Designer Relationships: A Brief Intro to Exploring Beyond Monogamy

Apr 08, 2022
Couple enjoying an intimate moment of conversation under a starry sky.

From the cover of Vogue to a subplot of Schitt’s Creek, practically everywhere you look these days, you can see the edges of relationships that stray from typical rom-com style monogamy. Maybe non-monogamy sounds risky to you. Maybe you’ve never really thought about it much. But maybe, even though it’s not how you were raised and definitely not what you expected, you’ve found yourself wondering “what-if?” about the possibilities of a life a little less conventional. 


Would it light the fire of passion in your marriage?


Would it burn down the whole house?


How would you find people to… erhm…date? As a married person?


Where would you find the time?


What about the kids?


Deep breath. The beginning of your exploration into the world beyond monogamy isn’t a physical one. It doesn’t need to burn anything down, and it can absolutely inspire a whole new level of intimacy even if you never take things to the next level with a new lover. 

What is Monogamy, Anyway?

First things first, do you know exactly what your monogamy is? I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about their relationship agreements, and a common theme among monogamous relationships is a lack of explicit conversations establishing precisely what *the rules* are. 


“Oh, he knows the rules,” Michele replied when I asked what her monogamy agreements were. Then a look of consternation crossed her face, and it dawned on her that in their 24-year marriage, they had never actually spoken “the rules” aloud. 


That’s the gift–and the curse–of feeling comfortable with societal norms. You can meet someone after a quick swipe right, go on a dozen intimacy-escalating dates from coffee to your first overnight, find yourself married or living together, and never have to worry about asking direct (albeit awkward) questions about each other’s ideas of fidelity.


Awesome, right? Smoother connection, fewer awkward moments, and eventually, the details just sort of work out. Everyone’s happy.


But the cost of avoiding those early, awkward conversations about expectations is steep. As months become years, what started out as a few casual assumptions become the hard-and-fast rules of a monogamous commitment intended to last a lifetime. 


Without understanding exactly what your personal version of monogamy is, beginning a conversation about the titillating possibilities out past the borderlands of exclusivity is extremely risky. 


Step one of exploring expansive connections is getting curious about what unspoken, implicit agreements exist in your relationship. As you become aware of your implicit agreements, begin practicing converting those assumptions into explicit, collaborative conversations. 


This will include defining which areas of your relationship are exclusive– aspects of life you are consciously choosing not to share with anyone else. Are things like sex, romance, finances, fantasies, or emotional closeness experiences we reserve only for each other? What about friendship, property ownership, or business partnership? Do you keep travel time, artistic expression, flirting, or problem-solving exclusive?


Dial the agreements in by getting really specific here. You need to have meaningful shared vocabulary to have really complete agreements. What do you mean by sex? Does a flirtation text message violate fidelity? How about sharing an emotional experience with a colleague? What about having close friends of a gender you are attracted to? 


Pro tip: if you find yourself minimizing or skipping this step, slow down. If it’s too tender to discuss fidelity agreements between the two of you, stick with that process before adding the complexity of more humans. If you are stuck here, enlist the help of a relationship coach to facilitate a productive conversation about agreements and boundaries.


The number one mistake I see people make at this stage is rushing onto dating apps “just to see what it’s like.” I get it, the idea is fun, but I see much better results when couples take the time to establish what their current agreements are before real people enter the conversations. 

Imagination then Experimentation

With a bit of practice, you’ll be ready to move to the fun part… imagining a bigger, more expansive kind of relationship. Hooray, time for some fun!


What are the options?


Well, you could jump into the deep end and start dating or head to a local sensual or sexual play space. You could also begin with a more imaginal experiment. 


Imagination before action works well for many people.


Prioritizing imagination before experimentation lets you explore with your partner relatively easily. Sharing your fantasies is a way to practice vulnerable communication. Dive in, practice holding your partner’s fantasies with tender, respectful honoring without taking on the obligation to make them a reality. 


Sharing this way requires you to self-regulate– aka manage your nervous system response and the emotions that come up– so enlist all your self-soothing tools here!


Sharing in the imaginal, fantasy realm allows you to practice seeing your partner as a truly separate Other, a sacred, differentiated Self separate from you. 


This is not a small shift.

Undoing Codependence

Codependence and enmeshment have been normalized in our society for generations. It’s okay to take your time and unwind from this tangle. You may want some help gaining the skills of differentiation. And no, this doesn’t mean you’ll have to abandon connection and attachment–it’s about learning how to be deeply grounded in your Self so you can appreciate the unique individuality of both you and your partner. 


Take a beat as you begin to explore sharing yummy ideas of what might turn you on. Breathe. Remember this isn’t a race. Most of us were not raised to feel deeply comfortable sharing our erotic fantasies.


It might feel shocking to hear your partner’s deepest desires.


Slowing down, making space for fantasies to be shared, perhaps in just a whisper at first, allows time to adjust to the new normal you are creating. 


A normal where fantasy is not an obligation and may not even be something either of you wants to act on. 


A normal where you can share a fantasy and then change your mind. A normal where you can say confidently, “wow- I’m so glad we can share this way,” even when you don’t know where that juicy, sexy idea came from. 


Enjoy this phase. Marinate in the energy of sharing your inner selves. 


Suppose a fantasy triggers either of you. This might happen. If it does, practice co-regulation (try slow, synchronized breathing for a few minutes.) Practice allowing each other to make mistakes. You’re in a brave new world of sensual possibility!

And… Action 

Eventually, maybe a few weeks, maybe several months later, you’ll likely find you are curious about putting some of this expansive imagination into action. 


In this stage of the process, the most common mistake I see is counting on a magical amount of fairness. They long for evenly-achieved ‘success’ in finding new partners and having new, expansive experiences. There’s a sweetly naive hope that somehow you’ll wind up having new experiences in a beautifully well-matched and perfectly balanced way. One clue that you are falling into the fairness trap is that you find yourself holding back from an opportunity until your partner finds something equal. 


Acknowledging and embracing difference is necessary and inevitable when we dial up the autonomy in our relationships. 


Relax your grip on everything being even, and set yourselves up for success by making explicit, resilient agreements about what actions are a good fit and what your boundaries are.


Working on boundaries is an essential skill for exploring beyond monogamy. If you’ve typically struggled to hold boundaries, enlist help here- boundary work is a vital life skill no matter what relationship style you choose. Boundary work begins within, identifying your full-body YES and NO sensations and being able to trust yourself fully. 

Identity Shifts in Non-monogamy

When I’m assisting a couple in transitioning to a relationship beyond monogamy, something they rarely expect is the identity shift they undergo. This identity shift is actually happening right from the first inkling toward something more and it continues as we work together. 


Am I monogamous? Am I polyamorous? Is there another option I don’t have a name for?


In my doctoral research, I identified three ways people make sense of their relationship identity: philosophical, orientation, and choice. 


Philosophy: Some people feel committed to the philosophical ideals of non-monogamy, whether they choose to act on those ideals or monogamous ones.


Orientation: Some people feel innately non-monogamous, much like sexual orientation, and recognize that while they have a choice about how they behave, they feel endemically attracted to multiple relationships.


Choice: Some people feel content with monogamous or non-monogamous relationships, and see themselves as fully comfortable simply selecting the right fit for their life.


There is no right or wrong here. Each way of identifying is valid. Each maintains the agency to choose how, when, and where they enact their relationship style. But it’s worth mentioning that someone who feels innately oriented to non-monogamy might feel quite differently about how to handle the complexities of multiple relationships than someone who feels non-monogamy is just a decision they make. Coming to terms with these identity differences is important over the long term. 


The key here is that each person in a relationship is empowered to negotiate for their needs, wants, and desires. This means allowing for the possibility that a relationship may not continue in its current form.


Successful transitions in relationships are marked by the ability to celebrate this change rather than resent it. No one should ever be coerced, manipulated, or forced to change their identity. Nor should anyone in a consensual relationship feel they have no choice in what they receive from their life partner/s.


If you are monogamous and feel content with that, remember that you don’t have to make a move away from monogamy! Monogamy is the right fit for lots of people and it has some fantastic benefits. Even if your partner finds that they are well and truly polyamorous, that doesn’t mean either of you should change who you are.


You might choose to behave differently due to this new information, then again, you might not. The point is to engage in the exploration and collaborate on creating a relationship that works for you. You might find yourself inventing something entirely unique to your life.

From Off-the-Rack to Custom-Designed Relationships

Creating a designer relationship is an amazing opportunity to grow as individuals and together. The practices of connection, differentiation, and communication will serve your personal development even if your relationship winds up functioning quite similarly to how it was before you embarked on your journey toward an haute couture love. 


Whether your version of relationship remains largely exclusive or becomes wildly expansive, building the skills of negotiating, sharing vulnerably, creating explicit agreements, and building resilience guarantees that the process furthers your personal growth. 


Successful implementation of these skills takes an ordinary relationship and elevates it to an elite level, regardless of where you wind up on the monogamous to non-monogamous spectrum. 

Dr. Joli Hamilton, The Coach for Couples Who Color Outside the Lines is a research psychologist, best-selling author, TEDx speaker, and AASECT certified sex educator. She lives in Massachusetts with her anchor partner and their seven teens.

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