After getting back from a trip, a friend of mine learned that her boyfriend had gone to a strip club and gotten a lap dance, which felt like a clear crossing of her boundaries within the relationship. The problem was that her boyfriend didn’t seem to think the strip club constituted a violation, wasn’t keeping it a secret, and was surprised by her reaction. After asking her about her relationship rules in their monogamous partnership, I realized that while this was a dilemma needing work, the real issue was that they had never had a conversation about what their boundaries even were.
I’ve been there before, too. As someone who has been in both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, I know that those of us who default to monogamous partnerships are not equipped to set our own relationship boundaries. Perhaps it’s because “exclusive” monogamous relationships are a cultural norm, but we far too often rely on what we think relationships are supposed to look like, instead of what would work for us personally. I blame Hollywood romantic comedies in part, but no one really ever teaches us how to negotiate boundaries and advocate for our needs.
While all relationships encounter difficulties and struggles, it’s so very important for you to consciously choose your own boundaries instead of simply following social scripts. In order to do this, you must first focus on identifying, communicating, and negotiating your desires, both with yourself and your partner.
Monogamy and non-monogamy isn’t binary — we all fall somewhere along a spectrum. Perhaps your needs while together in the same city or state may differ greatly when one of you is traveling, or maybe your needs for romantic intimacy with others are different than your needs for sexual intimacy. Think of all your desires as they fit into different scenarios, and don’t limit yourself to just thinking about penetrative sex.
My boyfriend and I live together, but I travel much more than he does. I am a person who has always felt somewhere between monogamous and non-monogamous, but my boyfriend leans closer to the monogamous side of the spectrum. And even with my knowledge as a sex educator, I have still felt anxiety around negotiating my needs. I fear suppressing my own non-monogamous needs in order to not cause “drama,” but I know I won’t be as good of a partner to him if I’m unable to explore these feelings to a certain degree, and he is understanding of that.
I have lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with my current boyfriend, but I do remember some breakthrough moments. I’ll never forget how nervous I felt before I went on a long trip away from home for the first time after we began dating. I realized that what I really wanted was smooches, and other forms of physical intimacy that didn’t involve genital stimulation — like dancing!
I presented him my needs, and we worked out what parameters made us both feel comfortable. We felt the same about many things: no intimacy with people in-state, BDSM stuff (without fluid exchange) is permitted and does not need a check-in, and playing with women and non-binary folks is cool. And when it came to sex with cis men, it wasn’t off the table, it would just require a conversation. While different rules for playing with different genders is often an unfair double standard, it was just what felt right for both of us.
After establishing the things that were “yeses” and “nos,” I had even more questions! Did he want me to share with him about it? Was this a thing that was okay any time, or just when I was traveling? What if an out of state person came to our state? Did it matter if this person was a previous sweetie of mine? After running through all the details and hearing each other out, I felt a little funky due to the sheer candidness of the conversation, but also incredibly connected to and thoroughly prepared. And of course, we talked about his needs as well.
At first, it’s going to be awkward. Talking through all your needs and asking questions about your partner’s needs may not feel comfy and cozy, but it’ll help you be on the same page. It may help to explore hypothetical scenarios, but don’t spend too much time ruminating on things that haven’t happened yet. Focus more on what your desires and boundaries are, and what your feelings are as you share with each other. This isn’t a conversation that is a one and done type of thing, either. It’ll probably be ongoing throughout your partnership with that person.
After having negotiated relationship boundaries with my current boyfriend, I felt confident in knowing ways that I could explore my needs without fear of deceit. That didn’t mean feelings weren’t on the line — feelings can always happen — but at least I had a game plan.
Part of how I’ve learned to stand up for what I want and take inventory of my boyfriend’s feelings is by learning from my failures. In previous relationships, I felt guilty and suppressed my desires. I agreed to monogamous relationships for the sheer sake of not hurting my partner. In those relationships, I felt incredibly disconnected. No amount of love and attraction can erase the need for communication and negotiation.
Non-monogamy isn’t better or more “evolved” than monogamy, and it certainly isn’t easier. All kinds of relationships experience issues. But for those of us who feel it aligns with our identity, it’s worth the struggles, awkward moments, and even the jealous ones. If we communicate and prepare ourselves for the bumps, instead of pretending they’ll never happen, we’ll be far more equipped to work our way through them.