We live in a society where monogamy is the norm, but monogamy is not for everyone. In recent years, the perspective on non-monogamous relationships has begun to shift. More couples are embracing the concept of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) as an alternative to traditional monogamous relationships. Consensual non-monogamous relationships are those in which all partners involved agree that having romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people is acceptable. This is not to be confused with non-consensual non-monogamy which occurs when individuals commit infidelity or cheat on a partner with whom they have agreed to be monogamous. When we accept monogamy as the default and only option for relationships, we assume they are so fragile that even a single encounter with someone else can destroy them. We eliminate the possibility of learning from various other partners about our needs and desires. We may also cut off opportunities for meaningful discussion with our partners about challenging experiences that all relationships face, such as jealousy, differing levels of commitment, fear that the other person might leave.
CNM is often called “being in an open relationship,” but can take various forms, including polyamory, being monogamish, swinging, and open relationships. In two nationally representative studies of single adults, Haupert et al. (2017) asked participants if they ever had an agreed-upon, sexually non-exclusive relationship, an intentionally broad definition of CNM. They found that 21.9 percent in Study 1 and 21.2 percent in Study 2 had engaged in CNM at some point in their lives. LGB adults were more likely to have experience with CNM, with those who identified as bisexual having significantly higher levels of CNM than the GL identified adults. It is important to note, however, that a person’s relationship style is not an indication of their gender or affectional/sexual orientation. People of any gender or affectional/sexual orientation can be involved in CNM relationships for a multitude of reasons.
Many CNM participants believe this kind of relationship promotes honesty, open communication, and prevents infidelity from ruining their relationship. In fact, people in CNM relationships are more likely to use protection and not engage in drinking or substance use, than people who engage in non-consensual non-monogamy or infidelity. We, as counselors, must help our clients decide whether considering a CNM relationship would help or harm their current relationship.
Helping clients involved in CNM relationships to negotiate rules and boundaries may also be an important task of counselors. Rules can be about the frequency, type of sexual acts, the location, or even types of people. There is no one “right” way to be in CNM relationships, other than the fact that all people involved should be knowledgeable about the relationship structure and agree to this structure willingly. Some of the questions that guide open relationship rule-setting include: Can you have relationships with others, or only flings? Do you want to bring other people into your sexual or romantic settings? Do you want to know about each other’s outside liaisons? If so, when and how will you disclose to each other? What are the rules around safer sex methods? The type of questions typically revolve around individual concerns, needs, and desires. Couples who engage in CNM usually have their rules written out before opening up their relationship. While these rules are not written in stone, they may help to prevent any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. The rules can always be changed with mutual agreement as the relationship grows.
Just like any other romantic and/or sexual relationship, CNM relationships can have their challenges. Many of these are related to improper communication, lack of openness and honesty, jealousy issues, and so on. Recent research with individuals who self-identified as practicing CNM found that health care providers often demonstrate a lack of awareness regarding CNM and sometimes react with acts of microaggression upon disclosure of CNM (Vaughan et al., 2019). This can lead people to stay in the closet about their relationships and sexuality. Approximately 25-30 percent of clients who practice alternative sexualities may never tell their therapist about these practices (Sprott, 2015). For those who have reported looking for a CNM-affirming therapist, one-fifth rated their therapist as lacking the basic knowledge of CNM issues necessary to be effective.
CNM relationships can work, but only if all parties practice proper communication and learn to manage jealousy and other potentially relationship-damaging emotions and reactions. Challenges may include the same ones common in monogamous relationship, such as jealously, insecurities, resentment, and poor or no communication. Consensual non-monogamy may not be for everyone but it a legitimate choice that can be the foundation of a wonderful, healthy, and fulfilling relationship. Counselors need to be well prepared and educated to work with individuals practicing CNM in order to prevent microaggressions and not force clients into the closet about their romantic/sexual practices.
Haupert, M. L., Gesselman, A., Moors, A., Fisher, H., & Garcia, J. (2016). Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 1-17. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2016.1178675
Sprott, R. A. (2015, November). BDSM/Kink and Healthcare: Experiences of Stigma and Resiliency. Paper presented at the Sexual Diversity and Health Conference, Stanford, CA.
Vaughan, M.D., Jones, P., Taylor, B.A., Roush, J. (2019). Healthcare experiences and needs of consensually non-monogamous people: Results from a focus group study. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16, 42-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2018.11.006
Dr. Christina McGrath Fair is a licensed counselor and qualified supervisor in Palm City, FL working with sexual wellness, women’s issues, and LGBTQ+ identities. She strives to advocate for equal rights of all through counseling, research, and advocacy efforts.
This blog is brought to you by the Sexual Wellness in Counseling Interest Network. SWIC is comprised of a group of individuals who value the richness and complexity of human sexuality. Intentional efforts are made to advocate for sexuality education and training of professionals and students through a multi-dimensional approach. Sexual wellness elucidates the salience of sexual freedoms, rights, and expression while honoring the holistic exploration of the human existence. SWIC advances this sentiment by providing support and guidance to professionals and students that recognize the imperative nature of sexual wellness.
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