One-and-Only … or One-of-Many? (a guide to consensual non-monogamy)

What is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

There’s a lot of talk in the relationship world lately about this idea of consensual or ethical non-monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) describes a relationship in which all individuals within the relationship agree to not being monogamous, and all individuals involved in the relationship are aware that it is not a monogamous relationship. It is NOT cheating or infidelity, since those involve one or more individuals not being included in the decision-making process, and someone being lied to or deceived.

Consensually non-monogamous relationships make up about 4-5% of the population in the United States (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopkin, 2015), meaning that approximately thirteen million to sixteen million people are involved in some form of CNM relationship. If not you, then it’s very likely someone you know is or has been in a CNMR at some point. It’s long past time we talked about the structures, benefits and drawbacks of this way of loving and living.

Consensual non-monogamy is a vast umbrella term, describing many different relationship structures, such as Lifestyle (swinging), polyamorous, open, and monogamish relationships. All are slightly different.


Lifestyle relationships focus mostly on sex, with the couple being the only real love connection. One or both members can “play” with other couples or singles, within boundaries agreed upon by everyone. While there can be friendship among playmates, love and romance are usually reserved for the bonded couple.



Polyamory, by contrast, not only allows for but encourages emotional bonding and love relationships among the members of the group, which can be as few as 3 and as many as you can imagine. It has more of a communal feel to it than the Lifestyle because no one pair is the “primary”…all are somewhat equally involved with each other, or have different roles within an equitable relationship.

I’ve tried to explain it many ways, and this is by far my favorite. Monogamy: You are my sun, my moon, and my stars. Polyamory: This person is my sun, this one is my moon, this one my stars. Both love the whole sky!


Monogamish Couples

Then there are monogamish couples, whose relationship is monogamous except for certain situations. The clients I’ve worked with who have this type of relationship find that it works really well for them. Some examples: one member is bisexual, and has freedom to explore that outside the primary relationship; one member is ill and can’t have sex, so the other has permission to get that need met elsewhere; one individual has a fetish preference that the partner doesn’t want to accommodate, so that person finds someone who will; both partners travel a lot for work, and both have the option to have casual flings while on the road.

What each of these (and all the others) have in common is an understanding that, while love and sex can go together, they don’t always. We humans are sexual beings, and we’re attracted to variety and novelty. In a long-term relationship, keeping the spark and heat alive can be challenging, as therapist Esther Perel writes about in her book Mating in Captivity: “Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it.”



Cheese? Yes, Please…

More is Better!

When many of us enter into what we consider a “relationship”, the default understanding is that it will be just the two people in it. There’s an often unspoken agreement that romance, sex, and love are to be found only within that twosome. This can be true for both heterosexual and LGBTQ couples.

But there are other ways to structure a relationship, and each of those includes more people than just the couple. Consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNMR) can involve as few as one extra person or as many as you can imagine.

As we talked about earlier, what sets these apart from cheating or infidelity is the element of informed consent present in each. Everyone involved in a CNMR knows they are in one, consents to being there, and understands and agrees to the boundaries and ground rules. The goal is that there are no secrets, no lies, no deceptions, and there’s fully transparent, open communication among all parties.

Here’s a great explanation of a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

Q: You like cheese right?

A: I absolutely LOVE cheese!

Q: So you like cheddar?

A: I absolute LOVE cheddar!

Q: Only cheddar? Not brie, or gouda, or Swiss?

A: Nope, I love them all. You can’t compare cheddar to brie or gouda. They’re all differently delicious.

Q: Does your love of cheddar reduce your love of the others?

A: Of course not. They’re all yummy, and I want to be able to enjoy them all!


If that doesn’t resonate, here’s another – more simple – way to describe a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

If you have a child, you love it with all your heart. If you have another child, your love multiplies, not divides. You don’t love your first child half as much, you find you have enough love for both. More children = more love. And that’s how it is with CNMRs. The good feelings are multiplied, not divided.


Other benefits of CNMRs

Other benefits include the opportunity to explore aspects of someone’s sexuality that their primary relationship might not support. A bisexual individual in a relationship with someone straight might yearn for the ability to express their other sexual preference(s). Someone with a particular fetish might relish the chance to play that out, when their partner is unwilling or unable.

Less evident, but just as relevant, is our natural desire for variety. Our partner could do everything we ask, but they’re still the same person. They still feel, smell, taste, sound, and move the same. Often it’s not the acts themselves that we want to be different, it’s the person with whom we’re doing them…without blowing up our marriages, our relationships or our lives. CNMRs allow for that.

One major benefit that almost everyone in a CNMR talks about at length is the improved communication and trust they experience as a result.

Living life with a CNMR of any type requires a high level of self-awareness, honest communication, and the ability to tolerate and work through difficult feelings.

Many non-CNMR relationships don’t even begin to address these issues, while people in non-monogamous relationships HAVE to, or they run the very real risk of shattering what they so value. When your partner is sexually or romantically engaged with someone else, and you are also, you each have to have a high level of trust in the other, but also in yourselves. There are always ground rules and boundaries, and you have to believe in your ability to stay within those as well as your partner’s. Any negative feelings or actions are talked about and worked through right away. Any concerns or fears are taken seriously. Any happinesses or “wins” are celebrated. Some of the healthiest relationships I’ve seen in my practice are CNMRs.

This type of relationship is not for everyone, but if you think it might be something you’re interested in, and you’d like a little guidance in healthy ways to structure and manage it, I’d love to help you work through and design your own, unique CNMR.