Effective Communication for Non-monogamy (and all relationships)
Why is communication important?
Communication within our relationships is important for any form of relationship - sexual, non-sexual, romantic or platonic. Regardless of your relationship structure and content, communication is crucial to making sure that everyone feels seen, heard, cared for, and fulfilled in relationships.
Engaging in non-monogamy simply adds more factors to communicate about. Because non-traditional relationship structures may not follow the general cultural scripts of monogamy, it may increase the complexity of your communication - that’s not bad, you’ll just have more things to discuss!
When I was 17, I wanted to express to my first long-term partner that I felt like I wanted to be with other people when I went to college. It was my first “real” relationship and for the first time, I was really head over heels in love. I wanted desperately to be with this person and at the same time, I wanted to have new experiences with other people and explore my sexuality further. It felt like my world was going to expand and I was torn between wanting my relationship and wanting to thrive and explore that expansion.
As a young queer person whose in-school sexuality education had never even mentioned queer people, let alone relationship structures, the need to have this conversation loomed over my head for months. I pushed it until the very last moment because of guilt. Due to compulsory monogamy, I thought wanting to have sex with other people made me a bad, uncommitted, unfaithful partner. Finally, when I could not push the issue away more, I said to my partner, at the worst possible moment, “I’m scared I’m going to cheat on you when I go to college and I don’t know what to do.” Now as you could imagine, this phrasing did not go over well, nor was it what I actually was trying to communicate. Since the only model for relationship structures I ever had was monogamous, I thought this issue was black and white, monogamous or cheating. I think back to my young self and think about how now, as a non-monogamous sexuality educator how I reframe these conversations and address these topics through effective communication with partners. If I were to rewrite the moment, with the skills I have now I would say: “Hey, I love and value our relationship and also I’m really interested in having sex with other people, how does that make you feel? Can we talk about it more?”
I was never a bad evil partner, as it turns out, I am just nonmonogamous, which from parts one and two of this series you’ll learn is just another of many possible relationship structures. As mentioned in our non-monogamy primer, unfortunately, effective communication and relationship structures are not taught to youth and as a result, we’re left in a battle with ourselves around our needs and how to have them met. The first step is communicating about your wants and needs with your partner. The best way to communicate is frequently and openly. Regardless of what point of a relationship you’re at, it is crucial to have an open line of communication together and agreement on how you would like to communicate. Do you want regular check-ins? To address issues as they come up? No matter what you and your partners agree on, make sure your communication is compassionate, clear, respectful, and open.
Much of what we see in the media is unhealthy communication, and that’s if we get to see any at all. Many of the cultural ideals of relationships in the west rely on knowing and predicting your partners’ needs and desires - but it’s not realistic to expect others to know exactly what we want, when we want it! Clear communication helps to avoid resentment, as resentment often stems from unexpressed feelings and needs not being met. This kind of communication comes from a desire to constantly improve our relationships - this means talking to each other about our desires and needs, and asking clarifying questions when we’re not sure about what our partner means.
Important skills to build for relationship communication
Radical, respectful honesty with yourself and your partners
This does not mean you need to share everything all the time. You’re entitled to privacy and also your partner is deserving of your honesty. Discuss what you will share, when, and how you’d like to share that information!
The skill associated with one’s ability to advocate, speak up, request or declare their needs, wants, and thoughts in a confident comfortable manner
Think about how you can communicate that and present your needs, wants, intentions, and expectations in a compassionate way to your partner(s).
Some people may have a hard time feeling what they need or expressing it. That is totally okay! Self-advocacy is a skill that needs training.
Communicating through discomfort
It’s okay to be uncomfortable in a conversation! Lean into it and learn from it.
Check-in with yourself and your partner, not only about the feeling of discomfort but also about why you might be uncomfortable with the topic of conversation. You may not get to the bottom of it at that moment, which is fine, but opening conversations around the root of the discomfort can create space to move through it, together.
Talking about fears and insecurities helps everyone be on the same page and stay in connection.
What to think about when you’re fighting
Different communication and attachment styles
Everyone comes with their own baggage. This means we all have different ways of relating to and communicating with people - some people may feel really comfortable having a shouting match, whereas this might completely shut others down. It’s good to think about and understand how you best communicate, as well as how you attach to others. It’s important to be able to talk about how you communicate through conflict, and what worked and what didn’t work. Having a debrief about how conflict evolved after the conflict itself can be helpful in identifying patterns of (de)escalation.
Ask yourself and your partner(s): What do you need to feel comfortable expressing your feelings? When do you feel best-having conversations about your relationship?
Remember that though scary, conflict can be generative meaning that a lot of good can come out of the conflict that is managed in a healthy, respectful manner.
Triggers and taking breaks
Communicating can be hard and feelings come up. If they are intense you can always take a break and come back to the conversation when you have time to calm down. Better to take some alone time than to make a rash or emotionally fueled choice. Make sure that you have a conversation about how to make this work for you - breaks in a heated argument can sometimes trigger other underlying issues, for example, feelings of abandonment.
Sometimes it’s better to wait and not make decisions in the heat of the moment. Emotions may impede your ability to really feel what you want. Take your time!
Remember, terms don’t mean the same thing for everyone, and sometimes we phrase things differently. Try to make sure you define what you mean to avoid miscommunication, and when in doubt - ask questions.
For example: “When you said [x], I feel like you mean [y] and that makes me feel [z]. Is this what you were trying to communicate?”
Setting aside time for communication and time for affirmation and a fun way to reconnect after a hard talk.
Use ‘I’ statements, speak about how you’re feeling, and try not to place blame. Bring up an issue to solve it, not to make someone feel guilty. Guilt is not productive for healing and improving in the future. You want your partner to hear you and think with you on solutions because they want to, not because they feel guilt.
This zine was cowritten by Al and Carson (a new QSECC contributor)
As usual please let us know what you think, questions you have or anything else.
Much love, QSECC.