Why ethical non-monogamy is AWESOME and totally worth the extra effort

Guest post by Rachel
Polyamory for Two
By BotgirlqCC BY 2.0

I was the partner that needed convincing to open up our relationship to ethical non-monogamy. And now, all-in-all, I think ethical non-monogamy is AWESOME and totally worth the extra effort.

My boyfriend and I have now been together for six years, happily non-monogamous. Here’s how I got my head around the idea of opening up our relationship…

What to read…

The book that I found most helpful, like a balm to my terrified soul, was Sex at Dawn. It’s an incredibly interesting treatise on human sexuality, with the thesis that the human species, like basically all other primates, is not actually monogamous. I read it, and thought, “Oh, well, that is totally reasonable.” In addition to presenting evidence that humans are not monogamous, it makes a case for the physiological benefits of non-monogamy.

My one complaint with the book is that I felt it ended a little weakly. One of the last chapters (the very last one, if I recall) is focused much more strongly on how non-monogamy hugely benefits men physiologically. I felt pretty irritated that a book so egalitarian throughout would end with, “hey, you should be non-monogamous because it’s good for your male partner.” As a woman reading it, I thought “Just what I needed. Another person telling me that I should do something I don’t want to do, for the good of a man. Greeeeeeaaat.” If you skip the last chapter, however, it is an absolutely fabulous book.

However, it doesn’t offer much in the way of practical advice. Once I read Sex at Dawn, I was on board with the idea, but I was at a loss for the best way to implement it. For that, I turned to The Ethical Slut. The Ethical Slut has all kinds of advice and exercises for individuals and couples who want to be non-monogamous ethically. The communication techniques it teaches are so useful and valuable that I sometimes want to force it on my monogamous friends. It taught me that I had been using “I statements” wrong for years!

I found the comparison to friendship to be quite helpful

I have a large circle of friends with whom I am as close as my boyfriend. He pointed out that I could have strong feelings for more than one of them, so why not more than one romantic partner? Same with children. People have multiples of them, and I have always assumed you can love more than one!

Re-framing jealousy

Another thing that helped me was the realization that being monogamous doesn’t actually stop you from feeling jealous sometimes. When your boyfriend is visiting his ex for the weekend, you might feel jealous, even if nothing more than platonic is happening. The process of opening my relationship let me re-frame jealousy. Jealousy became an indication to me that I had some desire for my relationship that wasn’t being met. “Oh, I am feeling jealous that he is taking her to a fancy restaurant, because I would like him to take me to a fancy restaurant! I guess I will ask him to plan that for me!” The Ethical Slut helped tremendously with re-framing jealousy.

love who you want
By: mirkmirkCC BY 2.0

There were some big hurdles for me, emotionally

They were along the lines of “but he thinks she’s prettier/more interesting/better in some way than I am.” Which were quite nicely addressed via therapy, which I will recommend to anyone who will sit still long enough to listen.

But there were also some big benefits

Our sex life was AMAZING. One of the girls my boyfriend was seeing was multi-orgasmic. And the marathon skills he developed for her took me from my “one orgasm and go to sleep” contentedness to multi-orgasmic myself. So that was pretty cool.

Even better, I became very close friends with one of the girls he was seeing. To the point that even though he and she had an incredibly messy breakup, she and I are still good friends. I’m even going to be a bridesmaid in her wedding this spring!

Further, it forced me to start looking after my own emotional needs in a proactive way. I nurtured my friendships. I had more time to myself. It was awesome.

In addition to those benefits, it forced my boyfriend and I to have better relationship hygiene in general. We went on more dates, instead of just staying home and playing video games all the time. We were more appreciative of each other, kept better abreast of each other’s feelings, etc.

But, a word of caution

Open relationships require a level of commitment to communication that is sometimes uncomfortable. They don’t leave room for being passive about hurt feelings or conflicting desires. It’s nothing that people shouldn’t be practicing in their monogamous relationships, it’s just that non-monogamous relationships can get a lot messier a lot more quickly if you don’t scrupulously practice good, open, honest communication.

What are your pieces of advice for those thinking of becoming ethically non-monogamous?

Comments on Why ethical non-monogamy is AWESOME and totally worth the extra effort

  1. More books to read: More than Two by Eve Rickert & Franklin Veaux, published by Thorntree Press – this is the most recent in-depth look at types of ethical non-monogamy, a successor to Ethical Slut. (There’s also a website which is worth a look if you’re not ready to commit to a book.) Another book published by Thorntree that’s worth reading while trying to figure out if this is for you is Stories from the Polycule by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff – this one is a set of case studies of real-life families (with and without children) in polyamorous relationships of all types. Finally, I found Christina Parker’s Many Hearts, Many Loves, Many Possibilities: The Polyamory Relationship Workbook to be very good at provoking questions that I never would have thought to ask myself but are important! There are many resources out there – do you have a local meetup group, know some ethical non-mono types who blog, or read comics like Kimchi Cuddles? For other media, Twice is a film about polyamory that will be coming out soon. Check out the website for the trailer: http://www.twice.film/.

  2. The book “More than Two” is great.

    But… just to give a perspective from the other side, ethical non-monogamy ended my marriage. I regret it, deeply. We were great communicators, and rock solid in the beginning- I thought we could handle anything. But it turns out that *I* can really only focus my romantic energy on one person, while I can happily have casual sex with others (which is the sort of non-mongamy I wanted.) My ex was incapable of casual sex- he had to have an emotional connection in order to even want to bang. And as he started falling for other people, my boundaries were violated, his loyalties were split, I felt betrayed. We agreed to try actual polyamory, but that just ended with me falling in love with someone new and emotionally distancing myself from my husband. I wanted to close it back up and try to repair things, but he was already too invested in his other partner. So. There it went.

    So I’m going to say… make sure you’re on the same page about the way you relate to other people, and don’t gamble with something you’re not willing to lose. I thought he’d be able to have casual relationships if he tried. I thought I’d be able to maintain multiple serious love relationships if I tried (and be able to handle him doing the same.) He couldn’t. I couldn’t. I need to be someone’s top priority, and I can only manage one top priority myself. In my current relationship I’ve basically told my partner….if you absolutely feel like you need to bang someone else, do it in a way I will never find out about, and do it safely, and don’t do it repeatedly (with the same person.) Have a one night stand on a vacation, if you must, but I don’t want to know. And I’ll do the same (though I haven’t felt the desire to – the whole trauma might have cured me of my wandering eye.)

    I do think the whole experience helped me with handling jealousy, though. Now when I feel jealous I’m able to step back and ask myself “Is this reasonable? Is something being taken from me? What’s the real need, here?” instead of just flipping out. It allows me to say “Huh, I’m feeling insecure and need reassurance that I’m as important to you as your exgirlfriend was” (etc etc) instead of just being like “RARRR DON’T TALK TO HER”. So I would 100% recommend reading the books mentioned here (especially More Than Two, though Sex at Dawn is just interesting from a scientific standpoint) even if you’re not going to open your relationship.

    • Another thing to be aware of, and I think part of the reason the poly life wasn’t for me – it takes a LOT of energy. You are constantly adjusting, constantly emotionally processing, constantly communicating. I found that my work (I’m self-employed), hobbies, friends, etc were all falling by the wayside because my mental space was so entirely occupied with juggling more than one partner, and their rotating cast of partners. I actually think polyfidelity could’ve been a better model for me- something stable rather than ever-fluctuating.

    • I agree – reading work on polyamory has helped me figure out what’s going on with my own feelings, especially as regards jealousy. Having come from a family of “guess what I need/want”, learning to identify *and* express wants and needs clearly and explicitly to my husband is something I will probably work at my entire life. Ultimately, clear communication helps us out a LOT since there’s no “maybe he meant X” or “is she really feeling Y” – DH also has mad RBF so it’s a policy in our relationship that I can ask him what his mood is and/or he will tell me when he’s actually angry/upset. Doesn’t mean we don’t argue occasionally about misinterpretations, but it helps.

    • A twist on this perspective: while ethical nonmonogamy can end a marriage, one advantage is that, unlike many marital collapses, at least you KNOW when your spouse starts seeing someone else.

      • Funny enough, I was a lot more okay with his girlfriend before we actually gave up and split. Now I can’t stand the fact that she’s hanging out in the house I still co-own (I moved out but financially it made the most sense to keep it for now and let him pay the mortgage), petting the dogs we still co-own. My puppers! My property! GTFO!

  3. Reading this, I don’t get the feeling that this arrangement is really working for the author. I’m hearing a lot of reliance on other people’s arguments about why non-monogamy *ought* to be a good option, and it feels like the author is still trying to convince herself that she’s happy with this, rather than really expressing satisfaction. There have been a lot of really thoughtful, authentic posts about non-monogamy / polyamory here on Offbeat Home and I’m so glad that they have a place here — this one just left me with a lingering doubt that the author of this piece is really as comfortable as she says.

    • The argument that humans are “meant” to be nonmonogamous always grates with me a bit. Human sexuality has such wide spectrums that I don’t think it’s right to say humans are biologically destined to be nonmonogamous any more than we are biologically destined to be straight. Some people may only be happy with monogamy. Some people will only be happy with non-monogamy. Many people try both at some point in their lives (although not always ethical nonmonogamy!). As with anything else, I think it matters most that one find out what one is happiest with and be honest with oneself and one’s partner(s).

      • I suspect that some people are meant to be monogamous and some aren’t, and these two types of people should probably not be in a relationship with each other. I really can’t see how you could make it work so that one or the other wasn’t compromising on the type of relationship they want/need.

        • This was my experience with polyamory- I as a wired-for-monogamy person (with an almost non-existent sex drive) dating a polyamorous younger man. I compromised by setting only ONE boundary, in my attempt to “try this thing out”, since all of my roommates were polyamorous and definitely made me feel like the outsider for only being attracted to one person at a time. He violated the one boundary, and although he was very apologetic about it, it killed the relationship (I don’t bounce back from broken trust easily…or at all). I agree that some people are wired one way or another, and polyamory, like monogamy, is not something anyone can adapt to.

        • I agree. My ex was definitely NOT meant to be monogamous and I am. He suggested an “open” relationship several times and I always said no which led to him just going behind my back and cheating on me for the last two years of our relationship. In retrospect, as soon as I found out he wanted to be open and I didn’t we should’ve split up.

  4. A little off-subject, but the one thing that jumped out for me was that now I want to read The Ethical Slut just to see what the using I statements wrong part is about (as I already know any kind of poly is not for me). I wonder if I have been using them wrong, too! I’d love to hear more about that from the author or any commenters as I work in a library and already have a stack of books I’m trying to get through! 🙂

    • I could be mis-remembering but I think it’s saying, like, “I’m feeling neglected” vs. “I feel like you’re neglecting me” which is really a “you” statement in disguise.

      Personally I’m not sure I buy into all that- people are perfectly able to jump to the conclusion that “I feel neglected” implies that YOU are doing the neglecting, but, yeah. I found the Ethical Slut a little too woo-woo for me in general… they talk a lot about “sharing sex” *eyeroll*

  5. I’ve been practicing polyamory for five years and it’s been fantastic for me and my husband, but like others have noted, it’s complicated, a lot of emotional work, and there are pitfalls. For me there’s no question this is worth the effort. I’ve cobbled together an incredible chosen family, and my communication and relationship skills have improved with every new challenge.

    After reading the comments above, I find it interesting that this post resonated with me more than any others I’ve read on Offbeat (and elsewhere) on this topic. The author is very honest, showing her journey and vulnerabilities, and I appreciate that more than the idealized “my poly life is perfect!” pieces, which frankly turn me off. I’ve met too many people in the poly scene who project that attitude and turn out to be just as dysfunctional and close-minded as anyone who thinks monogamy is the only way. (I’m also not much into scenes; my favorite people and I prefer to practice poly our own way without the constraints and drama we’ve found in the poly community.)

    The people who talk about nonmonogamy in a way that resonates most with me are Esther Perel and Dan Savage. Perel’s book “Mating in Captivity” helped crystallize a lot of the ideas I had about opening up my marriage and led me and my husband to figure out a way to do it that would work best for us.

  6. My husband (of 12 years together) and I opened up over a year ago. Started out wonderful, like a dream. We meet when we were 22 and missed out on all the crazy 20’s dating, so this was meant to be a fun time. Meant to be dating here and there, hooking up, telling each other everything. Thats how it went for the first month. Then he met someone and fell head over heals. I did everything I could to alert him to the fact that we were trying to leave feelings out of this. It was only meant to be fun and short lived.

    Well, what turned out to be his fetish for larger women (that he was just getting out of his system), turned into the downfall of our marriage. Within weeks of meeting her, he shut down his dating apps and stopped sleeping with me. His love shifted completely over to her leaving nothing behind for me. We’ve been going to a couples therapist who is an expert in these types of relationships. She explained that he is in fact a very monogamous person and he no longer sees me in a romantic light. I’ve been trying to live with it, but its heart breaking to lay in bed with someone who wants nothing to do with you. Now, we’re at the verge of divorce.

    Im not saying opening the marriage will lead you down this path, but it will certainly shine a light on any fragile spots in your marriage. Our’s being his preference for larger women (which has been an issue for about 9 years- he’s been honest about it with me and told me he’s not attracted to me in the past, but I was the only one there so he still slept with me). Now that he has the ideal girl for him, he only wants her.

    Good luck and hugs to everyone.

    • I do wonder, though, if this is something that may have come up in your marriage regardless of whether you opened up your relationship. Or perhaps it could have negatively affected your relationship in other ways, the rest of your married lives. I am sorry, though, that you’re having to go through that. 🙁 Hugs.

    • This happened to my first marriage, but I was on the other side. I was really, really hesitant to open our marriage because I have a history of cheating/serial monogamy, and I didn’t want to risk that again. Ex eventually wore me down and convinced me that it would be healthy and breathe new life into the relationship. So, I got explicit permission to start flirting, eventually we had a threesome and I had a “Holy shit, sex can be good?!” moment that was pretty much impossible to come back from. That relationship was really flawed and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until that moment that the flaws were visible. It was a really rough time and I’m really sorry you’re in that place right now.

  7. I come from the opposite perspective. I was poly for 5 years, and then willingly chose monogamy.

    I say I was poly, but honestly, I was a monogamish girl in a polyamorous relationship with my boyfriend and his other girlfriend. We made a reasonably happy little family for a few years. Whilst my boyfriend encouraged me to date other people, and I had a few brief flings, I was happy to just have one boyfriend, even if he was splitting his time with another girlfriend.

    After we had been dating for 3 years, I started dating another guy. What was meant to be a casual FWB relationship unexpectedly tumbled into a intense romance. I waited for the NRE (new relationship energy) to wear off and for my feelings for both boyfriends to balance out, but it didn’t happen.

    I found being polyamorous in practice (not just in theory) fun and exciting, but also difficult and exhausting. I didn’t get the rush of pleasure that my first boyfriend did when he spent time with both of his girlfriends; instead, I felt like I was trying to be two different people at once. Instead of enjoying a busy calendar full of dates and sex, I would look at my chockablock schedule trying to split time between two people I loved, and feel exhausted (often too exhausted for sex). I couldn’t plan anything with either boyfriend without them saying, “That sounds like fun, but first I need to check my calendar with (other girlfriend).” If a date night with one boyfriend didn’t work out (if one of us was tired or held back at work), we couldn’t easily reschedule without consulting our other partners (who would inevitably have to consult THEIR other partners). I started making travel plans with second boyfriend, but felt guilty because first boyfriend was feeling insecure and left out (even though he had rejected my attempts to plan trips previously).

    After a year, I looked at my second boyfriend and realised, “I want you. Only you. No one else but you.” I felt wracked with guilt and fear, but was an immense relief when I found that he felt the same way.

    My relationship with my first boyfriend ended. It would have ended regardless of whether I was with second boyfriend or not; that relationship had ran its course and I was no longer happy in it for a multitude of reasons. It still broke my heart to break his.

    Now that I’m monogamish with my (once second, now one and only) boyfriend, I feel more at peace. There is something blissful in the simplicity of our lives – instead of trying to split my free time between two boyfriends (and precious me-time), I have an almost-endless amount of time to spend with him. If he’s late home one night, I am not anxious because I know I will get to see him the next night. We’re not constantly trying to schedule each other in amidst other lovers and metamores. I can show him as much love as I want without wondering whether I’m showing my other partner the same amount of love.

    That said, I think both of our experiences in long-term polyamorous relationships really taught us a lot of valuable lessons. We have learned how to communicate, how to constructively express feelings of jealousy and insecurity, how to recognise our own needs, and not to sweat the small stuff. If my boyfriend flirts with another girl, it’s not a big deal. If I go to a movie with another guy, he doesn’t mind.

    I never had an issue with my partner sleeping with other people. Even now, we call ourselves “monogamISH” because the possibility of engaging in casual flings with other people is still open. What I found the biggest struggle was time – people have (arguably) infinite amounts of love to give, but no one has infinite time. You only have a certain number of free hours (in which you’re not working, sleeping, or otherwise occupied with unmissable obligations) to spend with loved ones.

    Whilst I think that polyamory is a great relationship style that more people should consider (as we can see, some people find it really works for them), I don’t think it could be considered as a relationship-ideal across the board. Polyamory allows for a lot of great opportunities, but it also adds a lot of big challenges, some of which are not surmountable. Some people just feel more comfortable with monogamy. I am one of them.

  8. I appreciate the comments on monogamish lifestyle. I have seen plenty of articles here on poly, but there are so many sub-sections that are quite different in practice. The terms and language are open to some interpretation, but partnered non-monogamy and monogamish seem to dial down a few of the complications often mentioned with poly. Rather than maintaining multiple romantic/emotional relationships, my husband I only engage with other parties as a unit. This starts to move into swingers/soft-swap/same-room terminology, but it sets a bit of a boundary on our interactions with other parties. I hesitate to even use the word “date”, as our goal is either play time or friend and no more. Neither of us is seeking nor intends to nourish any unintentionally found romantic and emotional attachments. Part of our agreements addresses this specifically- we check in a debrief after each interaction to keep an eye out for potential attachments or any issues that might arise. We only ever interact with others together as a couple. We dropped to the lowest denominator of comfort between us, and no one is asked to stretch out of their comfort zone even if the other is open to other things. We establish that we are fully satisfied with our own relationship and that everything else is just recreational icing, and we check back in to make sure that stays true. There is no pressure that one partner NEEDS something from someone else poly-wise.
    There is still that gamble- could allowing ourselves to act on sexual attraction in a mutually agreed upon situation increase the chances that one of us will fall in love with someone new? Potentially. But I just don’t see it as so much more likely that the possibility of falling in love with someone in any other platonic situation. If you are going to fall that hard for someone, I don’t think that can really be prevented. Acting on it can be prevented, to an extent, perhaps, and we certainly plan to do our best in that area.
    There is this emphasis on dipping a toe into the poly lifestyle while still be SAFE. Relationships can be stable, strong, adaptable, but I am not sure safe is realistic. If my greatest fear is being replaced, there is only so much that can be done while still maintaining a relatively healthy marriage. The question I must ask myself is how much being opened up, just the little that we are, increases that risk and is it worth it. How much of our agreements is an illusion of control, and am I comfortable with the answers? (As of today, I am, and I commit to asking myself these questions regularly.)

  9. Throwing in another success story for balance. My husband and I have had an open relationship for three years. As with anything, it’s not for everyone!! But for us, it has provided amazing opportunities, strengthened our communication, and given us greater confidence in our marriage. I’m not attempting to discount stories of heartache and loss, those are real and do happen. Something that worries me is the societal tendency to focus on those stories alone. Divorce, breakups, etc. happen all the time in monogamous relationships, but as a society we don’t tend to blame monogamy for those breakdowns.

    Again, not saying that people sharing a stories of poly heartache or breakup are incorrectly blaming poly for their problems or trying to actively discourage the lifestyle. I just know it can be scary (particularly when you’re starting out) to read a bunch of stories about how opening up can go wrong and think “Whelp, I’d better not try that!”

    My husband and I both agreed on poly mutually (no one needed “convincing”) so that may have helped our experience. And I don’t think ANY relationship configuration should be the standard. I think freedom is all about choice and monogamy works great for some people, just as poly does for others. I guess in general, I wanted to add another positive note to this thread for anyone who’s reading and thinks they might want to give poly a try. As the post author said, it can be totally worth it.

    • If you think about it, we really should blame monogamy for more break-ups – any relationship that ends because of an affair, or because one person is bored and wants to bonk more people… and that’s quite a few of them, haha.

      My marriage was pretty happy before we opened it up, but if we hadn’t, I may have ended up in the “bored and wanting to bonk” category (or worse, the affair one). I think people really, really need to be on the same page about what they want, whether it’s monogamy OR polyamory OR nonmonogamy-that-isn’t-quite-polyamory, and realize that if you can’t get on the same page, it’s probably not something that you can really compromise on very happily, unfortunately.

      Given that, I don’t necessarily think that *trying* it was a terrible idea for us… but if I could go back in time and talk to the then-me I would let her know how it was going to go and she’d probably make a different choice.

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