I have practiced ethical non-monogamy in some form for 10+ years and have been a licensed relational therapist for about half of that. While I have a unique set of experiences I draw from, this in no way makes me qualified to tell you how to do ethical non-monogamy. I am forever a student of this relational practice. I do, however, have a few tips I would like to share to soften your journey. These are the things I wish someone had told me when my partner and I first opened up, and what I wish I could tell ENM folks BEFORE they hit a bump, crash land, and come see me in crisis.
Hire good help
Seek out a sex-positive therapist versed in ethical non-monogamy before opening up. Don’t wait for the snag, anticipate it. Get in touch with yourself, lay the groundwork, begin healing your past traumas and develop a deep understanding of why it is you want to open up. Therapy is a place that can help you grow a very useful personal vocabulary.
Note: It is a myth that you will be fully-healed before venturing into new relationships.
Read, Read, Read
Read the book Polysecure by Jessica Fern. Having an understanding of attachment styles and how preoccupied or detached you are during relational stress is a game changer. This book is a sparkling gem based on trauma and attachment research and should be required reading for anyone practicing ENM. Buy the book, buy it for your partners, and please, for the love, shop local.
Listen to your body
Your body will tell you before your brain will. Trust your gut. If something feels off, sit with it. Slow down and take time to reflect on what your body might be telling you. If your body and mind are incongruent, chances are you have an undiscovered, unexpressed or unmet need. Pace yourself so your body and brain can catch up to each other.
Hierarchies hold power
Develop a deep understanding of what couple privilege looks like before opening your relationship. My favorite definition of couple privilege is by Louie Murray:
Couple privilege, as I use it, exists between two people and describes the experience of entitlement of access to each other’s life when living as a socially sanctioned pair.
Couple privilege gets a bad rap, but the key here is consent. How you structure your rules and agreements is important to discuss in detail with all parties.
Build your safety net
It’s important to have a safety net of sex-positive people who are supportive of your relationships. Enlist a close friend or friends who agree to listen compassionately and not try to immediately solve the problem. Consent is key when reaching out to people for emotional support; always ask first. Your partners cannot always be the ones holding space for relational processing. It’s important to nurture and maintain platonic friendships in which you can remain authentic as you evolve.
Note: If you are not open about your relationship style it will be harder to build and maintain your safety net.
Know your limits
Be realistic about where you are developmentally. If you’ve been polyamorous for 10 years, and you start dating someone brand new to ENM, there will be bumps in the road. I speak from experience here. I have met some incredible, beautiful, and inspiring people who were new to ENM, but knowing what I know now, I would have tempered my expectations. We are all beginners when we start a new relationship, but there can be a developmental mismatch that can potentially lead to a lot of hurt. Not because hurt was intended, but because two people were in two very different places in their growth. Proceed with care.
You are not going to change people
People can certainly grow together in a consensual give and take, but true growth cannot occur when one partner is trying to change another. Sitting in your "stuckness" and complaining about other people refusing to change is not a way to grow in relationship satisfaction. Yes, assert your needs, but the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
You are going to get your bell rung
Something will inevitably happen that will challenge you and your partners on a fundamental level. Old mental health stuff may crop up that you thought you’d dealt with. You may experience incredible insecurity and vulnerable moments. You may be asked to deal with grief, loss, and trauma that you may not even know exists. These aren't necessarily reasons to end relationships, but it might mean that you need to take a pause to support yourself and/or your partners. Please be open, honest, and communicative with everyone along the way.
There is no crystal ball
Sometimes you don’t know a boundary was crossed until after the fact. Having boundary conversations ahead of time can be informative and even rewarding, but you can’t possibly anticipate everything. Practice saying, “I think a boundary was just crossed. I’m not sure what it means just yet, but I’m processing and will get back to you.” This is the time to listen to your body.
Positive sex education is a life-long process
Gone are the days of sitting our kids down and having “the talk.” As parents we know there is no singular talk on any complex issue, rather, a constant dialogue. Begin teaching your kids conversationally about their anatomy, gender fluidity, pronouns, consent, and diverse relationship structures. If you normalize these things in age appropriate ways, your children will hopefully remain open, trusting and curious. Children’s understanding about relationships, sexuality and sexual identity must be on a dimmer switch: they must be protected, but not left in the dark.
To yourself, to your partners, and particularly to the people your partners are dating, especially if you’re having big feelings such as jealousy or competitiveness. Please be gentle with each other. A little warmth goes a long way. People need smiles, warmth, consensual touch, acceptance, and attention to calm their nervous systems and bring out their best selves. The world needs more of this, too. The growing pains are real, but there is joy in the learning and in the growing, and I wish it all for you.
Alexis Clarksean, MA LMFT