There are a few cornerstones for all Consenting Non-monogamy (CNM) relationships.
- At least one – and sometimes everyone in the group – engages in sex and/or emotional intimacy with more than one other.
- The consent of each participant is given, and each participant may withdraw consent at any time.
- The form of the relationships must be clearly discussed and understood by all, for without this discussion no true consent is possible.
CNM relationships are sometimes called “designer relationships” because apart from these cornerstones, the people in each relationship forges their own boundaries and rules. They must come to an agreement on the degree emotional and sexual intimacy shared among all the partners.
Many stable, deeply intimate CNM relationships last for decades. Others may last for a short time but be profoundly meaningful and fulfilling. Some involve multiple adults who also share in raising children. Typically these successful relationships are only known and observable to those within the CNM community, or those invited to have access.
Contemporary CNM relationships typically do not draw attention to themselves. They “pass” and may look like traditional monogamous relationships even when they live in the house across the street. From the outside, the CNM communities are practically invisible.
To succeed, CNM requires emotional maturity, mutual motivation, extremely clear communication, commitment, great thoughtfulness and great caring.
Most Americans believe that CNM relationships are necessarily transitory, lack deep intimacy and emotional vulnerability, or are otherwise doomed. This mistaken perception is also held by many therapists, in good part because they often encounter only those CNM relationships which are troubled and seeking help. Lacking the cultural competency and training to help CNM relationships, and relying on negative stereotypes, these therapists often fail to provide effective help and the relationship flounders. As a result, negative stereotypes about CNS are often “confirmed” for therapists by their “observed” clinical experience. This bias is rarely clearly stated at the start of treatment.
In fact, CNM relationships face many challenges that are more complex than traditional couples, and their failure rate is undoubtedly higher. By “failure” I simply mean many CNS relationships break apart despite an intention of all partners to stay together. This is not to say transitory or short term relationships are “failures.” Short-term, transitional, or transitory relationships may well be significant, important and fulfilling. Even relationships often dismissed as “casual” or “impersonal” can be transformative.
Many people “wander” into CNS relationships without thinking it through, reading about it, or learning from the community. Sometimes one partner emotionally coerces the other to try poly, or a partner enters into poly because they fear their beloved will leave them if they don’t “at least try it.” These couples often end up separating because they under-estimate how deeply the coerced partner will experience fear, anxiety, jealousy and hurt when the initiating partner has sex with another. CNM is challenging.
Even those who have participated in CNM communities for years can under-estimate the skills and character strengths needed for these complex relationships to succeed. This can lead to cycles of negativity and stress. Here, seeking outside professional help makes sense.
Another reason CNM partners often seek treatment is difficulty defining the design of their relationship. Within the CNM community, how the different forms of relationship are labeled and defined is continuing to evolve and the subject of much discussion. Many of the forms of CNM overlap, while some are distinctly different, and each has it’s own label. But the labels often lack clear definition, and are the subject of ongoing discussion. Each relationship must come to an agreement on the degree emotional and sexual intimacy shared among all the partners.
When CNM relationships involve emotional ties between the partners, they are sometimes called polyques, pods, households or families. Members of a polyque may or may not live together under one roof.
Some polyques agree to polyfidelity, Polyfidelity is an agreement and commitment that members of the polyque will not seek additional partners outside the relationship, at least without the approval and consent of all the existing members. The dynamics of a polyfaithful polyque is very different than a pod which is open to sex outside the group.
Polyamory is different from “Swinging” where – typically – both partners have casual sex with others that does not involve emotional ties. For some swingers, sex with others must always occur at an event or party that both attend, but for other swingers this is not the case.
Swinging differs from “open-relationships” in which there is mutual agreement that sex outside the couple is acceptable within certain limits or rules which often may include deep emotional with other partners.
CNM relationships are sometimes referred to simply as “open relationships” as opposed to the sexually closed relationship of traditional monogamy. But this is confusing, because many CNM relationships are not at all “open” to sexual or emotional intimacy outside their group. These are sometimes called “closed loop” relationships. But the definition of a “closed loop” can also vary. Sometimes a closed loop relationship involves an agreement that partners can be sexual outside the relationship, but with only one other partner, who, ideally, is sexual with only one other partner also. The ultimate concern here may be fluid-bonding within the group to protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Difficulties in sorting out what partners agree to is often a focus of therapy.
A typical misconception is that CNS involves a “dominant” male with “many wives.” To speculate (since there is no research giving good data) the majority of CNM relationships do not fit this mold, except among small sub-cultures in rural Utah which are break-away, unsanctioned factions of the Church of Later Day Saints (Mormons). Bigamy, which is marrying more than one person, is illegal in the United States.
On the other hand a substantial number of CNM relationships involve a dominant partner with several submissive partners. The model for most of these relationships comes from contemporary understandings of BDSM and PE (Power Exchange), not from religious teachings. In this model, the dominant partner may be either male or female. Again, these relationships may be stable and fulfilling for all involved, but are complex to manage.
Dr. McConnell has worked for many years with members of the CNM community.