Consensual Non-Monogamy 101
These are just a few things that I’ve heard, as someone who practices consensual non-monogamy. My name is Kabir Brown and I’m an intimacy coach that specializes in Consensual Non-Monogamy. I support individuals and couples into designing their ideal relationship paradigm.
In exploratory sessions with clients, I find the two biggest front runners inspiring them seeking out intimacy coaching is: Deconditioning what we are taught about intimacy through the lens of compulsory monogamy AND not knowing the variety of relationship dynamics in the realm of Consensual non- monogamy.
So, what is Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)?
CNM is an umbrella term for the practice of simultaneously having multiple sexual or romantic partners where everyone involved is aware of and consents to the relationship structure. This is not to be confused with casual dating until a monogamous relationship is established or with infidelity. CNM is an agreement, and a fulfilling lifestyle for many people.
The most common misconceptions about CNM are that it’s all about sex, it devalues connections, and it is a temporary fix to an inability to “settle down.” Yet, many people have found happiness and freedom in having CNM arrangements with their partners.
Most people associate Non-Monogamy with “cheating” and culturally, “cheating” is portrayed as the ultimate betrayal to a committed relationship. As it's understood, cheating in a relationship means connecting to someone in the same way that is supposed to be reserved for your monogamous partnership. But many might be surprised to learn that you can “cheat” in CNM, too.
We are taught that true love and connection is between two people, and even as culture shifts the standard of love continues to be between a man and a woman who share the aim of owning a home and having children. This standard holds white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical people at its core, which is exclusionary and keeps others at the margins.
Compulsory Monogamy is when we assume monogamy is for us based on structural expectations, instead of by our own choice as opposed to consensual monogamy, which is the choice to be in a monogamous structure because it is right for you, not "the right way to be."
When we are taught that something is the only option, when we have the urge to stray away from it- we are riddled with guilt, shame and a lack of transparency, which can lead to things like cheating. We are not here to bash consensual monogamy or excuse the dishonesty and manipulation attached to cheating. We are here to ask “What could anyone’s intimate life look like if they believed that there’s a myriad of different relationship practices accessible to them?”
Consensual non-monogamy is a spectrum, there is no one size fits all approach, it can be temporary, permanent, it can ebb and flow with self actualization, and you get to decide what feels good and right for you.
While labels aren’t the end all be all of anything- labels can help make sense of what you and your partner(s) are craving. Here a few of the non-monogamy structures for you to be aware of:
- Monogamish, & Open Relationships: Monogamish, is a monogamy/non-monogamous hybrid in which partners agree to a very specific arrangement, like only hiring sex workers, or having (1) “Hall Pass” a year. Open relationships still center a primary relationship, but, have an agreement that allows for erotic intimacy outside of the relationship with certain boundaries and contingencies, like only random hook-ups, no serious relationships.
- Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: An understanding that your partners will be experiencing erotic and romantic connections outside of the centered relationship, but you and your partner will not ask for or disclose any details regarding those relationships.
- Parallel Polyamory: A dynamic where partners are aware of other partners, but they are always “parallel” to each other, meaning they do not meet or engage, relationships remain separate.
- Hierarchical Polyamory: A relationship paradigm, in which there is a hierarchy of partnership, with a primary/anchor partner being the partner who takes priority in some capacity.
- Non-hierarchical Polyamory: A relationship practice, opposite of hierarchical polyamory, in which there is no ranking of partners.
- Kitchen Table Polyamory: A paradigm, opposite of parallel polyamory, where partners know of each other and engage. Stemming from the idea that all partners can connect around a kitchen table together.
- Triads, quads, or more: A triad, quads or more are relationships that contain a group of 3 or more people. Can include Polyfidelity (a closed polycule).
- Solo Polyamory & Relationship Anarchy: Paradigms in which “you are your own primary”. Typically looks like avoiding things that would fall under what is considered the “relationship escalator” (living together, shared finances, marriage, co-parenting).
So often in our work, we find ourselves helping folks come to the realization that they don’t have to jump into the most “radicalized” versions of non-monogamy. When we shed light on the variety of dynamics available, we are usually met with relief.
Relationships do not have to be binary, contrary to cultural conditioning. I’ve gone from a don’t ask don’t tell open relationship to full fledged kitchen table polyamory over the years. Non-monogamous relationship structures can vary from an open relationship to relationship anarchy and anything in between.
So how do you know if consensual non-monogamy is right for you?
The truth is, there is no clear cut way to decide off the bat that non-monogamy is right for you. Some folks feel it is essential to who they are, others have new arising needs that they want to explore, and others want to commit to reconditioning the way they approach relationships all together. In coaching, we always recommend that clients have a clear answer around why they want to pursue CNM. If you’re thinking about exploring CNM, the best place to start is with knowing your “why.”
One of the more challenging parts of the pursuit of consensual non-monogamy is bringing it up in the first place. We are so often riddled by guilt around this need feeling inherently selfish. We are scared of sending messaging to our partners that is read as them not being enough for us. Because non-monogamy is so associated with cheating, the desire to want someone else must indicate a lack somewhere in the relationship. This is all a result of lack of representation and normalization. Non-monogamy doesn’t have to come into fruition because of desperate times, calling for desperate measures. It only feels that way because it is “other” in relation to monogamy. Wanting someone else is also attached to the question of morality, commitment and grit. How many times have you seen someone use their grandparents’ 51 year long monogamous marriage as the shining example of a successful relationship? Because “no one gave up, like the kids these days”?
CNM scares mainstream education and media, because it promotes choice.
The primary sex education program in the United States continues to be abstinence-until-marriage. Only 18 of 50 U.S. states require medically accurate sex education in public schools, and some states even restrict schools from including information on sexual orientation and gender identity. Consequently, sex education in America promotes monogamy and there is no accessible public education on non-monogamous relationship paradigms.
While consensual non-monogamy isn’t all about sex, the U.S sexual education system is a good example of just how terrified we are of promoting options that go against the very white, very Christian standards of sex and love.
The work my partner and I do, is not meant to convince anyone that CNM is the more evolved, eyes wide open way to live. Contrary to that, it is to guide others to find THEIR right way to live and to love, which can absolutely include monogamy.
Monogamy isn’t the inherently bad, imprisoning- robbing folks of their freedom boogeyman. I just think that everyone deserves the right to choose and explore if monogamy is right for them OR if it only feels right because of the standards that have been intentionally put in place around sex and intimacy.
If we aren’t even aware that there is another way to engage with intimacy- we can’t investigate further what truly feels right for us. Sex and love is fluid, much like other things that have been presented to us as binary. We are allowed to try something with all parties consenting, and stick to it- if it works and change our minds if it doesn’t.