Planners and Pantsers: Non-Monogamous Dating


Planners and Pantsers: Non-Monogamous DatingOver the past few days I have found myself torn between two opposing, but equally thoughtful, takes on how best to go about dating and/or seeking partners.

On the one hand I have the often correct, and somewhat magically optimistic view that you can’t manufacture love: it simply happens. You can’t choose who you fall in love with, or when, or why, and so you might as well keep yourself busy with something else, because purposefully seeking what you want is bound to be futile. (And perhaps you don’t really know what you’re looking for until you find it anyway.)

On the other hand I have the far more proactive and, perhaps, pragmatic view that if you don’t define what you want and/or need, then how will you know when you find it? It’s important to decide and find the language for the thing you desire, in order that you might communicate that to potential partners.

Being a devoted list-maker, and practiced planner, the latter naturally attracts me more. I would love to sit down, make a list of the things I want, and then find the person and situation that fits my criteria. Of course, the problem is that finding ‘the person and situation that fits my criteria’ is nowhere near as simple as it looks on paper. Furthermore, if you get too bogged down in the details of what you’re looking for you can easily dismiss people who might bring you something wonderful you hadn’t even considered.

So what’s the answer?

When I was dating as a monogamous person the ‘see what comes along’ approach worked well, because it left me open to opportunity but was set in the framework of a model that most people understand and, even, assume. Of course, there is variety in the way monogamous relationships work, but its many manifestations are far better represented and understood in society, and I would argue that the different modes of monogamy are more similar to each other than the different modes of non-monogamy are similar to each other. Monogamy differs in the details of what two people want within a relationship but the general framework of that relationship is confined to the two; non-monogamy, on the other hand, encompasses far more variety within the framework itself: there’s swinging and open relationships and polyamory, and there are the many degrees between those; there is progressive swinging, and there are relationships with hierarchies, or without. And all this comes before we even get down to the details of those relationships and their dynamics.

There may be those who are non-monogamous in such a way that they are receptive to all degrees and varieties of open relationships; people whose only defining characteristic within non-monogamy is a desire not to be monogamous, and from there they are open to whatever comes their way. In this case, perhaps having a very open-ended vision of what you want is a good idea. If you truly are open to whatever comes along, then there may not be a need to find any particular mode, or to define what you are looking for.

For the rest of us, working without a clear picture may be troublesome. Even if I were able to say “I am polyamorous” or “I am a swinger”, those labels still invite further investigation. Do you already have one or more partners? Is this purely a sexual pursuit? Do you want a primary partner, or do you prefer to have several primary partners, or many less committed partners? Are your relationships based on friendship, or romance? Or sex? The variety in non-monogamy begs (if not definition then at least) explanation. It may be that you are better able to explain your relationships by way of what you don’t want, but however you do it, I would argue that when you talk to potential dates or partners, being able to explain yourself can be very helpful.

Whilst I don’t believe anyone should be so fixated on an ideal as to dismiss people who are one tiny degree away from that ideal, I do think it becomes much easier once we are able to communicate the ways in which we are non-monogamous. One way to find the language may be to ask yourself why you have chosen to be non-monogamous. Most of us come from societies where monogamy is the norm, and therefore, we have chosen to break away from that assumed structure, and I would guess that those who have, will know why they did it. I know why I did; it was for several reasons, but in this instance perhaps the most applicable might be that I have conflicting ideas of what I want from my partners. I have come to understand that what I want has to come from at least two people; that I can’t have it with just one, because there is no one in the world who could encompass all of my needs and desires. This is by no means the only reason I am non-monogamous, but when it comes to dating, I can say that there are two primary desires driving me.

Simply being able to say “my non-monogamous mode lies somewhere between progressive swinging and polyamory and I want this, but also this” has made communicating my needs and desires a lot easier. And that’s a relief because lord knows I don’t want dating to be any more complicated than it has to be!

But at the same time, as I hold the idea of what I want in my mind, I try not to let it overwhelm me, because I would hate to miss an opportunity to learn something entirely new from someone who doesn’t necessarily fit my model.


Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.


  1. One of the reasons I resonated so strongly with the Swingset right from jump was because I stopped feeling like Poly was a label I could own a long time ago (too many heartbreaks I haven’t gotten over entirely yet AND not enough kreplits to sustain any other partners anyway) BUT I have never been a “sex for sex sake” kind of person either. So I felt like I lost my balance in the open community, there was no place for me. Especially since my husband still identifies as Poly. And being sort of between the two on the SOP spectrum is really hard to negotiate because everyone else wants you to nail yourself down. So I’m glad to know Im not alone out there. Thank you for sharing!

    • Yeah, and you know, I’m not just being contrary: I’d love to be able to label myself; it would make life SO much easier. But in the end, I am what I am… and that’s that. Although I can imagine identifying as poly or as a progressive swinger at some point in the future, that’s not where I am now.

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