When we talk to friends in the consensually non-monogamous (CNM) lifestyle, questions come up about the differences between “swinging,” polyamory, and concepts of “friends-with-benefits” (FWB). We have discovered that the primary differences are: 1) personal level of need for intimacy or connection with potential sexual partners; and 2) how relationships are configured across the spectrum of CNM lifestyle options. How we express ourselves sexually and the needed level of intimacy should be seen as a spectrum of intensity. Regardless of the preferred CNM lifestyle chosen, every person and relationship can move within the spectrum based on their current needs and desires. As you read the definitions below, keep in mind that the definitions can adjust based on the moment-in-time (context) a person is in based on their sexual and intimacy needs as well as within their relationship(s). There is an ebb and flow to what every person needs and how they need to fulfill those needs. The individual determines who, if anyone, is permitted in their personal, sexual space and in what ways they want to be sexual, intimate, or emotionally connected, if at all. It is impossible to state every possible twist of desire and fantasy of human sexuality in a blog post, but we should all note that there are endless desires and fantasies we all have. If we are living the CNM lifestyle then we are probably somewhere on the Swinger—Friends-with-Benefits—Polyamory spectrum to fulfill our sexual, intimacy, and connectivity needs and desires. With whom we choose to share sexuality or intimacy results in a spectrum of relationship configurations
Relationship configurations are also on a spectrum. The most common societal form of relationship has become Male (M)-Female(F) partners (and is used below for simplicity and not to negate or forget that F-F, M-M, and all other non- or other-gendered, non-binary configurations are valid). In the CNM lifestyle, partners choose who they add to a M-F configuration. This can mean many different M or F configurations that attach to the M-F relationship. While reading the CNM definitions below, keep in mind that these configurations may mean in relationship to the M-F primary couple OR could also mean that the relationship is connected to only one member of the M-F primary couple. For example, a female in a M-F primary couple may have another M-F couple with which she is sexual or connected emotionally that consensually excludes her male partner. In this case the “secondary” M-F couple are the metamours of the M in the M-F primary couple. This example is just one of so many configurations that can and do occur in the CNM lifestyle. It will be noted below that most CNM lifestyle relationships have a “primary” couple and then “secondary” relationships. This tends to lessen in some polyamory relationship configurations as well as in other forms of CNM. Still, we most often experience a primary couple who is in the lifestyle together for their personal reasons as well as for the relationship, nearly all of which are valid and should be honored (exception: see our “fixing the relationship” statement below). For those who have attended our sessions or read our blog or social media frequently already know that we firmly believe communication of your personal needs and desires are key in strengthening all of your relationships.
There are some of you right now saying, “I’m a swinger and fuck this relationship stuff.” We understand that completely! How everyone achieves that which they need from living an open, consensually non-monogamous lifestyle is personal and different. To say “all consensually non-monogamous people are the same” is false. Each experience is fulfilling in its own way and is dependent upon the needs and desires of the individuals involved. Let’s take a closer look at the spectrum of CNM lifestyle approaches.
Swinging is a form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) that has the least amount of intimate or personal connection required within the CNM spectrum. Maybe you have heard of “hookup culture” or the idea of casual sex, which is most prevalent within young adults. Swinging is most aligned with casual sex and hooking up. Swingers can have a single, one-off fuck sessions as well as regular, non-emotionally committed hookups with the same people (spectrum). The primary difference in this form of CNM versus the others is that there appears to be less need or desire for emotional connection with sexual partners. We have seen many profiles on CNM dating websites describing a preference to not be with “bed notchers.” Swinging is indeed closest to the casual sex hookup approach to CNM which looks a lot to some as “bed notching.” It is a valid form of CNM but might not be for everyone in the lifestyle. For those in relationships, the primary relationship remains pivotal in guiding rules and expectations related to casual sex with previously unknown partners or lifestyle friends. The guiding principle is that intimacy and “feelings” are discouraged as it might somehow threaten the primary relationship. This is, of course, not always the case, but we have heard a lot about jealousy that ended swinging, casual sex experiences for those trying out the CNM lifestyle. Jealousy can, and often does, lessen as communication and trust develops within the primary relationship over time. Interestingly, as we move up the spectrum of intimate and “loving” connections with other lifestyle partners, we find jealousy decreasing (though can always exist) and an increase in the concept of compersion (opposite of jealousy; we argue it can include joy of your partner’s sexual enjoyment as well).
*Pro tip: Feelings cannot be avoided. You are human. Our minds, bodies, and social connections are integrated into our human nature. You are not somebody’s unworthy cum bucket (kink exceptions noted) so we never recommend putting rules in place that “avoid feelings.” Sociopaths do not have feelings. You and the people you’re fucking have feelings. Be human and you will enjoy the casual sex experience more. Further, being human and humane towards your casual sex partner(s) lessens the likelihood of a negative and potentially assaultive experience. Acknowledge the feelings you had within any given experience with your primary partner(s) to strengthen your relationships.
Lifestyle Friends-with-Benefits (FWB)
Friends with benefits (FWB) are often described as friends engaging in sexual behavior without an expected monogamous relationship (1) and are different than casual sex encounters (1). Friends are, of course, much more “intimate” or have a closer emotional connection to us than casual sex partners. There may be non-sexual activities that take place for those living an CNM lifestyle. We have many lifestyle friends who go boating together or simply go to dinner on occasion without an expectation of sex. However, FWB does primarily revolve around sexual encounters and, because of the time invested in relationship-building activities and, in some cases, a reduced desire to seek out other CNM relationships (2), FWB relationships are more emotionally intimate by nature. And FWB relationships are not limited necessarily to just one secondary individual(s) relationship. There may be many different types of FWB configurations that remain less “romantic” or “committed” in nature while others may become very emotionally intimate and connected. So, again a spectrum within this category.
FWB relationships that become non-sexual commonly continue once sexual encounters ends (2). These FWB configurations are less sexual and more emotionally connected. They can, of course, be sexual again with varying degrees of frequency. The key here is that FWB can be both sexual or non-sexual and have an increased level of intimacy or connectivity than CNM swinging. Depending on the level of intimacy or connection that may develop between an individual and a FWB/FWBs, there can be challenges to the identity of the primary couple (2). Concerns that FWB relationships can develop into more than just a FWB relationship can generate fears of loss or change in the primary relationship. The key to managing this is communication and transparency about those fears and discussing the benefits of the various FWB relationships that you may have with your primary partner(s). If we can accept that our ability to be intimate and have “feelings” for others is perfectly normal and not a threat to the primary relationship, then the primary relationship can continue to grow and strengthen.
*Pro tip: Monogamous relationship also end due to one person “falling in love” with someone else, “cheating,” or just growing apart. This has nothing to do with the CNM lifestyle itself. Do not expect a CNM lifestyle to fix a relationship that is struggling because it will not happen. While we recommend lifestyle-friendly therapy for relationship problems, we encourage exploring your desires and fantasies, as well as your fears and insecurities, before jumping into a CNM lifestyle. Once you start exploring these personal emotions first, then begin to dabble (e.g., date, go to the club, get an anonymous naughty Twitter account). And share your experiences with your primary partner as frequently as you can. Over time, concerns and fears begin to fade or, at minimum, can be navigated safely with your primary partner(s). What we have learned is that you can have a lot of “love,” connection and attachment to many, many FWB. There’s simply not an endless supply. Most of the fears or perceived threats to the primary relationship are based on years of being told you are monogamous (you are not) and that there is only one love for us in our lives (we all know better). Embrace your ability to love and attach to many knowing that, if you are transparent and communicate with your primary partner, your CNM lifestyle experience will rewarding beyond measure. Polyamorists understand this better than most.
“Polyamory is the practice of having multiple emotionally close relationships that may or may not be sexual,” (3). Polyamory is, in essence, the lifestyle of loving and attaching to others, even many others. There appear to be typically two types of poly relationships: 1) hierarchical with the primary relationship being prioritized and secondary relationships less prioritized; and 2) non-hierarchical where there is no distinction between a primary or secondary relationship. Hierarchical relationships look a lot closer to the FWB model (again a spectrum) but with more intimacy and closeness in the secondary relationships. In non-hierarchical polyamory we find relationships that look a lot more like monogamous relationships (3) in that the poly pod (as some call it) may share resources, parenting, housing, and may have their day-to-day lives more fully integrated. Polyamorous relationships may become more closed to individuals outside the poly pod, regardless of hierarchical design, because there is a higher demand and need for intimacy, closeness, connection, and feelings of love.
*Pro tip: Individuals who identify more as poly and prefer more intimate connection with their sexual partners does not exclude them from the CNM spectrum because they may engage in swinging and/or FWB interactions. However, people who are poly truly tend to need a deeper emotional, intimate connection than can be offered in a casual sex scenario. Love and intimacy are often pivotal in rewarding poly relationships whether sex is involved or not. In this regard, many FWB relationships can look a lot closer to the polyamorous form of relationships depending on what is desired and preferred by the members of the relationship group. The key is…wait for it….communication. Talk to potential partners, whether its casual swinging, FWB, or polyamory to have a sense of what your partner needs and desires for a positive sexual and/or intimate experience . We are not sociopaths, so get to know each other!
Benefits of CNM
Regardless of the CNM lifestyle preference, which can evolve and change over time, there is a growing amount of research showing the benefits of having CNM relationships. There appears to be strengthened communication between primary partners, reduced jealousy and increased compersion, higher level of personal body image satisfaction, psychological well-being, and increased arousal and desire. (see list of references). Living a CNM lifestyle remain a general societal stigma though we have seen some recent science on CNM being more accepted. Still, relationships with family, friends, and co-workers can be challenged for those who are open about their lifestyle choice. How any individual shares their lifestyle is personal. What we have found in our own relationship is that the benefit of living our CNM lifestyle has been powerfully positive for us personally as well as within our relationship.
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- Furman, W., & Shaffer, L. (2011). Romantic partners, friends, friends with benefits, and casual acquaintances as sexual partners. Journal of Sex Research, 48(6), 554-564.
- Owen, J., Fincham, F.D., & Polser, G. (2016). Couple identity, sacrifice, and availability of alternative partners: Dedication in friends with benefits relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 1785-1791.
- Balzarini, R.N., Dharma, C., Kohut, T., Campbell, L., Lehmiller, J.J., Harman, J.J., & Holmes, B.M. (2019). Comparing relationship quality across different types of romantic partners in polyamourous and monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48, 1749-177.
Balzarini, R. N., McDonald, J., Kohut, T., Lehmiller, J. J., Holmes, B. M., & Harman, J. J. (2020, November 11). Compersion: When Jealousy-inducing Situations Don’t (Just) Induce Jealousy. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/k3tzf
Balzarini, R.N., Campbell, L., Kohut, T., Holmes, B.M., Lehmiller, J.J., Harman, J.J., et al. (2017). Percpetions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory, PLoS ONE 12(5); e0177841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177841