The world of non-monogamy is as vast as it is wondrous. Filled with an expansive amount of relationship variations, sexual fantasies, and experiences to explore it can be difficult to know where to begin or how to get started. And while rushing head first into all these new experiences may sound exciting, let me be the first to say, trial and error is completely overrated. That is where creating boundaries and general ground rules can help before you start meeting people, and get to the sexy fun.
If you read my first piece on bringing up non-monogamy for the first time with a partner, you should have a clearer picture of what you and your partner want. But what about what you don’t want? Figuring out your ground rules and boundaries before you dip your toes into any non-monogamous situation will help keep you safer, happier, and make taking the next step, actually putting yourself out there easier. Had I known this before my first experience nearly 10 years ago, it would have saved me many tears, heartache, and prevented a great deal of the general uncertainty and ambiguity I experienced. If you’re not quite convinced this is necessary, let us ask, why not just use the trial and error method?
Why Talk About it?
Monogamous relationships very rarely have conversations about boundaries or ground rules. Instead, societal assumptions are the primary foundation of monogamy, and rarely do we see cracks until it is too late. For example, we don’t ask what is permissible in the way of emotional or physical connections with people outside of your relationship, until a partner has cheated or had an indiscretion. Further to this, our natural tendency is not to discuss what level of emotional intimacy is acceptable with people you work with, or socialize with, until a boundary is broken. Making relationship assumptions is a norm of the mainstream monogamous community so please do not feel guilty if you have fallen into this same trap, I know I did. These areas seem clear, based on how you were raised, and your own experiences, but as you well know when comforting a friend who has been the victim of infidelity, it rarely occurs to us to ask the all important question of “did you have a clear conversation about what cheating looks like in your relationship?” The answer will almost equivocally be, no. This is a monogamous assumption, and is one of the key components that makes non-monogamy different.
Point of fact is, when you are about to explore non-monogamy, you are purposefully crossing the lines of monogamy, and it is important to set clear yes, and no’s. With that open level of communication, you will be better equipped to start handling the good, bad, and ugly when necessary. Which, in of itself is a valuable tool, and one that many in non-monogamy use to validate why their own relationships are now stronger than ever. So, let us look at what setting those initial boundaries looks like, and share some tools that are proven useful in having that discussion.
Setting Initial Boundaries
“True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know” Confucius
Having the initial conversation about boundaries is going to be the first of many, and if I am honest, the sometimes uncomfortable discussions. As your relationship evolves, and the experiences increase, you will have to revisit and re-negotiate these points many times over. But, how do you know what boundaries to set, when you don’t fully know what you are getting into? Below, I have broken down the initial conversation into 5 simple talking points. The aim is provide the foundation so that you and your partner, or if entering into a solo non-monogamous situation, can revisit and adapt to all the new and exciting adventures with these key points in mind.
5 Key Boundary Setting Talking Points
What are your expectations when it comes to protection, regular testing, and birth control? This is often the best place to start, because it is one of the few that monogamous couples have experience with and is a little more black and white. With the exception of STD/STI testing, you have probably discussed condom usage during your initial dating experiences, and how you want to proceed with ongoing birth control. It is critical to understand what your own personal limits are, be it condoms every single time with outside partners, or setting a reminder to get a blood panel done every 3 months. Your safety, and that of your partner should always be your first priority.
This is also a great time to ensure you both remember your safe word, or to create one. This can be handy not only during sexual play, but also when interacting and socializing with new people. The safe word should be something you both instantly recognize, stop, and if necessary, remove yourselves to a private place to discuss what further action needs to be taken if any.
Second: Physical Limits
Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, kinks, or fetishes, non-monogamous situations will push your boundaries at one time or another. If you are using the trial and error method to experience life outside of monogamy, you could end up in a very uncomfortable situation. I have even witnessed a physical altercation when a male pushed the physical limits of another couple simply by brushing up against another male in a club. For him, male on male contact was something he had never encountered and he experienced and extreme emotional response. So, taking the time to really assess your limits can prevent a great time from turning into a whirlwind of emotion.
Ask yourself honestly, what are your own hard no’s. Then ask the same of your partner. It’s tougher than you may realize, and I encourage you to try and visualize a few scenarios with both yourself and your partner. Listen to your gut reaction when you envision your partner with another person for the first time, and be realistic about it. What might you feel if you saw your partner hug or touch someone? Over time you may re-negotiate and expand your comfort level, but, in the onset, try and be realistic. If the idea of your partner kissing someone else gives you anxiety, don’t just assume you will get over it. Talk about that being an initial boundary, and set a time to revisit if that is something your partner wants in the future. Set yourself up for success by knowing your physical limits!
Third: Emotional Boundaries
This will be one of the hardest conversations for most couples to have, and likewise, if you are solo, to admit to yourself. What is the emotional line that would ruin what you currently have it were to be crossed? For swingers, this is usually called “catching the feels”, and if any feelings develop, the general consensus is to immediately stop having sex with that person. For many who are polyamorous, the idea of sleeping with someone who treats them as nothing more than a sex object is a complete deal breaker. Wherever you lie in this, chances are very high that your partner and you will not be 100 percent on the same page. Negotiation, communication, and having an ongoing open dialogue will be key to success.
From a personal perspective, when my partner and I date couples, we go into it with knowing our boundaries are with regard to openness. So we only communicate via group messages, especially in the beginning. If feelings progress and we want to branch off into one-on-one conversations we discuss that, with ourselves, and the other couple, always with the clear understanding that a no, for any reason will be respected. Another example of setting emotional boundaries would be when we were first starting out in our open relationship, the only thing I wanted was disclosure whenever either of us had sex. I had requested that he keep all his feelings to himself, as I processed this new lifestyle, to protect my emotional boundaries. Which is a great Segway into my next key talking point, what are your limits in talking to others about this new lifestyle?
Fourth: Who to Tell
When you first open up your relationship, it can be such a challenge to keep your incredible and sexy tales to yourself. But as we all know, bragging about your sexual conquests is not typically best office water cooler practice. And of course, your partner may be uncomfortable with everyone knowing the ins and outs of your relationship. Which is why I recommend having a frank discussion about who it is permissible to tell, be it family members, co-workers, friends, or just keeping a tight lid on the whole thing. As well, it is important to make decisions together on what to tell or not tell your children. Many families choose to wait until their children are grown adults, or never to talk about anything related to relationships outside of the marriage. Whereas some, have an open and honest conversation about non-monogamy just as you would have the sex, or puberty discussion. Whatever you decide, it is important to be on the same page, because this is one topic that you cannot take back.
If you are incredibly private or have concerns with this lifestyle impacting your career, church, or social circle’s one outlet many find solace in, is by creating a secret social media account. This allows you to discuss, get or give support, even meet new people! Creating a sense of community is imperative to a healthy relationship, and there are ways to do it both in secret, and out in the open. Wherever you and your partner fall on this, make sure you discuss this before you accidentally announce your extra curricular activities during a thanksgiving dinner.
Fifth: Who Not to See
The final boundary that I encourage you to discuss is who would be off limits to pursue. While, I cannot deny that the heart and libido have a mind of their own, the general rule of thumb is to not pursue anything with co-workers or close friends. While it may be tempting to go with what you know, you are going to make mistakes, especially in that first little while, so understanding where the limits are when it comes to friendships or your financial livelihood are vital. And more importantly to the initial discussion with your partner, is understanding who would be a complete deal breaker. Such rules come to mind as no exes, no one night stands, or no one that your partner has not met.
The reality is finding new sexual partner, a date, or even just meeting a like minded person for coffee can be incredibly challenging (and the next topic in this series), so it is the only key point to approach from the hard no’s side only. Rarely, would this be renegotiated at a later date. A no, is a no and discussing who is completely off limits from the onset is crucial.
The creation of boundaries is not only to mitigate some of the emotions that arise in non-monogamy, but also to build up those expert level communication skills. Boundaries are here to help guide you, and as your experiences grow, so will the desire to re-negotiate what is working for you as an individual and also as a couple. Making assumptions puts you onto the path of failure. With these 5 key talking points you can avoid a substantial amount of guesswork. Having clear intentions and wants goes hand in hand with knowing where your boundaries and ground rules are. And on an exciting and very sexy side note, if you are clear, open, and ethical in what your hard no’s and limits lie, it makes it so much easier to share all the maybe’s and YES’s with your partner. I highly recommend trying it!
If you have any additional key initial communication points you think should be included in this list, please comment below.