Toxic Relationships to Non-Monogamy: Building Trust After Instability

Content warning: domestic abuse, psychological trauma 

Relationships can be revolutionary—not in the sense that they’ll change the whole world, but that they can change our worlds. Healthy, trust-filled partnerships can make gray skies look like rainbows, but toxic relationships can riddle you with insecurities, jealousy, and even trauma. Your whole life turns upside down when you’re subjected to lies, manipulation, or cheating. 

So the last thing any vulnerable toxic relationship victim needs is to navigate the unknown world of non-monogamy, right? 

Maybe not. 

If you look at the foundations of non-monogamous relationships, you might find some valuable takeaways. With enough healing and practice, you may even evolve to a point where you can feel compersion: happiness just because your partner’s happy, even if you aren’t involved.

Whether you’re a devout monogamist or are a member of a polycule, people in any relationship structure can benefit from these tools.

Trauma, Tyranny, and Toxic Relationships

Chances are, if you haven’t been in an abusive relationship, you know someone who has. One in three American women are victims of physical domestic violence or stalking. Meanwhile, nearly half have experienced psychological violence. 

But trauma doesn’t end the moment you leave toxic relationships: your trauma responses linger. It can make trusting anyone feel impossible, let alone setting boundaries or communicating your needs. 

So, with these hurdles in your way, how are you supposed to enter another relationship, never mind a healthy one? 

Let’s take a page out of the non-monogamy book.

Returning to Healthy Relationship Fundamentals

Adding more people to your relationships may seem counterintuitive when you’re battling insecurities, jealousy, and trauma. The phrase “non-monogamy” might even put a pit in your stomach—and that’s OK. 

Non-monogamy involves constantly putting yourself in vulnerable, jealousy-provoking situations. Knowing your partner is intimately seeing others is most peoples’ worst-case scenario. For survivors of toxic relationships, it can even feel triggering. So how do people maintain these structures in a healthy, non-destructive manner? 

There might be more to it than you think.

Ethical non-monogamy isn’t about acting single and expecting your partner to be OK with it. It’s not a free pass to do whatever you want without consequences. 

In reality, consensual non-monogamy revolves around two things: trust and communication. All relationships should hold these values at the center—that’s why these fundamentals are so widely applicable regardless of relationship structure. 

Trust and Communication

Trust and communication work hand in hand. Anyone in a non-monogamous relationship will tell you that navigating one requires negotiation. Essentially, negotiation is just setting boundaries, or ground rules, for your relationship. For example, “You can sleep with another partner, but I don’t want them to stay the night,” or “You can tell me about your other dates, but I don’t want to know their names.” Setting these boundaries clearly employs communication but also immense trust. 

In non-monogamy, you’re working under the assumption that your partner is seeing other people but that they won’t cross the lines you’ve set. It requires deep trust that your partner will stick to your negotiations while participating in intimate situations.

Of course, trust doesn’t come blindly. Your partner still has to prove that they’re reliable. The best way to show this? Through open and honest communication, plus actions. The better your communication is, the better your trust will be, and vice-versa—it’s a cycle.

Navigating jealousy

I didn’t forget about the elephant in the room: jealousy. Sitting with your feelings is a huge aspect of open relationships, and an underrated difficult one. Jealousy is natural, especially if you’ve been in toxic relationships. Sometimes, the best way to combat it is to recognize your emotions, let yourself feel them, then continue on. Feel your jealousy, then go put on sweatpants and watch three hours of Sex Education—because sometimes that’s what you need to do. 

Implementing Non-Monogamist Tools into Your Life

As you know, non-monogamy isn’t about acting single while partnered. Instead, it requires you to advocate for your wants, needs, and boundaries. I believe every relationship benefits from this negotiation, even if it’s not an open one. 

Here’s how you can implement these tools into your life, monogamous or not.

Sit down with your partner and discuss how you define “cheating,” what your limits are regarding PDA, or how you practice safer sex. If you can practice this kind of communication with your partner, you can transfer the fundamentals to other relationships: with your family, your boss, or even one-night stands.

Of course, with communication comes trust. Practice asking for what you need to feel secure while away from your partner, even if they’re just out with friends. This can look like sending a single text to check-in or sharing some quality time once they come home. 

If and when jealousy arises, recognize it, sit with it, and then do something nice for yourself. Experiencing your emotions instead of fighting them slowly but surely works wonders in unlearning your trauma responses. 

Final Thoughts

Non-monogamy certainly isn’t the only way to heal from relationship trauma. It’s not for everyone. That’s OK! However, all relationships can benefit from these tools.

Setting boundaries, negotiating consent, and sitting with jealousy are all helpful in navigating romantic and platonic partnerships. Using these techniques to help you heal from toxic relationships can guide you towards loving with an open heart once again. 

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