Three people's feet tangled together in bed sheets

So You’re Thinking of Opening Your Relationship?

The idea of opening up a relationship can feel tantalizing, but also scary. Ideas we’ve been taught about love or marriage have not prepared us to navigate the array of thoughts and emotions that sometimes arise when exploring alternative relationship styles. Internalized shame, or fear of stigmatization, can create unconscious barriers for partnered people thinking of adding new connections for the first time - whether they are searching solely for sexual exploration or looking more for rich, loving relationships. Even long-term, seasoned non-monogamous couples are frequently seen hiding their lifestyle choices for fear of being judged by friends, family, peers, and coworkers.

It’s ironic, however, that although consensual non-monogamists make up a small fraction of the population, non-consensual or unethical non-monogamy is already very much a part of modern society. A recent survey revealed that approximately 46 percent of people in monogamous relationships have cheated on their partner; and infidelity is often cited as a primary reason for marriages ending in divorce. Research also shows that Consensual Non-monogamy (CNM) is growing in popularity, with younger generations being far more likely to embrace non-traditional relationship structures. CNM is an umbrella term that includes a diverse array of relationship styles, all requiring honest, agreed upon forms of non-monogamy. Agreements can range from simply opening up to others from a coupled, sex-only perspective (aka. swinging); to monogamish connections, where those in a partnership consent to some independent and autonomous sexual relationships; and to polyamory, which allows for a variety of multiple loving relationships to exist, side-by-side. There is no ideal way to explore CNM. It’s simply about what feels right between all people in the relationship.

Although starting the journey into CNM may sound a little precarious, approaching the process with a beginner’s mind - one that is curious, open-minded, self-aware, and communicative - can lead to an enriching experience that may even feel life-changing. A few basic tenets may help a couple or an individual feel more confident in their path, and avoid common pitfalls.

Focus on Your Own Relationship - First

Too often, couples, high on the excitement of being able to connect and flirt with others for the first time, dive into dating apps or web sites with a baseline agreement, only to later find inherent relationship challenges getting in their way. It’s not uncommon that one partner is eager, while the other is more anxious. There also may be back stories that haven’t been addressed. For example, there may have been cheating in the past which hasn’t been acknowledged, or one person has revealed they are kinky, and their partner is judging them, or there are resentments due to unhealthy work/life balance that is weighing the relationship down. Problems between partners won’t be solved by simply adding more partners. Unresolved issues will only get worse when more complexity is created.

Each person’s values, desires, and goals also need to be examined so that a couple’s exploration can become intentional and collaborative. Partners sometimes have different feelings about external loving relationships. Is one person more polyamorous in wiring, while the other is wanting purely sexual encounters? If a more polyamorous direction is agreed on, will hierarchy be enforced? If a couple has children, how will family commitments be honored? What are the ways that outside relationships may come into the household? What are ways that they will not? 

Work Through Jealousy

Do non-monogamous couples feel jealousy? Yes! Nobody is immune. Yet those more comfortable with CNM choose to actively work through those difficult thoughts and emotions with a spirit of support for one another, and by creating a culture of sex and relationship positivity. 

This work is especially important because the world in which we’ve grown up has challenged us with modeled ideologies and sometimes confusing concepts of a “one and only” or “true” love, which are rooted in ideas of a finite, or a zero sum equation. Insecurities and jealousies, once examined, are often found to come from belief systems that were built within a patriarchal framework–one that created ideas of possessiveness, control, and competition which feed insecurity and fear. But while working hard to unpack beliefs that are a result of societal systems, it is also important to give ourselves a little grace, during the process. The insecurities we feel have been formed from a lifetime of conditioning that will not just go away overnight. It takes continuous effort and commitment. Ironically, the places we feel the most jealousy, often highlight places where the greatest growth can occur. By leaning into frustrating thoughts and emotions with loving curiosity, intention, and trust, a couple can often tap into deeper feelings of intimacy and foster more happiness within their relationship. 

Vet Potential Dating Partners

Too often, couples allow unnecessarily difficult experiences to form because they fail to consider the ramifications of dating others who aren’t on the same page with dating goals. Do they respect your existing relationship agreements and personal boundaries? Does the person identify as some form of CNM, or is the person monogamous, and dating casually until they find someone with whom they will close things off? There is nothing ethically wrong with the latter, but in the event that emotions kick in, somebody often ends up hurt. Does the person share your values? Are they being deceptive to others? If so, they likely won’t hesitate to deceive you, when something is inconvenient for them or more difficult. What are the other person’s policies around sexual health and safety? It is important to go into dating with eyes wide open, and to think about how things may affect you and any others within your relationship circle.

Foster Transparency

Expect the unexpected. Not only does CNM come with an unavoidable learning curve, the sheer variety of energies and differences in relationship dynamics that overlap can lead to a dating experience that is unpredictable. Generally, the stronger the commitment to transparency, the greater the chance for a smooth experience. It’s often better to err on the side of sharing, when in doubt. Selective withholding or dishonesty are just as real in CNM as they are in the monogamous world, and are more likely to occur if a person feels that it is too difficult to deliver challenging news to a partner. Although it may not be easy to hear that a partner’s other relationship has escalated, or that an agreement has been challenged, if a spirit of understanding is fostered, it is far more likely that any difficult conversations can happen, if and when they need to. 

Plan Relationship Check-ins

Now matter how much someone tries to imagine what opening a relationship may feel like, seeing a partner giddy for someone else may be unexpectedly challenging, especially if they become flooded with “New Relationship Energy” (NRE) which may cloud a person’s judgment. It’s important to plan routine relationship check-ins. Scheduling times for sitting down and talking through relationship updates, particular challenges, emerging concerns, or to simply ask for needed support, can do wonders in preventing misunderstanding or conflict.

In addition to the added dynamics brought into play from new partnerships, normal life challenges create complexity that will have to always be considered. Kids act up. Work gets busy. Vacations need to happen. It can be easy to forget to plan quality time with your partner, when energy is invested in others, but NRE eventually fades, and nobody wants to find they’ve neglected the person they love and hold dearly once the initial excitement of a new relationship begins to wane. Routine check-ins also allow a couple to reflect on their own relationship status - where it may need adjustments or a little fine-tuning. Relationship agreements should provide a high level CNM roadmap, which a couple can navigate together, while each partner should reflect on their personal boundaries before forming any agreement.

Seek Knowledge. Leverage Resources.

The CNM landscape brings along a myriad of cultural and lifestyle differences that require orientation. Learning becomes a lifelong endeavor. There are some great non-traditional relationship support groups that can be leveraged for all flavors of CNM, and which provide excellent resources for attaining knowledge, while also building community. It can be refreshing to discover that you are not alone in many of the challenges you may be having; it can be validating and affirming to share the many positive experiences that may come your way. Many virtual events create safe spaces for one-on-one and group connection, while social media tools such as Facebook and other platforms, create effective tools for crowd-sourcing opinions or participating in more comprehensive discussions on a variety of interesting CNM topics. Learning more, by way of a healthy reading list or by subscribing to CNM-oriented podcasts, may also be helpful.

Consider Relationship Therapy

Most importantly, if you are finding the path toward opening up is feeling particularly difficult, or your partner and you aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, it is best to find a relationship therapist that understands non-traditional relationship structures. Many therapists that do not have experience working with CNM clients or identify that way, themselves, have a harder time preventing mono-normative biases from entering into the therapy space. Those uncomfortable with CNM, may sometimes lean toward pushing their clients to avoid or temper their exploration, or may unconsciously judge one partner who is aggressively wanting to open the relationship. Fortunately, a demand for services has led to a growing network of experienced CNM-experienced therapists to choose from that provide ethical, affirming, and non-judgeental support for a growing population.

Additional Resources:

Books: More Than Two, Polysecure, The Ethical Slut
Podcasts: Savage Lovecast, Multiamory, Playing With Fire
Blogs and Websites:,