There are two ways of practicing non-monogamy: the nonconsensual kind, which is also known as cheating, and the consensual kind, which is known as consensual or ethical non-monogamy. This latter kind has risen in popularity dramatically in recent years. One 2017 study found 1 in 5 people has been in some form of ethically non-monogamous relationship before. Here's what this type of relationship is all about and how people navigate it.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy is an approach to relationships wherein people can have more than one romantic and sexual partner at a time, and everybody involved is aware and enthusiastically consents to the dynamic. Polyamory, open relationships, and swinging are all forms of ethically non-monogamous relationships, which are also referred to as consensually non-monogamous relationships.
"When explaining ethical or consensual non-monogamy to my clients, my go-to is the three C's: communication, consideration, and of course, consent," psychotherapist Cheyenne Taylor, LMSW, explains to mbg. "Ethical non-monogamy is based on the concept of using socially acceptable guidelines and ethically motivated tools to cultivate a relationship built on the foundation of non-monogamy. At its core, though, ENM means not cheating or acting without the consent of your partner."
According to psychotherapist Rachel Wright, M.A., some people view non-monogamy as a lifestyle choice, whereas others experience it as an orientation or intrinsic part of their identity.
"I experience polyamory the way I experience my bisexuality and queerness—as an orientation," she tells mbg. "Both as a mental health professional and as a person in the polyam community, I think there is a mix of people, some finding it more of a lifestyle choice and some find that, like me, it would be more of a choice not to."
What it means to practice ethical non-monogamy:
1. You and your partner(s) agree on what you want and don't want.
There are no set "rules" when it comes to ethical non-monogamy, according to Wright. Rather, the people involved in a relationship will make agreements about what the relationship dynamic will look like.
"Rules inherently imply that one person can make one and the other follows, and that is not what two (or more) people in a healthy non-monogamous relationship do," she explains. "Agreements imply that both (or all) people are agreeing to something, making it an ethical and collaborative decision."
Partners can decide if they want their relationship to be committed, casual, long term, short term, romantic, sexual, or any combination of these things. They mutually agree on what types of connections they'll pursue and not pursue, both with each other and with others, and they can set any parameters or expectations they'd like to make all parties feel comfortable.
"Every relationship has its own agreements, and that's really up to each relationship to figure out," Wright says. For example, "Some have specific things around STIs because of preexisting conditions, while others may have agreements around emotional involvements and where/how you interact with your non-live-in partner."
2. Honesty is vital.
Honesty and transparency are the bedrock of ethical non-monogamy, says Taylor.
"Being clear about your boundaries, limits, and expectations is crucial when working to facilitate a healthy and sustainable relationship," she explains. "I typically recommend using frequent and sometimes scheduled check-ins as a way to put aside time to discuss feelings about the relationship, any hang-ups or issues that need adjusting, and how each person is feeling on an authentic and honest level."
People practicing ethical non-monogamy in relationships must become comfortable with talking openly about their feelings, needs, and desires, as well as being attentive to other people's. Active listening and empathy are necessary, Taylor says. "Taking the time to reflect on and communicate your biases, insecurities, and fears around ENM before you transition into this kind of dynamic is critical."
2. You need to care about your partners' feelings.
Being non-monogamous does not mean you get to care less about anyone's feelings and well-being. On the contrary, ethical non-monogamy necessitates a lot of care and empathy. Taylor notes that many of the same basic ethical considerations from monogamy still apply to non-monogamy: no lying to each other, no pressuring each other into things one person doesn't really want, and no going behind each other's backs.
"Making decisions that might have a direct or inadvertent impact on your partner/partners without consulting with them or gaining their consent first is not encouraged," Taylor adds.
4. You can still have a primary partner while practicing ethical non-monogamy.
Some non-monogamous people still choose to have one "primary" partner. This type of ethical non-monogamy is known as a hierarchal relationship.
"Hierarchical dynamics consist of partners who (for a number of reasons) prioritize time, commitment, space, etc., with certain partners over others," Taylor explains. "For example, someone may prioritize their spouse over their lover, and in this case, the spouse would be a primary partner and the lover would be a secondary partner."
5. You can also choose to have non-hierarchal relationships.
Some people practicing ethical non-monogamy don't have or want a primary partner. Instead, all their partners may be considered equally important or important in different ways. "In non-hierarchical dynamics, relationships are not necessarily categorized based on level of importance or priority," Taylor explains.
For example, a person might have many casual partners, none of whom you consider a "committed" life partner. Or, a person might have two partners who they're equally committed to. Some people might have a group of people where everyone is dating one another—for example, a triad is a relationship with three people who are all romantically involved with one another, or a quad is a group of four people who are all romantically involved with one another.
6. There will be ups and downs.
"I think it's important to note that relationships are relationships are relationships," Wright says. "What I mean by that is, human connection is human connection, and whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, they all have the potential for experiencing challenges, conflict, joy, pain, and every other emotion under the sun."
She says it's common for people to experience all sorts of positive and negative emotions in an ethically non-monogamous relationship, including "jealousy, insecurity, fear, worry, doubt, excitement, increased libido, deepened connection with 'original' partner, autonomy, freedom, conscious boundaries, conscious communication, abundant gratitude, and compersion!"
7. Yes, practicing ethical non-monogamy you'll likely be jealous sometimes.
"There is a common misconception that people who agree to enter ENM relationships don't experience jealousy. This is simply not true," Taylor says. "Jealousy happens. This is why communication and honesty are key."
Over time, people practicing ethical non-monogamy in relationships may experience jealousy less often or less intensely, or they may simply have better ways of coping with it when it crops up.
"One of the best practices you can have is having a practice of self-reflection and unlearning," Wright says. "We are deeply programmed for monogamy and even when we choose to practice otherwise, the impulses and feelings we get don't follow suit so quickly. There is a big transition process into the mindset of ENM."
(To Be Continued in the Next Post)