Relationships
This couple opened their relationship to include another person while exploring ethical non-monogamy...

Are You Curious About Open Relationships? Come Right This Way...

Welcome to the world of ethical non-monogamy.

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Non-monogamy didn’t look how Ana Kirova had imagined it. There was no endless string of parties and superficial hookups with strangers waiting on the other side; no lifestyle more glamorous or sexy than the one she already had. Instead, when she opened up her once-monogamous relationship in 2014, what Kirova discovered was more profound: a deepened connection to her romantic partners and herself.

In those early days, when she and her partner Dimo Trifonov began to dabble in ethical non-monogamy (ENM) — a relationship in which the partners have consensually agreed to date people outside their partnership — Kirova didn’t know what to expect. She thought opening her relationship would automatically transform her into “this cool person who doesn’t really care and just has a lot of fun. But I found that’s not me,” she tells Elite Daily.

“I had this picture of what me in a non-monogamous relationship looks like, and I didn’t fit my own standards. It took me about a year to find my [footing],” she says. “I had to accept the fluidity of my own desires and my own curiosity for people. As I changed, my needs and desires changed, and I learned to be a lot more attuned to them.” For people like Kirova, ethical non-monogamy and open relationships offer a degree of freedom and self-discovery that monogamous relationships do not.

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Claudia Johnson, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate with the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Sex Therapy Collective, defines an open relationship as “one in which partners have made a consensual decision and agreement to engage sexually, and/or romantically with other people outside of their relationship. It’s different from cheating because there’s no dishonesty or secrecy involved.”

Kirova’s transition to ethnical non-monogamy was one she made with a partner; the two of them were able to sit down together and create a new relationship structure that worked for them. But if you find yourself wanting to date someone who’s already in an open relationship with someone else, Johnson says that for you to make an informed decision about your own needs, it’s critical to know what kind of relationship structure these other people have in place.

In the world of ethical non-monogamy and open relationships, Johnson says some people employ “a hierarchical structure,” meaning “they are looking for other partners in a secondary, tertiary, etc. role.” A person in a relationship with a hierarchical structure will likely have a primary partner to which they devote the most time and energy. It’s with that primary partner that they may share responsibilities, resources, and living arrangements, and with whom they’ll typically make important decisions, Johnson says.

“You may be comfortable knowing that your partner will spend more time with their primary and that may allow you to pursue other relationships,” she says. Or, “you may be looking for someone who you can connect [with] more often and make life decisions together.”

And there are other types of open relationships, too. “Other relationships may not have a hierarchical structure and that means that they view and relate to each other as equals,” she says. “Everyone gets a say in the decision-making process and people that have been together longer or live together don’t get more privileges.” Regardless of the type of open relationship you’re entering, it’s critical to know (and communicate) what you want out of the arrangement so that your feelings don’t get overlooked.

Open Relationships Are On The Rise

Kirova and Trifonov remain each other’s primary partners to this day — and it was their decision to try an open relationship back in 2014 that inspired Trifonov to create Feeld, a dating app popular among Gen-Z and Millennial users who seek non-normative relationship structures. According to the Feeld website, the app is for couples and singles, and enables partners to “explore dating together.” Seven years after Feeld hit the market in 2014, Kirova is now the app’s CEO, a role that gives her an inside look at how public perceptions of ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, and kink are changing at lightning speed. (Trifonov, now a chairman for the company, appointed Kirova to the role of CEO in April 2021.)

In early 2020, the data team at Feeld conducted a global analysis of their users and user bios, which revealed a nearly 500% increase in the use of terms like “ethical non-monogamy” and “polyamory” from previous years. The same analysis also showed a 240% increase from the previous year in women who listed a desire to date outside their partnership among their sexual or romantic preferences.

Kirova and her team have observed more user trends that indicate a shifting tide, including how more than 60% of Feeld users based in New York City who are exploring or practicing ethical non-monogamy identify as something other than heterosexual. Additionally, Kirova says that while in previous years, the overwhelming majority of those users were male, the gender gap between Gen-Z users in NYC who seek non-monogamous connections is shrinking. “It’s evening out, which is magical,” she says. “[There’s] more tolerance and freedom for LGBTQ communities, more fluidity in new generations, and the concept of strict monogamy is starting to become an option rather than just ‘the thing.’”

The Risks Of STIs

For some, entering into a new relationship with multiple partners or opening up an existing relationship to new partners might invite anxiety about contracting or spreading STIs. And yes, there’s always more of a risk of transmitting infections when multiple partners are involved.

But Johnson says ethical non-monogamy is unfairly characterized as a hotbed for STIs, when, in reality, people in open relationships “tend to do a much better job” at practicing safer sex and having conversations about sexual health. Once you’re used to clearly communicating your feelings about non-traditional relationship structures and emerging desires, discussing your wellbeing comes more easily.

“We should all be regularly revisiting and addressing safety and sexual risk management practices in any of our relationships,” she says. “Regardless of who you are dating, or the relationship structure in place, it is important to talk about the use of protection and getting regularly tested for STDs.”

Jealousy Is Your Friend

Kirova, who first discovered non-monogamy when she developed “strong feelings” for a woman in the early stages of her relationship with Trifonov, acknowledges that testing the waters of an open relationship can be intimidating — especially when it comes to the inevitable tension of jealousy. But, Kirova also says that ethical non-monogamy taught her to appreciate jealousy in a way she’d never considered before.

“The biggest fear people [who are trying ethical non-monogamy] usually have is jealousy,” she says. But jealousy, according to Kirova, shouldn’t be feared. “You have to acknowledge that you cannot remove jealousy. It’s presented as something bad or negative, but it’s mental. It’s more about how you work with it and how you make it a part of [your relationships]. As soon as people acknowledge that they can talk about being jealous rather than being proud and pretend it doesn’t exist, that sends their connection to another level.”

Moving Away From Compulsory Monogamy

Still, taking a first leap into an ethically non-monogamous relationship might sound difficult. Johnson says some of the hesitance might stem from the concept of “compulsory monogamy.” “A lot of us have been socialized and conditioned to subscribe to monogamy without second thoughts,” she says. Monogamy can sometimes feel compulsory because — even though humans have been practicing non-monogamy in some form or another since the dawn of time, from ancient Egyptians to the swingers of the ‘70s — many of our sociocultural touchpoints (pop culture, religion, historical narratives) point to one ideal: monogamous marriage.

She says all these channels convey the idea that “everyone strives to be married and find ‘the one’ that will fulfill all of their needs.” But that narrow relationship structure doesn’t suit everyone. “If monogamy is your thing, that is fantastic, and if you are wondering or curious [about ethical non-monogamy], that is fantastic, as well,” Johnson says. “No shame. We are all in our individual journeys of self-discovery and that should be celebrated either way.”

If the idea of having one static partner is all you’ve known your whole life, the choice to venture outside of monogamy can be terrifying. But Kirova and Johnson agree: Inviting more creativity into the way you structure your relationships can be a beautiful thing. Who knows what kind of magical connections you may find waiting for you on the other side?

Experts:

Claudia Johnson, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate with the PNW Sex Therapy Collective

Ana Kirova, CEO of Feeld