Many people desire to find a lifelong partner with whom they will share a home and future. In most cases, this desire involves finding one partner and remaining emotionally and sexually exclusive with them through the relationship.
While this may be the norm, the reality is that not everyone is interested in an entirely monogamous relationship. Ethical non-monogamy has emerged as an alternative to traditional monogamous relationships.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy describes the practice in which people step outside of their primary relationship for sex or romance. Still, instead of this behavior occurring in the form of lying or cheating, it occurs with consent from the primary partner.
It is sometimes referred to as consensual non-monogamy. All of those involved in the relationship (or relationships) are aware of the non-monogamous relationship, and they may even embrace it.
Being in a relationship with more than one person may not be the rule, but growing in popularity does seem to be growing.
A recent study with college students found that while 78.7 percent were unwilling to participate in an ethically non-monogamous relationship, 12.9 percent were willing to do so, and 8.4 percent were open to the idea.
A larger proportion of men than women were willing to be in an ENM relationship, and those who endorsed this type of relationship tended to reject monogamy as the norm.
For those who are willing to engage in an ENM relationship, or at least open to the idea, it is important to understand that there are various types of non-monogamy.
For instance, there are both hierarchical and non-hierarchical ENM relationships and standard ethical non-monogamy vs. polyamory relationships.
In addition, some people may differentiate between simple ethical non-monogamy vs. an open relationship.
Ethical non-monogamy vs polyamory
Ethical non-monogamy is generally an umbrella term encompassing all forms of having more than one sexual or romantic partner. The difference with ethical non-monogamy vs. polyamory is that polyamory involves being openly involved in multiple relationships at once.
For example, someone may be married to multiple people or dating multiple people at once, and everyone involved is aware of the situation.
That being said, not everyone who practices ENM is open to having more than one partner with whom they are in a romantic relationship. For instance, some people engage in a more casual form of ENM, in which they simply step outside the relationship for sex with others from time to time.
This may be in the form of “swinging.” The couple swaps partners with another couple, or cuckolding, where one partner has sex with someone else while the other watches.
A couple may also have “threesomes” in which they bring in a third person to join their sexual encounters, whether frequently or only every so often.
An open relationship describes a situation in which people in a relationship are open to sexual or romantic relationships with others. Open relationships typically describe those in which partners are currently open to having sex with others.
The difference with a polyamorous vs. open relationship is that polyamory usually involves a romantic connection to multiple partners.
Polyamory and open relationships can also be characterized by hierarchy. For instance, in a hierarchical consensual non-monogamous relationship, two people are each other’s “primary partner,” whereas the couple may have “secondary partners” outside the relationship.
For example, two people may be married and in a long-term relationship that they prioritize while also having a boyfriend or girlfriend, who is the secondary partner.
If you are unsure whether or not polyamory is for you, watch this video.
Other types of ethical non-monogamy
Some other forms of ethical non-monogamy includes:
Polyfidelity This term describes a relationship involving three or more people, all of whom are equal within the relationship, who have sexual or romantic involvement only with those in the group, but not with others. All three people in the group may be dating each other, or there may be one person who has relationships with two other people, both of whom are equal.
Casual sex This involves one person having casual sex with multiple partners at once, and all the partners know they are not the person’s only sexual partner.
Monogamish This is a term that refers to relationships in which a couple is typically monogamous but occasionally involves other people in their sex life.
As is demonstrated in the above types of relationships, the difference between a monogamous vs. non-monogamous relationship in ENM relationships is that ENM relationships are simply those in which a couple does not follow the traditional expectations of monogamy, in which they are exclusive with each other.
Whereas monogamous relationships require two people to be sexually and romantically involved solely with each other, ENM involves variations in which people have multiple partners at once. What makes these relationships ethical is that both partners are aware of the arrangement and consent to it.
Now that you know the answer to “What is a non-monogamous relationship?” you may be wondering why people choose these relationships. The truth is that there are several reasons that people may pursue a non-monogamous relationship.
For example, some people may practice consensual non-monogamy because they view this as being part of their sexual orientation, or it may simply be a lifestyle they prefer.
Some others reasons for opting non-monogamous relationship may be:
They reject monogamy
One of the main reasons people enter an ethically non-monogamous relationship, according to research, is that they reject monogamy.
They may want to experience various types of relationships or may not be ready to commit to a monogamous relationship.
To please their partner
Some people may also choose an ENM relationship simply to please their partner.
For instance, they may be in love with someone who desires to have a relationship with more than one person, and they agree to make their partner happy or improve the relationship.
In addition, some people may feel that openly engaging in sex outside of the primary relationship dissolves their feelings of jealousy and ultimately improves the relationship.
Still, others may feel that they are destined to love more than one person at a time, or they may have sexual needs their primary partner cannot fulfill, so the couple agrees for one person to step outside the relationship just to fulfill sexual desires.
There are many reasons that a person may choose an ENM relationship, but what matters most is that both partners are on the same page. Research on the effects of having multiple partners shows that having sex outside of a committed relationship increases relationship satisfaction, so long as both partners consent to it.
Practicing consensual non-monogamy means engaging in some sort of relationship in which you have more than one sexual or romantic partner at some point.
This can range from occasionally having a threesome with your partner and someone else, all the way to having a polyamorous relationship in which one or both of you has multiple long-term romantic partners.
Practicing consensual non-monogamy also means that you and your partner have a conversation and communicate clearly about consensual non-monogamyrules. Both partners must consent to the arrangement and be open about their needs, desires, and plans.
The rules can vary from couple to couple. For instance, some partners may have a rule that they only engage in sex with others when both members of the couple are present.
Others may create rules that they are not permitted to communicate with sexual partners outside of the context of sexual hookups.
For instance, after a threesome, partners may create a rule that they are not permitted to text with someone they’ve hooked up with or develop any sort of emotional attachment.
How to know if ethical non-monogamy is right for you
There are some questions to ask yourself before determining if ENM is right for you. For instance, you must consider if you are capable of loving more than one person.
In addition, you must ask yourself if this is something you truly want and whether you will view additional partners as adding to, rather than taking away from your relationship.
Suppose you need monogamy to feel safe or simply cannot bear the idea of your significant other dating or having sex with other people. In that case, consensual non-monogamy is probably not the right choice for you.
On the other hand, if being with one person for the rest of your life seems like a sacrifice, you might enjoy ENM.
Also, keep in mind that there are moral implications associated with monogamy vs polyamory. For instance, some religious communities are inherently opposed to ENM relationships. If your religious beliefs conflict with non-monogamy, this is probably not a suitable relationship style for you.
You must also be prepared to handle judgment from others, who may have a stigmatized view of consensual non-monogamy. If you are unable to handle harsh judgment, an ENM relationship may be challenging for you.
Introducing ethical non-monogamy to an existing relationship
If you are interested in introducing consensual non-monogamy into your current partnership, it is crucial to have an open, honest conversation with your partner.
Remember that the difference between ethical non-monogamy vs. cheating is that there is no element of secrecy or lying in an ENM relationship.
Once you are in an established relationship and think you might like to try consensual non-monogamy, sit down with your partner and explain your desires.
Ensure that you are comfortable sharing your thoughts and what you want with your partner, and also take time to listen to how they feel about the situation.
Explore what your partner is comfortable with, as well as any fears that they may have. Be prepared because an ENM relationship may create feelings of jealousy and insecurity for one or both of you.
This is why honesty is critical. You should never go behind your partner’s back to explore other partners, and you must agree on what is and is not acceptable before pursuing ENM.
The two of you should have rules in place, and each of you should have a right to “veto” a situation if you aren’t comfortable with it.
How to pursue ethical non-monogamy while single
Suppose you’re interested in pursuing consensual non-monogamy while single, you have the option to casually date, so long as you inform new partners that you are dating multiple people.
You may also consider reading some books on the topic or joining an online dating service or polyamory community.
Keep in mind that if you enter an existing relationship as a third member of the partnership or as a secondary partner to someone within the relationship, you must respect the primary or original relationship.
The bottom line
Consensual non-monogamy can refer to a variety of arrangements within a relationship.
For some, it may involve the occasional threesome with another person. In contrast, other couples may consent to their significant other openly dating and forming romantic and emotional attachments with other people.
Regardless of the specific relationship, what ENM relationships have in common is that they are a deviation from the standard monogamous relationship in which two people are sexually, romantically, and emotionally exclusive.
These relationships aren’t for everyone, but for those who want to practice having more than one partner, they must be open and honest with their primary partner and each partner involved about their relationship status and sexual and romantic activities.
If honesty is lacking or dating occurs behind one partner’s back, the arrangement is no longer ethical and crosses into the territory of infidelity.
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Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.