What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Updated November 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Are you and your partner thinking about opening your love and looking into ethical non-exclusive relationships, but are unsure about where to start and how to do it right? How do you comfortably discuss the proposition of polygamy as a non-issue?

Continue reading to learn how these non-exclusive relationships can work for you and your partner and to become familiar with the many different types of non-monogamy. Therapy, working with an online therapist, or talking with a sex educator can also help you and your partner find what works best for you and to communicate effectively.

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Ethical Non-Monogamy

Monogamous relationships are defined by staying with just one romantic or sexual partner for the duration of that relationship. If you begin relations with another person during that time without consent from all partners, this could be a breach of the relationship's understanding, and you may no longer be considered exclusive. Sleeping with someone else without the consent of your partner may be considered cheating or unethical non monogamy.

Therefore, ethical non-monogamy, or an ENM relationship, means having multiple sex partners or romantic relationships with the understanding and consent of all parties involve. It is worth noting that to be ethical, a mutual understanding or agreement must be reached beforehand.

Here are some examples we'll cover in more detail later to gain a better understanding of consensual non monogamy:

  • Polygamy
  • Open relationships
  • Swinging
  • Monogamish
  • Polyamory
  • Relationship anarchy

Ethical non-monogamy, or having multiple partners, is not for everyone. While most people in the U.S. consider themselves monogamous, it's estimated that over one-fifth of single Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy relationships (21.9%). Note that we said “single” Americans, as the number is likely different among Americans who are married or in a committed relationship.

Sometimes, those interested in multiple partners may lack social support or understanding. It may be difficult to breach the topic with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. When couples make the consensual decision to embark on a journey that is not traditional, it can be challenging. However, with support from a counselor and from each other, it is entirely possible to make ENM work for everyone involved.

Why Some Choose This Relationship Type

Here are some of the more common reasons why people may decide to not practice monogamy:

  • Some want to explore their sexuality. To some people, one partner at a time may make them feel like they can't explore their sexuality to the fullest. Ethical non-monogamy may allow them to explore their sexuality while still being fully emotionally committed to one person.
  • Some people might love more than one person at a time and thus feel they may be better suited for a polyamorous relationship. Polyamorous people may feel they are predisposed to romantically love two or more people and might feel that they can be their truest selves with non-monogamy.
  • Some people in relationships may believe monogamous relationships can be the product of jealous or possessive feelings. Non-monogamy may involve letting go of these feelings to experience more love. Those same people may see being fully monogamous as stifling their personal freedom and autonomy.
  • Some people might like having variety in their sex life, and a non-monogamous relationship can allow them to do so without losing their partner(s).
  • One partner may not be able to meet all the needs of the other partner. In some cases, a partner may not be in a position physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally to have sex. For example, one person may have a specific kink that the other person is not comfortable fulfilling. In many cases, an open relationship may allow these desires to be fulfilled by a different person. One may have consensual sexual encounters that can fulfil these needs with other partners without breaking trust with a primary partner.

Definition And Types

When people think of ethically non monogamous relationship structures, they may not associate them with rules. But to be successful, you and your partner might decide to agree to a contract or a set of rules.

This contract might outline what does and does not count as infidelity, and both should be equally on board. In ethically non monogamous relationships, it can be important to follow the contract- if not, resentment may develop.

It might take effort, patience, compromise, honesty, and caring to have true intimacy and unity. 

Couples involved in ENM might agree on how much to reveal about the “other” people.

There are many different types of non-monogamous relationships, and all may require communication and consensual agreement:

Open Relationships

Open relationships are when at least one person in a committed relationship is open to sex with other people. Open relationships may require much communication. The status of an open relationship may also change over time, such as a couple who decides to open up their relationship later in life after previously being a “closed” or “exclusive” relationship.

Monogamish

Dan Savage is typically credited for popularizing the term "monogamish". Monogamish is when a couple is mostly monogamous but allows the occasional sexual relationship with others. This phrase implies that there may be a primary relationship, but that the individuals can have other partners occasionally. Like other similar ethical non-monogamy relationships, there may be rules the participants must follow. These rules can determine things such as the frequency of partners, frequency of meetups, and types of sexual activities. Ultimately, it's up to the couple to decide.

Swinging

Put simply, swinging is when couples exchange partners. Swinging can happen at clubs, among friends, at swinging parties, and so on. Partners may give each other the ability to switch partners with the other gender or same gender in order to have more sexual liberty.

Polyamory

Polyamory is when someone is in a relationship with multiple people at once. It can be sexual or romantic, and everyone involved in the polyamory circle may stay informed through communication, making it fall under the ethical non-monogamy umbrella. Polyamory is typically different from polygamy, as all the people in the polyamorous relationship are not married. 

Relationship Anarchy

Relationship anarchists normally want to end the barrier between sexual and romantic relationships. A relationship anarchist may argue that our society can value sexual relationships over friendships. Relationship anarchy argues that we should judge the value of relationships on a case-by-case basis, independent of sex.

According to relationship anarchists, every relationship dynamic is unique and evolves with time. A relationship anarchist may believe in the abundance of love and emotional connections, and that people can have as many relationships as they want. They also may want to break down societal norms around monogamy, heteronormativity, and marriage.

Polyfidelity

This relationship structure involves multiple people within the relationship exploring sex with each other (and not with others outside of their relationship). In this relationship style, the parties involved may also be romantically involved or have an emotional connection with only one another, and there typically is not a “primary” relationship, as all the people in the couple are equally committed to each other.

Polygamy

To be considered a polygamist, you would marry more than one person. Polygamy is mentioned in many religious texts, and some people still practice it.

Polyandry & Polygyny

Another form of non-monogamous relationships is polyandry and polygamy. Polyandry involves a wife having multiple husbands, whereas polygyny involves a husband having multiple wives.

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Takeaway

Monogamy may not be the only relationship option for you.

Engaging in an ENM relationship is not only possible, but it can also be rewarding for some couples. Open, honest communication and establishing boundaries will guide your way, and online counselors are here to help light the path. If you are interested in exploring non monogamy in your current relationship, a sex educator who understands different ENM relationships can help you navigate communication, boundaries, and any strong emotions that arise.

Studies show that 95% of couples who engage in couples counseling consider it helpful. 

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