What is Consensual Non-Monogamy?
Written by Sexual Wellness Institute Therapist, Eric Anfinson, MS LMFT
As social perception/judgment of consensually non-monogamous relationships slowly changes, many new terms have entered common parlance that you may not be familiar with or understand. Consensual non-monogamy (also called ethical non monogamy or open relationships) can feel confusing, so today we're going to take a deeper look at consensual non-monogamy to help you better understand yourself and your own feelings, or better understand and empathize with others who may feel differently from you.
Relationships are not black and white
I want to start this conversation by showing that what we're really talking about here is a scale, and not a categorical choice. Even among monogamous couples, monogamy means different things. Each individual, and therefore each couple, has different ideas and boundaries for what monogamy means. Some couples may be comfortable with their partner flirting or being hit on at a bar, another couple might find looking at porn as cheating. One couple might enjoy discussing celebrities they think are sexy while another might find that very hurtful. All of these couples can define their relationships as monogamous. So, what we're looking at here is not a clearly defined idea. One thing I can say as a therapist is that open or not, all relationships are incredibly complex. Let's look at interesting things to consider when thinking about consensual non-monogamy.
Compersion is the idea that we feel happiness when others are happy simply because we are happy for them. For example, feeling happy because your partner got an award at work, and you can see how happy they are. This happens even when their joy doesn't involve us or benefit us. I've felt strong compersion for my cat listening to her purr while someone else pets her, simply because I know she's loving the attention. Compersion is a key component of poly relationships. These people simply extend that feeling to see their partner have fun flirting, enjoying new relationship energy, or having sex with another person. If you can be happy for someone else, even if it doesn't benefit you, then you can understand how these people feel. We all have different boundaries and comfortabilities, and understanding doesn't mean you have to want this for yourself. But understanding helps us remove judgement or identify those same feelings within ourselves.
It can feel like there's a never-ending parade of new terms and ideas to learn around dating so let's review some general terminology that can be helpful in any conversation about ethical non-monogamy. Note – this is not an exhaustive list of terms related to open relationships.
Compersion: as we already discussed this is "sympathetic joy." Feeling happiness for someone else's happiness.
"NRE" or New Relationship Energy: This is commonly referred to as the honeymoon phase and something many people in relationships wish they could get back. In a consensually non monogamous relationship, people can enjoy this feeling consistently.
Monogamish: These kinds of relationships are primarily monogamous but have special rules where sleeping with another person may be ok. The 100-mile rule is a good example of this. If you're more than 100 miles away on a trip, then a hook-up is ok.
FWB: Friends with benefits enjoy new relationship energy and sexual intimacy without any commitment towards a romantic relationship.
Swinging: Swingers are often couples who enjoy dating and/or having sex with other couples. This can be done separately or together.
Polyamorous: Polyamory is a general term for having multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships with several people at once. These relationships may be open or not.
Poly-fidelity: This is a relationship with more than 2 people who are committed to one another and are not dating or having sex with anyone outside their polycule.
Polycule: This is the name given to a poly relationship of 3 or more people.
One thing to keep in mind as we talk about this is that for many people their relational orientation is just as fixed as their sexual orientation. When examining your own feelings, or those of others, remember that we're talking about a scale. You may be monogamish, you may be open to your partner sleeping with someone else but not comfortable with them having a loving romantic relationship with another person. Because we're just starting to be more open about these kinds of feelings, and still learning the vocabulary to even have these conversations, many people have inadvertently ended up in monogamous relationships where their relational orientation is different from their partner’s. This is commonly described as a mono-poly relationship. This often happens when someone comes to terms with their relational orientation after years of dating or marriage and can cause some big issues. It's important to remember that there is flexibility in these situations. Not every monogamous person has the exact same values either. What we're looking for is how much does your scale overlap with your partner’s and are you both willing to put in the effort to make things work. This problem is usually worth seeking therapy over if you're looking to continue your current relationship. It can be hard to work out just where your boundaries lie and how they can co-exist with a partner who has a different relational orientation.
Not Sure What to Do Next? Talk with a Sex Therapist in Plymouth, MN
Even if you're not poly yourself, it can be helpful to understand those around you. Many monogamous couples even enjoy playing with these concepts in the form of roleplay during sex. Hopefully, as a culture, we continue to grow and better understand our own sexuality so that each of us can be the most complete version of ourselves. If you're ready to talk with a sex and relationship therapist in Plymouth, MN we can help!
Other Sexual Wellness and Sex Therapy Services in Minnesota
In addition to sex therapy, our LGBT & polyamory friendly sex therapists provide a wide range of mental health services at our Plymouth, MN counseling office. Other services include therapy around sex and substances, couples therapy & marriage counseling, EFT, evidence-based couples therapy, EMDR & sexual trauma therapy, as well as, teen therapy. In order to help serve the mental health needs of all those living in Minnesota, we also offer online counseling & sex therapy. We also provide a variety of helpful tips on our mental health blog. Please feel free to reach out with questions, or if you would like to schedule an appointment to begin working with a skilled sex therapist! Your sex life can be amazing. Sex therapy can be a part of that process for you.
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