What Nonmonogamous Couples Can Teach the Rest of Us

Friends walking togetherShortly after news about the Ashley Madison site breach hit the press, I heard many couples express fear of the unknown in their partnerships. Questions normally left unasked—questions about fears of abandonment and betrayal—were suddenly on every couple’s therapy agenda. Could this happen to us? Will she leave me? Is he having an affair? Does she desire someone else?

The Ashley Madison site was specifically marketed to those who were interested in having secretive affairs—the nature of which destroys trust and can disrupt the very foundation of a relationship. The idea of a partner desiring emotionally or physically intimate interactions outside of the primary relationship is one that haunts many monogamous couples. Nonmonogamous couples, however, generally do not immediately identify these outside interactions as dangerous or threatening. In fact, they often create opportunities to engage in interactions outside of their primary partnerships.

How do those types of relationships survive, or sometimes even flourish? There are some basic tenets that form the foundation for healthy nonmonogamous partnerships that could have serious positive benefits for couples involved in monogamous partnerships. The following golden rules are often seen in nonmonogamous partnerships but can help strengthen and revitalize intimacy bonds within monogamous relationships:

Communicate Openly and with Empathy

This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but all too often couples become stuck in a loop of defensiveness and blame that usually ends up leaving both partners feeling misunderstood, invalidated, and emotionally drained. When couples are willing and able to communicate and listen to each other with empathy, it presents opportunities to help each other feel validated, understood, accepted, and heard.

Write Your Own Relationship Rules

Contrary to popular belief, many nonmonogamous relationships have rules. Nonmonogamous couples spend time discussing and crafting language to identify what they can do and what (or who) is off-limits.

Many couples in non-traditional relationships will tell you that this type of communication is crucial. When couples take the time to openly talk about how they would like their relationship to look and feel, they are able to craft a relationship imbued with shared values that is reinforced by their everyday language and behavior. A shared-values activity with your partner can help start this conversation.

Rediscover Your Partner

When couples take the time to openly talk about how they would like their relationship to look and feel, they are able to craft a relationship imbued with shared values that is reinforced by their everyday language and behavior.Being social and watching your partner socialize (or be intimate) with others is something common in nonmonogamous couples. Not only does it evoke a sense of mystery, but it often reminds the other of the positive characteristics that attracted you to him or her in the first place. Invite a little mystery back into your relationship by watching your partner socialize from afar.

Engage in Play

Creating safe and consensual spaces to explore your and your partner’s desires can be incredibly powerful for couples (think: Fifty Shades of Grey or Story of O). For swinging couples, there are venues that provide the space to engage in intimate play, but if you are in a monogamous relationship, pick a time and a place to allow your partner to talk to you about his or her fantasies (and if you’re feeling bold, perhaps even act them out with each other).

In many nonmonogamous relationship types, couples are challenged to listen, empathize, validate, and respond to their partners. These relationships question social expectations and invite couples to create a dynamic dialogue within and about their relationship—one that directly speaks to a couple’s shared principles. While a nonmonogamous lifestyle is not for all, there is a lot to be learned and gained from understanding and practicing the elements that make these relationships work.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deanna Richards, LMHC, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Polly

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    I would never try to judge another couple’s relationship, but I am into one me and one guy. I would not be able to accept a man who was not willing to be faithful to me all of the time and I do not think that that is too much to ask for. Why are the people who do practice monogamy looked at today as the ones who are weird, when I thought that finding another person to love is what life is all about. I can;t say anything bad about those who are polygamous because hey that’s their choice, but I know that it is not the lifestyle that I would choose for myself.

  • Cassie

    September 16th, 2015 at 1:23 PM

    To each his own is what I always say.’And hey there probably are some pretty cool things I could learn from couples who like to play and have some adventure with other people. As long as they play it safe, it’s cool with me.

  • Cosette

    September 17th, 2015 at 8:39 AM

    That this is not the life for me?

  • jennifer

    September 17th, 2015 at 2:05 PM

    Life gives us ample opportunity to learn from one another. We just sometimes have to be willing to take the bull by the horn and confront those things that may sometimes make us a little more uncomfortable. So this may not be the choice for you. That’s fine, I am sure that there is not anyone out there who is forcing this choice on you. But you have to be willing to accept that maybe there are some things that can be learned from other couples whether they are your version of traditional or not.

  • Deanna

    September 17th, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Hi Polly –
    You’re right! Relationships, like people, can come in all shapes and sizes and finding someone to love and to share your values IS what is all about. The point is that your relationship is exactly as you and your partner have crafted it. A healthy relationship is one where you and your partner are in agreement and communicating about what’s going on in your relationship; that’s what separates non-monogamous relationships from affairs. Thanks for your comment!

  • Deanna

    September 17th, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    Cassie –
    Keeping an open mind as you, your partner, AND your relationship evolves can keep it fun and healthy. Thanks for commenting!

  • Deanna

    September 17th, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    So right, Cosette! A non-monogamous lifestyle is definitely not for everyone but thinking about the other components like empathy, understanding, and communication can enhance any relationship. Thanks for your comment!

  • Paula s

    September 18th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    So what would you do if your significant other sprung news like this on you and you had no idea about that? Would you have to start to wrap your mind around the fact that this was going to be a very real possibility for you or would they need to come up with another plan? Because if this was not something that I had ever considered or they had never mentioned then why should I be the one to have to accommodate?

  • Deanna

    September 18th, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    It can be very difficult to hear that your partner may want to open up the relationship and may feel like a betrayal. Even though the conversation may be hard, try to hear your partner’s thoughts. Agreeing to listen does NOT mean you have to agree to opening up your relationship and you have every right to decide that that is not the type of relationship that you want. Hopefully, by having conversations about how both of you are feeling, you will come to a better understanding of how you want to proceed in the relationship.

  • stan

    September 19th, 2015 at 8:51 AM

    Maybe so Deanna but it would still be a blow to anyone who never saw this coming

  • louis

    September 19th, 2015 at 11:34 AM

    By the looks of it am the only guy writing? I appreciate every ones opinion. My wife and i have our way of life. Iam an older man 25yrs older then her. i have some health issues that interfere with a healthy life style. We check the poly. life style and found it excitingI found my wife a “lover”, a special guy! in every way. We still have a great marriage. She and her b/f have a great time,and we both enjoy talking about there time together in “every detail”.

  • Susan

    September 19th, 2015 at 11:04 PM

    I’m in two minds about this. I certainly don’t think badly of people who decide to do this if the couple both agree. However, I would worry about the emotional attachment that may occur whilst having sex with someone other than your partner. In particular, females tend to have sex because of some emotional connection where guys have sex just for having sex. So from a female point of view, I’m not so sure that sex and an emotional attachment can be separated for sex’s sake. Maybe initially, but once you start having sex more than once with somebody other than your partner, I think you may be playing with fire. On the other hand, if you open your relationship to multiple partners or many one night stands, then there is also the risk of STD’s. Maybe I’m going to far with this but I’m just putting it out there.

  • Susan

    September 19th, 2015 at 11:07 PM

    Just want to add, wouldn’t it be easier to just stay single and sleep with whom ever you want without worrying about jealousy or the emotional attachment issues.

  • Ric

    September 21st, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Valid points Susan, and well said!!

  • louis

    September 21st, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    Ric,Susan mentions wouldnt it be easier to just stay single and sleep with whom ever you want!!!! OH, and that can mean “one night stands” AND THE RISK OF STDS You guys are not living in the real world

  • Deanna

    September 21st, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    Great points, Susan. It can definitely get complicated which makes it even more important to be able to talk about the feelings that can and do come up when sharing physical or emotional intimacy with others. This article does not cover the different types of non-monogamous relationships but it all comes back to creating space to have real conversations about all issues concerning physical and emotional safety. Thanks for commenting!

  • In decision

    September 23rd, 2015 at 10:01 AM

    Hi everyone. I had been in therapy by myself and as a couple, reading lots of books, surfing internet for several months, trying to educate myself about a difficult decision I have to make in my life. And today I found this blog, related to what I am going thorough. My husband and I are both 45, been married for 17 years, with a beautiful 12 year old girl and a beautiful 15 year old boy. When we were dating during our university years, I cheated on who is now my husband. This devastated him. I realized the terrible mistake I made and put all my effort to save the most precious relationship I have ever had. I realized that I cheated due to some unsolved issues with my dad, that it was not related to who is now my husband. We went through a very though process and after some years later, we decided to get married and have kids. My husband used to bring the subject every now and then but 5 years ago I said enough. I told him that I had proven myself to the relationship and that if he could not accept it, then he should get help. Some months later, he stops talking about this, but started to say that he wanted to have a sexual experience, where both of us could participate, either together or on our own. Due to my guilt, I could not say NO. I just asked him to be open about it. Six months ago, our daughter found in his computer a very explicit picture…my husband was having an affair that started last year. At this point I am not sure if it end it or not. Although he said he is ashamed of what he did and that he wants to have a life with me, he is also honest and says that he would like to have an open relationship because he still craves sexually for young women and would like to have “short” relationships every now and then but he would SACRIFICE himself and let go of this idea just to stay with me. Today, I do not believe that love is about sacrifice. I had been working on my own issues, trying to finally deal with my past, and realized that I had been emotionally unavailable for everyone around me. I am now trying to connect my heart with my mind. My husband says that it seems like I am in some sort of extasis…I just think I am seeing now the world not with my eyes but with my heart. And my heart tells me, without judging, that there is no way one can have a REAL connection with someone unless you are COMMITTED 24/7, solve disagreements, defend your points of view and respect those of others, take a break, cultivate your self and friends, in order to preserve your uniques and at the same time have joint life projects, embrace the idea of a third in a relationship and play with it, but only at the fantasy level. I think marriages do not survive because couples have to deal not only with each other demons from their original family and from those who they created for themselves. Only when you are in peace with your heart, with your emotions, you can start a HONEST communication. To built that, takes time and effort, that level of connection I believe if only possibly with one person due to our short life. I feel that my husband and I are separating our souls…I am going through a soul searching period, my husband has some deep wounds from his past that he has barried so deep that he does not allow them to come out and deal with them. I decided to give him a month period to sort his issues. He insists he does not have any, that he is sure he wants to be with me. I am trying to find the courage and if in one month he thinks the same, I will leave….after all, this might be the wake up call he needs. But it is not easy…my demons, my insecurities are still around. And this is the story of a couple of two heterosexuals.

  • louis

    September 23rd, 2015 at 11:40 AM

    Good story: I think we all have bats in the closet. I have been in the closet most of my life,till my wife found something on the computer. We decided to open our relation. Her with a b/f.Me checking things out. So far things are looking ok to a point.Although its only been about 4months since we found this special guy for her. She came out honestly to tell me she is falling in love with him! I said dont worry,have a good time.I feel you can live 2 people at the same time but in different ways. Me being 25yrs older then her and not sexual the way i was. You might say we are like “good friends” or brother and sister or i as a parent. with no sex which has been several yrs since we had sex together. He is what she wanted and needs being very sensual,sexy and cannot get enough!!! He has not come out with the L word,why should he,has a married woman that he see a few times a week ,takes her out to different place, makes love then sends her home. She also has the best of 2 worlds,Get her sex when she needs it then comes home to a husband who take good care of her in all ways but sex.

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