What is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

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What is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

It's seemingly taken over the dating space as of late, but what actually is it?

If you're on dating apps or social media, you're probably familiar with "ENM," or ethical non-monogamy, aka consensual non-monogamy (CNM), aka plain ol' non-monogamy. The umbrella term — meaning, anything other than monogamy — has seemingly taken over the online dating sphere as of late. The term "ethical non-monogamy" has seen a 213 percent spike in searches in the last year alone.


But what actually is consensual non-monogamy, and what are the pluses and minuses of the relationship style? We spoke to three experts in the space to find out.



What is consensual non-monogamy?

While the term ethical non-monogamy may be the most common, the experts lean towards consensual non-monogamy or simply non-monogamy.


"What counts as ethical for one person may not count as ethical for the other person," explained relationship coach Dedeker Winston, co-host of the Multiamory podcast. The term she uses is consensual non-monogamy, as that's the standardized research term.


"Ideally if we're saying non monogamy, it should be ethical and consensual, built into it," said marriage and family therapist and host of the Sluts & Scholars podcast, Nicoletta Heidegger. "Otherwise it would be cheating."


That being said, non-monogamy in itself is an umbrella term. It's "the practice of having multiple relationships that may either be sexual or romantic," Winston said, "having those relationships concurrently and with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved."


For relationship coach and co-host of the Curious Fox podcast, Effy Blue, it's essentially the opposite of monogamy.


Within the broadness of non-monogamy are the variations in which people practice it. They may be polyamorous, literally meaning "many love," and have romantic and sexual connections with multiple people. Polyamory can also be seen as an umbrella term, with many ways of operating underneath it.


They may be into swinging — usually couples swapping partners — or cuckolding, which is watching your partner getting it on with someone else. They may have an open relationship, which is also a pretty broad term but usually means a primary romantic connection and other sexual connections.


"Everything from 'we're mostly monogamous 364 days out of the year, but then once a year we have this like wild drunken threesome'" can fall under non-monogamy, said Winston. That may fall under "monogamish," a term coined by sex writer and podcaster Dan Savage, to mean mostly monogamous.


In terms of non-monogamy's rising popularity, Winston felt a shift in 2016, the year Trump was elected president. "A lot of structures were being questioned in that year," she said, including monogamy. She started noticing more people coming out that they practice non-monogamy, or putting such in their Instagram bios.


Then, several years later, COVID forced us into a literal or figurative existential crisis. People may have felt a sense that if there's a part of themselves they're repressing, now's the time to express it, Winston continued.


Not to mention that pop-culture has also upped its representation of non-monogamy. Dating apps have taken notice, too, with Hinge and Tinder adding non-monogamous label options.



Obstacles in non-monogamous relationships 

As with any style of relationships, there are struggles to overcome. With non-monogamy, these struggles can have added layers of complexity, as more than one person is in the mix. 


Jealousy may be at the top of people's minds when considering non-monogamy. It's an emotion that comes up in different facets of our lives — like with our career, and certainly in relationships. How we're socialized around this emotion is funny, Winston said, because in contexts aside from romantic relationships, jealousy is seen as good. For example: If you're jealous of a co-worker for receiving a promotion, that jealousy is supposed to motivate you.


"But when it comes to romantic jealousy, the story is more like [jealousy is] a completely unacceptable emotion to feel," Winston said, and if you're in a situation where you feel jealousy, it's a major red flag.


It's not that people who prefer non-monogamy don't get jealous — it's that they recognize it's a typical feeling to experience and work through it by looking inward and being honest with their partner(s).


"There needs to be a willingness and…support tools and systems in place," Heidegger said. Before jumping into non-monogamy, ask yourself (and your partner if you're already coupled): how do we deal with tough feelings when they come up?


Communication, then, is paramount in non-monogamous relationships (just like it is in monogamous ones). But beyond communication, you need to be willing to be vulnerable and honest, Winston said, and if that's not there, communication won't be successful.


Blue warned that there is such a thing as too much communication. One pitfall she sees is one partner in a couple becoming hyperfocused on non-monogamy, so much so that it becomes the only thing they want to talk about. Don't let this happen; remember to nurture other aspects of your relationship.


Bandwidth and time management is another issue Blue sees. Couples who are looking to open for the first time may have lots of commitments — like work and children — and they need to fit in their new, other relationships within their already busy lives. Be honest with yourself about how much time you have to dedicate to new connections, and be direct with these people about your availability to your new partner.


Relational traumas and attachment issues may rise to the surface as well. It is possible for relationships — monogamous or non-monogamous — to be healing and corrective, but if it's not done in an intentional way, they can actually be unintentionally harmful, Heidegger said. If you have a history of relational trauma, seek a therapist to work through these issues with you.


Then there's the exhaustive obstacle of going against the grain. Society is so geared towards cis, heterosexual monogamy, that there's pressure to conform to these ideals. "We're all swimming against the current," said Winston. When we have community and feel supported, it's easier to live in a non-normative way, but it can still be tiring.


Non-monogamy "can be hard, and there's an extra layer of difficulty layered on top of it, because of the fact that the water that we swim in doesn't really support us inherently," Winston said.



Benefits of non-monogamous relationships

Given the above, Heidegger said non-monogamy has the potential to help you work through relational issues and be healing in ways you didn't think were possible. It's also an opportunity to tune into what you want and explore your desires more openly. "It allows people to have more expansive love, more expansive pleasure, [and] to maybe have less shame about their needs and desires," she said. 


Non-monogamy also encourages autonomy. You can get clear about what you really want, instead of what society deems acceptable for you to want. 


"One major upside that I see is that… non-monogamy can give us a chance to be partnered with one partner or multiple partners, and yet also still maintain a sense of independent identity and independent interests," Winston said. 


Blue sees the primary benefit as finding a relationship design that you can thrive in. If you found something that works for you more than monogamy, that's a plus. Another she mentioned is the infusion of new relationship energy — even in longtime connections. You're embarking on a new adventure with your partner, and can be exciting for both of you.


Heidegger echoed this. Since non-monogamy leads to people experiencing something new, it can bring about a freshness and sense of adventure to your relationships.



Written by: Anna Iovine on Mashable