What Ethical Non-Monogamy Really Means & How To Practice It
There are two forms of non-monogamy: there's the nonconsensual kind, which is also known as cheating, and then there's the consensual kind, which is known as consensual or ethical non-monogamy.
Here's what this type of relationship is all about and how people navigate it.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM), also known as consensual non-monogamy (CNM), is an approach to relationships wherein people can have more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time, and everybody involved is aware and enthusiastically consents to the dynamic. Polyamory, open relationships, and swinging are all forms of ethically non-monogamous relationships.
"When explaining ethical or consensual non-monogamy to my clients, my go-to is the three C's: communication, consideration, and of course, consent," psychotherapist Cheyenne Taylor, LMSW, explains to mbg. "Ethical non-monogamy is based on the concept of using socially acceptable guidelines and ethically motivated tools to cultivate a relationship built on the foundation of non-monogamy. At its core, though, ENM means not cheating or acting without the consent of your partner."
Ethical non-monogamy has risen in popularity dramatically in recent years. One 2017 study1 found 1 in 5 people has been in some form of ethically non-monogamous relationship before.
What it means to practice ethical non-monogamy:
You and your partner(s) agree on what you want and don't want.
There are no set "rules" when it comes to ethical non-monogamy, according to licensed therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT. Rather, the people involved in a relationship will make agreements about what the relationship dynamic will look like. "Agreements imply that both (or all) people are agreeing to something, making it an ethical and collaborative decision," she notes.
Partners can decide if they want their relationship to be committed, casual, long term, short term, romantic, sexual, or any combination of these things. They mutually agree on what types of connections they'll pursue and not pursue, both with each other and with other people, and they can set any parameters or expectations they'd like to make all parties feel comfortable.
"Every relationship has its own agreements, and that's really up to each relationship to figure out," Wright says. For example, "Some have specific things around STIs because of preexisting conditions, while others may have agreements around emotional involvements and where/how you interact with your non-live-in partner."
Honesty is vital.
Honesty and transparency are the bedrock of ethical non-monogamy, says Taylor.
"Being clear about your boundaries, limits, and expectations is crucial when working to facilitate a healthy and sustainable relationship," she explains. "I typically recommend using frequent and sometimes scheduled check-ins as a way to put aside time to discuss feelings about the relationship, any hang-ups or issues that need adjusting, and how each person is feeling on an authentic and honest level."
People in ethically non-monogamous relationships must become comfortable with talking openly about their feelings, needs, and desires, as well as being attentive to other people's. Active listening and empathy are necessary, Taylor says. "Taking the time to reflect on and communicate your biases, insecurities, and fears around ENM before you transition into this kind of dynamic is critical."
You need to care about your partners' feelings.
Being non-monogamous does not mean you get to care less about anyone's feelings and well-being. On the contrary, ethical non-monogamy necessitates a lot of care and empathy. Taylor notes that many of the same basic ethical considerations from monogamy still apply to non-monogamy: no lying to each other, no pressuring each other into things one person doesn't really want, and no going behind each other's backs.
"Making decisions that might have a direct or inadvertent impact on your partner/partners without consulting with them or gaining their consent first is not encouraged," Taylor adds.
You can still have a primary partner.
Some non-monogamous people still choose to have one "primary" partner. This type of ethical non-monogamy is known as a hierarchal relationship.
"Hierarchical dynamics consist of partners who (for a number of reasons) prioritize time, commitment, space, etc., with certain partners over others," Taylor explains. "For example, someone may prioritize their spouse over their lover, and in this case, the spouse would be a primary partner and the lover would be a secondary partner."
You can also choose to have non-hierarchal relationships.
Some people who practice ethical non-monogamy don't have or want a primary partner. Instead, all their partners may be considered equally important or important in different ways. "In non-hierarchical dynamics, relationships are not necessarily categorized based on level of importance or priority," Taylor explains.
For example, a person might have many casual partners, none of whom you consider a "committed" life partner. Or, a person might have two partners who they're equally committed to. Some people might have a group of people where everyone is dating one another—for example, a triad is a relationship with three people who are all romantically involved with one another, or a quad is a group of four people who are all romantically involved with one another.
There will be ups and downs.
"I think it's important to note that relationships are relationships are relationships," Wright says. "What I mean by that is, human connection is human connection, and whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, they all have the potential for experiencing challenges, conflict, joy, pain, and every other emotion under the sun."
She says it's common for people to experience all sorts of positive and negative emotions in an ethically non-monogamous relationship, including "jealousy, insecurity, fear, worry, doubt, excitement, increased libido, deepened connection with 'original' partner, autonomy, freedom, conscious boundaries, conscious communication, abundant gratitude, and compersion!"
Yes, you'll likely be jealous sometimes.
"There is a common misconception that people who agree to enter ENM relationships don't experience jealousy. This is simply not true," Taylor says. "Jealousy happens. This is why communication and honesty are key."
Over time, people in ethically non-monogamous relationships may experience jealousy less often or less intensely, or they may simply have better ways of coping with it when it crops up.
"One of the best practices you can have is having a practice of self-reflection and unlearning," Wright says. "We are deeply programmed for monogamy and even when we choose to practice otherwise, the impulses and feelings we get don't follow suit so quickly. There is a big transition process into the mindset of ENM."
It can be a lifestyle, or it can be an identity.
Some people view non-monogamy as a lifestyle choice, whereas others experience it as an orientation or intrinsic part of their identity, says Wright.
"I experience polyamory the way I experience my bisexuality and queerness—as an orientation," she tells mbg. "Both as a mental health professional and as a person in the polyam community, I think there is a mix of people, some finding it more of a lifestyle choice and some find that, like me, it would be more of a choice not to."
Ethical non-monogamy vs. polyamory.
Polyamory is one form of ethical non-monogamy, with the latter acting as an umbrella term that encompasses many types of relationships. Swinging, casual sex, open relationships, and polyamory are all forms of ethical non-monogamy, and there are many others.
Polyamory refers to having multiple romantic partners at once, which not all ethically non-monogamous people do. For example, a couple might occasionally have sex with other couples (aka swinging), but they don't actually date people other than each other. That's a form of ethical non-monogamy, but it's not necessarily polyamory.
Ethical non-monogamy vs. open relationship.
Open relationships are another form of ethical non-monogamy, with ethical non-monogamy being the umbrella term. Open relationships refer to any relationship where partners are currently open to sexual or romantic relationships with other people. Not all ethically non-monogamous relationships are open relationships. For example, three people might be dating each another and no one else, and they may not be open to any other relationships. This is a form of ethical non-monogamy, but it's not an open relationship.
Ethical non-monogamy vs. cheating.
Cheating is when you break the agreements of your relationship, in particular those related to sexual and romantic fidelity.
Ethical non-monogamy is not cheating, because in an ENM relationship, all partners have agreed to a relationship wherein everyone is free to be intimate with other people. Intimacy with others is part of the agreement, and therefore it is not cheating because everyone is in the know and consents to what's happening.
Cheating, on the other hand, is non-consensual and unethical non-monogamy, because it involves going behind your partner's back and engaging in intimate relations with other people without your partner's consent.
Importantly, cheating can also happen in ENM relationships: For example, two partners might agree that they're allowed to have sex with other people, but they won't develop romantic or emotional relationships with others. If one partner secretly has a second serious girlfriend, that would be cheating—because it's breaking the agreement they made to not engage romantically with others.
ENM is grounded in consent and mutual trust; cheating ignores those things completely.
Types of ethically non-monogamous relationships.
Here's a non-exhaustive list of some different forms of ethical non-monogamy:
- Polyamory: An approach to relationships wherein people can have multiple romantic or sexual relationships at the same time.
- Threesomes: A couple brings in a third person to have sex with them, whether for a one-night-stand or regularly. (Here's our guide to threesomes.)
- Swinging: When a couple has sex with another couple and/or "swaps partners."
- Cuckolding: When a couple brings in a third party to have sex with one of the partners, often with the other partner watching. (Here's our guide to cuckolding.)
- Hierarchical relationships: A relationship where there's a set of "primary partners," usually a couple, who prioritize each other while also having "secondary" partners.
- Polyfidelity: A relationship between a group of people where all members are equal partners in the relationship, and no one has sex with or dates people outside the group. Triads or throuples (groups of three), quads (groups of four), and vees (a three-person relationship where one person is dating two people, but those two people are not dating each other) can be forms of polyfidelity. (Here's our guide to polycules.)
- Relationship anarchy: An approach to relationships, usually non-hierarchal, where there are no set rules or expectations other than the ones that involved partners agree upon. (Here's our guide to relationship anarchy.)
- Open relationships: When a couple or set of partners are currently open to new romantic or sexual partners.
- Casual dating or casual sex: When people casually date and have sex with multiple people, with everyone knowing that it's happening.
- Monogamish: A couple that's mostly monogamous but might occasionally have sex with other people in certain situations.
What's the difference between ethical non-monogamy and polyamory?
Polyamory is one form of ethical non-monogamy, which is an umbrella term that also includes swinging, open relationships, romantic triads and quads, and much more. Polyamory usually involves an openness to multiple loving relationships, whereas ethical non-monogamy could involve openness to multiple loves, openness to multiple sexual partners only, or a multi-person romantic relationship that is not currently open to new connections.
Is ethical non-monogamy the same as an open relationship?
An open relationship is one where the partners involved are currently open to new connections. Open relationships are one form of ethical non-monogamy, but not all ethically non-monogamous relationships are open to new connections at all times. For example, three people may be dating each other exclusively as a triad but not open to any other additional connections.
Is ethical non-monogamy healthy?
Monogamous relationships can be healthy or unhealthy, and likewise, ethical non-monogamous relationships can sometimes be healthy and sometimes be unhealthy. In general, ENM is not more or less healthy than monogamy. It all just depends on the individuals involved and the dynamics between them.
Ethical non-monogamy is a broad term that encompasses any form of relationship (romantic or sexual) that doesn't take the form of an exclusive, monogamous relationship between two people. It can be liberating, fun, a lifestyle choice, or simply just the way you are. It can also be confusing, complicated, stressful, and hard. (Just like any other kind of relationship!)
If you're interested in trying ethical non-monogamy for the first time, here's how to know if an open relationship is right for you and how to ask for an open relationship.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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