In twelve years supporting open relationships, polyamorous folks, and consensually non-monogamous couples I’ve seen an amazing variety of options play out.
Over and over, I see that folks who stay together are share three common traits:
They are highly invested in staying together, listening to each other, seeing things from the other’s perspective, and slowing things down to a pace that’s liveable for all.
They have a little humility about the mistakes they make and are self-aware enough to hold themselves accountable apologize to impacted lovers and to do better in the future.
They’re willing to adapt their non-monogamy practice to their relationships’ needs over time.
It’s that third option we rarely hear about in polyamorous communities. Many folks think about negotiating non-monogamy as if once you decide to open things up you can never go back. But that all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t create enough room for most couple’s to be creative.
Just because you start a conversation about open relationships doesn’t mean you have to act on it. And just because you tried dating other folks once doesn’t mean you have to stick with it forever.
Just like just because you “tried polyamory once and it didn’t work” doesn’t mean it could never work in your life again.
Conceptualizing your agreements are a temporary working document (one you make amendments to over time) helps alleviate a lot of the stress couples face when they talk about opening up.
Today I wanted to add to the case studies I’ve shared before adding a couple stories from couples who decided to go back to monogamy after practicing polyamory and/or an open marriage for a few years.
Sandra & Martin*
Married, 17 years, Monogamish 14 years, Lawyer & Real Estate Agent (47 and 42), living with 2 cats in Portland, Oregon (USA), and 3 children from previous marriages (27, 23, and 20 living on their own).
Read about the beginning of our work here.
When they originally started with me they had taken a three week break from seeing other people to reconnect, but Sandra had plans to see other guys again and Martin was still actively connecting with women online.
They knew something had to change to shift them out of these intense negative conflicts they were in. We began by clarifying the agreements they’d set out about communication and personal boundaries with other people. At that time they settled on two foundational agreements:
Only having casual relationships with others. Which for them meant not exploring love and deep emotional intimacy, long-term romantic plans or futures, and not sharing holidays with other partners. They also planned not to have sleepovers, gifts, travel or dates where other partners came to their house.
Limiting contact with other partners to twice weekly, and limiting their communication with other partners to a specific schedule. This also meant saving certain nights of the week “just for them” where they didn’t respond to messages from other lovers.
We focused most of our time together on clarifying agreements, managing conflict with more skill and helping Martin learn tools for self-soothing with intense emotion came up.
In two months they were feeling much more deeply connected, fighting far less and working through conflicts more quickly. Having regular date nights helped them feel reassured, and working to empathize and take each other’s perspective helped shift from rigidity in conflicts. And, as it turned out, both Martin and Sandra benefitted from self-soothing techniques when they started actively seeing other people again.
So they moved on from our work feeling confident and grounded with a full toolbox.
I heard from them again ten months later when they began experiencing another round of intense conflicts and reactivity. This time, for the first time ever, Sandra had brought up the possibility that they should divorce. This shocked them sober, knowing neither of them really wanted to split up, and believing there had to be another path forward.
Over the months since we’d last met Martin had met two women he was really enjoying connecting with, and while he assured Sandra they in no way replaced her, she felt incredibly insecure. They had switched roles. Now Sandra was losing sleep and deeply worried about the stability of their union.
Sandra didn’t know if they should continue practicing non-monogamy, and Martin was really enjoying connecting with other women. Right around the same time Sandra had two dates ghost her and she was very suddenly dumped by the one guy she really had a good time with. She was experiencing a dry spell dating and feeling sad about the break up while Martin was finally experiencing a sense of ease and having a lot of fun.
We revisited the self-soothing and jealousy management tools Martin had employed months earlier with Sandra and some of them helped. She also realized some of what was coming up was related to watching her parents experience infidelity and a traumatic divorce. A very young part of her was constantly worried she and Martin could be headed for divorce and seeing him connect with others was really challenging that part inside her.
Meanwhile Martin was having a hard time empathizing with her experience, while he remembered how it felt to be in Sandra’s shoes, a part of him felt sort of justified in his earlier reactivity and he was no longer concerned about their relationship’s stability- that is, until Sandra brought up divorce. He was shocked and a little blindsided worrying she might leave him very suddenly.
We realized quickly that a lot of what was showing up in this iteration of their work centered on some early life relationship role modeling they’d each had. This personal work is often supported with attachment therapy, and I connected them each with excellent trained attachment therapists to support their individual processes uncovering what they’d learned in their families.
A Note About Therapy
I refer almost everyone I work with to individual therapy at some point. it’s such an important support for working through the deeper issues that come up in almost everyone who tries consensual non-monogamy after a lifetime of monogamous relationships.
Often clients I work with have very few friends or family they can really talk about non-monogamy with (without facing judgment). Having a therapist helps them have a space to get clear on their own and alleviates some of the pressure on their primary partner to be their only source of emotional support.
If you want to find a therapist and you want to focus on consensual non-monogamy, I recommend asking the following screening questions before setting up an appointment:
How many consensually non-monogamous, open, or polyamorous relationships have you supported professionally?
What professional training or education do you have in the practice of consensual non-monogamy?
Do they have any personal lived experience with polyamory or non-monogamy?
Continuing Our Work
As a couple there are a lot of ways folks can work through issues of attachment that come up together (that’s usually where they come up). Learning to better understand the default settings both partners have (based on their early life) and the ways those manifest as adults is a starting spot. This helps couples identify and correct course when these kinds of challenges come up.
Sandra and Martin needed to learn to better balance when one of them needed space in a conflict, and the other wanted closeness. We created safe ways for them to ask for more space and/or connection without rushing to a catastrophic conclusion like “we’re going to get a divorce.”
Sandra also wanted to revisit their agreements. She now agreed with me that they needed a tune up. Her training as a lawyer showed when she detailed very specific agreements with an appendix and addendum. The specificity was a little overwhelming to Martin, but he agreed they needed more clarity. We worked together to find a compromise that was clear and functional (though much longer than their first set) for both of them.
They had also realized that in the excitement of dating they’d once again de-prioritized spending quality time together. We created some structures to help them keep their connection strong and invest in sharing adventure and spark even while adventuring with other partners.
In a few weeks they were feeling grounded again with better tools and a new set of agreements. They were both dating casually and enjoying connecting with each other and other people. Again they decided to take a break from our work moving forward with confidence.
*Many of the hundreds of clients I work with in my practice share similar stories. I’ve combined the experiences of many of them who’ve shared a journey back to monogamy here to articulate the central themes. I’ve changed identifying details to protect their anonymity while preserving some of their words for emotional accuracy.
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Gina Senarighi, MS, MA, CPC is a communication consultant, sexuality counselor and certified relationship coach specializing in polyamory, open relationships, jealousy, and infidelity.