You and Me…Plus 3? An Introduction to Consensual Non-monogamy

Consensual non-monogamy has gained popularity in recent years, but the idea of open relationships can trigger and confuse people.

Some feel it’s “cheating”, others promote non-monogamy as a wonderful lifestyle, and still others blame all relationship troubles on “toxic monogamy culture.”

The truth lies in each person’s definition of non-monogamy, and how the ethics and benefits fit into their own lives.

What is “consensual non-monogamy” or “CNM” anyway?

Let’s start with what it isn’t. It isn’t an excuse to cheat on your partner. So let’s not bring that up again, okay? The consensual part of the name is pretty crucial. According to Wikipedia, CNM is defined as “an umbrella term for every practice or philosophy of intimate relationship that does not strictly hew to the standards of monogamy, particularly that of having only one person with whom to exchange sex, love, and affection.”

Uh….Say what?

Okay, let’s break it down.


Basic Types of CNM

First, CNM is an “umbrella term”, because there are many, many forms of CNM, such as swinging, polygamy, open relationships, polyamory, and what is termed “monogamish”. Which means mostly monogamous, but with occasional sex outside the relationship.  Basically, any philosophy or practice that is not monogamy can be considered CNM. This article will address a few of the most common CNM forms.



“Polyamory” is where the participants generally have something more than just sexual (ie, romantic) relationships with multiple partners. It involves having multiple romantic relationships at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. Knowledge and consent of everyone is crucial. 


Within polyamory, there are many different dynamics.  Some believe in hierarchical structures (ie, some partners are favored over others). While others prefer a more egalitarian approach (ie, where the “love” is spread around amongst a group, sometimes known as a “triad” or “quad”).  There are a lot of terms and labels to explain within the Polyamory world, as well as different types of Polyamory that are practiced. So I am going to stop here and save those delicious complexities for another post. Stay tuned and hungry for more Poly talk. 


 Group sex

Even having the occasional threesome is considered non-monogamy.  Group sex has become more and more common these days. Couples want to spice up their sex life, so they bring in a “third” or “unicorn” into the bedroom. For penis owners who’d like to last even longer, using a product like Promescent can be a sexy option. Simply apply and wait 10-15 minutes, the perfect amount of time for hanging back and watching your partner play before jumping in. “Swinging” is a term for couples who “swap” with other couples, often in the same room or at the same party.


Open relationships

Some people have what they consider an “open” relationship, where the partners can take on other sexual partners. These relationship rules tend to be centered around who can have sex with whom and when.

For example, I recently met a man on a dating app. Let’s call him Greg (not his real name).  Greg has a girlfriend, and with his girlfriend’s knowledge and consent, he has sexual relationships with other women. His girlfriend does not want to participate or learn about his sexual encounters. He remains “true” to his girlfriend in that he does not develop romantic relationships with these other women. In a way, these outside relationships for Greg are “friends with benefits.”  


CNM requires communication on steroids

While Greg’s relationship structure is not the norm, it is also not the only way to structure an open relationship.  Some relationship partners want to learn about other sex partners and/or participate in them. This is really where open and honest consent comes into play.

Contrary to popular belief, I believe that CNM actually requires more rules than traditional monogamy.  (I mean, monogamy is pretty simple…one partner, that’s pretty much it.)  With CNM, the more rules you create, the more clarity you create. Plus, CNM requires much more communication and honesty than a traditional monogamous relationship.

From my experience being in an open relationship, you have to get really clear about what your expectations and boundaries are. For example, you may decide with your boyfriend that you want to start seeing other people sexually, but you didn’t discuss how and when to inform the other partner of the encounters you plan.  I have had successful open relationships both ways. In one relationship, it was decided we both did not want to know about other partners. In another, we discussed any potential and eventual sexual encounter prior to, and after, it occurred.

Even something as simple as scheduling time with your partners can become quite an issue in a CNM situation.  In addition, your feelings about the situation may change and fluctuate, so communication must be constant.


Pros and cons

The pros of CNM are generally that you can have sex with more than one person, and explore relationships options without being limited to one partner. People who enjoy CNM tend to tout the benefits of having meaningful relationships with more than one person, or expanding their sexual horizons in a way that would not have happened in traditional monogamy.

Some find that having more than one sexual or romantic relationship actually enhances and deepens the relationship with their spouse or all of their partnerships. Some spouses may have lower libidos or sexual dysfunction and desire their partners to be pleasured elsewhere.

However, it’s not all sunshine and daisies, there are cons of CNM too. A CNM relationships tend to require a lot more “work” in terms of communication and repair. Also, the risk is high that someone may get hurt due to a lack of communication or clarity of their own desires.

I always advise people that the timing of entering a CNM dynamic can be key. If you are in the middle of a big life change, or there is drama in other areas of your life, it generally is a bad time to consider opening up your relationship.


Eyes wide…open 

The bottom line is:  If you are interested in CNM, you should definitely read up on it before entering into a CNM situation. You need to go into the relationship dynamic as prepared as you can. There are several books out there that are excellent resources, such as The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and More Than Two.  

These resources can help you prepare for the potential pain or jealousy that can come up.


The biggest lesson I learned in dipping my toe into polyamory is…by the time the “hurt” came on (about one of his partners), I was not prepared to handle it because I did not expect to feel that way. It created an incredibly painful scenario that ultimately ended the relationship (but we have since talked, healed, and are now friends). I wish I had read about these relationship dynamics first, and really checked in with my feelings prior to agreeing to the polyamorous type of relationship my partner was offering.


Whether to enter into a CNM dynamic is a personal choice. Ultimately, only you can decide if it’s the right choice for you. In addition to reading up on it, seeking out a support group (either on Facebook or or talking to a friend who has experience can be really helpful. Make sure you feel really stable in your own relationship and have worked through your relationship insecurities first. 


Emily Anne is a bestselling author, sex coach and educator, who specializes in helping people expand their sexual horizons through BDSM and kink. When she’s not obsessively talking about sex, she’s hiking through the Hollywood Hills. Get some sexy education on her Instagram feed


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