Communication and negotiation are important in all relationships. That obviously includes nonmonogamous ones.
And when you throw out a big piece of the model for what you should want from a relationship, you’re faced more directly with figuring out what you really do want from your relationships. Do you want to be in touch with you partner every day? Do you want to sleep together every night? Do you want to share a home? Do you want your relationship to go in a certain direction over time? There’s a lot that’s up for discussion!
I think monogamous couples can also benefit from talking about the same things, but people in nonmonogamous relationships often find a little more drive to hash this stuff out. There’s less inclination to do something one way just because that’s how other people do it. And this is good, because examining what actually matters to you builds a stronger relationship.
Nonmonogamous relationships also face a unique set of challenges that arise from balancing communication and negotiation between multiple partners. One issue that comes up is when a third partner’s feelings, needs, and boundaries get steamrolled by the momentum of an established couple. Even without meaning to, there’s a tendency for couples to expect new partners to fit neatly into their desires and patterns. But everyone needs to be given a voice and have their desires valued.
Another issue that comes up is what role one partner should play in conversations or issues between other partners. There isn’t a right answer to this. Sometimes it’s useful to have an outside opinion and someone to play peacekeeper, but sometimes bringing another partner in just tangles the web of interests and emotions. It should never be one person’s responsibility to solve the issue between other people though.
Self-awareness is a foundation for communication. It’s not that you have to know exactly what you want before you can say anything to a partner about it, but the more you understand about your own feelings and desires, the easier it is to express those things to someone else. So it’s important to take some time to reflect on what your ideal relationships look like and how well your current relationships are working for you.
Not all communication needs to be goal-focused. Even when there is an issue, it’s not always necessary or possible to find a solution immediately. Sometimes people just need to vent. Sometimes people want a sounding board to sort through their own thoughts. Sometimes it’s beneficial for people to compare their desires without looking to make any particular changes based on what they learn.
When partners do want to make a relationship agreement, however, a collaborative process is useful. It’s okay to have some deal breakers, specific things you know that you need from a relationship to be content, and respecting your own limits is important. But creating a relationship in which all partners are happy depends on each person having the space to communicate their desires, and it generally requires the ability to make some compromises that will work for everyone.
I believe it’s really helpful for people to start with an emphasis on expressing what they truly want for themselves. Sometimes people make assumptions about what their partners want. Or they jump in to talking about what they want in terms of what their partners want. But people often don’t really understand where other people are coming from. I think starting there makes it a lot easy for people to then find a balance between their different perspectives.
It’s useful to recognize that people have different communication styles. Some people aren’t as comfortable expressing desires directly. Some people ask more questions. Some people find it much easier to answer questions. I think we need to resist the urge to say there’s one way to do things that’s always best. Though there are some styles, like constant yelling, that just aren’t so appropropriate. The trick is learning how your partners communicate, and paying attention to your own style too.
There are a couple of tools that can help partners in communicating and negotiating about their relationships. One of these tools is a relationship contract, a written record where people record their expectations, boundaries, and obligations in a relationship. Another tool is the Yes, No, Maybe List, where each partner fills out a chart marking their comfort level with various sexual and romantic activities. The charts can then be compared to find areas of mutual interests.
I don’t think everyone needs to use these tools, but they are worth considering. These tools can be an awesome way to get people talking, or go deeper into exploring how you and your partners feel, but there is a risk in letting them become the end of the conversation. Things change and sometimes need to be revisited.
Communicating and negotiating is an ongoing activity. There’s certain things it’s good to sort out towards the beginning of relationships, but it’s also important to continue consciously thinking about and working on your relationships. Early on you might talk about safer sex practices and how much you want to know about other partners. Later on you might revisit the same things and start talking about longer-term commitments like buying a house or having children.