Why should you only be allowed to be with one person? What is so terrible about having multiple sexual partners, as long as you are transparent about it?
If you have ever asked yourself these questions, you are not alone. There is a whole movement out there questioning the traditional relationship paradigm. It’s called ethical non-monogamy (ENM).
Read on to learn what ethical non-monogamy is all about, which types of ENM relationships there are, and how to make them work.
- Definition: What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
- Monogamy vs. Ethical Non-Monogamy
- Why Is Monogamy Still the Main Game in Town?
- What About Jealousy?
- Challenges With ENM Relationships
- Why Is ENM More Popular With Gay and Bi Couples?
- Types of ENM Relationships
- How To Succeed With an ENM Relationship
- Opening up a Monogamous Relationship
Definition: What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM), also known as consensual non-monogamy, is the practice of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships while being transparent about it. Every involved party knows what is going on, has agreed to this arrangement, and is also free to have other sexual relationships.
ENM opposes the myth of “the one.” There is no magic soulmate out there waiting for you to come along. Instead, ENM assumes that no one person can completely satisfy all your needs.
Consequently, people who practice ENM will create networks of partners that cater to different aspects of their personalities. In turn, they add their own individual strengths to other people’s lives.
The most well-known type of ENM relationship is polyamory, which emphasizes loving relationships with several people. There are other models, e.g., the swinger lifestyle, which are only concerned with the sexual side of things.
It is estimated that about 4%–5% of the population in the US is in some kind of ENM relationship.
Monogamy vs. Ethical Non-Monogamy
Here are the main differences between monogamy and ethical non-monogamy.
|You are afraid to lose your partner to a sexual rival.
|You view “rivals” as an enrichment of your partner’s life.
|You want to “own” your partner.
|You want your partner to feel free.
|You cannot openly state when you desire someone else.
|You are expected to state when you desire someone else.
|Since there is no element of uncertainty, you tend to lose sexual desire for each other.
|Since there is a higher level of uncertainty, your sexual desire for each other remains fresh.
|Because of too much proximity, partners oftentimes come to resent each other.
|With more space, partners tend to appreciate each other more.
|Cheating is considered a sexual breach of trust.
|Cheating is considered an emotional breach of trust.
|Sexual contact outside the relationship is stigmatized but happens anyway.
|Sexual contact outside the relationship is normalized and even encouraged.
|You must lie about outside sexual encounters.
|You share outside sexual encounters with each other.
|When you are caught cheating, after some initial drama, the whole incident is swept under the carpet. You don’t want to lose face with other people.
|After an outside sexual encounter, there is no façade to uphold. Other people can know about what happened.
Why Is Monogamy Still the Main Game in Town?
You would expect ENM relationships to be more popular than they are. After all, we all indulge in sexual fantasies about other people. But they aren’t.
Why is that?
1. Religious Conservatism
There is still a strong religious undertone in the US. Cultural conservatives like to harp on marriage and monogamy as hallmarks of faith. If you dare to deviate from these institutions, their Christian love will come to an abrupt end. You will have to deal with that bigotry.
2. Traditional Role Models
Traditionally, women are not supposed to actively pursue sexual pleasure, especially not with multiple partners. If they defy that convention, they are labeled a “slut.”
Men get more leeway and are even applauded for sleeping around, at least up to a certain age. But once they broke their horns, they, too, are expected to discover monogamy as the only true relationship model.
3. The Agricultural Revolution
In our hunter-gatherer day, there was no need to pass on property — we hardly owned anything. When you are constantly on the move, you can’t carry more than some weapons and tools.
This changed with the agricultural revolution. As we settled down, it became important to know who the father was. Monogamy made sure that the wealth you had accumulated went to your genetic heir.
4. The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution further solidified monogamy. Families now had to move where the work was. For that, the family unit had to become smaller. This marked the birth of the nuclear family. It consisted of only the father, the mother, and a few children. Adding more people/lovers would have compromised that mobility.
5. The Social Script
Monogamy is the “normal” thing to do. It is what everybody aspires to — your friends, your coworkers, the people on TV.
This is despite the fact that many people are unhappy in their monogamous relationships. Just consider the fact that about 50 percent of all marriages end up in divorce.
If you stray from this institutionalized misery, that is perceived as an attack. It puts the lemming-like mentality of the people around you into question. Of course, they will retaliate.
6. Emotional Stability
Monogamy is a contract — “I get to own you, and you get to own me.” This reduces emotional turmoil in the relationship.
Of course, this contract is a farce. People still cheat, they just do it in secret. But that, too, is preferable to most people.
Anything for stability, even if it’s an illusion.
7. Rearing the Offspring
Biologically speaking, the end goal of a relationship is babies. Monogamy makes it more likely this grand goal gets completed. When you are not distracted by outside sexual encounters, you are more likely to focus on your offspring.
8. Financial Security
Monogamy ensures that financial resources are only split up over two people – husband and wife. That equals more resources to raise kids. On the other hand, with more people in the mix, your financial resources get diluted.
What About Jealousy?
When talking about ethical non-monogamy, the number one question always is, “But what about jealousy?”
The Friendship Metaphor
ENM advocates often liken polyamory to friendships.
We all have more than one friend. It would never cross our mind to be jealous of a friend for hanging out with another friend.
So why would you feel threatened by other lovers?
What you have with partner A is not what you have with partner B. That’s exactly the point — they are catering to different sides of yourself. That’s why want them both in your life.
At least intellectually, there is no good reason to feel threatened by that.
The Concept of Compersion
Polyamory takes this one step further.
Not only are you supposed to be indifferent toward sexual rivals — you should even feel happy for your partner. Happy, that they get to have wonderful experiences, sexually and romantically, with somebody else.
I realize how alien this will sound to most people. But compersion makes a good point. If I truly love someone, shouldn’t I wish for them to have great experiences? Shouldn’t I try to set my selfish needs aside?
It’s as if my partner got a raise. Instead of begrudging them the extra money, we should celebrate.
The Reality of It
Those are the noble motives. In reality, jealousy still happens in ENM relationships. In fact, it happens quite a bit.
I remember during my first open relationship I got so jealous of my girlfriend, that I proposed to close the relationship. I had sworn to myself I would never be that guy and still, it happened.
As an attractive woman, she had her pick of good-looking, successful guys to have sex with. But that was not what got to me.
It was the fact that a certain guy eventually became so close to her, I started to feel her slipping my grasp. Our emotional bond loosened, while theirs intensified.
The good news is, you can learn to deal with this. It’s like a muscle — the more strain you experience, the stronger you grow.
Also, you must understand that relationship dynamics temporarily shift, especially when your partner is experiencing a strong case of “new relationship energy.” That is normal and eventually rectifies itself.
Finally, you must learn to create sexual opportunities for yourself. Helplessness is unattractive, especially in men. Therefore, learn to initiate conversations with attractive strangers.
With more options, not only will you feel more laid back about your partner’s adventures — you will also appear more desirable to your partner again.
Challenges With ENM Relationships
ENM relationships come with their own set of challenges. We already talked about jealousy; here are some more.
Increased Need for Communication
ENM relationships require a lot more communication than “regular” relationships. And while this can be a great source of insight, sometimes, it can also get on your nerves.
I am talking about those moments when you have to get up at 6 am for work but your partner is having a jealousy attack and has an immediate need to talk. So, you stay up all night to sort things out, but you pay for it the next day.
People in ENM relationships are sometimes regarded as promiscuous freaks who cannot keep in their pants.
Another stigma is that ENM practitioners supposedly catch more STDs than “regular” people; an assumption I find highly questionable. I have several friends who contracted STDs while cheating in their supposedly monogamous relationship and not telling their partner. ENM folk are less likely to do that.
In truth, these stigmas are pretextual.
The real issue is that the ENM model poses a threat to the monogamous relationship model. My partner might decide to leave our mutual prison and instead enjoy more freedom in an open relationship.
Thus, we must throw mud at the alternative.
In comparison to a traditional relationship, an ENM relationship is more of an emotional rollercoaster ride. Everything is constantly in flux, people come and go, and jealousy rears its head.
On the one hand, that keeps things fresh and exciting. On the other hand, it can be hard to deal with at times, especially if you have a lot of stuff going on in other areas of your life. In such moments, you might wish for more stability.
Why Is ENM More Popular With Gay and Bi Couples?
ENM models are more popular with homosexual couples, bisexual couples, and heteroflexible couples.
I believe there are two reasons for that.
Homosexual ENM couples don’t have to deal with the baby factor. Of course, there are gay couples who want to have kids, and more power to them. But generally speaking, it’s less of an issue.
That changes the dynamic significantly. If the ultimate goal of the relationship is not procreation but enjoyment, it becomes easier to explore sexual connections with outsiders. No one has to worry about who the father is or how to provide.
Heterosexual ENM relationships rarely have that same lightness, at least not long-term. Eventually, the baby question arises and then it’s either back to the relationship escalator or breaking up.
Bisexual and heteroflexible couples have different advantages going for themselves. If we both like both genders, we will be more open to the idea of including other people. Mutual understanding creates more leeway.
Types of ENM Relationships
Let’s take a look at the various types of ENM relationships.
Polyamory is usually the first model that comes to mind when people talk about ethical non-monogamy. The gist — you can have loving relationships with more than just one person.
Polyamory has become somewhat of a zeitgeist phenomenon. Especially in urban centers on the East and West Coast, it is the hip thing to do right now.
Polyamory is not to be confused with polygamy. Polygamy is the practice of marrying several spouses. In most societies that allow polygamy, only men can have several wives.
Where polyamory insists that all partners enjoy the same sexual privileges, polygamy only grants those privileges to one gender — usually men.
In other words: Polygamy is in favor of patriarchal structures, while polyamory is not. Polyamory has strong ties to the feminist movement and usually goes hand in hand with progressive political views.
Polyamory encompasses a variety of relationship constellations. Here are some examples:
- “V” model. This model resembles the letter “V.” The person at the bottom of the V is sexually connected to the other two people, but the other two people are not in a relationship with each other.
- Throuple. A throuple or a triad is structured like a triangle. The three participants are all sexually involved with each other.
- Quad. A quad is a poly relationship that involves four people. A common scenario is two couples dating each other.
- Solo poly. People who identify as solo poly act like free agents. They might have multiple relationships with other people but do want to move in with these people or start poly families together.
- Hierarchical polyamory. Here, the main emotional commitment is to one partner, while you can still have secondary loving relationships on the side. It is common to live with your primary partner.
- Non-hierarchical polyamory. In this model, you don’t prioritize any of your lovers over another. Each connection is considered unique.
- Polyfidelity. This describes a poly network that has decided not to add any more partners. The polycule is closed off.
The Swinger Lifestyle
Swinging is a purely sexual type of ENM. Participants meet up at swinger clubs or private swinger parties and engage in partner swapping.
The story goes swinging developed as a byproduct of World War II. Due to the high mortality rate, Air Force pilots would promise to look after each other’s wives — including sexually — if they were not to return.
While this might be a myth, swinging clearly gained in popularity during the free-loving 1960s and 1970s, especially in the context of communes.
Today, swinging has a different connotation. It is usually popular with older, more bourgeois types, which is why it sometimes gets a bad rep in the ENM community. On the flip side, swingers tend to be less pretentious than your typical poly hipster from Portland. I find that quite refreshing.
BDSM stands for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism. It is a subculture for people who either enjoy exerting sexual dominance or being dominated.
BDSM practices do not necessarily include other people; it could be a thing between just two partners. However, BDSM is very popular in the ENM universe. Thus, outsiders often participate or at least watch.
It should also be noted that while BDSM practices all have an erotic connotation, they don’t necessarily include penetration. A session might just consist of bondage or flogging.
Kink and BDSM are mentioned in the same breath but are technically not the same thing. Kink is a more general term, which refers to all kinds of “non-vanilla” sex practices. This can include BDSM, but also other practices, like voyeurism, exhibitionism, or fetishism. Any sexual practice that would shock your parents is probably kink.
A monogamish relationship is still rooted in the monogamy paradigm. Most of the time, you function as a traditional couple. You go on dates, you live together, you get married, you have kids, etc. But sometimes, with mutual consent, you can have a fling outside the main relationship.
What that fling includes is up to the couple. It might just be flirting or sexting. Or it might only include oral sex. Or you might be allowed to have the occasional one-night stand.
The monogamish model has gained popularity in recent years, especially through sex educators like Dan Savage and Esther Perel. It is an easy way to introduce more freedom into your monogamous relationship without completely abandoning the paradigm.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
This is probably the ENM model that I see in practice the most often. Two mostly monogamous partners agree that when one of them ends up cheating, you will both turn a blind eye.
For this to qualify as an ENM relationship, there has to be that explicit initial conversation. While you might not want to know the details, both of you have to go into this with open eyes.
Personally, I am not a fan of this model. It is too close to the pitfalls of monogamy; there is too much lying. Consequently, people get hurt.
How To Succeed With an ENM Relationship
Here are some of the strategies that have helped me with my own ENM relationships.
1. Find the Right People
When you want to start an ENM relationship, you have two options:
- You can look for people who already have experience with ENM relationships
- You can run the idea by people who have no prior experience with ENM but who seem open-minded
If you go with option 1, your best bet is specialized dating apps like Feeld or local ENM meetups.
However, I recommend that you go with option 2, for two reasons.
First, if you only go for people with prior ENM experience, that is a very small dating pool to work with, especially outside of urban centers.
Second, that dating pool comes with certain lifestyle choices.
As with any subculture, there is a lot of groupthink in ENM circles. Everybody is spiritual, practices yoga, does plant medicine, and eats vegan.
If that’s your scene, great. If not, that’s a problem.
By floating ENM ideas by non-ENM people, you will circumvent these problems. You will find that there are a lot of cool people out there willing to try something new and that these people come from all walks of life.
2. Talk to Strangers
Finding cool, open-minded people is a numbers game. The more people you talk to, the greater your chances of finding someone who feels similar about love.
So, you must learn to talk to attractive strangers in vast quantities. And you must let them know early on about your preferred relationship style.
The key is to learn how to deal with rejection. Sometimes, the other person will turn out to be much more conservative than you thought. They might react offended. If that happens, don’t get hung up on it, just move on.
But the few times in your life you end up with an open-minded, attractive, and independent person, it will all have been worth it. Keep that in mind while you do the hard legwork.
3. Be Realistic
People who have never done ENM before often have unrealistic expectations. They think once they go ENM, everything is magically gone get better.
ENM relationships are still relationships. Just like traditional relationships, they require work. If anything, they require more effort, especially in terms of communication and being honest.
4. Talk About Expectations
When you practice ethical non-monogamy, it is important to state what you want.
Be specific. How much time do you want to spend together? How many other people will you see? What is your long-term perspective on the relationship?
Clearly state your sexual desires. How much sex do you need to feel satisfied? What sexual practices are you into? What unfulfilled desires do you want to explore?
Never feel ashamed of what you want. If you feel like nesting, that’s fine. If you want to live it up at kink parties, that is fine too.
Of course, some compromises will have to be made. But don’t gloss over fundamental differences. If the two of you are too far apart, it’s better to end the relationship.
5. Talk About Boundaries
With each person, there will be certain places they don’t want to go. That should be clearly stated early on.
For example, if you are okay with your partner having sex with other people, but hate the idea of them staying over, say so.
Sometimes, there is a compromise. Sometimes, there is not.
But never let your fear of losing someone make you ignore your personal boundaries. Be upfront. At the least, it will save both of you time.
There is a common communicative dissonance.
When you think you made something crystal-clear, the other person will still not know what you are talking about.
It’s only when you start to sound like a broken record, that the other person starts to get it.
On top of that, there is our personal bias. We only hear what we want to hear. If the message doesn’t suit us, we will try to ignore it.
This is why overcommunication is a must — especially in ENM relationships, where every detail is up for negotiation.
Here are my three favorite tactics:
- Whenever you think you made your point, make it at least three more times.
- Repeat your message over the course of several days.
- Politely ask your partner to summarize in their own words what you are trying to tell them. Of course, be ready to do the same for them.
7. Agree on the Level of Detail
Ethical non-monogamy is all about honesty — but that doesn’t mean you have to report on every intimate detail. What your partner needs to know varies from person to person.
For example, I have had partners who were completely okay with us having other sexual partners, but who didn’t want to hear about specific encounters.
On the other hand, I appreciate being told as much as the other person is comfortable sharing. It makes me feel involved. Also, it can be a turn-on for me.
The important thing is to agree on the level of detail upfront before stuff goes down.
8. Deal With Jealousy
Jealousy is a given in ENM relationships. No matter how open-minded you think yourself, at some point, you are going to be affected by it.
That is fine, as long as you handle it right.
First, never hide it, neither to yourself nor to your partner. State early on how you feel. That in itself will provide some relief.
Second, let your partner reassure you. We might intellectually know that they still love us, but hearing it is important.
However, do not expect your partner to drop their outside relationship. Requiring such sacrifices of your partner is always the beginning of the end.
Ultimately, jealousy is your challenge. Your partner can assist, but you must master it.
Also, you must get real about your sexual market value.
If your partner is highly attractive, while you get little attention from strangers, that will stoke your jealousy.
This, too, is your problem to fix. Don’t blame your partner for being attractive. Rather, turn yourself into a more attractive person. Work out. Improve your style. Become a better conversationalist. Reach out to strangers.
9. Be Safe
It should go without saying — when you have multiple sexual partners, protect yourself and others against STDs.
10. Understand the Risks
Despite common poly lore, rivalry is still a thing in ENM relationships. You might lose your partner to one of the people they are seeing.
Love might be in endless supply, but time and attention are not. If your rival is more attractive than you are, your partner might decide to spend those limited resources on them.
Granted, that is also a risk in monogamous relationships. People still meet other people. But by permitting sex with outsiders, you are increasing that risk.
Personally, I still prefer living in a free environment, where I get to choose what I want to do with my body and my sexuality. I would rather endure the danger of losing my partner to somebody else than life in prison.
11. Understand the Price
When you date multiple people, each extra person will take away from your productivity.
At one point, I was seeing 5 different people regularly, while trying to build two businesses simultaneously. It was madness. I was neither doing my partners justice nor was I making progress with the business side of things.
This is something I rarely see people talking about in the ENM community. We like to pretend resources like time, personal energy, or patience are infinite when they are in fact very limited.
We don’t want to prioritize. We want to have it all. But reality doesn’t bend to our wishful thinking.
I am not saying you cannot have a poly relationship. But be realistic. Decide what is most important to you at the moment, then give it most of your attention. If that is exploring ethical non-monogamy, go for it.
But if your attention is elsewhere, maybe it’s better to go solo poly for a while, while you are writing that book or building that YouTube channel. You can always come back to a full-blown poly arrangement later.
12. Think About Kids
One of the most fundamental questions you need to discuss with your partner is kids. Don’t make the mistake of trying to figure it out along the way because you love the other person so much.
I have made that mistake several times and it has caused a lot of hurt. Despite knowing better, I was always hoping we might find a way.
Approach your relationship like an investment. You would not invest all of your savings in a risky bond just because you like how it makes you feel. You would look at the cold hard facts.
Relationships are investments and we must treat them with the same clinicalness. If we are not on the same page when it comes to the baby question, you must pull out.
13. Acknowledge Biology
We are not just products of our socialization. We are also biological machines, and to a much larger extent than the progressive ENM scene would like us to believe.
A few examples:
- Men, especially when jealous, are prone to physical violence
- Women, especially when approaching a certain age, are likely to go baby-crazy
- Men value physical beauty in their partners above everything else
- Women are attracted to status and wealth (among other things)
I realize how terribly backward this sounds. But pretending these biological fixtures don’t exist won’t make them go away. You are better off planning for them.
For example, I could pretend that most modern women prefer a free-loving lifestyle like me. But that is wishful thinking. I have been with some of the most liberated, open-minded women on the planet; but eventually, even feminist sex workers want to settle down.
Likewise, as a woman, you are better off acknowledging the violent nature of men. A jealous lover is no joke — he can go from charming fling to dangerous stalker really quickly.
Just pretending we live in a new egalitarian age won’t do away with the nasty facts. Be a realist, be prepared.
14. Live It Up
There is a funny dynamic going on in the ENM world — we are so anxious to appear “normal” to the monogamous mass culture that we try to desexualize ourselves.
We keep emphasizing how poly is about sharing “love” (not sex) with more people on this planet.
We imitate the relationship escalator by living together, having poly marriages, and buying property.
We document our happy family outings on Instagram so everybody can see we are just like them.
I say screw that.
I did not get into ENM to reimagine the white picket fence life. Let’s be different. Let’s be kinky. Let’s have mind-bending, “dirty” sex.
If you sincerely want to have poly family outings, that is great too. But do it on your terms — not sucking up to the monogamous mainstream.
15. Regularly Revisit
It is important to regularly revisit any contracts you have made with each other. Love is very much in flux.
When emotional change goes undetected, it can get ugly. “But we agreed on X and now you are doing Y!”
Rather, revisit your agreements constantly, even if there seems to be no need. By making this a regular exercise, you will catch changes in the wind early on.
This way, you can adjust and spare yourself negative surprises.
Opening up a Monogamous Relationship
So far, we have only talked about how to start an ENM relationship with a stranger. But what if you want to open up your existing monogamous relationship? Here are some guidelines.
1. Assess the Situation
I am not going to lie — more often than not, it won’t work.
I said earlier that only 4 to 5 percent of all relationships are ENM relationships. So, what are the chances of you ending up in a monogamous relationship with somebody who deep down prefers ENM? Slim.
Ask yourself what is more important to you. Maintaining your current relationship at all costs? Or exploring the ENM model?
If the latter is true, go ahead — suggest opening the relationship up. But then don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.
2. Watch Out for Their Reaction
When you have the ENM talk, be patient. Most monogamous partners will initially react upset — “Am I not good enough for you anymore? Are you bored with me? Why can you not be normal?”
This is understandable. After all, you entered the relationship under different terms. Now you are trying to renegotiate the contract.
Also, watch out for token agreement. Some partners are so amenable, they will go along with anything, just to please you.
Don’t let them. I can tell you from experience it will not end well. Either go back to how things were or call it quits.
3. Take It Slowly
If, against all likelihood, your monogamous partner is open to the idea of ethical non-monogamy, go slow.
I recommend that you start with swinging. Swinging just involves the sexual aspect of ENM but excludes the emotional aspect. That will make it easier. Also, your partner is with you, which feels reassuring.
Even so, don’t go full in right away. Just visit a swinger party and soak up the atmosphere together. Then talk it through afterward.
Then, at your next party, go a little bit further. Maybe have other people watch you while you fool around. Maybe make out with somebody of the same sex (as that often triggers less jealousy).
Increase the intensity with each additional visit, as long as you both feel comfortable.
Once you have explored swinging, you could give a monogamish model a try. This is a step up — you are granting your partner alone time with somebody else. Hence, there is more of a chance that an emotional bond might form between your partner and their fling.
If after a few of those “affairs,” you both still feel happy with the situation, I would say you are good to go. Experiment freely. Try poly arrangements. Explore your kinky side.