What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 16, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Polyamory sign

Key Points

  • Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is an umbrella term for the practice of taking part in romantic or intimate relationships that are not completely exclusive between two people and are also consensual.
  • This is the opposite of monogamy wherein two partners are exclusive with one another and do not engage in romantic or intimate relationships with anyone else.
  • People who engage in ENM are considered to do so with consideration and honesty with their partners.
  • Either one person, or both in the relationship can engage in outside relationships, or a single person may engage in ENM with someone who is in multiple relationships.

What is the difference between ethical non-monogamy and non-monogamy? 

It is important to note the difference between ENM and non-monogamy in general. Ethical means that there is agreed consent between the parties involved in the relationships.

In contrast, without the word ethical, people can engage in outside relations without the knowledge or consent of everyone involved. 

ENM is also not the same as infidelity or cheating. Infidelity means that a partner in an exclusive relationship has a romantic or intimate relationship with someone outside their relationship without the knowledge or consent of their partner.

When someone is cheating, they are not communicating ethically – they are lying, deceiving, and disrespecting their partner. 

Is society accepting of ethical non-monogamy?

Society often has it ingrained into us that there is a set structure for how relationships ought to work, as well as establishing what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Society and the media will usually display monogamous relationships as the norm and something everyone should strive for, that many people may not realise that there are other options. 

Since the concept is thought to be relatively new, it can be difficult to breach the topic of ENM with friends and family.

Many people who engage in ENM may do so discreetly because they fear the judgement that may follow if they share that their relationships are ENM.

There is the harmful stereotype that those who engage in ENM are cheating or do not truly care for their partners which can make it difficult for those to share details about their relationships. 

There are many reasons why someone may choose to engage in ENM, including the following:

To fulfil other needs

People who engage in ENM may do so to meet other needs they may have that their present relationship cannot provide.

Often, in monogamous relationships, there is the expectation that your one partner must fulfil every need that you have for the relationship to work.

Many who are ENM believe that putting these expectations on a partner is unreasonable as you cannot expect one person to meet every need you have, just as they cannot expect everything from you.

It can be a burden on others and can lead to disappointment or relationship breakdowns.

ENM allows people to look for others who have similar romantic or sexual interests that their partner does not have or is not comfortable to explore.

This also allows your partner the chance to explore things that you yourself may not be interested in. This is not to say that the relationship they have is lacking in something, but that there is more to gain from others to strengthen the relationship.

To explore their sexuality

Some people may not have had the chance to explore their sexuality before settling down with one person.

They may be extremely happy with the person they are with but feel as if they have missed out on experimenting with people of different genders if they never had this chance.

ENM may then make sense for someone to explore their sexuality without having to give up the relationship they have.

To share the love they can offer

Some people who engage in ENM may argue that it is human nature to want to have multiple romantic connections with others.

They suggest that if it is normal to have more than one friendship, love for all family members, and for all children you have, why are romantic relationships so restricted?

They may feel that having one romantic relationship limits the amount of love they have to share with others. Some people may feel their truest selves when they are able to love two or more people.

To not have to end a relationship

Some people may have a very strong relationship with their partner, but they find they are attracted to other people.

They may not want the relationship to end or cheat on their partner, but they feel pressured to pick one person as this is what monogamous society states.

Many people may choose to end strong relationships because they believe they need to pick one person or the other and believe that this is the way things are.

Those who engage in ENM recognise that there is the choice to have both, as long as this is discussed and consented by all parties.

ENM is an umbrella term for many types of relationships. ENM can be practised without following a specific relationship model and can comprise whatever rules that all parties are agreed on. Nonetheless, there are different type of ENM relationships which are described below:

Polyamory

Polyamory is the practice or intent of having other relationships that can be romantic or intimate in nature.

Several people can all have a relationship together such as a triad (composed of three partners) or a quad (composed of four partners).

In other cases, one person may have numerous partners while one or more of their partners might not have or want any other partners themselves. 

People in polyamorous relationships may have primary partners who are the person they prioritise, and secondary partners who are not as fully prioritised. This type of ENM relies heavily on communication between all parties involved and about multiple topics such as safe sex and emotions. 

Open relationships

Opening the relationship means that one or both partners can pursue sex and sometimes emotional attachments to other people outside of the relationship.

In open relationships, usually the primary partner is the most prioritised and there is not usually a commitment to outside parties. 

In comparison to polyamory, people in open relationships can usually have sex with others they are attracted to, with the idea that these relationships only remain casual.

As with all ENM relationships, open relationships require a lot of communication with your partner, especially a discussion of boundaries and what is and is not allowed. Note that these conditions may change over time as the partnership evolves. 

Monogamish

This is a term for couples who are monogamous most of the time but will occasionally take part in outside sexual relationships. While it can include emotional relationships, these tend to sexual relationships a lot of the time.

There may also be long periods of time between these intimate outside relationships. For instance, a couple may have engaged in sexual relations with others once and then do not do it again for 5 years.  

Like other ENM relationships, there are rules that need to be established such as determining the frequency of outside partners, the number of meetups, and the types of sexual activities that are permitted.

Relationship anarchy

In many societies, romantic or intimate relationships such as with a spouse are valued over other types of relationships such as with friends or family members.

Relationship anarchists, however, do not subscribe to this ideology and prefer to treat all types of relationships as equally important. They treat all relationships as their own entities and do not automatically prioritise romantic relationships over platonic ones.

The parties involved in these relationships also do not use hierarchical terms for partners, which contrasts to relationships hierarchies in which there is a primary relationship. 

While people who identify as relationship anarchists may only choose to have one romantic partner, they are considered ENM as they value outside relationships as equally important as their romantic ones.

Relationship anarchy is centred around personal freedom and autonomy and is a non-conventional way of being in a relationship. 

Polygamy 

Polygamy is marriage to more than one spouse at a time. Polygyny is where there is one husband and multiple wives, whereas polyandry is one wife and multiple husbands.

Polygamy is mentioned in many religious texts with some sects still practicing it today. While it can be practised ethically, there are cases which have involved coercion and exploitation. 

Polyfidelity 

This type of ENM is where there can be multiple romantic or sexual partners in a group who are restricted to romantic or sexual activity only to members within the group.

The group may be open to allow other members to join, but there is often no romantic or sexual encounters with the new addition until they are added. 

If you decide that you may want to try ENM although you are already in an exclusive relationship, there are some steps you can take to bring this up to your partner:

Ensure the relationship you have is strong

ENM is not for everyone, and it may not be suitable for some couples, especially if they are experiencing relationship difficulties.

Remember that ENM is not going to fix a relationship that is breaking down. It is important to ensure you have a strong relationship first and if there are some issues, make sure these are dealt with before getting into ENM. 

Consider your capacity

It’s essential to consider whether you have the capacity in your life for additional connections or relationships.

While love is not a limited resource, you may have limited time or emotional bandwidth- meaning the amount of room you feel you have in your life for emotional attachments. 

Discuss what you would both like to gain

Communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what it is you would like and offer them the opportunity to also express what they want.

Discuss what kind of relationship you would like to get into and the aspects of it that would suit both of you. You can discuss timeframes and long-term relationship goals to aim for. 

Reassure your partner

Your partner may feel taken aback by your proposal of engaging in ENM. It is important to reassure them that you do not want to seek other relationships because they lack something.

Reassure them that with ENM, you can both add more to an already strong and healthy relationship. 

Set clear boundaries

Ensure that you and your partner set clear boundaries and expectations of what is allowed and not allowed in the relationship.

The boundaries can help protect you from the fears you may have. You and your partner can make a list of what you are fearful of and make it a rule that those boundaries are not crossed into outside relationships. 

Negotiate

While you cannot always meet the needs of everyone it is important to negotiate a place in the middle. One partner may be ‘all in’ while the other may be more cautious.

The best communication can happen when everyone involved feels that they are being heard with as little judgement as possible.

Consider if both of you are willing to consent to the process or if one person feels like they are being ‘dragged along’. Ensure you listen to what your partners needs are and negotiate their needs with care. 

Connect with others

If you and your partner are debating ENM, consider connecting with others who practice ENM who can help in your research of how it works for them.

You can get an understanding of their opinions and their advice for how to go about it, before deciding if it is right for you. 

Check in with each other

Whilst engaging in ENM, ensure you are checking in with your partner regularly.

Make sure they are still consenting to the style of the relationship and whether there is anything to work on or other boundaries to be put in place. 

Can ethically non-monogamous people get jealous?

While ENM people can get jealous, many who practise ENM believe monogamous relationships can often be filled with more jealousy or possessive feelings.

ENM often involves letting go of extreme jealous feelings and instead learning to be happy that your partner is doing something which makes them happy.

Many believe that jealousy is a useful emotion as it gives people a chance to learn about what they need to feel secure.

Some people who are ENM may get jealous while others do not – what matters is how jealousy is handled and ensure boundaries are in place to manage this.

Are there any limits to the relationship?

Every relationship is unique in its own way. Boundaries can differ from one relationship to the next, so what might be ok in one relationship may not be ok in the next.

It is up to each partner to communicate their desires and limits, with those limits being respected.

Can ethical non-monogamy be sustainable?

Many people practise ENM for years or longer if this is what all parties involved want.

Research suggests that in ENM and monogamous relationships, there are similar levels of satisfaction, happiness, and relationship longevity in both.

Making time for self-reflection, having realistic expectations, and checking in with your partners can help to ensure the relationships last.

Exploring ENM does not mean that you can never return to a monogamous lifestyle. It is possible to be ENM for a short amount of time, then return to being exclusive to one person.

It could be that one person will want to return to monogamy whereas the other wants to stay ENM – these differences can and do sometimes mean that the relationship needs to come to an end, as they can with other types of disagreements not limited to relationship structure.

How can you bring up ethical non-monogamy to a partner?

Consider whether the interest in ENM is equally shared and whether you have the communication skills to broach the subject in a gentle way that still reassures your partner.

Considerate, non-judgmental sharing and listening is usually key.

Whatever the nature of the relationships, it is essential to talk about boundaries and expectations, including those related to shared space, allocated time, and acceptable behaviour.

What is the difference between polyamory and ethical non-monogamy?

ENM is an umbrella term for many types of relationship structures and polyamory is just one way to practice it.

Polyamory refers to having multiple romantic or intimate relationships at the same time whereas ENM is any arrangement where people have multiple consensual romantic or sexual connections.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 16). What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/what-is-ethical-non-monogamy.html

Sources

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Heath, M., Gouweloos, J., & Braimoh, J. (2016). Judging women’s sexual agency: Contemporary sex wars in the legal terrain of prostitution and polygamy. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(1), 199-225.

Wood, J., De Santis, C., Desmarais, S., & Milhausen, R. (2021). Motivations for engaging in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1253-1272.