What is an Ethical Non-Monogamy Relationship?

Rita

Last Updated: July 8, 2024

Relationship Advice

Curious about the term that’s recently been on everyone’s lips—or maybe just on their minds? Ethical non-monogamy is a concept that has been around for millennia, but seems to be having a moment in today’s dating culture.

Learn more about this alternative to traditional monogamy, including myths, potential benefits, and some tips about trying it out for yourself.

Defining Ethical Non-Monogamy

So, what is ethical non-monogamy (ENM)?

The simplest way to understand the term is in contrast to monogamy, which is a romantic relationship between two partners. In ethical non-monogamy, partners are invited to engage in one or more romantic or sexual relationships. There are multiple variations on ENM which allow for each person to explore a style of non-monogamy that works best for them.

One of the most important aspects of ENM is consent. All parties involved must be committed to communicating openly and freely about what they need in the relationship. That way, everyone can agree about the relationship dynamics. In other words, each ENM group sets guidelines and expectations that will keep everyone satisfied and safe. There are no hard-and-fast rules that dictate what an ENM relationship should look like. Instead, each one will be unique and personal to the needs of the members in the relationship.

The emphasis on consent is what differentiates ethical non-monogamy from cheating. Cheating can occur within an ENM structure, but only when there’s been a breach of the agreement. As we’ll discuss more in detail, this is an important distinction that many people get wrong, thinking that ENM is just a way for someone to “ethically” cheat on their partner. In contrast, ENM is ethical because everyone in the relationship is aware and accepting (even encouraging) of their partner’s actions.

Because consent can be a tricky concept, it’s worth noting that truly ethical NM isn’t always possible. If there is a significant power difference between partners, because of money, age, or access to resources, the person with less power may feel compelled to agree to terms that don’t actually align with their needs or desires. It’s extremely important for all parties to consider and navigate these threats to consent.

Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy

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Because ENM is all about creating the kind of relationship structure that works for everyone involved, you can imagine that there are many different styles! Here are a few of the most common:

Polyamory

Polyamory comes from the Latin root “poly” meaning many and “amory” meaning love. And that’s what this style of ENM is all about! People within this structure are free to pursue multiple relationships at the same time, and there are even different ways of structuring this within the definition of Polyamory.

One person, for instance, may have two or more long-term committed romantic relationships, all of whom live in the same home. Or, partners within a polyamorous relationship may be open to pursuing strictly sexual encounters with people outside of the couple. Because Polyamory is an umbrella term, people within this community are able to define what kinds of relationships they’re comfortable with.

Primary/Secondary Model

In a primary/secondary model of polyamory, there is one “main” couple who then branch out to connect with people outside of the relationship. This creates a kind of hierarchy, with the original partnership being in the center and other relationships, whether casual or long-term, orbiting around the main couple.

In a primary/secondary model, the central partnership may engage in shared romantic or sexual relationships with the same people. Or, they may keep their extra-relationship explorations separate from one another.

Relationship Anarchy

Relationship anarchy isn’t strictly a form of ENM. However, many people within the community find its belief system helpful in creating ethically open relationships. The idea is to relinquish all preconceived ideas about how a relationship should look and create relationships that are purely built on the needs and desires of the individuals involved. It’s also committed to getting away from relationship hierarchies that hold romantic relationships above platonic couplings. In other words, relationship anarchy holds friendships, romantic relationships, and sexual partnerships all at the same value, allowing them to develop without pressure or expectation.

Monogamish

Monogamish is a term used to describe open relationships that are mostly monogamous. One or both partners within the original coupling may explore romantic or sexual connections outside of the relationship. But the idea is that the main couple is first and foremost committed to each other.

Monogamish couples typically have set guidelines on how many partners outside of the relationship are allowed, when these encounters can take place, and how to prioritize the main relationship. Monogamish ENMs differ from primary/secondary polyamory in terms of the frequency of encounters, with monogamish couples being mostly monogamous with the occasional branching out.

Historical and Cultural Context

Although ethical non-monogamy may be having a moment now, the fact is, this style of relationship has been around for a very long time! Anthropologists such as Match’s Chief Science Advisor, Helen Fisher, point out that polyamory was the norm in our species’s history for millennia. It wasn’t until more recent changes within homosapien culture that we moved towards strict monogamy. A change, she points out, that is truly extraordinary compared to the habits of the animal kingdom at large.

So, why does ENM seem more popular today than ever before? Part of the resurgence, experts say, is due to cultural shifts within the last few decades.

Nowadays, it’s much more common for women especially to be self-autonomous and independent thanks to advances in job opportunities, education, and the ability to manage their own finances and inheritance. This may contribute to women feeling more empowered to explore sexual and alternative romantic experiences. Put another way, because such experiences were not available to them a few generations ago due to their vulnerable status in society, consensual non-monogamy was much less common.

The rise in visibility of the queer community may also be playing a big role in making ENM more mainstream. Wider acceptance of LGBTQ+ lifestyles has certainly paved the way for people to feel more comfortable exploring their sexuality.

As society moves away from traditional gender roles and marriage, it makes sense that we’re seeing a range of alternative relationship styles pop up. From ethical non-monogamy to sugaring to novel forms of co-parenting, people nowadays are free to choose the kind of romantic, familial, or sexual relationships that bring them the most satisfaction. As we mentioned, these types of interactions have existed for thousands of years, but they were often hidden from view or discouraged.

Prevalence and Popularity

Those who are interested in exploring ENM may feel like they’re outliers in society. But the truth is, this style of dating is so much more popular than most people realize!

According to a study published just this year by Match Singles, over 30% of the participants had explored ethical non-monogamy. An earlier study from 2022 found that 43% of millennials in the US said that even if they weren’t currently in an open partnership, they viewed ethical non-monogamy as an ideal relationship style. Younger generations are also interested in the concept! A survey conducted by the sex toy brand Lelu found that 28% of folks in this age group would consider pursuing an open relationship.

Fascinatingly, ethical non-monogamy doesn’t just belong to one sector of the population. A 2021 study found that people who engage in ENM identify themselves as Republicans, Democrats, low-income, wealthy, white, Black, Midwesterners, west coasters, east coasters, and more. In fact, the only groups that are represented at a higher rate in the ENM community are men and sexual minorities (such as members of the LGBTQ community.)

All of this is to say that contrary to popular belief, ethical non-monogamy is not rare and is not practiced by only one type of person. People from all walks of life have shown interest and have even engaged in this dating style. And because open relationships have become more mainstream over the last few years, it would be no surprise to see even higher percentages of the population exploring ethical non-monogamy for themselves.

Psychological and Relationship Benefits

Many people wonder whether being non-monogamous can truly have psychological benefits or increase satisfaction in relationships. Luckily, this topic has also been on the minds of researchers.

A study from 2021 found that when compared to monogamous couples, people engaged in polyamorous relationships or other forms of ENM show similar levels of psychological wellness, passionate love, attachment to their partner, and overall relationship quality. ENM participants also report similar levels of commitment and satisfaction as their monogamous counterparts.

In addition, people with experience in ethically non-monogamous relationships share that there are many personal benefits of exploring their sexuality and romantic love in this way. A survey of people within the ENM community found that 38% say that they are more in tune with their relationship needs and wants because of their experience in polyamory. 29% say that they are more emotionally mature after engaging in ENM.

And there may be some benefits in terms of physical intimacy as well! In the same survey, 30% of participants reported that they have become more open to new sexual experiences. And 27% said that they had more frequent sex when in a polyamorous relationship. Given the many psychological benefits of sex, including increases in dopamine and oxytocin, lower cortisol levels, and better mood regulation, ENM might be just the thing to make some people happier and healthier!

Let’s also take a look at some of the benefits of ethical non-monogamy in relationships. Contrary to popular belief that opening up a relationship is destined to make things worse, there are actually some compelling reasons why the opposite might be true.

On the one hand, being in multiple relationships can give you access to a more extensive support system. If, for instance, your partner is too busy with their own responsibilities to be the listening ear you need, another partner may be willing to fill that need for you.

Exploring relationships with other people can also make life more exciting and novel, by exposing you to new experiences and perspectives. This can make your relationships more fulfilling and interesting.

Finally, because communication is so important in ENM, your relationships will benefit from you honing this skill. After all, the more practice you get meeting new partners and expressing your needs and boundaries, the more your existing relationships will benefit from your openness and clarity.

Common Challenges in Ethical Non-Monogamy

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Although polyamory, relationship anarchy, and other forms of ethical non-monogamy can offer many benefits, it’s important to familiarize yourself with some of the potential challenges of this lifestyle. Here are a few things to prepare for if you’re considering pursuing an open relationship:

Jealousy and Insecurity

Often people are worried about trying ethical non-monogamy because they consider themselves to be too jealous or insecure. The reality is, that these emotions do exist in ENM, and what’s important is that each partner is able to acknowledge and resolve these feelings with their partner when—not if— they come up.

A few ways to navigate these difficult feelings could include individual or couple’s therapy, boundaries that keep relationships separate, validation of jealousy and insecurity as a normal part of the human experience, and quality time that makes each partner feel valued.

Communication and Boundaries

Someone who is not accustomed to communicating their needs, emotions, and desires will have a steep learning curve as they begin their journey with ethical non-monogamy. Here are a few ways to overcome this challenge if communication is not your strong suit:

  • Get clear about what kind of open relationship you want
  • Use “I” statements when discussing your wants and needs. For instance, you might tell your partner, “I would feel more secure if we could schedule quality alone time” instead of saying, “you need to spend more time with me.”
  • Give your partner the space to fully express themselves before jumping in with your thoughts
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about your fears, jealousy, insecurities, and other difficult topics.
  • Learn to sit with feedback from your partner that is hard to hear instead of becoming defensive
  • Take breaks when you feel yourself becoming upset

Time and Resource Allowance

Another challenge of being in multiple relationships is the logistics! Here are a few ways that people in ENM need to organize their time and resources in order to keep more than one partner satisfied:

  • Planning quality time with each partner
  • Paying for experiences or gifts for birthdays, special occasions, anniversaries, and more
  • Making sure that each partner receives the attention and care that they need to be satisfied in the relationship
  • Travel logistics, if partners live in separate homes
  • Keeping track of multiple schedules
  • Keeping track of important details such as family members, friends, and colleagues of significant others

Stigma and Judgement

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that on top of the challenges you may face within your relationships, you’ll also need to be ready to face stigma from people outside of the community.

Indeed, even though polyamory is becoming more accepted, only 1 in 7 people outside of the ENM community respect this kind of lifestyle. Additionally, people within the community report that they feel that they cannot reach out to their family or even medical professionals for help because of the stigma around the ENM lifestyle. Because polyamory is still widely viewed as something pathological, people who engage in this kind of relationship will need to be highly resilient and resistant to outside criticism.

Misconceptions and Myths about ENM

Any lifestyle that is outside of the norm tends to be met with suspicion and plenty of misunderstanding. Those within the community are likely to have confronted one or more of the following myths around ENM:

  • Ethical non-monogamy is just cheating. As we mentioned earlier, ENM differs from cheating in that all parties are aware and in agreement about inviting multiple partners into the relationship.
  • ENM is immoral. There is a set of morals within the ENM community that are meant to keep people from feeling hurt, used, or betrayed. These morals include honesty, consent, respect, safety, generosity, selflessness, and more.
  • People in open relationships have commitment issues. There’s a common misconception that because people in the ENM community don’t want to commit to just one person, they have problems with commitment in general! This is not the case. Instead, although they may explore short-term connections with new partners, they are also likely to develop strong, long-term bonds with one or more people.
  • ENM is unhygienic. The idea of sex itself as unhygienic is an outdated idea that still sometimes clings to popular belief. The truth is, that people in an open relationship tend to take sexual hygiene and protection very seriously as a way to respect their partners.
  • People in open relationships just want to have more sex. While it’s true that people in the ENM community tend to have more sex, that’s not the main draw for many people in open relationships. They may be drawn to the excitement of dating, companionship, or the extra support that comes with additional partners.
  • Polyamory is unnatural. As we mentioned earlier, having multiple partners is a given in the natural world! There is no scientific evidence that humans are naturally inclined to monogamy. Instead, our leaning towards monogamy comes from cultural influence.

Legal and Social Considerations

Because our legal and social systems are built on a framework of monogamy, many people thinking of an ENM lifestyle should be aware of how that will affect them. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Custody. One of the biggest topics in ethical non-monogamy is that of child custody. Consider, for instance, the legal implications of a child custody case in which the child has been raised by a throuple. Current law practices revolve around a two-parent system, which can make such custody battles very complicated.
  • Employment. When it comes to employment, an ENM lifestyle can actually be a positive thing! With more people in the picture who can work, some open family units find it easier to create financial stability and manage childcare. That being said, an employer who isn’t open to the idea of ENM may be less likely to hire someone from this community, which can be a barrier to employment.
  • Societal acceptance. Even though society is becoming more aware of lifestyles outside of monogamy, people in the ENM community are still marginalized. They are not likely to be represented in government or have access to resources that could be beneficial to them.
  • Taxes. As in the case of child custody, tax law hasn’t caught up with modern relationships. For instance, only married people can file their taxes jointly, which excludes people in open relationships.
  • Healthcare. People with multiple partners will need to think carefully about healthcare implications such as who will be their emergency contact, who will be responsible for their care in case they are incapacitated, and more.
  • Property and inheritance. Because open relationships are not legally recognized, disputes about property and inheritance can also be tricky. People with ENM relationships may want to spend more time ironing out the details of joint ownership of property and creating legal wills that reflect their lifestyle.

As you can see, there are many ways that our current system poses challenges for people in open relationships. The ENM community is active in advocating for more inclusive policies in the legal system and healthcare systems.

How to Practice Ethical Non-Monogamy

Now that we’ve taken such a deep dive into ethical non-monogamy, you might be ready to try it for yourself! There are a few things that folks in the community would recommend for people getting started with this lifestyle:

Open and honest communication

It’s normal to feel a bit shy and uncomfortable when starting out on your ENM journey. But, open and honest conversations between partners are key to creating the kind of relationship that will be most satisfying to everyone involved.

Remember that you can be a better communicator if you’ve put careful thought into what you want and need in an open relationship! If you’re not sure, take some time for self-reflection before talking to your partner.

Boundary and expectation setting

A common misconception around open relationships is that they’re a free-for-all with no structure or rules. That’s not the case! The most successful open relationships have clear boundaries, such as:

  • How many partners are allowed at a time
  • Allocation of quality time
  • How much (or little) each partner will know about the other relationships
  • If there is a main relationship, the nature of relationships outside of the main relationship, i.e. whether they should be strictly sexual or if a romantic connection is allowed

Because every couple is unique, these boundaries and expectations will look different. But, it’s important to have clearly set guidelines.

Check-ins and adjustments

No one is an expert in ethical non-monogamy from the beginning. That’s why having regular check-ins can be beneficial in maintaining happy and healthy relationships.

This can be a time to bring up tricky subjects like jealousy, resentment, and whether anyone is feeling neglected. Remember that the goal here isn’t to blame or fight, but rather to adjust the relationship as needed to make everyone feel satisfied with the terms of the open relationship.

Future of Ethical Non-Monogamy

There’s no denying that ethical non-monogamy is on the rise. And that’s great news for anyone who is interested in exploring monogamy alternatives or who already practices a form of polyamory. In particular, it’s likely that the following changes are likely to characterize the future of ENM:

  • More visibility. The more that people talk about ethical non-monogamy, the more mainstream it will become.
  • More understanding. With more visibility comes a better understanding of ethical non-monogamy!
  • More representation in government. As the community overcomes and challenges stigma, it will be more likely for individuals within the community to hold elected positions in office and be able to influence policy.
  • More data. In this article, we’ve highlighted many published studies looking into the benefits and potential challenges of ethical non-monogamy. But, more up-to-date data is always helpful. The Poly Pages Research Hub is a website listing currently open surveys and research studies looking for people in the ENM community, which is a great way for current members of open relationships to share their experiences.
  • Changes in the legal system to account for ENM relationships. Organizations like the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition are working hard to provide people within the community with legal recognition and representation.
  • Lower stigma in healthcare. Getting rid of the stigma in both mental healthcare and medical healthcare will mean that people in ENM are able to enjoy more reliable support systems.

Conclusion

Although ethical non-monogamy has been around for centuries, it’s having a recent resurgence that has people all over the world wondering: is this the lifestyle for me?

In this article, we’ve covered everything from types of ENM relationships, why they’re becoming more popular today, how they might benefit your lifestyle, and what the future looks like for the community. We’ve also shared a few recommendations for getting started if you are curious about trying an ENM relationship for yourself.

All that’s left is for you to decide whether you’d like to try testing the waters of your own open relationship!

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