1. Don’t feel like you need to “identify,” but feel free to check out places where people do.
I’ve never identified as a “polyamorous person” or involved myself in communities based on pointedly identifying as non-monogamous—I don’t like to assign names to anything about my love life, period—but if I had to pick a descriptor for my situation, non-monogamous probably fits best. I’m just not that into the identity-based language I’ve seen used by other non-monoggos (ooh, I’m actually kind of into this newfound term after typing it just now, it sounds like something a cute cartoon caveman would say).
This is not to disparage “polyamorous” or what have you communities—I understand that the big city where I live, and my friends in it, afford me the comfort of knowing others who just happen to also be non-monoggo (sticking with this), and that giving a name to any non-mainstream thing you do helps you find others who are into it wherever you are. Polyamory, which most often refers to having more than one long-term partner at a time, just isn’t what I do—although continued blessings to you if that’s what you’re down with.
To say I’m in an “open relationship” also feels like a misnomer, because, although I’m talking about it publicly here in the service of this article, for the most part, my bond with Ben is really private—we’re in love, and our particular love is just for the two of us. We keep our extracurricular sex casual—it never impacts the inside jokes he and I make about our stupid-looking cat, or the way we confide in each other about the stuff we were scared of as kids, or how we always seem to want to do the same things at the same time (doing crosswords at the diner, playing Boggle, performing impromptu Roy Orbison duets—everything) without talking about it first.
In writing this, I also briefly imagined how hilariously inappropriate it would be if I called myself a SWINGER, a word that makes me feel kind of like someone’s aggressively spiritual aunt who dresses exclusively in clothing that could be characterized as “flowing,” or like the boastful, hot tub–dwelling LOVERS from Saturday Night Live who force stories of their earthy, open lovemaking onto everyone they meet. You’re just not ever gonna catch me waxing poetic in some mineral spring about the fact that I sleep around because I think I’m more spiritually—and oh-so-sensually—enlightened being than everyone else! My life is totally quotidian ’n’ normal to me, and I don’t need to make a show of this part of it or ask for permission to have it to feel valid/OK that I just adore being a total Runaround Sue. For me, it’s all very “I woke up like this (in someone else’s bed).”
There are lots of other non-monogamous permutations, from marriage-like unions among a group of people to “monogamish” situations, where a couple is mostly monogamous, with a little leeway for occasional extracurricular fun, either together or separately. The internet is full of information for you on all these kinds of relationship structures, which you can read up on here and here. You can listen to different perspectives on non-monogamy on this episode of This American Life; and here’s a list of stuff to keep in mind if you’re thinking about opening your relationship.
2. Set clear ground rules with your partner.
Being upfront with each other about what you can and can’t do outside of the time you spend together is hands-down the most important factor in maintaining an open relationship—like, the whole point of non-exclusive arrangements is to absolve yourselves of the deception and guilt that come with “cheating.” I think starting a relationship with the understanding that you’d like it to be non-monogamous is probably far easier than trying to open a monogamous relationship, but the template for bringing the subject up is the same either way. Saying, like, “GUESS WHAT? I want to fool around with other people!! Fun, right?” is a great way to hurt somebody’s feelings, put them on the defensive, and/or make them think that you’re not attracted to them anymore. Instead, start by telling your partner why committing (or staying committed) to each other is a priority for you—e.g., “I love being with you in all ways, so I don’t want you to think that what I’m about to tell you means I’m not into you anymore. I’m bringing this up because our relationship is important to me, and I want it to last for a long time.” Then explain how you’re feeling, why you think your connection would be strengthened by non-monogamy, and what ideas you have about how to incorporate those ideas into your romantic life together.
Some important things to not only think about, but actually discuss with your heart-person, are whether it’s OK to see other people more than once, and in what context (Can you go on dates? Are you only cool with one-time, strictly physical encounters?), whether there’s a limit to what you can do with your side-pieces (maybe kissing is totally peachy by you, but sexing other people is more of a moldy, rotten banana that you’ll break up with someone for eating?), and how cool you are with telling each other about your external entanglements.
Be respectful: If you try to force someone to relax their boundaries, things are just gonna end in tears. Figure out a happy medium and stick to it. You love this person, so don’t do things you know will hurt them. There’s no simpler, and truer, aspect of romantic love than that one, for real.
Important side note! Non-monogamy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having full-on SEX with strangers (or whomever else you’re seeing on the side). Even if you’re not having sex yet, you might want to kiss other people, or go on occasional dates, while still considering yourself half of a couple. This is doable, so long as you and your partner set ground rules early on. For me, non-monogamy is more about circumventing a general discomfort I have with being told not to do something—the classic reverse psychology of “I didn’t want this thing until you told me I couldn’t have it!”—than it is about getting down with some new person every night of the week.