Abbie Chatfield was slammed when she revealed she and her partner Konrad Bien “cheat” on each other – but that reaction misses a key truth.
When Abbie Chatfield announced in February that she and her boyfriend, Konrad Bien-Stephens, were in an open relationship, the overwhelming response was one of skepticism.
The radio host and influencer’s followers and critics promptly declared Bien-Stephens had “manipulated” her into the arrangement, simply using it as an excuse to “cheat”.
It’s one of the biggest misconceptions about “open” or ethically non-monogamous (ENM) relationships, Sydney-based sex coach and host of the In bed podcast, Georgia Grace, told news.com.au.
“I think that’s a really reductive – and judgmental – way of looking at ENM [relationships]because it doesn’t take into consideration the many boundaries and the many agreements that have been put in place to keep everyone safe,” she explained.
While there can still be infidelity in an ENM relationship – which is one that is, as the name suggests, not monogamous, but this is consented to by both parties – there are “rules and agreements set in place or agreed to” that dictate what that infidelity might look like.
“If we’re looking at someone saying [that] someone is only going into an [ENM] relationship because they want to cheat on their partner – well, it’s not cheating,” Grace explained.
“If everyone is clear on the structure, everyone is excited about being there, willing to be there, free to leave when they want and there is consent involved, then that’s not cheating.”
For Chatfield and Bien-Stephens, those boundaries mean that “we can sleep with other people if we meet them out”.
“[But] it can’t be someone you’ve slept with before. He’d be upset if I slept with an ex-boyfriend, so I would never do that. But I don’t mind if he does it,” the 26-year-old explained on a recent episode of Mamami’sNoFilter podcast.
“We’re still discussing sleepovers, because I think it’s incredibly inconvenient [to go home after sleeping with someone, but] it’s all about communication.”
Deciding what your ENM relationship will look like or how it might work is one of the biggest benefits, Grace said.
“For some, it might be the fact that they get to have multiple sexual partners, and that’s really fun for them. They get to meet, and date, and flirt, and have sex with lots of people,” she said.
“For others, it may be that they have access to more love, to more commitment, to more joy that comes with a relationship. For others it may be that they’ve just never felt comfortable [in] or it just has never felt right to be in a monogamous relationship.”
It’s one of the first questions that “all experts, therapists or people in this space will ask”: Why do you want to be in an open relationship?
“And to get really clear on all of the benefits, because there are many, many benefits, but it’ll probably be unique to you and your current relationship, or your future relationship,” Grace added.
But, she acknowledged, it’s also worth noting that this structure isn’t for everyone, “and many people will identify that”.
“They will say, ‘I could never do that, I’d get too jealous. I could never do that, I’d feel too vulnerable or scared or stressed the whole time.’ And I think it’s really wonderful that you know that – if this structure isn’t going to work for you, absolutely no one is making you do this,” she said.
Another thing people often get wrong, Grace said – and one that Chatfield, who described knowing Bien-Stephens is sleeping with other women as her “kink”, touched on – and is the role of jealousy in an EDM relationship.
“The misconception is that ethical non-monogamy, if you’re in it, you’ll absolutely never get jealous. For some people [like Chatfield], this is their reality. They don’t experience jealousy, they instead experience compersion – and compersion is any time you feel joy for someone else’s joy or someone else’s experience, but it’s not directly related to your own experience,” she explained.
“However, jealousy is, you know, really, really normal, and it is really common in ENM relationships. And, I think that lots of people want everyone to know that it is OK and it is human to experience jealousy, and it is even quite common to experience it.
“There’s nothing wrong with you – it doesn’t mean you are any less good at being in an ENM relationship, it doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong at all. It just means that maybe it’s a conversation, or maybe it’s an opportunity to figure out what you need right now in order to feel safe.
“How can you reconnect with your partner or partners or lovers, so that you do feel connected, and how can you learn to communicate about this?”
Asked for her advice on how someone interested in exploring an ENM relationship can broach it with their partner, Grace suggested listening to the In bed episode dedicated to the topic, where she was joined by psychosexual therapist Arlyn Owens and sex educator Eleanor Hadley.
“It really is like – OK, you’re interested, wonderful, that’s so exciting – and now might be an opportunity to really learn. So listen to the podcast, read some of those books that we reference [in the episode],” she said.
“There’s so much information out there – consume it all, get a sense of how your body responds, what excites you, what doesn’t, and then perhaps open that conversation with a partner. That could be [by saying]…’I am fascinated by this way of living or relating, and I’ve love to see if this is something you’re curious about too’.”
It’s important to remember that it might not just be “one conversation where you say, ‘Cool, we’re going to completely restructure our relationship’ or ‘I’m going to completely restructure my life’”, she added.
“Often it’s ongoing. Many people do seek professional support to work through that. There are also a range of workbooks out there,” Grace said.
“So I think gather the information, communicate openly, and give it time and space to start co-creating a structure that works best for you.”