In twelve years supporting open relationships, polyamorous folks, and consensually non-monogamous couples I’ve seen an amazing variety of options play out.
Over and over, I see that folks who stay together are share three common traits:
They are highly invested in staying together, listening to each other, seeing things from the other’s perspective, and slowing things down to a pace that’s liveable for all.
They have a little humility about the mistakes they make and are self-aware enough to hold themselves accountable apologize to impacted lovers and to do better in the future.
They’re willing to adapt their non-monogamy practice to their relationship’s needs over time.
It’s that third option we rarely hear about in polyamorous communities. Many folks think about negotiating non-monogamy as if once you decide to open things up you can never go back. But that all-or-nothing thinking doesn’t create enough room for most couple’s to be creative.
Just because you start a conversation about open relationships doesn’t mean you have to act on it. And just because you tried dating other folks once doesn’t mean you have to stick with it forever.
Just like just because you “tried polyamory once and it didn’t work” doesn’t mean it could never work in your life again.
Conceptualizing your agreements are a temporary working document (one you make amendments to over time) helps alleviate a lot of the stress couples face when they talk about opening up.
Today I wanted to add to the case studies I’ve shared before adding a couple stories from couples who decided to go back to monogamy after practicing polyamory and/or an open marriage for a few years.
Sandra & Martin*
Married, 17 years, Monogamish 14 years, Lawyer & Real Estate Agent (47 and 42), living with 2 cats in Portland, Oregon (USA), and 3 children from previous marriages (27, 23, and 20 who live on their own).
Sandra and Martin came to my practice after one year of practicing some forms of consensual non-monogamy. They’d been together 15 years and were very much in love but for a few reasons wanted to expand the intimacy in their lives. These included:
Wanting more sexual diversity and experience (Martin had only had sex one prior partner)
Needing more independence and autonomy in their lives
Craving personal growth through relationships with other people
Hoping to renew desire between them
Wanting more intimate friends and community
Starting to Open Up
They’d been to a few sex clubs in town together and had met a few other couples online for dates. However they ran into a very common issue for couples who try to date together: often they’d find a partner one of them found attractive, but not the other. Or, in many cases, no one they really had chemistry with.
So they began thinking about seeing other people individually. They created online dating profiles and talked about their agreements. Very quickly Sandra started to hear from men through OKCupid, but Martin wasn’t hearing back from anyone.
Side note: in nearly every cisgender heterosexual couples I’ve seen the male partner struggles to find dates far more than the female partner. This often creates pretty intense jealousy for guys- you’re not alone if that’s you.
When They Came to Couples Work
So when they came in, Martin was dealing with all the intense feelings that come with jealousy, insecurity and typically the first year of practicing consensual non-monogamy (for most folks). This meant his stomach was upset, he was having trouble at focusing at work, and he was having really intense feelings of panic and embarrassment.
I should mention here that Martin is a really mild-mannered well-spoken guy. He’s done a lot of personal reflection, has strong communication skills, and is a really nice guy. But for him, like many people, when his reactivity showed up he was struggling to use the skills he used everywhere else in his life.
Meanwhile Sandra was having fun meeting other people but kept trying to comfort Martin- she wasn’t leaving, and there wasn’t anything to fear. She was confused and overwhelmed because truly, as she put it “I could take it or leave it” about polyamory.
So they were caught in a cycle feeling like one moment they were aligned and connected and trying on a new adventure together and another they were arguing with an intensity neither of them had seen in the 15 years prior.
Let me stop there and say these dynamics aren’t unique to these two - far from it. Most couples I work with (even those who have talked for years about opening their relationship) are within the first two to twelve months of actually dating and/or sleeping with other people and they are facing really intense highs and really really low lows.
Often they say they’ve never felt so much intensity, and most of them say the emotions and conflicts are really overwhelming. Even if they’ve know their whole lives that “monogamy isn’t realistic.”
Even highly skilled communicators who really love and respect each other often seriously struggle. Practicing consensual non-monogamy for the first time is usually full of surprising plot twists, unexpected new self-awareness, BIG TIME emotionality, and curious reactivity.
If you’re in the middle of that- you’re not alone.
*Many of the hundreds of clients I work with in my practice share similar stories. I’ve combined the experiences of many of them who’ve shared a journey back to monogamy here to articulate the central themes. I’ve changed identifying details to protect their anonymity while preserving some of their words for emotional accuracy.
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open your relationship & practice polyamory with integrity
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Gina Senarighi, MS, MA, CPC is a communication consultant, sexuality counselor and certified relationship coach specializing in polyamory, open relationships, jealousy, and infidelity.