This post has been superseded by a more recent post that contains the below tips, plus many more. I am leaving this one up for historical reference.
Recently, my life partner Jen and I presented a workshop on boundary negotiation in nonmonogamous relationships to a room full of kinksters at our local pansexual play space. The workshop was geared towards nonmonogamy in a BDSM context, but most of what we said applied to any form of nonmonogamy. This essay and the accompanying list of nonmonogamy tips are derived from the handout we distributed.
Nonmonogamy seems to be a big deal these days. While I am well aware that I inhabit a self-selecting sample, it seems like nonmonogamy is on the move. I am not sure what is fueling this modern nonmonogamous wave. Perhaps the sexual revolution is actually coming to fruition in some ways, after a thirty-year delay, or perhaps sex-positivity is really taking off. Perhaps the rising status of women is creating a more positive environment for nonmonogamy. In any case, nonmonogamy of various sorts seems to be everywhere these days, for example here, here, here, here, and here. Nonmonogamy is so prevalent in certain subcultures (for example bi, BDSM, and some radical communities) that those groups have to make a concerted effort to support monogamous people in their ranks.
Howeer, there is no culture-wide standard language or conceptualization for nonmonogamy, so everyone seems to be rolling their own. A particular person or group might model their behavior on swinging, polyamory, open relationships, or group marriage, or they might make their own modifications on the monogamous standard. The end result is a confusing hodgepodge of concepts, strategies, and new words.
Language in particular has gotten tricky. The joke in polyamory circles is that you do not just need to know that someone is polyamorous to date them, but you have to check what sort of polyamory they are doing: group marriage, polyfidelity, poly network, primary/secondary, polysexual? And of course, what are their actual arrangements and plans? Similarly, when someone says they are nonmonogamous these days, they could mean anything from “I can kiss people at parties” to “I want to have sex with you now”. Even monogamy is not entirely clear any more: we have been seeing numerous discussions on the “new monogamy”, which seems to strongly resemble nonmonogamy. In the BDSM community, many people describe themselves as monogamous even though they reserve the freedom to do BDSM play outside of a primary relationship, and that play can for many people include sexual components. In the polyamory world, we have been seeing a lot of mixed poly/mono relationships, where one person is not interested in relations outside of the relationship, but is fine with their partner seeing other people. This is definitely monogamy on the part of the monogamous person, but at the same time it is a new kind of monogamy.
My point here is that we simply cannot trust these words any more. Someone could easily be in a situation that others would alternately describe as monogamy, nonmonogamy, or polyamory, depending on who you ask. What this really means is that these things are all up for grabs, and everyone (even monogamous people) should be engaging in fairly explicit negotiations around (non)monogamy in their relationships. So my first tip to you is: be really explicit in your (non)monogamy negotiations, and do not depend on these words when doing so.
One of the primary innovations of polyamory is the development of a fairly consistent set of “how to do nonmonogamy” ideas and suggestions. Arguably, this is the primary reason polyamorous community exists: many poly gatherings turn into poly technique discussions, and poly conferences are stocked full of “how-to” workshops. These poly tips are useful for all kinds of nonmonogamy, whether or not you consider yourself polyamorous. In fact, much of this carries over to fully monogamous relationships, so I recommend that monogamous people who want to be more conscious in their relationships also take a look at poly resources. This is my second tip: view polyamory as a set of relationship resources, whether or not you happen to be polyamorous.
For some reason, people assume that to be polyamorous you have to be some sort of incredibly evolved relationship master. This is simply not true. (Well, there are some such masters in the poly community, but they are a tiny minority.) Poly people can get jealous, can be insecure, do dumb things, and occasionally mess up relationships in a truly spectacular manner. We just do nonmonogamy despite all this. You do not have to be super-evolved to be polyamorous or nonmonogamous. It is a little more difficult than unexamined monogamy, because we live in a monogamous world. But I firmly believe that most people can switch to nonmonogamy, assuming they make a commitment to do so and work through the rough spots.
The following boundary negotiation tips represent a bit of fairly common poly wisdom, gleaned from online forums, poly reference books, and the like. It is targeted at people who are newly nonmonogamous but not necessarily polyamorous. The style is very brief, to avoid writing a book. All the usual caveats apply: some of these are gross overgeneralizations, many of them will not apply to you, do not take this as gospel, some poly people will disagree with much of this, there are entire subjects these do not address, and so on. If you have anything to add or any quibbles, please speak up.
Boundaries are limits obeyed by one partner in a relationship (often around what said partner can do with other people) so that the other partner can continue the relationship without losing their shit.
Boundaries are good. All relationships have boundaries. Most relationships have boundaries around what one partner can do with other people. Most nonmonogamous relationships have safer sex boundaries.
Boundaries are really hard stuff. There is often crying, advances and retreats, renegotiations, things that have to be revisited multiple times or over the course of years. Try to get good at (re)negotiating boundaries while keeping your cool.
Do not feel guilty about boundaries that you need, but at the same time only create boundaries when you need them. If there is a boundary that you need but that you do not want to need, then try to dismantle it slowly over time, while taking care of yourself.
Boundaries are not the opposite of freedom. Well-negotiated boundaries make the relationship a safe space which can allow you to potentially be nonmonogamous without getting dumped. Do not think of boundaries in terms of “freedom from” restrictions but rather in terms of “freedom to” do things. Good boundary negotiation helps you get what you want while still retaining security in the relationship.
Boundaries have to be really specific. Do not make a boundary around “sex”, “kink”, “D/S”, or something similarly vague. If you find yourself doing this, instead spell out specific acts and brainstorm scenarios. It is fine (indeed preferable) to make flexible boundaries centered around intent, but be aware that there will be surprises.
Boundaries may not make much logical sense. Sometimes they are based on people’s jealousy triggers or a need to feel secure, and these things are often not logical. It is important to excavate why a boundary is needed or what feeling is triggering it, as that can be used to figure out a creative boundary that blocks the trigger but is not onerous. Do not try to hide or bury the (potentially illogical) feelings or needs that are behind the boundary, and do not use a boundary negotiation in place of actually revealing those feelings or needs.
Good boundaries are renegotiable, and often change over time. Often they will loosen over time as people become more comfortable in a relationship or situation. Drop the impulse to create rules that supposedly last forever. Create a situation where boundaries can be evolve (via a new negotiation) without automatically creating a breakup situation. Consider creating boundaries that automatically have to be renegotiated after a set period of time, like six months or a year. Do not try to predetermine how those new negotiations will go. Also, sometimes boundaries will tighten, or new boundaries will need to be put in place, and that is okay.
The best way to relax boundaries is by extending the safety and trust they create over time. Constantly fighting boundaries or breaking them on purpose rarely helps the situation. Instead, respecting one’s partner’s needs and sanity tends to give them the strength to let down their guard.
It is okay to have different boundaries for different people in the relationship. Instead of having one set of rules for everyone in the relationship, it is common to have different rules for different people. This is because the partners in the relationship have different levels or kinds of comfort, and because they are seeking out different things. Do not use this as an excuse to create unfair situations: the goal is a working compromise where everyone involved gets some of what they want, whatever that might be.
When a boundary is broken, do not break up. It will happen, if for no other reason than misunderstandings. The first time a boundary is broken, use that as a starting point for a conversation or renegotiation. While trust is of course important, do not become a “my trust has been broken” martyr. Remember that the person breaking the boundary is almost certainly not doing it to purposely hurt you.
Often a person will not know that they need a boundary until it has been breached. When this happens, follow the rules for a jealousy fit. Do not break up. Discuss the boundary when everyone has calmed down. With BDSM, there are more opportunities for this sort of surprise, because there are so many sorts of play and play situations. For example, a partner who has been fine with their partner doing all sorts of pain play may suddenly get extremely upset when they engage in blood play.
Sometimes boundary negotiations are irreconcilable, and one person wants a limit that another person refuses to obey. Then, it is time to radically rethink the relationship. People often avoid talking explicitly about their boundaries or what they want to be able to do, because they fear this happening. But it happens eventually anyways when people’s needs become clear, and sooner is better than later.
Boundaries should be realistic, and should not put people in a really difficult-to-maintain position. For example, do not make “you can date them, but you can’t have any sort of sex for six months” boundaries. Instead, tell your partner(s) that you are uncomfortable with them having sex (or playing, or what have you), and ask them to delay dating until you can get more comfortable.
Boundaries should not be used to determine the shape of a relationship. For example, do not make a “you can only see them once a month” boundary while thinking “this will keep their relationship from getting serious”. Instead, first explicitly negotiate what shape you want your relationship to have, and then use boundaries to keep yourself comfortable and safe in the relationship with that shape.
Do not use safer sex boundaries as a stand-in for emotional boundaries. You should definitely have safer sex boundaries, if you are nonmonogamous. However, do not mix boundaries that are due to your emotional needs with the safer sex boundaries. If you need a boundary for reasons other than safer sex, admit it.
Practice negotiating on relationship topics. If every negotiation turns into an all-night crying jag or blamefest, then negotiation will not happen because you will be afraid of it. Practice various sharing and listening exercises until you can negotiate effectively even on emotional subjects.
Be willing to not solve the problem in this round of negotiations. Bridging some differences will take a number of periodic negotiations. Also, try to keep the negotiation short.
Create space in your negotiation for “illogical” emotions (which are rarely as illogical as they might seem at first). Admit the emotions you are feeling. Practice listening without judging or interrupting. Acknowledge your partner’s emotions without feeling like you need to necessarily do something about them, or that you need to fight them. Do not try to make all your arguments logical, and do not try to use logical arguments to conceal your emotions on a subject.
If possible, drop your D/S dynamic for any serious relationship negotiation. This is not the time to be a good submissive. If the dynamic cannot be dropped for some reason, then somehow work it into your D/S practice. For example, by having a mechanism where the submissive can make nonmonogamy requests of the dominant.
Do not negotiate while upset or freaked out. Take a break (possibly of a couple days) or a long walk if you need to. If the negotiation is happening because of a surprise jealousy experience or similar surprise, wait a while before addressing it.
Dig into the reasons behind your negotiating position. If you can establish a chain of reasons for the way you feel, often this will provide creative solutions that are satisfactory at a different level than the initial concern that started the negotiation.
Negotiate even when there is no obvious need. Not only does this keep you in practice, but it gets you to brainstorm possible scenarios, which can be key to avoiding nasty surprises later.
Leave space for reopening negotiations. Leaving a space open for renegotiation prevents people from feeling trapped, which helps them honor any agreements. Creating a hard permanent rule just encourages your partner(s) to break it. Of course, this should not be abused: do not try to open a renegotiation just to take advantage of a particular situation.
It is okay to be jealous. Do not beat yourself up over it. Joining a BDSM, polyamory, or other nonmonogamous community does not instantaneously cure you of a lifetime of heavy monogamous conditioning. Most people (including most nonmonogamous people) get jealous, though some people do not.
Accept your jealousy. Do not be scared of it. Do not be scared of your partner’s jealousy, and do not get on their case about it. If you are afraid of jealousy, or you try to bury it or hide it, it will get worse, and it may come out in unproductive ways.
Feel your jealousy. The way to reduce or get rid of jealousy is to ride it out. Beat up a pillow or two, go for a long walk, or just feel crappy and do what you can to take care of yourself. It will get better.
Own your jealousy. Take responsibility for it. Do not take your jealousy out on your partner or use it to try to change their behavior. Do not use your jealousy as an excuse to create distance between your partner and their lover/partner/play buddy. Do not negotiate boundaries while upset due to jealousy. Do not hide your jealousy from your partner(s), but at the same time let them know that you are taking responsibility for it. Do not cater to your partner’s jealousy.
Figure out your jealous triggers. Often these will be relatively silly things that you can avoid without putting a crimp in your relationship. If you know your partner’s triggers, do not poke them if there are other reasonable options.
Jealousy often hides some other problem or emotion. Try to analyze your jealousy. Have things changed recently, and the changes could be threatening in some way? Have you changed in some way? What fears are at the root of your jealousy? If you can figure out the root of jealousy, it can often be defused, for example by facing the fear in question and accepting it.
Put together a reassurance script for your partner(s). For example, “I am very attracted to you, I am not leaving you for them, you are a wonderful top, this does not change things between us, etc”. Recite it (and mean it) when jealousy is getting to them.
Jealousy is often a surprise. Try to take it in stride. For example, if you are at a social event, try to bow out gracefully. Ride the jealousy, and take care of yourself, whether that means taking a walk, beating up a pillow, going to a movie, etc. Do not make relationship decisions of any sort in the midst of a jealous fit. Discuss the jealousy when everyone has calmed down.
Do not compare yourself to your partner’s other partner(s). There will always be someone more domme-y, more subby, more sexy, taller, shorter, or with better opera singing skills. Accept that people are actually unique, and that you bring important things to any relationship. If insecurity is a problem for you, try to find ways to be more secure in yourself.
BDSM creates a number of new potential triggers for jealousy. The focus on public play parties creates sensitive situations to negotiate, and the wider range of play techniques means there are more opportunities for triggers. Non-kinky nonmonogamists worry about sex and love, but kinky nonmonogamists also worry about D/S, pain play, bondage, kidnap scenes, erotic wrestling, wax play, etc.
Do not mistake social weirdness for jealousy. Meeting a partner/lover/play buddy of your partner or lover will always be awkward the first time, but the awkwardness will disappear after a couple such meetings. Do not be afraid of such meetings, as they will almost certainly happen.
Your jealousy may never go away, and will certainly not go away overnight. It is rare for someone to be able to entirely divest themselves of jealousy, and it usually takes a couple years when it does happen. However, jealousy can almost always be managed and it will almost certainly reduce in intensity over time.
Nurturing New, Secondary-style, and
Play Buddy Relationships
It is difficult to manage new, secondary-style, and/or play buddy relationships. These relationships present a different set of difficulties than primary-style relationships. We have plenty of models for primary relationships, but none for relationships with less involvement, less attraction, less time commitment, or that are growing in the shadow of an established relationship. Pay attention and do not take these relationships for granted.
It is okay to have uneven relationship involvement levels. These are a fact of life in nonmonogamy. Do not pretend that relationships are at an equal footing when they are not. If nothing else, a longer history with one partner will create an unequal footing. If you want things to be equal, you will typically have to overcompensate to do it. Do not use the excuse that the relationships are unequal to squish or sideline a less-involved relationship.
Boundaries and negotiation are not just for primary or primary-like relationships. When starting a new or less involved relationship, lay out your desires and expectations to ensure they are compatible. Go through relationship negotiation similar to that in primary-style relationships.
Be willing to ask for what you want. If you are in a less involved relationship with someone who has a primary-style relationship, do not be afraid to ask for what you want, as that is almost always preferable to trying to suppress, or trying to get it other ways.
Find ways to reassure non-primary partners. People in less-involved relationships tend to assume they will be cast aside without care at the first hint of trouble. Figure out what you can promise to them in terms of stability or commitment, and then make those promises.
Give the new/secondary/play buddy person a voice. Try to avoid making decisions in your primary relationship(s) and then presenting them to other relationships as a done deal. Try to create a three-way negotiation pattern, even if it is one that is unbalanced or has to be channeled through the shared partner. Even if a big decision is something non-primary partners will not have a say in, discuss it with them.
Build trust and comfort between primary partner(s) and non-primary partner(s). This is an effort that should go both ways, and one that will pay off for everyone involved despite any initial awkwardness. Have partners mingle in social settings, go out together to movies, have everyone over for dinner, or otherwise interact. Do not start by having everyone go to the same play party: sexualized environments do not create comfort.
Be flexible about where a new/secondary/play buddy relationship can go. Relationships (even play buddy relationships) tend to have a mind of their own, so trying to fit them into a particular pre-defined mold causes drama and often fails. Instead, try to go with the flow as time passes and things find their own level or rituals. This goes both ways. For example, do not assume that a new relationship will necessarily become more serious over time – often the reverse happens.
Do not be a cowboy or cowgirl. A cowboy/girl is someone who enters a nonmonogamous scene and tries to “rope one off from the herd”. Do not plan on being nonmonogamous for now and becoming monogamous later, unless you have explicitly negotiated it. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you will someday replace a primary relationship: this rarely happens purposefully, and trying to make it happen will just create drama and get you dumped.