What you need to know about non-monogamy and mental health

Non-monogamous relationships can come with a set of unique challenges. Here’s how to keep your mental health—and your partnerships—strong

LGBTQ2S+ people have long challenged established relationship norms: we’ve built chosen families of non-blood relatives, thrived in polyamorous communities and nurtured spaces where we can freely experiment with gender and sexuality, away from the watchful eyes of a heteronormative  society.

Today, as openness to non-monogamy grows, a number of people—queer and straight, cis and trans alike—are questioning whether monogamy is the ideal relationship structure. Many queer people have continued the tradition of reinventing relationship structures by creating their own unique paths towards ethical non-monogamous relationships

Non-monogamy can be a source of joy, but it also comes with its own set of challenges—some of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as physical distancing mandates disrupt how many approach their relationships. 

Xtra spoke to Laurie Bissonette, a social worker and counsellor who specializes in queer, non-monogamous relationships, to find out how LGBTQ2S+ folks in open relationships can take care of their mental health during the pandemic and beyond.  

What should queer people who are interested in a non-monogamy relationship know before making the leap?

First of all, folks need to know that opening up a relationship is not always a solution to a struggling relationship. I work with a lot of people who are considering opening their existing couple when there are issues. It can work, but it isn’t always a good solution because transitioning from a monogamous to a non-monogamous relationship could bring up a lot of questions and insecurities. 

People also need to know that there are many forms of non-monogamous relationships, such as polyamory, open relationships and relationship anarchy. Before engaging in one, it’s a good idea to really take your time to get to know yourself better and all the possibilities that are out there. It’s a huge myth that non-monogamy is just about sex. Since queer people are perceived as engaging in a lot of sexual activity, queer non-monogamous people are especially prone to be perceived that way. But it is possible to have connections without sex involved in any way!

There’s a word we use, “mononormativity,” that means monogamy is put forth as the only option or the only “right” option. Queer people especially are already dealing with the marginalization that comes from living in a cisheteronormative society. Bringing non-monogamy into the mix is something that could bring up additional feelings of isolation, exclusion and discrimination from loved ones or society in general. In that case, insecurity can really go up. 

The pandemic has put strain on all sorts of relationships, including non-monogamous romantic ones, as people have had to stay distanced from loved ones. What advice do you have for queer non-monogamous people looking to better manage feelings like  insecurities or isolation?

 

Insecurity is linked to a fear of losing connection. You can have a lot of insecurity in a monogamous or a non-monogamous relationship. And it’s actually this fear of losing connection that will make people stay silent about taboo things, such as jealousy. So, I suggest queer non-monogamous people choose a safe person they feel comfortable being vulnerable with about all of those insecurities. Sometimes, that looks like finding other people to talk to who also have experiences with non-monogamous relationships. 

The thing is, when you’re a queer person who wants to expand or to learn about non-monogamy, you can be in a non-monogamous space where it’s mostly cis, hetero people. Queer non-monogamy is an intersection that’s sometimes hard to manage, because there are such intense norms in society against queerness and non-monogamy. This is why I encourage folks to choose a safe person or safe people to confide in. 

I have seen a lot of resources tailored toward non-monogamy that are quite normative in their approach. Things like step-by-step instructions on how to open up a couple can be quite unhelpful, because they’re just not specific enough—they don’t really respond to people’s individual insecurities. To respond to it, we need to figure out how we can connect to ourselves and others in a way that feels safe. It’s more complicated than steps, but that’s the beauty of it. 

While every relationship is different, there are some general golden rules for navigating non-monogamy. For example: for a non-monogamous relationship to function well, the partners involved need to practise communication. How can people talk to one another more effectively?

I would usually suggest people to set time to have discussions about boundaries and expectations as a sort of check in. This is to ensure these discussions don’t take place in a time of distress, jealousy or problems. What I’ve seen in practice is people having a big discussion at the beginning of their non-monogamous relationship, and then not having ongoing discussions. They only broach expectations and boundaries again when there’s an issue, which is not the best thing to do. It’s important to also have those discussions when things are going well. 

Boundaries about the right time to communicate are also important. If you’re already having a challenging mental health day, and your partner wants to vent or explain what happened yesterday on their date when you would rather not know right now, you can suggest they call another friend. That is one strength of the non-monogamous community: because we don’t believe one person needs to address all our needs, it is normalized to have really close friends. It’s advantageous to have community support and not give all one’s emotional labour to one’s partner(s).

Partners also benefit from being open about the fact that needs and wishes can change. What was agreed upon two months ago may not work for everyone involved anymore, and it is important to discuss how to move forward. Often, what I see in my practice is people who don’t really respect their limits at the beginning, especially when they are in a non-monogamous relationship with someone who is seen as an expert on non-monogamy. They feel pressure to go with the flow of that person. That might be okay for the first few weeks, but might not be the case later. It’s important to speak up when something doesn’t work anymore. 

Different partners will have different boundaries or things they’re comfortable with. How can people communicate their boundaries to their partners? 

Communicating boundaries is a form of respect—for oneself and for others. And some boundaries will spill into other relationships, such as when STIs are involved. Boundaries can involve the communication of information. Those boundaries won’t necessarily affect everyone in the circle and may be adapted to each partner’s specific needs. One person in the non-monogamous circle may want to know about what the others did with their date and feel compersion (feeling happiness after witnessing the joy of their partner), but another person in the circle may not want to know all of the details. In the non-monogamous community, I feel that sometimes there is a lot of pressure to be as transparent as possible. But being transparent is not about communicating everything; it’s communicating the truth, and not lying. It’s okay if someone in your circle doesn’t want to know every detail about what you did last night. Everyone needs to respect themselves and their limits, and limits can change over time. Maybe at first you wanted to know everything, but now, you only need to know whether or not your partners had unprotected sex.

Can you give some examples of a situation in which too much transparency is being requested?

Communicating with the consent of all involved is important. We usually talk about sexual consent, but you also need consent to communicate certain things. If A and B are having a night together, and C wants to know all about it, C isn’t automatically entitled to this information. Maybe A doesn’t want C to know about the traumas they shared with B or the sexual acts they did with B. Someone in a non-monogamous circle has to realize that there are other people in the circle who can be affected by the fact that they want to share everything. In my practice, I have seen people feel betrayed when they learned some of their partners knew about information they wanted only one partner to know. Just because you’re in a non-monogamous relationship doesn’t mean there’s no chance of betrayal. You can still experience violence against your boundaries—your boundaries just take a different form from the monogamous ones than we usually expect. So it is really essential to ask for consent before sharing anything sensitive about one of your partners to your other partners. 

I really want to emphasize that, just like in monogamous relationships, non-monogamous relationships can be toxic or unhealthy. Communication is also about heeding the red flags you see, like being pressured into doing something you are uncomfortable with. Take a break if you need to. Good mental health is about connection with ourselves and others, so if we’re not authentic in this communication, it will lead to problems afterwards.

Let’s say someone’s partner does have an excessive desire to know what the other person is doing. How can couples work through this issue?

It’s okay to feel insecure, but that doesn’t give you the automatic right to act upon that insecurity—your actions are still your responsibility. 

When an insecurity pops up, try to tell your partner that you need to communicate about a specific issue. Give them the possibility to say, “Okay, but not now.” You can also write down your thoughts before speaking up, and separate which problems you want to share and which problems can wait. You might also want to think about your responsibility in the problem before having a discussion. 

It is rough for queer non-monogamous people to find help when they have relationship issues, because there are not a lot of resources for this community. You may face judgment from mental health professionals who are not always queer-friendly or open to discuss non-monogamy. And even if they are open to these issues, they may not fully understand them. That is why I strongly advise folks to connect with people who are not necessarily their partners. A community of people who are not necessarily seen as sexual or romantic partners can serve as a support network. But it’s really important to trust your gut about who you can talk to about your problems, and go step-by-step to see how the other person responds. You need to be sure that you stay safe and don’t harm yourself more.

I also recommend people be patient with themselves when things are difficult. We have all grown up in a society that tells us that it’s not normal to be queer, to not find “The One,” to not have a single person who will answer to all our needs. That’s a lot of things to deconstruct!

Lots of couples have reported that the pandemic added new challenges to their relationships. Has COVID-19 affected non-monogamous couples in any unique ways?

Throughout the pandemic, everyone’s boundaries around COVID-19 risks have fluctuated. Even if public health guidelines allow us to see each other face to face, some people choose to stay more isolated. And during periods where cases go up, government regulations surrounding things like bubbling have meant the state is choosing who you’re going to see. This can create a new hierarchy between different partnerships. So to manage risk, it’s very important to communicate with authenticity your level of risk tolerance. If you see one person, it has an impact on another person that you’re dating or living with. So you need to respect that, such as by choosing activities that are less risky. I know a lot of people began to take walks with their partners. You can also develop alternative ways of sharing interests together, such as watching TV together on shared screens from your own respective spaces. 

We also should normalize communication about insecurity during periods like these. It’s okay to sometimes just acknowledge that it sucks to not be able to see people because of important public health guidelines. You can take two minutes to vent, and then connect again with shared interests and stories. It’s good to still build up your relationships, and not let COVID-19 put a stop to them, even if it means making adjustments. 

There may also be competition between social bubbles. There’s one partner who is asking the other partners to not see anyone, which creates issues. I’ve seen relationships where COVID-19 has been a really contentious issue. Partners in the same circle disagree about whether the pandemic is real, getting vaccinated or respecting restrictions. I advise people in those situations to not solely talk about COVID-19 because it can be really, really intense. We’re all tired of the pandemic, but we can also put that aside and connect with other interests for a moment. Setting boundaries around the pandemic can look like agreeing to watch movies with your partner via Zoom, but refusing to see them because they are going out. Adjustments can also look like moving toward an online relationship, or being romantic but not sexual. 

Some relationships may not survive the pandemic, and that’s okay. If your relationship isn’t going well, and you want to take a break or end it, that can be a healthy option—especially if you run up against irreconcilable differences regarding the pandemic. Pausing or ending a relationship with one of your partners should not be seen as a failure. It can in fact be healthy for you and the other person. You can even be honest and say, “I would love to see you more, but right now, I’m at capacity. I would love to have a check-in with you in a few months.” That is something that we don’t tend to do, but that I recommend!

We’ve talked a lot about mental health issues non-monogamous people can face. What are some of the potential benefits of engaging in queer non-monogamous relationships?

Non-monogamy is about connecting with who you are and with safe people who you can build meaningful relationships with. I think queer non-monogamous people can have a better understanding of themselves when they are doing the work of building relationships. The end result is a lifestyle that is more in line with your desires and your needs. Because instead of following normative scripts, you’re always taking the time to be intentional. And the same can be said of your partners. That’s a big plus for everyone, because you’re also helping and supporting them in their journey of self-discovery. You also really learn to free yourself from many problems that plague relationships just by learning to communicate better. Being vulnerable can make you stronger in the end. 

Your mental health will also improve when you feel empathic joy for your partners. It takes the pressure off from them to fulfill all of your desires and needs, something that is expected in our mononormative society. It’s a change of perspective that can really be challenging for some people but also beneficial for a lot of people.

Diamond Yao is an independent writer and journalist who focuses on contemporary social and environmental issues. Based in Montreal/Tio’tia:ke, her work focuses largely on marginalized voices, intersectionality, diaspora, sustainability and social justice. Her work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Autostraddle, La Converse and the CBC.

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