Consensual Nonmonogamy 101: The Building Blocks

by Katie Hughes, LMHC

Over the last few years, the practice of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) has started to be more seen throughout our society. For those who are new to this world, it can be confusing. Here we will cover some of the common terminologies you will find related to consensual nonmonogamy that will help shape your understanding of this diverse community.

The Foundations –

There are foundational concepts that give us the language we need to understand the bigger picture. These labels will help you differentiate the various relationship styles that are found in the CNM community:

  • Consensual Nonmonogamy (CNM): This nontraditional relationship style occurs “when two intimate partners explicitly agree that their relationship does not require mutual sexual and romantic exclusivity” (Gahran, 2017).  CNM cannot occur without partners disclosing to one another that they are romantically involved with other people. Consent is needed from every party that is involved in the relational dynamic for it to be a consensual relationship (as opposed to cheating).
  • Polyamory (Poly/Polyam): A type of CNM that allows individuals to create multiple intimate relationships at once that go beyond casually seeing one another. The word itself is defined as someone having “multiple loves” in their life. The structure of these relationships can take many shapes and sizes, which leads to more flexibility in relationship structure.
  • Open Relationships: An approach to CNM that encompasses relationships that are not sexually exclusive. Typically this relationship style allows for sexual exploration with other partners, but it does not venture into the romantic aspects of having a committed relationship.
  • Swinging: A specific style of CNM that involves having multiple sexual partners outside of an established romantic relationship. Couples commonly engage in this together and it may be an organized activity that occurs at regular intervals or only on certain occasions.

The Structure –

Just like a house has a foundation, it also has a specific structural design to it. These definitions help people in this community to determine what shape they want their specific relationships to take.

  • Hierarchical Relationships: This relationship structure is often characterized by one primary relationship that has more responsibilities (i.e., couples who have children, sharing financial obligations, etc.) that takes precedence over any secondary relationships that are created. Some hierarchical relationship structures could have restrictions related to the secondary relationships outside of the primary partnership, but this does not apply to every hierarchy.
  • Nonhierarchical Relationships: Within this relationship structure, you will find that no one partner is prioritized over the other partners a person may have. Every relationship within the polyamorous system is viewed as unique, and this means that the amount of time someone spends with each partner does not necessarily have to be equal. This style of CNM takes into account all the partners a person has when making decisions.
  • Solo Poly: Autonomy and independence tend to be a huge factor that makes CNM attractive to people, and this relationship structure allows for more of this. This term is used to describe an individual who has no desire to be in the traditional “coupled” relationship we see in our everyday lives (i.e., living together, sharing finances). Think of this kind of CNM as being in a relationship with yourself; you are the main priority.
  • Relationship Anarchy: This kind of CNM describes a philosophical view of relationships in which “people are seen as free to engage in any relationships they choose, spontaneity and freedom are valued, no relationship is entered into or restricted from a sense of duty or obligation, and any relationship choice is considered allowable” (Veaux & Rickert, 2014). People taking part in relationship anarchy do not differentiate between partners and non-partners.

Where Do I Go From Here?

This information just scratches the surface of all of the terminology found in the CNM community and can be treated as a stepping stone on your journey to learn more. While CNM is not the path that everyone chooses, it’s important for us to understand the basic concepts involved in it in order to connect and empathize with those in our lives who go outside of the “norm” of society.

Many people find attending therapy to be a helpful resource to help them navigate the complexities that can arise from CNM. It also provides a supportive space to foster the continued, open communication required for a healthy and successful CNM. People may also benefit from the following books:

  • Stepping off the Relationship Escalator by Amy Gahran
  • The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy & Dossie Easton
  • Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships by Mark A. Michaels
  • Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
  • Building Open Relationships by Dr. Liz Powell
  • A Happy Life In An Open Relationship by Susan Wenzel
  • More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Polyamory by Eve Rickert & Franklin Veaux
  • Polysecure by Jessica Fern
  • Love’s Not Color Blind: Race and Representation in Polyamorous and Other Alternative Communities by Kevin A. Patterson
  • It’s Called “Polyamory” by Tamara Pincus & Rebecca Hiles
  • Mono in a Poly World: What to Do When Your Partner Is Polyamorous and You Aren’t by Tazmyn Ozga
  • Polyamory Breakup Book: Causes, Prevention, and Survival by Kathy Labriola

Katie Hughes, LMHC is a counselor in Gainesville, FL at Sage Wellness who specializes in helping couples navigate CNM through individual and couples therapy.

Call Us Text Us