Consensual Non Monogamy:

The Paradox of Labels

· CNM Polyamory

Speaking with practitioners of CNM (consensual non-monogamy), polyamory and other forms of alternative relationship structures, I frequently find myself involved in discussions about how these and other labels are applied.

This is particularly true when working with those who are taking the first few steps into these “murky” waters.

Today I want to consider some issues and complications thatarise from using labels too rigidly whilst also attending to the significance such labels have for meaning making in the lives of those who embrace them.

What’s in a name?

Using labels to categorise events and experiences is something that most of us do unconsciously. It is fundamental to effective communication and it allows us to explain in short form what it is that we are talking about. Issues easily arise, however.

For starters, as a therapist I always want to understand what the specific label used means to the client. There are, after all, a whole host of different expectations and boundaries that individuals bring to the practice of CNM.

Unpacking the meaning of a particular label can also lead to issues of a far more charged nature.

The term CNM is considered by many to be a positive label – encapsulating as it does the consensual nature of the non-monogamous relationship. Adherents describe respect, honest communication and the
reciprocal agreements that underlie CNM.

For others, the term is inherently flawed. Consider the implicit acceptance that monogamy is the primary relationship model; ‘CNM’ as a descriptor is predicated on defining itself in opposition to monogamy. Alternatively, try questioning why there should be any need to add the qualifier “consensual” at all? We don’t feel the need to speak of consensual monogamy and its addition in CNM can be taken as casting moral aspersions on non-monogamous practices.

Why choose to label?

For those starting on their journey into the world outside of monogamy, labelling can be incredibly helpful as a way of recognising our experience and starting to explore. Imagine how successful you are likely to be trying to locate local community groups, reading materials or discussion forums without a sensible term for your google search :-(

Aside from access to resources, the psychological benefit offinding yourself part of a defined group or type should not be overlooked. Locating community and prospective new friends can be immensely reassuring and validating. You are not alone, you are not abnormal, you are not broken!

The wonderful “murky” waters

It is key to avoid using terms such as CNM too rigidly, however. Labels offer a space to explore. They should not constrain. They must be used cautiously to avoid conjuring up rejection and discrimination.

I may have surprised some readers with what may have been perceived as a slight against the world of relationships beyond monogamy. Not so.

I consider the beauty of such relationship models to be the paradigm shift they represent. The crystal clear waters of the “one partner forever” model does not represent the reality of most human’s experience of relationships. Monogamy (as opposed to what is often termed ‘serial monogamy’) is an infrequent practice in the modern world.

There is much wonder in embracing the ebbs and flows of unchartedwaters and in the adventure of discovering what lies beneath the surface.