mentions: Unspoken Arrangements, UTIs

Vocabulary
As you may have gathered, the vocabulary of non-monogamy is vast. In addition to more widely used words like “poly” or “friends with benefits,” there are also people’s individual monikers for their feelings and relationships (“wibbles” for moments of jealousy, “throuple” for a three-person grouping that considers themselves equal partners, “spice” as the plural of spouse, and so on).

Honorable Mentions: “Vee” Relationships, Veto Power

World Wide Web (of Romance)
OkCupid and Tinder seem to be the preferred tools for meeting non-monogamous people right now, and the internet has been a driving force in amping up mainstream awareness of the myriad forms of alternative relationships out there. If you’re looking to meet some non-monogamous people and don’t know where to start, OkCupid and Tinder are a great place to start, but prepare for a lot of messages like “non-monogamous? chill. guess ur rlly slutty. cum ovr, we touch dixxx?”

eXes
If you date a lot of people at once, and are dating most of them from within the relatively small non-monogamous community in your city/town, you are going to have a bunch of exes, and there’s not much you can do about it. Try not to be a jerk.

Yes (Consent)
As with sexual consent for anyone in any situation, “yes” is not really the best you can do. An enthusiastic and excited “YES PLEASE” from all participants really is required for a happy non-monogamous relationship. We’ve all got those friends who are “doing the open thing” and it’s very clear that just one of them is, and the other one is kind of sad about it but won’t say, and you just have to watch the break-up happen in slow motion. If you want to date someone and it’s clear that he or she think your other partner is just a phase you will one day get over before settling down, back away slowly. That scenario will not end well.

Honorable Mentions: Yonis, YOLO, “You guys are so wild. I honestly could never do that.” 

Zeitgeist
Interested in non-monogamy? Great news. So are magazines and newspapers right now (and for the past decade at least). Mainstream media coverage of non-monogamy tends to be confined to trend pieces in the lifestyle section, but the Thinkpiece Express seems to be picking up speed. Slate, for instance, has published more than 17 pieces on polyamory in the past two years. And now there’s this. Welcome to the pile, VICE!

Follow Monica Heisey on Twitter.