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Everything You Need to Know About Ethical Non-Monogamy

One of the most popular TV phenomena of 2024 is “Couple to Throuple,” where couples looking for a third try to make a connection to form a throuple. Swiping through dating apps in any mid-size American city, you’ll see dozens of profiles marked “ENM” or “ethically non-monogamous.” Nonmonogamy is more widespread and more accepted than ever before — and as it does, you may wonder if it’s relevant to you at all. Whether you’re potentially interested in practicing it or just curious to understand it better, here’s everything you need to know about ethical nonmonogamy.

What do people mean when they say ethical non-monogamy?

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Ethical nonmonogamy, or ENM for short, is an umbrella term — it encompasses lots of different romantic and sexual arrangements people might choose to pursue with more than one person. At its core, nonmonogamy is a relationship paradigm that allows the people in it to pursue multiple romantic and/or sexual connections, with the consent of all involved. However, within that paradigm, people practice nonmonogamy in different ways and according to different frameworks.

Here are some of the most common broad-strokes ENM practices people might align with, though within these frameworks individual people in individual relationships may have a range of different agreements or relationship guidelines.

Open relationship

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Usually, people in an open relationship have a primary long-term partner — maybe one they were initially monogamous with — but both individuals have consent to engage in sexual or romantic activities outside of their primary relationship. Every relationship is different, but for the most part, it’s implied that the connections outside the primary relationship are more casual or short-term — unlike polyamory, which may involve potentially serious emotional connections with multiple partners.

Polyamory

Polyamory is a relationship structure where individuals have consensual, intimate connections with multiple partners simultaneously. Unlike open relationships or swinging, polyamorous people may have multiple emotional and romantic connections rather than just sexual encounters.

What the structure of a polyamorous relationship looks like can differ. It could look like a triad relationship or throuple in which multiple people are in a relationship together; it could mean a relationship where each member also has a partner outside that relationship, who may themselves have their own partners… the list goes on.

Solo poly

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Solo polyamory is a form of nonmonogamy where individuals prioritize their autonomy and independence, and may also have multiple romantic or sexual relationships. Solo polyamory emphasizes self-reliance and maintaining personal boundaries; a solo poly person doesn’t want a primary relationship or partner, and actually may prefer to live alone and avoid significantly intertwining their life with any partner. Solo poly people often prioritize their individual needs and goals, while dating other people either casually or seriously — they may have a partner of ten years, and another partner of three months, as well as going on casual dates, but live alone and make major life decisions alone.

Relationship anarchy

Unlike traditional forms of nonmonogamy, such as polyamory or open relationships, relationship anarchy rejects the idea of ranking or prioritizing relationships. Instead of a “primary” or “secondary” partners, it encourages each connection to evolve organically based on the desires and needs of the individuals involved, fostering a dynamic and egalitarian approach to relating. 

A person who practices relationship anarchy may have one long-distance comet connection where they see each other only a few times a year, one live-in nesting partner, and one partner they co-parent with but do not live with — these dynamics could also all change if the people in these dynamics decide they want it. Relationship anarchists and polyamorous people, including solo poly people, may reject the “relationship escalator” — the idea that relationships must proceed along a specific progression of steps and reach specific milestones, like moving in together or getting married, to be successful.

How do I know if I should be ethically non-monogamous?

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Some people feel that being non-monogamous is an identity they inherently hold, like being tall or being LGBTQ. This might be you if:

  • You get full-scale crushes on other people that you feel a real desire to pursue even while in a happy relationship that you’re completely satisfied by — this is different than the desire to cheat, in that there’s no core dissatisfaction with the original relationship and no desire to “transgress.” Instead, you may find yourself wishing “I wish I could try things with X without hurting Y!”
  • A big obstacle you’ve experienced with “settling down” or committing to a relationship in the past is the idea of giving up your freedom or closing off the potential for other connections
  • You’ve struggled with feeling like past relationships had rigid expectations or requirements — you were happy in relationships but didn’t understand why you had to move in together or “take things to the next step.

One thing that’s not necessarily a sign you’re naturally nonmonogamous is being tempted to cheat. Some people may claim they cheat in relationships because they’re naturally nonmonogamous and “stuck” in a monogamous relationship — in reality, nonmonogamy is deeply connected to consent and communication, and cheating is most often more about making a self-destructive choice because of deeper issues.

Some people don’t feel strongly that they are an inherently nonmonogamous person, but are still interested in trying out ethical nonmonogamy — sometimes because they’re romantically interested in someone else nonmonogamous. This is also normal and healthy; many people experience feeling equally well suited to both monogamous and nonmonogamous lifestyles, and which one they’re in at any given point depends on the preferences for that specific dynamic. For many people, it may be simpler to let nonmonogamy be something you do rather than something you are.

Where can I learn more about ethical monogamy?

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Many people find important sources of information and support in community with other nonmonogamous people; although ethical nonmonogamy is much more commonplace now than it used to be, it can still be a stigmatized practice, and having community with other nonmonogamous people is helpful. There may be a local meetup group or community organization near you, or something similar online. 

In lieu of that, the last few years have seen many excellent books on the topic — More Than Two, Polysecure, and Opening Up are great places to start. In addition to information and context about nonmonogamous relationships, these books ground the practice of nonmonogamy in important relational concepts like attachment theory and polyvagal theory to help readers understand how to practice these relationship styles in ways that are healthy and secure for everyone involved. While it’s not only about nonmonogamy, Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules is a great resource on finding relationship approaches and practices that work best for you and your partners, even if they differ from received wisdom or conventional practices.

Finally, anyone considering ethical nonmonogamy will likely really benefit from consulting a therapist or counselor — a couples therapist is a great idea if you’re already coupled and thinking of opening your relationship. It’s a myth that opening a relationship has to be a last-ditch attempt to save a relationship on the rocks, but trying out nonmonogamy for the first time can bring up new challenges and tough conversations; the support of a therapist can be invaluable in navigating these.

Recommended Books:

More Than Two: Cultivating Nonmonogamous Relationships with Kindness and Integrity

Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy

Rewriting the Rules: An Anti Self-Help Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships

Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships



For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

Why Am I Tempted to Cheat?

What To Know If You’re Thinking About Opening Your Relationship

Monogamy? Polyamory? What Are the Different Relationship Styles, and What Do They Mean?




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