Polyamory, open relationships, and relationship anarchy all have one thing in common: they deviate from the monogamous or dyadic relationship model and they allow the freedom to experience intimate relationships with more than one partner.

But how does non-monogamy actually work? In this article, I delve into its infinite possibilities in the company of two of Club Sexu’s sex researchers, Sara Mathieu-C. and Léa Séguin. Let’s start with the basics.

What is non-monogamy?

There’s something strange about defining something in terms of what it is not. We don’t say “non-plants” to talk about animals, “non-cars” to designate bicycles, or “non-straight” in reference to gay people. However, at least for now, “non-monogamy” is the best term we’ve come up with to talk about relationships that involve more than two partners. (If you know of a better one, slide into our DMs with your suggestions!)

Non-monogamy is an umbrella term, sometimes accompanied by an adjective such as “negotiated,” “ethical,” or “consensual,” that includes several ways of doing relationships with more than one partner, with everyone’s knowledge and consent. In other words, it describes intimate relationship dynamics involving multiple partners. It’s an agreement between all parties involved with a set of rules or expectations that apply to everyone in the relationship. This agreement differs from one relationship to another. Your neighbours’ rules for their open relationship are probably different from those of the barista at your favourite café.

This type of relationship configuration allows partners to set up a non-exclusivity agreement relative to several relationship dimensions that are typically assumed as exclusive in a monogamous context, such as affection, sexual activity, and romantic feelings. Being non-monogamous is being open to the possibility of developing intimate relationships with others rather than relying on only one person to meet our needs.

Being non-monogamous is being open to the possibility of developing intimate relationships with others rather than relying on only one person to meet our needs.

Wait a minute. Isn’t that just a fancy term for infidelity?

Non-monogamy doesn’t equate to infidelity. Infidelity occurs when one party in the relationship takes liberties that haven’t been discussed and agreed upon by everyone beforehand. Even if people can have different perceptions of what counts as cheating, it’s generally agreed that it’s the fact of building or experiencing a connection with someone else (e.g., sexting, kissing, having sex, etc.) without their partner’s knowledge and without their partner having had the chance to consent to any of it.

In order to maintain healthy and lasting non-monogamous relationships in which it is possible to flourish and feel good, it’s essential to always ensure the free, informed, and ongoing consent of the people involved.

Non-monogamous relationships: why?

Alternative types of relationships can help many people meet unmet needs. These differ from person to person. “Okay, but you’ll still have to learn to recognize these needs and be able to communicate them,” you say, and that’s an excellent point. This might be a good discussion to have with your partner(s) over a pint of your favourite craft beer (kombucha works too).

Some people seek affection or an additional emotional connection. It can be through non-sexual activities, like going on bike trips or seeing Sugar Sammy at a stand-up comedy show, or even by cuddling during movie nights. Others seek pleasure, or to do certain practices or activities that don’t interest their current partners.

For example, maybe your sweetie is dying to experience something you’re not into (whether it’s a BDSM practice, a kink, a fetish, or any given fantasy). In this situation, non-monogamy offers them the possibility of satisfying their desire with someone else. And, let’s face it, it’s a lot of fun to feel loved or desired by more than one person at the same time!

Polyamory, open relationships, and relationship anarchy: what’s the difference?

Here are a few short definitions to help you better understand the differences between the main types of non-monogamy. Of course, the possibilities are endless, and human relationships are infinitely complex, so much so that we could undoubtedly speak of a spectrum of non-monogamous relationships. However, in order to produce a quick overview, I chose to describe the most common labels (or philosophies, really).

  • Polyamory: involves people who are open to developing romantic feelings and potentially (but not always) sexual relationships with other people. Within this model, we can find several different dynamics, such as:
    • Polyfidelity (triad or throuple, quad, etc.): refers to a group of people who are all romantically and sexually involved with each other exclusively.
    • Solo poly: in this approach to polyamory, a person emphasizes autonomy and flexibility, and tends not to go up the relationship escalator (i.e., an intensification of feelings of attachment followed by cohabitation, followed by marriage, etc.).
    • V, N, or W relationships (hierarchical or non-hierarchical): in a V configuration, a person has two partners who are not romantically or sexually involved with each other. In an N configuration, two partners are in a relationship together and they also each have an additional partner, though those additional partners are not in a relationship with each other. In a W configuration, one person has two partners, each of which also has an additional partner. (If that sounds complicated, believe me, it might be worth drawing a picture.)
  • Open relationships: occur when both partners in a couple are open to engaging in sexual activity with others, but not to developing romantic feelings with others. Within this model, we can find a range of dynamics including:
    • Swinging: couples who swap partners with other couples to have sex.
    • Threesome-only: couples who play with other people on the condition that they do so together.
    • Don’t ask, don’t tell: when partners in a couple have agreed not to talk to each other about their other dates and sexual liaisons.
  • Relationship anarchy: When people agree not to be bound by rules in their relationships.
Diagram of non-monogamy adapted from Franklin Veaux version 2.5

Moreover, a person who adheres to one non-monogamy label can be in a relationship with someone who adheres to a different label. What matters is to openly talk about it and to clearly explain your expectations as well as what you can realistically offer in terms of time and degree of involvement. Beyond the few aforementioned labels that are commonly used in the non-monogamous community, a breadth of terms exist to define complex relationship dynamics. What you need to remember is that non-monogamies are numerous and diverse.

What do rules look like in non-monogamous relationships?

“Rules”. The word can sound negative, even restrictive, but if rules are well discussed, it makes it easier to put clear boundaries around the playground so that everyone can have fun without having it all blow up in their faces.

Generally, non-monogamous relationships operate on an established agreement, meaning that everyone involved in the relationship is on an equal footing, adheres to the same rules, and shares the same privileges. The rules serve to protect the partners involved, clarify expectations, ensure that everyone understands the parameters of the relationship, and ultimately, to prevent hurt feelings and broken hearts. Yes, even in relationship anarchy, because while there may be fewer restrictions in this type of non-monogamy, the parties involved need to agree on this model and consent to the (relative) absence of rules.

The rules serve to protect the partners involved, clarify expectations, ensure that everyone understands the parameters of the relationship, and ultimately, to prevent hurt feelings and broken hearts.

In short, in a non-monogamous relationship, we have the freedom to choose our own rules. Out of fairness, they’re ideally the same for everyone.

“[Among the] rules that come up the most, [we find] safe sex with other partners,” explains sex researcher, Léa Séguin. “The rules are negotiated and they can take many forms. Usually, if there is penetration, it’s with a condom, but beyond that, there’s lots of variation.” ”

Indeed, not everyone has the same level of comfort regarding the use or non-use of protection during sexual practices such as oral sex or the sharing of sex toys. Again, it’s up to the people concerned to discuss it beforehand and agree on what is considered acceptable in the context of their relationship. It’s also always a good idea to get tested regularly (about once every three to four months) and to share your sexual health status with your partners.

“Otherwise, [the most important] is transparency and honesty,” continues Léa. “To not hide things, to not lie to each other. […] There can be so many rules. Often, they’re there to bring feelings of safety and security in one’s relationship. They can also meet a need to [feel] unique relative to one’s partner.” For example, to maintain this feeling of uniqueness, we might like our partner reserves the use of a nickname or term of endearment (e.g., honey, kitten, my love, cariña, habibi, etc.) to us, and that they don’t use it with their other partners.

Other people, for example, like to designate a place (e.g., a restaurant or café) as “theirs,” and therefore, as “off limits” to other partners. For the sake of transparency, some people have a habit of always validating this sort of thing with their partner before going on a date with someone else.

Short, non-exhaustive list of possible rules in non-monogamous relationships

  • Safe sex: always use a condom during penetrative sex (vaginal or anal)
  • Always inform each other before something happens with someone else
  • No [specific sexual practice] with others
  • No sharing of our sex toys with others
  • No sex with friends or other people in our social circles
  • Always come back home to sleep
  • Always text each other at [time x]
  • Don’t ask, don’t tell
  • Wash/change the bedsheets before the return of the main partner
  • No sex with other people in our bed

Fluid, ever-changing relationships

“I tend to recommend the rule of revisiting the rules,” adds sex researcher Sara Mathieu-C.[laughter] In any long-lasting non-monogamous relationship, you end up realizing that the rule that endures throughout is the need to revisit the guidelines depending on how things [and feelings] evolve.

“If you don’t accept this dynamic, it might be more destabilising to no longer have a traditional absolute or traditions to reproduce, but it does come with the responsibility to explore, to take care of the relationship, and to redefine it. This is often where we go wrong, even in non-monogamous relationships: when we don’t allow ourselves to revisit… Like any rule, it will be broken if it no longer allows us to flourish and meet our needs.”

If you’re interested in non-monogamy, but don’t know where to start or how to talk to your partner about it—or if it just piques your curiosity— stay tuned. Club Sexu will be there for you with more posts on intimacy in the plural!

Reading recommendations

On Instagram

  • @chillpolyamory : about non-monogamous relationships, by an openly non-monogamous person.
  • @drzhana : about relationships in general, but often addresses non-monogamy. Dr. Zhana Vrangalova is a world-renowned non-monogamy expert and consultant, and is also openly non-monogamous.
  • @the_vspot: a sex-ed and intimate relationships account that often addresses non-monogamy. This account belongs to Yana Tallon-Hicks, a sex therapist and writer.
  • @polyphiliablog: education, advice, resources, and memes on polyamory and non-monogamy.
  • @findpoly: fun and humour, mostly memes.