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).
When we completed our work together that second time I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear from them again. They were, after all, a really loving very connected couple with great communication skills and a strong commitment to their marriage.
So I was surprised when I heard from them four months later. This time, they said, they were looking to take a break from non-monogamy altogether and they wanted my help transitioning to monogamy and repairing the damage they felt it had done to their partnership.
When we met we looked back at the initial intentions they had for opening their marriage (I revisit intentions often in my work with clients- even monogamous ones). I wanted to make sure they had ways to meet their needs for sexual exploration, sexual diversity, intimate relationships, autonomy and independence, and adventure in a more monogamous framework.
Stopping seeing other people wasn’t going to resolve those needs. And it wasn’t going to necessarily bring them closer. So I wanted to get really clear about why they were ending things with their now more serious relationships with lovers. Here’s what they said:
The good wasn’t outweighing the bad.
They felt they’d met their needs for exploration.
They learned a lot in the process and enough.
They felt they’d given it a really solid try with support and solid tools.
They’d made some great friends, but not the really strong connections they’d hoped for.
Ultimately it was causing more problems than it was serving them.
I wanted to focus our time on the repair they desperately needed. Over the course of their two-year journey both of them had unintentionally caused hurts and broken trust and both of them had said hurtful things in heated conflicts that needed attention.
So we spent our time doing serious repair work. Both of them needed to own and apologize for hurts they’d caused (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and recognize the impact their behaviors had on their spouse. And even though they weren’t going to see other people, we needed to create clear plans to avoid getting into nasty low-blog arguments if things ever got heated again.
Which we did, and as they reminded me, they hadn’t had high conflicts like that before they started seeing other people. They are both highly skilled communicators and they do navigate challenges really well as a team. For them an open marriage brought up conflict too tender to manage even with all their skills and efforts.
What they learned
Finally, we focused our last sessions on all the learning that had come from their years of open marriage. Here’s what they said:
We loved getting out and meeting more people.
We loved building independent friendships.
Having more sex with each other and others people was fun.
Building structures to make sure we prioritize our relationship really helps us stay connected. We have to stay committed to them.
Learning tools for self-soothing and managing emotional reactivity helped us in many areas of life (not just our marriage).
Going through a truly vulnerable experience brought us much closer together.
Getting a therapist and a coach onboard for relationship support saved our marriage.
Building independent outlets and social circles still brings us lots of joy.
So we worked together to create meaningful ways to bring their other relationships to a close. They wanted to honor the connections they’d made with these really fantastic people and to respect the vulnerability of their other partners in the process. And (if possible) they wanted to maintain friendships with their lovers veen as they transitioned to monogamy.
They made agreements about how they would come together when new attractions and crushes came their way in the future and what the boundaries of their monogamy would look like moving forward.
And they agreed if they ever wanted to open the door to consensual non-monogamy again (which, they might) they’d get support right from the start well before starting things up with others.
I offer this case study to normalize the fact that while open relationships are great for many people and can really work well, they are not the best fit for every couple every time. Even folks with strong commitment, love, and communication skills can find it just doesn’t work for them.
Don’t be afraid to take a step back, or to take consensual non-mongamy off the table if you need to. It might not be the right fit for you right now.
*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.