What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Are you and your partner thinking about exploring ethical non monogamy ENM, but are unsure where to start and how to go about it? Let us first understand the monogamy definition, which is the practice of having a relationship with only one partner. In contrast, ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for various relationship styles that involve open communication and consent to engage in multiple romantic or multiple sexual partners. Ethically non-monogamous people may practice casual dating, casual sex, consensual non-monogamy, or polyamorous relationships, where they can have primary partners, a secondary partner, or additional connections. The key element is that all people involved are on the same page and respect each other's personal freedom and boundaries.

Continue reading to learn more about ethical non-monogamy, why some may choose it, a few examples of different types of ethical non-monogamy, and how to find support if this is something you want to explore further.

Exploring different relationship types can be confusing

What is ethical non-monogamy?

Ethical non monogamy, or an ENM relationship, means that the relationship is not fully monogamous and may involve having multiple sexual or romantic connections with the understanding and consent of all parties involved. This includes monogamous people exploring other relationships, as well as ethically non monogamous people seeking new connections. To practice ethical non monogamy, emotional connections, and feelings must be considered, and a mutual understanding or agreement is typically reached beforehand. Clear communication and mutual agreement are key components of ENM relationships, whether the partners are romantically involved, maintaining dynamics with a primary partner, or exploring other relationship styles.

In contrast, monogamous relationships are defined by staying with just one romantic or sexual partner for the duration of that relationship. In a monogamous 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. In such a relationship, sleeping with someone else without the consent of your partner may be considered cheating or unethical non-monogamy.

While most people in the U.S. consider themselves monogamous, it has been estimated that over one-fifth of single Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamous relationships (21.9%). This number is likely different among Americans who are married or in a committed relationship. For some people, ethical non-monogamy may be preferred for a variety of reasons.

Why some choose this relationship type

There can be many different reasons why some people may choose ethical non-monogamy, and they can be unique to each individual.

For example, below are a few common possible reasons why people may choose this relationship type:

  • Explore sexuality: Some nonmonogamous people may want to explore their sexuality while maintaining the relationship they’re in. 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 maintaining a relationship they care about.
  • Love more than one person: Some people might love more than one person at a time and thus feel they may be better suited for a non-monogamous relationship. Some people may feel they are predisposed to love two or more people romantically and might feel that they can be their truest selves with ethical non-monogamy.
  • Have variety: Some people might like having variety in their sex and romantic life, and an ethical non-monogamous relationship can allow them to do so while maintaining a healthy relationship with their partner(s). This could involve one husband, multiple wives, or two partners as long as all parties have a sense of consent and understanding.
  • Meet needs: For some people, one partner may not be able to meet all their needs, and they may find that through ethical non-monogamy they are able to find ways to meet their needs in a respectful way. These needs could be physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and more.

Types of ethical non-monogamy 

There are many different types of ethically non-monogamous relationships, though all may require clear communication and consensual agreement. While there are several common types of ethical non-monogamy, which we will detail below, people can also create ethically non-monogamous relationships that do not fall into any of these types but rather reflect their unique, mutually agreed upon rules and expectations. 

Included below are descriptions of several common types of ethical non-monogamy: 

Open relationships


Open relationships typically involve a committed relationship between two people where one or both individuals in the relationship are open to sex with other people, and both partners have agreed to this setup. Open relationships may require much communication. The status of a relationship may also change over time, such as with a couple who decides to become "open" after previously having a “closed” or monogamous relationship. However, it's important to note that open relationships are not necessarily the same as polygamy, which involves having multiple spouses.


The writer Dan Savage is typically credited for popularizing the term "monogamish,” which is when a couple is mostly monogamous but may allow 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-monogamous 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.


Put simply, swinging often means when couples come together and swap partners for sex. Swinging can happen at clubs, among friends, at swinging parties, and so on. With swinging, the rules and expectations can be decided by the couple, and often, it may involve the partners in a couple having their other sexual experiences with each other in some way.


Polyamory can mean that someone is in a relationship with multiple people at once. It can be sexual or romantic, and everyone involved may stay informed through clear communication and consent, making it fall under the ethical non-monogamy umbrella. There can be different models of polyamory, for example, it could mean a relationship between several people together, or it could involve one partner having multiple partners, but not all those partners having other partners too, as long as everyone has agreed on the terms.

Exploring different relationship types can be confusing

Relationship anarchy

According to relationship anarchists, every relationship dynamic is unique. A relationship anarchist may prioritize the rules and expectations set by the individuals involved, and they may want to break down societal norms around monogamy, heteronormativity, and marriage. A relationship anarchist may argue that our society values sexual relationships over friendships and reject this idea. Relationship anarchy may argue that we should judge the value of relationships on a case-by-case basis, independent of sex. 


This relationship structure involves multiple people within the relationship exploring sex and/or romance with each other, and not with others outside of their relationship. In this relationship style, there typically is not a “primary” relationship, as all the people in the relationship are equally committed to each other.


Polygamy involves being married to more than one person at the same time. Polygamy is mentioned in many religious texts, and some people practice it today. With polygamy, one person has multiple spouses at the same time. Polygamy is not legal in the United States.

Relationship support through online therapy

Navigating any relationship can come with challenges, and if you are exploring the possibility of ethical non-monogamy, you may consider discussing some of your thoughts and concerns with a trained professional in personal practice. A licensed therapist can help you work through your own thoughts and preferences as an individual, or even work with you and your partner on your relationship concerns together. 

Exploring ethical non-monogamy may feel very personal and difficult to discuss at times since it is not as common as monogamy, so finding a place where you feel comfortable to open up may help. With online therapy through BetterHelp for individuals or through Regain for couples, you can speak with a therapist from wherever you are most comfortable and have an internet connection, including the comfort of your own home. 

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy for couples. For instance, one such study explored the efficacy of a behavioral couple’s therapy program conducted through videoconferencing. The study found that couples who took part in this program showed improvements in relationship satisfaction and mental health, and the researchers concluded that “the study provides evidence for couples therapy via videoconferencing as a viable alternative to face-to-face interventions.” 

Below, read on for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals who have sought help for relationship concerns: 

Betterhelp therapist reviews

"Celine is wonderful and has been instrumental in helping me through some difficult times with my relationships … Her insights always give me another angle to look at things from, which is excellent coming from a person who prides themselves on being able to see all sides of things. I can't say enough great things!"

Dr. Celine Medlock, online therapist at BetterHelp lmft

"A year ago I was experiencing difficulties in my relationship, which highly affected my psychological state and interfered with my work. At one point, I decided to try BetterHelp.com. My counselor Dr. Brewer helped me to see some things I couldn't on my own and encouraged me to prioritize myself. It was a huge help for me at that point, which led to the decisions I am happy about."

review of Dr. April Brewer, online therapist at BetterHelp dbh lpc


There are many different types of ethically non-monogamous relationships, but all entail clear communication and agreement between the individuals involved. Engaging in an ethically non-monogamous relationship can be preferable for some people for a variety of reasons. If you are interested in exploring ENM relationships or have concerns about your relationship, online counselors are here to help. A trained professional can help you navigate communication, boundaries, and any strong emotions that arise.

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