How do you tell your boyfriend of two years that you want to have the option to have sex with other people? To explore non-monogamy?
As a 23-year-old who has pretty much only been in monogamous relationships (other than a brief and uncomfortable “don’t ask, don’t tell” open relationship with my high school boyfriend during the first few months of college), I didn’t know—but I tried it anyway.
It didn’t go very well. I probably hurt my then-boyfriend’s ego, and he said no. I think his exact words were something like, “I couldn’t share you,” which should’ve been a red flag in and of itself—but I was 23, okay?
While non-monogamy seems to be growing in popularity, there’s no denying that it’s still frowned upon by the average person. If it’s not frowned upon, it’s spoken about in hushed tones behind your back. Either the woman is an insatiable slut, or the man is a manipulative asshole trying to have his cake and eat it too.
Even if you don’t think people in non-monogamous relationships have something wrong with them, many of us are culturally conditioned to believe that if someone truly loves you, they won’t have eyes for anyone else. Because of this notion, if you’re intrigued by the idea of non-monogamy, it can be extremely difficult to bring this topic up to your partner. Even if you’re not shy about bringing it up, it can be difficult to do so in a way that doesn’t hurt your partner’s feelings.
But if you’re at all intrigued by the idea of non-monogamy, there’s a reason, and it’s something important to bring up with your partner, or at least explore on your own (even if it doesn’t end up being something that works out for you). So, I talked with some experts about how to do things the right way (plus common mistakes to avoid). I spoke with Shan Boodram, certified sex educator, dating coach and relationship expert; Aubrey Marcus, founder/CEO of Onnit and host of the Aubrey Marcus Podcast; and Marcus’s fiancé Whitney Miller, Love & Relationship Coach and host of the True Sex & Wild Love podcast.
1. First, do a little self-exploration
Like with any important conversation, it’s important to do your research first. This goes double for something like non-monogamy. If you’re recently interested in an arrangement like this, you might have a skewed idea of non-monogamy based on the way it’s often portrayed in media. Not to mention that, like many things in the sexual space, sometimes non-monogamy sounds more fun (and less tough) than it is IRL.
There are two books that seem to come up again and again as “bibles” in the non-monogamy space: The Ethical Slut (which Boodram, mentioned when I spoke with her) and Sex at Dawn (which Marcus recommended to me a few years ago). If you’re looking for something more leisurely, Boodram also recommends the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, “because it was the first positive depiction of a polyamorous relationship” that she’s seen in a mainstream film. Another quick-resource Boodram recommends is this map of non-monogamy, or the podcast Whoreible Decisions. “One of the hosts is non-monogamous and gives a lot of invaluable tips plus personal stories that I think people will find very valuable wherever they are on their journey,” she said.
2. Then, try introducing those resources to your partner
Once you’ve done your research, try recommending your favorite resource (or whichever resource you think your partner will enjoy the most) to your partner. This way, you’ll (hopefully) push them to do their own research prior to having a conversation about it, so they don’t immediately take things the wrong way. Not to mention, this will hopefully avoid the potential gut-reaction to non-monogamy for those of us that are a bit self-conscious, which can be, “I’m not enough for you?”
Because even this step can be difficult and bring up a swirl of emotions from your partner, try suggesting the resource without giving your opinion on it if possible. Instead of saying, “I read The Ethical Slut, and I feel like everything we’ve been told about monogamy is a lie,” say something like, “I just read The Ethical Slut, and I thought it was really interesting. I would love for you to read it so that I can hear what you think and discuss it with you.”
3. When you’re ready, try using this line
Broaching this topic isn’t easy, so I asked Boodram to write a Mad Libs-style sentence that you can use to fill in the blanks.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ____________ . I’ve been doing tons of research including reading __________ and watching/listening to ___________________. And after reflecting I actually think it’s pretty _______________. What do you think about ____________? Do you find the idea of ______________ fascinating?
You don’t have to use this line verbatim, obviously, but definitely take note of the way that this script doesn’t immediately force a certain idea upon your partner or provide any sort of pressure. You want to navigate this as a couple and find something that works for both of you. If you already have an idea of what kind of arrangement will work for you, that’s cool, but in practice that could completely change. Plus, if you call all the shots, your partner will probably end up feeling resentful, even if they go along with it at first.
“The biggest mistake [people make when trying to bring up non-monogamy with their partner] is when it is clear that the conversation is an attempt to validate your hopes vs. discover someone else’s truth,” said Boodram.
4. Be patient
“You can’t just hop right into it,” said Miller. “Pacing is super important…[you can’t just be like], ‘great, we read Sex at Dawn, now go!’”
Think about how you started your relationship. Chances are, you took your time getting to know each other and going on dates before deciding you were both ready to enter a monogamous relationship, right? Transitioning into a non-monogamous relationship (even if you’ve been with your partner for a long time) should be just as slowly paced. If anything, it should be at a slower pace than how long you took to “define” your relationship, because most of us aren’t culturally conditioned to accept non-monogamy. This means there is much more unlearning and fighting of social stigmas when charting that path.
Miller says that she and Marcus had conversations about non-monogamy for a solid year before taking the plunge.
“I was the type of person who thought I’d never be able to do this,” she said. “I was super jealous and I was the alpha female—you don’t even look at another person when you’re around me. It’s definitely possibly to go from that type of thinking to, “Oh babe, I hope you had a good time with her last night.”
5. Consider a threesome
“I think having a threesome is probably the next step,” said Marcus.
He suggests that whichever partner is primarily interested in non-monogamy challenge themselves by bringing in another partner for a threesome.
While Marcus said even this can be tricky, “at least you’re in it together. I think it’s easier than your imagination running wild when you’re not there.”
5. Have a support system
Like I mentioned earlier, entering into a non-monogamous relationship means seriously going against the grain. You’re going to have people saying you’re crazy, waiting for you to fail, or even talking behind your back about how your partner must have manipulated you into it. (Fun fact: Even though one might assume men are more interested in non-monogamy, studies have shown that women are twice as likely to suggest it.)
“You need to have friend you can go to that won’t say, ‘I told you this shit wasn’t going to work,’” said Marcus. “You have to find a community or a mentor or someone who can provide the other side. If [Whitney and I] didn’t have this support system, we would be done.”
“You’re just torturing yourself,” she said, “so if you have someone who’s like ‘whoa, think about it this way: You’re getting into this because you want to be honest and trust your partner,’ instead of your girlfriends saying, ‘I told you so,’ [it’s much better].”
6. And if you’re single…
Of course, all of these tips are for someone in a relationship looking to explore non-monogamy. If you’re single and already are pretty certain you want to explore non-monogamy, then you can (and should) definitely bring it up sooner so your future partner is less likely to take it as a reflection on them.
“The first time someone asks [what you are looking for], mention that you’re interested in exploring what connections look like outside of monogamy just as casually as you would say that you’re leaning towards a vegan diet,” said Boodram. “If they have follow-up questions, answer them, but also don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. You can also assert that what you’re most interested in is building a relationship dynamic with someone else and that you’d love to continue to keep the dialogue open.”