Polyamory and open relationships: should you try ethical non-monogamy?

The what, why, how, and when of opening up your relationship

If your best friend’s sister isn’t raving about it, then your sister’s best friend probably is. But is it something anybody can try once (and only some people will actually like and want to try again, like kombucha), or are there some situations in which it really shouldn’t be attempted at all? And if you are going to do it, how can you set yourself up for success? We talked to Dr. Dulcinea Pitagora, NYC psychotherapist and sex therapist, to get the answers to our most pressing questions and yours (you’re welcome!).

What is the difference between polyamory and an open relationship? And what is ethical non-monogamy?

You may have heard of polyamory or open relationships, but not ethical non-monogamy. In fact, Dr. Pitagora explains, polyamory and open relationships both “fall under the umbrella term of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical non-monogamy (ENM), which are used interchangeably by many.” Ethical non-monogamy basically just means not being in a monogamous relationship but not being a dick about it. Unethical non-monogamy, for reference, would be cheating. If all involved parties know what’s going on and enthusiastically consent to it, it’s ethical. Beyond that, it’s up to you to determine what it looks like.

“One person’s poly relationship might appear identical to another person’s open relationship,” says Dr. Pitagora. “It’s up to those involved to agree on terminology, and nobody else.” That said, if we want to generalize, poly relationships tend to go beyond the sexual into the emotional realm. Open relationships, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more hierarchical, involving a primary relationship and then other relationships that are more casual. But really, everything’s a spectrum, and the spectrums overlap.

When should you consider trying ethical non-monogamy?

As with anything sex-related, there is no should. Anyone can try anything that feels right for them (as long as it’s consensual). So some people will just know that ENM is right for them. According to Dr. Pitagora, others will consider ENM when there are mismatched levels of desire within a relationship or differing sexual preferences between partners. That said, Dr. Pitagora points out that it’s key for both partners to be self-aware, skilled communicators, who are able to handle conflict in a healthy way. “The best time to open up a relationship,“ according to Dr. Pitagora, "is when the relationship is stable.”

When should you NOT try it?

First of all, don’t do anything sexually that you don’t want to do. PERIOD. Secondly, know that ENM isn’t going to fix your relationship problems, so definitely don’t do it for that reason. Dr. Pitagora says she doesn’t recommend ENM “during a time of extreme stress and when resources (emotion, energy, time) are very limited.” If you don’t have sufficient resources to invest in your own well-being or that of your relationship, it’s probably not a good time to add new demands to your life.

What are some of the challenges that might come up?

“The biggest challenges are not rooted in relationship structure,” says Dr. Pitagora. “Lack of ability or desire to communicate is the number one threat to any relationship, regardless of poly or mono structure.” So basically, if you see something, say something, friend. If you’re struggling, speak up, and do so from a place of vulnerability rather than anger and defensiveness. This is the case no matter what kind of relationship you’re in (and it applies to your relationships with family and friends as well).

What should you and your partner talk about beforehand?

Boundaries! And safety! Agreeing on ground rules in any relationship is super important, but especially if you’re going to be changing things up. Be honest with yourself and your partner about what you want and don’t want. Whatever works for you and your partner works. If that means sex but no kissing, that’s fine! If it means going on dates but not having sex, that’s fine too! If it means anything goes, then that’s also just fine! As long as you both enthusiastically agree to it, then go for it. And plan to communicate early and often about how it’s going so you can tweak (or stop altogether) if something’s not working.

The other key thing to discuss in advance is safety. Both you and your partner should get tested for STIs before and after each new sexual partner and use barriers every time you have sex (condoms, internal condoms, and/or dental dams depending on the body parts involved). Here are some tips for reducing your risk of STIs.

What makes a successful ethically non-monogamous relationship?

According to Dr. Pitagora, “People in successful CNM relationships: 1) have clearly delineated roles and manageable expectations of their partners; 2) are able to articulate their needs and desires; 3) are willing to negotiate, set boundaries, and compromise; and 4) avoid making assumptions about their partners’ desires, needs, or abilities.” Sounds easy enough, right?

Written by Lauren Kernan, MA

Lauren Kernan is the Director of Content and UX Strategy for Bedsider and Abortion Finder. In her spare time, she can be found sewing or starting and giving up on various other crafts.