In recent years, interest in nonmonogamy has surged, captivating a growing number of people seeking alternatives to traditional monogamy. And there’s no sign of this newfound interest letting up. 

As we discussed last week, a 2023 YouGov poll of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults found that only 55% of all Americans (and only about 40% of Gen Z’s and Millennials) said complete monogamy was their ideal relationship structure.

That’s a lot of people who see some type of nonmonogamy as their ideal. 

Yet there are many ways to do nonmonogamy. Not all will be a good match for you. Choosing the wrong structure can set you up for ultimate failure.

Plus, it’s really easy to do nonmonogamy wrong. This is especially true now when there’s so much inaccurate information and little clear guidance on how to do it well. I’ve seen too many people blow up their lives by heading off to the wrong destination, or taking the wrong path to the right destination.

So, before you dive headfirst into this big life decision, here are 7 key questions to ask yourself. They will help you figure out if nonmonogamy is really a good fit, and determine if you can do it without blowing up your life and existing relationship(s) in the process.

How do you figure out which relationship structure is right for you? How do you build the skills necessary to thrive in it once you do? Check out LoveSmarter™ University and step into the sex and love life YOU want, rather than the one laid out for you by other people’s expectations!

1. Why do you want to be nonmonogamous? 

First, the foundational question. What’s motivating you to explore this part of the relationship landscape? What’s your “why”? 

There are 5 main reasons why people might be interested in nonmonogamy: 

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1. You have sexual or relationship needs and desires that no one person can satisfy, no matter how good of a match for you they may be. Maybe you’d like to:

  • Have threesomes, foursomes, or other forms of group play; or
  • Watch your partner have sex with someone else; or 
  • Experience people of different genders, ages, races, cultures, sizes, smells, kink orientations, etc…

2. You may have needs and desires that a single well-matched partner could satisfy, but your long-term partner cannot or doesn’t want to satisfy them: 

  • There may be discrepancies in your sex drive, or your specific sexual preferences, or your level of romanticism…
  • Your partner could have physical or psychological limitations that don’t allow them to meet your needs.
  • You could be long-distance. 

3. You could be interested in nonmonogamy because you’re afraid of long-term commitment and the complexity and work that comes with it. 

So you might see nonmonogamy as a way to avoid deeper commitments while having some fun and excitement. Partnered nonmonogamy, especially if done well, does not avoid commitment, but unpartnered nonmonogamy certainly does. 

There are many people who jump from one short- or medium-term relationship to another as a way to get both the benefits of a close relationship (at least for some period of time), and the freedom to explore multiple people. And others who stick to purely casual sex.

4. You could be in a phase where you’re exploring sexually and romantically before settling down into long-term monogamy. 

So you’re not afraid of long-term commitment in general, you’re just not ready for it yet. But once you’re ready, you’ll want sexual and romantic exclusivity, so nonmonogamy is a temporary phase. 

5. Your partner is interested in exploring nonmonogamy, and you don’t want to lose them.

So you might give it a shot even though you’re not sure you’re interested in it (or maybe you’re sure you’re not interested in it) for yourself.

Each of these reasons will require a somewhat different approach in how you explore your nonmonogamy and negotiate it with your partners: 

  • Does it make sense to go at it unpartnered or partnered? 
  • If you’re partnered, are both of you coming along for the journey or is one going at it on their own while the other remains monogamous? 
  • If one or both of you are going down that route, how quickly are you going to travel?

2. How stable and happy is your current relationship? 

If you’re already partnered and looking to explore opening up, be prepared because those explorations will almost certainly bring up some difficult feelings, including jealousy, possessiveness, envy, insecurity, anger, betrayal, fear, or a sense of threat.

Nonmonogamy can be a lot of fun and bring a lot of value to your life, but it’s not necessarily a walk in the park. 

You’re literally moving out of an area of the relationship landscape that’s well mapped out, governed by clearly established and universal rules well-known to virtually everyone, and accepted as the norm by society… 

and moving into into a completely different area on the map governed by a different set of norms and rules that are far more idiosyncratic and unfamiliar to most, and heavily stigmatized and misunderstood by society. 

For most people, that’s a fairly long journey with many potential obstacles blocking your way.

Even in the most high-quality relationships–those with a fair amount of love, care, intimacy, trust, respect, good communication, and constructive conflict resolution–opening up will shake up your sense of security at least a little, at least in the beginning. 

If you’re in a fairly stable place to begin with, you and your partner will probably find your footing in this new part of the relationship landscape. Through some trial and error, together you’ll figure out the container that’s right for both of you, and find a new and exciting equilibrium.

If, however, you’re already on shaky ground that includes:

  • A lot of unresolved conflict and accumulated resentment, 
  • Not much intimacy and connection left, 
  • Both your “love tanks” are running on empty, or
  • You’re already grown apart…

…More often than not, opening up will only exacerbate these issues. It will often lead to  the ending of a relationship that didn’t necessarily have to end. Or a much uglier ending of a relationship that could’ve ended much more amicably.

This doesn’t mean you have to be perfectly happy and have all your needs met in your current relationship before opening up. Clearly some needs are going unmet if you’re considering this option, and that’s ok – outsourcing needs satisfaction is exactly what nonmonogamy is built to address. 

But it’s possible for a relationship to be in too bad of a shape before embarking on the journey to do it safely.   

Every situation is different, of course, but a good general rule of thumb is the “B-range minimum” rule. Think about the range of relationship satisfaction and quality on the classic U.S. grading scale from A+ (excellent) to F (failing). 

If your relationship quality and satisfaction are in the A or B range, you’re in a good position to open up. 

If you’re at a C or below, opening up immediately is probably not a great idea. You should first examine whether: 

  1. a) it’s possible to get this relationship to a B or an A, and 
  2. b) it’s worth preserving and putting in the time and effort into the relationship to achieve a). 

If the answer is “yes” to both, work on getting it to at least a B- before considering venturing into nonmonogamy land. 

If the answer is “no” to at least one of these questions, work on finding the kindest, least painful way to end this relationship then consider your relationship options .

3. Where are you in your healing journey? 

We all carry wounds from our childhood and earlier years. 

While there’s a wide range in the intensity of the experienced trauma and the size of the wounds left behind, no one gets to adulthood unscathed.

Unless you’ve done some intentional and focused work to heal those wounds, there are unhealed parts of yourself hiding in the “basement” of your heart, soul, mind, and body. This is true no matter how high-functioning in your everyday life, or how good at compartmentalizing the trauma or laughing it away you think you are.

Nonmonogamy, especially partnered nonmonogamy, can be more challenging to do well if you haven’t addressed these wounds.

Unhealed parts are often a lot easier to contain, disguise, or ignore in monogamy, celibacy, and to some extent in singledom. A lot can be swept under the rug without a close romantic partner or with a single committed partner. 

Unhealed parts of ourselves become really hard to ignore, and will almost certainly rear their ugly heads when we’re sharing the person we love with other people, or exploring ourselves in ways that might be painful to them. These activities will find and poke at all your unhealed parts, making your nonmonogamy journey more challenging, more painful for you and/or more hurtful to your partners.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do nonmonogamy unless you’re fully healed (for many of us that could take a lifetime!). But it does mean you shouldn’t attempt nonmonogamy unless you’ve at least done enough work to:

  1. a) be aware of your wounds, traumas, and unhealed parts, where they come from, and how they get triggered;
  2. b) have successfully communicated them with your partner(s) as appropriate; and 
  3. c) have come up with a plausible plan of action with yourself and your partner(s) for how to work with and around them, and not let them sabotage your travels.

The less healed you are, the slower, more careful, and more heavily safeguarded your travels may need to be

4. How well can you communicate your needs and boundaries? 

In our world, it’s very difficult to even know what our sexual and relational needs and boundaries are, let alone communicate them with others. This is especially true if what we (don’t) want  falls outside the narrow box of the socially acceptable. 

It’s one of the casualties of our sex-negative world that:

  • Imposes on us a one-size-fits-all model of monogamy where everyone’s supposed to want and not want the same things;  
  • Doesn’t encourage us–and often actively discourages us–from digging deeper into ourselves and exploring our true desires, needs, and boundaries;
  • Fails to give us the language and scripts to put our needs and boundaries into words; and 
  • Fails to give us the courage and permission to share those words with potential and existing partners, and make sure they’ve heard us.

The ability to communicate your sexual and relational needs and boundaries is an essential skill in all relationship formats. But the more sexual and romantic partners you have (committed and/or casual), the more important this skill becomes.

You’re still unlikely to get everything you want and nothing that you don’t want if you don’t have a strong yes and a strong no, even in monogamy. But having a single partner who knows you well, cares about your wellbeing, and has no other partners to attend to, can offer a fair amount of protection against your inability to advocate for yourself.

It’s much harder to get the things you want and not get the things you don’t if you can’t advocate for yourself when you’re hooking up with people who don’t know you and might not care about your pleasure and comfort. 

It’s also much harder to stay in that sweet spot when you’re entering uncharted territory with a partner who may want things you don’t want or can’t handle, and who may not know how to best care for you in these new scenarios.

Want to do nonmonogamy without hurting yourself? Spend some time getting to know yourself across various sexual and relational contexts, then practice your “yesses” and your “nos” until you’re a pro.

5. How good are you at identifying and respecting other people’s needs and boundaries? 

In some ways, this question is simply the other side of the same coin as the previous one–negotiating consent in sex and relationships. 

But making sure your own needs and boundaries are respected requires a different toolbox than those needed to make sure you respect other people’s needs and boundaries. So we’re going to look at this side of the coin separately.

Some of us are really good at advocating and caring for ourselves, but not very good (or sometimes really bad) at advocating and caring for others. Others will bend over backwards to make sure others are happy and taken care of, but won’t lift a finger to make sure they themselves are. 

We need both sets of skills for truly healthy relationships. But, like our ability to advocate and care for ourselves, a well-developed ability to advocate and care for others is extra critical in nonmonogamy. Because, the more sexual and romantic partners you have, the more opportunities you’ll have to hurt other people.

Unfortunately, being able to see things from other people’s perspectives, and have compassion and understanding when their perspective differs from ours is another skill our society doesn’t really instill in us. Despite all the talk about consent these days, these  skills are sorely lacking. There are many factors contributing to this:

  • The natural human tendency to project onto others whatever is true for us, especially when we aren’t sure what others might want;
  • The equally natural human tendency for this projection to become more heightened when we really really want something, especially when we are already in the “hot” state of sexual arousal;
  • The misguided idea that the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated is the standard we should be following; 
  • The lack of awareness of the different ways personal and structural inequalities and power differentials can enter relational dynamics, which makes it much more difficult for some people to successfully assert their needs and boundaries;
  • The egocentrism of “my (or our) way is the best way” that often permeates cultures and subcultures.

So if you want to be nonmonogamous and a good ethical human being, you need to make sure you have

  • the tools to identify other people’s needs and boundaries; and 
  • the empathy and compassion to apply the “Platinum Rule”: Treat others the way THEY want to be treated. 

And if you can’t treat them the way they want to be treated, have the integrity to walk away. 

6. How good are your sexual health knowledge and safer sex skills? 

If you’re going to be nonmonogamous (partnered or unpartnered), you’re going to have multiple sexual partners. This significantly increases your chances of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancies. 

Understanding, managing, and negotiating sexual and reproductive health risks is, therefore, an essential skill for anyone looking to explore that part of the relationship landscape.

This is no small feat. There are a lot of factors working against our ability to safely manage our own and our partner’s sexual and reproductive health when having multiple partners.

On one hand, there’s the sheer amount and complexity of the information regarding all the risks involved, and the risk reduction strategies available

  • There are a lot of STIs (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, two types of HSV, 40+ types of HPV, trichomonas, bacterial vaginosis… and this is not even an exhaustive list), and they’re all different in terms of the physical harm they cause to the body, or the way they’re transmitted, prevented, detected, and treated. 
  • There’s over a dozen different risk reduction strategies one could use (from condoms and lube, to getting tested, to vaccines, to safer sex conversations). 
  • Due to different demographic, behavioral, and biological characteristics, different people are differently exposed and susceptible to the different risks.
  • And due to personal and structural inequalities, different people have very different levels of access to these various risk reduction strategies and different abilities to execute them.

On the other hand, there’s society’s complete failure to equip people with the tools they need to keep themselves and their partners safe:

And to make things even more complicated, different people have different levels of tolerance for taking sexual/reproductive risks

  • Despite what many schools, sex educators, or nonmonogamy activists may tell you, there’s no one safer-sex protocol that fits everyone. You have to find the one that works for you, then negotiate that with your partners. 

This all conspires to create a situation where millions of people engage in high-risk sexual behaviors without full awareness of the risks, or the tools they need to minimize those risks to levels everyone is comfortable with.

Want to do nonmonogamy AND keep yourself and your partners safe? Better go back to sexual and reproductive health school first so you know what you’re signing up for.

7. Do you have a supportive community? 

Finally, while nontraditional relationships are becoming increasingly more visible and acceptable, especially in certain progressive bubbles, nonmonogamy remains highly stigmatized in most parts of the world.

This is still very much true of the U.S. That same 2023 YouGov poll that found 45% of Americans wanted something other than complete monogamy as their ideal, also found that only about 30% actually approved of open relationships, swinging, or polyamory. (Across all three relationship structures, about 60% actively disapproved of it, and about 10% were unsure of their attitudes.) 

Friends-with-benefits (FWBs) relationships fared somewhat better, with 49% of Americans approving, 39% disapproving, and 12% unsure. They sadly didn’t ask about more casual forms of casual sex, like one-night stands, or fuck-buddies, but my guess they would not fare better than FWBs and would likely fare worse.

And nonmonogamous people are acutely aware of the stigma directed towards them, which can range from negative comments, judgments, and jokes; to discrimination at work, in housing, health care, education, or family court; to physical threats or attacks.

So if you go down the nonmonogamy route, there’s a very good chance you’ll have to deal with at least some amount of overt or more subtle stigma. Or you’ll have to keep that part of your life secret, which takes its own toll.

As should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s experienced life as a stigmatized minority, the more stigma nonmonogamous folks experience, anticipate, or have internalized, the worse their mental health and the quality of their relationships.

A big part of this equation is the internalized stigma regarding nonmonogamy that nonmonogamous people themselves bring into their own lives. Many of us carry the shame inside us from years and decades of hearing that monogamy is the only right place on the map. If we don’t approve of our own lifestyle, we can’t live it healthily.

Humans are a social species and we cannot thrive alone. We need to feel accepted by others, and connected to community. And we need to have our behaviors congruent with our values and beliefs.

So if you’re going to go down the nonmonogamy path, it’s critical that you spend some time:

  • Undoing the shame surrounding nonmonogamous lifestyles you’ve internalized;
  • Protecting yourself from the external stigma that may realistically come your way;
  • Buffering the effects of whatever stigma or shame makes it through by connecting to sex-positive people and community.

Doing nonmonogamy is NO joke. It’s easy to mess it up, and the skills and tools we need to avoid that are not readily available anywhere. That’s why I created LoveSmarter™ University – a space to provide the theoretical knowledge, practical skill set, AND a supportive community of like-minded people you need to build a healthy, pleasurable life in whichever part of the relationship landscape you decide to visit or settle into.