What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy, and Could It Work for You?
Written by Gabrielle Smith on Nov 14th, 2021
I've always been non-monogamous, just like I've always been Black and I've always been queer. Being non-monogamous, however, I think was the easiest thing to accept about myself. Perhaps because it's a window into the type of life I've always wanted to live: one surrounded by love, community, and care. I've been lucky enough to cultivate all of that, but it's taken work, time, and patience.
If you're here, that means you're curious about ethical non-monogamy. You're not alone! An increasing number of folks are considering ethical non-monogamy, according to a poll of more than 1,300 U.S. adults conducted by YouGov. Maybe your eyes have wandered a time too many while with a partner, you're looking to explore your bisexuality, or you really just want to know what threesomes are all about. The best thing about ethical non-monogamy is that you can tweak it to fit your needs.
What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
So, what is ethical non-monogamy, anyway? Well, it's the blanket term for any relationship that is consenting and non-monogamous. (Key word: consenting.) Ethical non-monogamy, sometimes referred to as ENM, is an umbrella term; there's a litany of ways to practice it.
Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy
- Monogamish: An arrangement that's mostly monogamous. Partners in this structure negotiate when they can be with others, but it is only within the confines of a few instances.
- Swinging: When couples meet with other couples to swap partners. Swingers often only "play" (aka engage in sex) together and only pursue sex outside of the relationship in party and date settings.
- Open Relationship: An open relationship is another blanket term. It can be applied to a few different situations, most often within a primary partnership. In an open relationship, folks seek sex and/or date outside of their primary partnership. (Compared to monogamish, this structure is usually a bit more open.)
- Polyamory: Pursuing multiple intimate relationships with multiple people. Many people will have a primary partnership. (See: Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Is — and Isn't)
- Polyfidelity: Pursuing multiple intimate relationships within a closed circuit. Triads (three folks in a relationship) and quads (four people in a relationship, usually two couples) are the most common examples of polyfidelity. All members in this kind of relationship may not be involved sexually or romantically, but they may only be involved sexually/romantically with those people in the circuit.
- One-Penis Policy: When a (often bisexual) woman is in a relationship with a (often heterosexual) man and they agree that she will date other women/femmes, but not other men.
- Solo-Polyamory: A polyamorous person who does not seek a primary partner.
- Hierarchical Polyamory: Polyamory where some partnerships are purposefully prioritized more than others.
- Relationship Anarchy: Relationship anarchy is a philosophy moreso than a relationship structure. It deconstructs the idea that platonic and romantic relationships have a hierarchy in terms of importance and treats each relationship on a case by case basis.
Common Terms, Explained
Ethical non-monogamy has a ton of vocabulary within it. Why? Well, there's often no easy way to describe a lot of the things a non-monogamous person experiences with traditional relationship language. So here is some common vocab to catch you up. (Also read: LGBTQ+ Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Definitions Allies Should Know)
- Unicorn: Typically applies to a bisexual woman willing to join a threesome with a couple.
- Unicorn Hunter: A couple looking for a bisexual woman to join them for a threesome.
- Metamour: Your partner's partner (i.e., my partner's wife is my metamour).
- Polycule: A catch-all term for a group of folks who practice ethical non-monogamy and are connected by their various relationships.
- Compersion: The opposite of jealousy. It's being happy that your partner is happy with someone else!
- New Relationship Energy: Also known as NRE, new relationship energy refers to the honeymoon stage where feelings are intense, exciting, and amplified. (Of course, this term can be used in any sort of relationship — even monogamous or more traditional senses — but is a bit more relevant for people who are continually pursuing new relationships.)
- Fluid Bonding: Choosing to have sex without condoms.
How to Know If Ethical Non-Monogamy Is Right for You
Ethical non-monogamy is a lifestyle of its own, but it doesn't have to be your whole life. The following are some of the most important factors experts say you should consider before seriously pursuing ethical non-monogamy. (Note: Even if you decide not to try ENM, there are a lot of important lessons people in monogamous relationships can learn from ENM or open relationships.)
Are you pursuing ethical non-monogamy for the right reasons? Don't try to use it to save your relationship, because the best way to destroy an already-rocky relationship is to introduce more variables. I cannot emphasize enough that existing relationship problems need to be resolved before pursuing ethical non-monogamy in any way. "If the relationship is broken, adding more people will not help," Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., relationship consultant and author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families previously told Shape. In order to ensure success, everyone in your relationship needs to feel secure.
How do you handle jealousy and insecurity? Insecurity and jealousy go hand in hand. If you're already good at managing these things, great! If the idea of your partner with someone else sends you into a fit of fury or a downward spiral, that is something to deal with before opening up. “People don’t have to be completely issue-free before pursuing a non-monogamous setup,” says Michelle H., creator of Polyamorous While Asian, who provides peer support for singles and couples in non-monogamous relationships. “But they should definitely be committed to introspecting and doing the emotional work required both on their own and with their partners.” Pursuing more "closed" forms of ethical non-monogamy (such as swinging or polyfidelity) may be a good start, but ultimately, in order to fully release possession of your partner and reconcile with your insecurities, therapy might be a good idea. (See: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)
Remember that overhauling your entire relationship structure is difficult. “The difficulty comes with the communication,” says Daniel Saynt, founder and chief conspirator of The New Society for Wellness (NSFW), a private members open love club in New York City. “Each relationship brings a new set of emotions, expectations and concerns. Choosing ENM as your relationship structure requires lots of talking and confirmations of the things [you all] said.” You're going to be challenging societal norms that you've accepted as truth for years and years. If you choose to openly pursue non-monogamy, others may laugh off your relationship, roll their eyes, or scrutinize your choices. There likely will be tears and hurt feelings in the beginning, and that's okay. Don't be afraid of your feelings. Don't be afraid to confront the scary things, the insecurities you're harboring. The more you allow yourself to be vulnerable, the stronger your relationship will be, and the easier it will be to navigate this change that can be scary, unknown, and intimidating. "For those looking to open their relationship, it's important to come to terms with these feelings and to accept your own vulnerabilities when navigating more open relationship structures," says Saynt.
Communication is key. "Say everything out loud," says Morgan K., polyamory coach and creator of the Chill Polyamory Project. "This is not the time to act cool if you're scared, or to assume your partner can read your mind." Learn how to talk about everything. Speak frankly, calmly, and honestly with your partner about your feelings. Check in frequently, and implore your partner to share how they are feeling, even if you're feeling okay with how things are going. (Related: How to Have Healthier Relationship Arguments)
Give yourself some structure. Don't leave it up to last-minute questions or circumstances in order to figure out if something is okay. If you're going on a solo date (without your primary partner), ask your partner how they'd feel about hand-holding, kissing, and having sex. These things may not happen, but you should know before you put yourself in a situation where it could.
Think boundaries, not rules. It's important to release possession of your partner if you're exploring the more open forms of ethical non-monogamy. Relationships should not have rules because that means you're dictating what someone else is doing. Rather, they should have boundaries and agreements. Boundaries are what you create to protect your own comfort and safety, and agreements are terms that both parties acknowledge and choose to follow. (If you're not sure where to start, this questionnaire found on the polyamory subreddit is a great resource.) "Attempting to control other people will leave you frustrated because it's not possible," says Morgan K. "You can ask for care. You can remove yourself from unsafe situations. You can speak up when something hurts, and ask for clearer boundaries. But rigidly dictating the external won't fix the internal."
- Examples of boundaries:
- "For my comfort, please don't tell other partners about our sex life."
- "I will not have sex with you if you do not shower in between partners."
- "I would prefer not to hear a lot about your other partners."
- Examples of agreements:
- "We are not intimate with other folks in our own bed."
- "My partner and I are bisexual, and we've agreed to see folks of the other sex outside of our relationship."
- "My spouse shares their location data with me so I know that they are safe."
Veto power is unethical. When folks open their relationships, some choose to have a veto rule — meaning, a partner can end a relationship that they are not a part of. “Any rule that is not mutually agreed upon by all affected parties is an unethical rule,” says Michelle H., “If everyone is on the same page and if a secondary (or tertiary) partner is genuinely all right with being vetoed at any time, then it would be ethical — though it is an unlikely scenario.”
How to Introduce Ethical Non-Monogamy to an Existing Relationship
Ever since I started creating resources as a public voice about ethical non-monogamy, one of the questions I get the most often is "how do I introduce my partner to ethical non-monogamy?" Most folks who pursue ethical non-monogamy do so while in a relationship, and there are distinctive challenges that occur when opening up a relationship.
When approaching your partner about ethical non-monogamy, it's best to reflect on your relationship as a whole. What does your partner consider cheating, or outside of the boundaries of your relationship? If your partner has been open to you flirting with other folks, or you mutually comment on attractive people you see in public, that may be a sign that your partner is open to ethical non-monogamy. If you perceive your partner as potentially open to a change in your relationship structure, ask them their opinion on the idea of threesomes or ethical non-monogamy. If you have real-life examples of ethical non-monogamy (celebrities, friends, etc.) you can also ask your partner what they think about those arrangements.
At the end of the day, though, you eventually have to approach the conversation head on. Go into it knowing what you want, and what you're willing to compromise. Make it clear to your partner that you're not breaking up with them, but that you want to try something new in your relationship.
“Insecurity wreaks havoc in ENM relationships no matter how much your partner offers you reassurance,” says Kenneth Play, sexpert and educator, as well as one of the co-founders of Hacienda, an intentional sex-positive community. “It’s like a black hole that can never be filled [with] outside validation. The only remedy is to work on your self-confidence and to trust the honest reassurance your partner gives you.”
Be honest about your interest in pursuing ethical non-monogamy, tell them why, but also make sure to constantly reassure your partner that you care for them. (More tips here: How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship)
How to Pursue Ethical Non-Monogamy While Single
In my experience, you have more autonomy as a single pursuing ethical non-monogamy. Even so, many of us feel the growing pains of moving into non-monogamous structures. You can decide what you want out of relationships and craft the new ones you pursue.
When folks you care about are interacting romantically and sexually with others, it's very natural for insecurity to show its face, says Play. When you're single, you do not have a partner to fall back on and reassure you, so you have to reassure yourself! Dating multiple people shouldn't be a comparison game, nor a competition. If someone likes you, they like you, and they can only get what you have to offer from you. (Related: What It's Like to Go Through a Polyamorous Breakup)
As a single, dating couples can be tricky. You enter a situation that has an inherent power structure, just based on the basis that the couple may make decisions without you. Couples have a certain set of privileges that you may not be allowed, such as social legitimacy, cohabitation, and legal recognition. These are things to take into account and speak openly about. In my experience, it’s important to always advocate for yourself in these situations, and avoid taking sides when conflicts between partners arise. It's also important to respect the relationships of others; just because you can come and go doesn't mean you won't affect those that you leave behind. (This account of being in a polyamorous triad can offer some insight into what it might be like to date a couple.)
Having Safe Sex with Multiple People
Everyone thinks that ethical non-monogamy is all about orgies and threesomes. And, well, it can be. But ethical non-monogamy isn't all about sex! And, when it comes to having safe sex, ENM people might actually be even better off; statistics actually show that folks in non-monogamous arrangements are more likely to get tested for STIs than monogamous couples, according to a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
Always communicate about your sexual status. (That stands no matter what type of dating or relationship sitch you're in!) You should ask new partners when they've been tested for STIs before you have sex with them, and determine your comfort with their answer. The rule of thumb is to get tested every three months, and between fluid bonding with new partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's important to educate yourself with how STIs are transmitted, so you know how you're putting yourself at risk. (See: How Often Should You Get Tested for STDs?)
Research, Research, Research
Before you pursue any opening up, do your homework. It's super important to gather knowledge about the world of ethical non-monogamy so you can understand what you're getting into. "Inner work is mandatory," says Morgan K. "Find an ethical non-monogamy community, get a mentor or coach, see a therapist if one is accessible to you. Even the most well-adjusted people can feel destabilized at first because it's hard work to design a new relationship structure from scratch. This is radical, emotional work that may be overwhelming without support."
To get you started on your quest, here are some of my personal suggestions:
- r/polyamory: for real-life folks practicing ethical non-monogamy
- Instagram: diversify your feeds! Follow accounts like @shrimpteeth, @chillpolyamory, @polyamorouswhileasian, @polyamorousblackgirl or @bygabriellesmith (that's me!) for content about ethical non-monogamy
- Read a book: or, you know, a few. The most common resources are The Ethical Slut and Opening Up. I also suggest Love's Not Colorblind, for more nuanced conversations concerning people of color in ethical non-monogamy