Negotiating Relationships: #1 Consensual Non-Monogamy

So, what is consensual non monogamy?

Well, in a sense the answer is in the title. A consensually non monogamous relationship is one in which those involved agree (‘consent’) to the relationship not being monogamous. However, monogamy itself is not that straightforward to understand. Many a person in a monogamous relationship has been accused of ‘cheating’ whilst possibly not being aware that they were transgressing any boundaries. So, before we ask what is CNM, maybe we need to take a step back and ask:

What is monogamy?

Monogamy in its most distilled sense means staying sexually faithful to one partner. However, ask many couples who have ‘cheated’ or been ‘cheated upon’, and you will find as many different answers as you can ask questions. Monogamy means different things to different people, and it is often not until a line has been crossed, that those involved will consider that there was a line there to start with. Monogamy is no longer simply about not having sex with anyone else. It also refers to the emotional nature of relationships. Flirting, cuddling, spending hours texting, meeting for coffee without your partners knowledge: all of this can, and has been, defined as cheating. Often, anything which our partners feel threatened by can be categorised as cheating. The best way to avoid being caught out is to communicate.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is essential to a CNM relationship. Otherwise how do we know what we’re consenting to? It will necessarily mean different things to different people, and indeed CNM is an umbrella term for lots of different non-monogamous identities. So, when thinking about what CNM means in a relationship, each person involved needs to ask this. And keep asking. Keep communicating. Don’t expect that it will always mean the same thing, not only across relationships but also within relationships. Things change, vulnerabilities shift and change, it’s important to keep talking. There is an ongoing debate about whether we’re ‘ biologically programmed’ for monogamy, and there will possibly never be a conclusive answer to this. However, there is no denying that in Western society we’re all socially programmed to be monogamous. The monogamous message is everywhere. Our everyday vernacular makes constant reference to finding ‘the one’, the ‘right one’,‘the other half’ ‘settling down’. Societal expectation is everywhere and those who transgress will be questioned, and sometimes quite aggressively so. My ‘favourite’ quote I saw on social media in reference to CNM read: ‘so basically it’s just cheating with permission’. I had no answer to that, and I still don’t! But the truth is that even adults, who are respectful and communicating and negotiating and consenting will be judged and questioned, and have their identities negated by those who feel it is their duty to police other people’s relationships.

Monogamous privilege and language

Monogamous privilege refers to the idea that those in monogamous relationships have a certain privilege conferred upon them due to their alignment with social norms and expectations. People in Western society are assumed to be monogamous. In contrast to non-monogamous identifying people, they do not, for example, have to out themselves, to deny, explain or defend their relationships, to be mocked or laughed at for their relationship identity. They also have rights to marry, to tax breaks, to legal and social recognition, and much more.

Non-monogamous people also have no (Western) culturally accepted, everyday language with which to describe their relationships, that distinguish them as being non-monogamous. Therefore, if they talk of a partner, spouse, girlfriend etc., then this naturally precludes anyone else from holding this status/importance in that person’s life. Some members of the CNM community have made up their own words to describe different relationships, for example ‘metamour’ and ‘paramour’. These are useful when talking to others in the CNM communities. They are also useful for thinking about our own relationships, as sometimes having words to describe something makes it easier to conceptualise and think about. However, as these words are by no means common parlance, they cannot be used in everyday speech when talking to people from outside the community, without first having to introduce and explain the words.

Myths about CNM

One of the most common myths about CNM is that consensually monogamous people don’t feel jealousy. This simply isn’t true. Jealousy is very much part of a CNM relationship. How we deal with it is the important thing. First, we need to think ‘what is jealousy trying to tell us?’ Is it fear based? Anxiety based? Is it about our own insecurities? And if so, what are they based on? Does it belong in this relationship? In this moment? Talking about jealous feelings with our partner/s will help us to understand our own feelings, and to find a way forward together. We may need to change some part of our agreement, either temporarily or permanently. Or we may just need to be heard. Jealousy is ok! It only becomes a bad thing if we use it to try and excuse bad behavior, or to control other people.

Another common myth is that people engaged in CNM relationships are commitment phobic. Again, this is untrue. People who practice CNM show high levels of commitment, both to their relationship identity and to the people they are engaged in relationships with. Furthermore, this is often done with little or no external and societal support or affirmation. Doing relationships in a new way, and undoing what is socially programmed, takes time and patience, and requires regular communication and negotiation. Commitment is essential to this process.

How can therapy be useful?

Therapy can be useful for people negotiating CNM in several ways. One of the most difficult things CNM people find is picking apart the societal messages that have been absorbed about non monogamy over the years, with reference to cheating and affairs. These messages all have an impact, but because they are so prevalent we may not recognize them as outside messages, and may only recognize them in terms of the emotional responses we feel. Therapy can help us to separate these things out.

Therapy can also help us learn how to manage our emotional responses and recognize what these feelings are trying to tell us. Often, we try to cope with strong feelings by trying to control situations and people so that we don’t have to feel vulnerable or anxious or scared. Deciding to engage in non-monogamy can be an intellectual and political process, but our emotions are not intellectually driven. Once again therapy can be helpful in learning to manage emotions so that they begin to align with our intellectual and political desire to do things differently.
Therapy can also help us to practice communicating about things that are difficult. Many people struggle with this in relationships, and over time we may fall into patterns of hearing what we expect, rather than what the other person is trying to communicate. When we are feeling vulnerable, we may also fall into a pattern of defending ourselves by attacking the other. Therapy can help us to break these patterns, to learn to trust, and to really listen to and respond to each other. All essential skills for negotiating a non-monogamous relationship.

This blog is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing about Negotiating Relationships, which will cover a range of different topics. It is intended as an introduction to consensual non monogamy, and I will be exploring some of the themes raised here in greater depth, in later blogs in the series. For updates visit my website or follow me on Instagram: @elliegoodmantherapy