Ethical non-monogamy has gained more visibility in the modern dating scene, but there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding what the heck that even means. Many people who are curious about consensual non-monogamy — and those who are actively considering a test run — still have only a vague idea of the essential principles.
While a key tenet is freedom to explore and have affection with different people, there’s a lot behind the scenes that make these relationships successful. So, let’s chart the waters for everything you always wanted to know about ENM, including how to open your relationship while making everyone involved feel safe and loved.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
In its most basic form, non-monogamy is any relationship that involves more than two people, where an outside or additional relationship is allowed. However, ethical is a very important qualifier that helps distinguish dynamics for the folks involved.
“Ethically non-monogamous relationships are ones in which all people involved have negotiated the terms of and enthusiastically consented to non-monogamy, without feeling coerced into it,” explains Dr. Dulcinea Pitagora, NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist.
Heather McPherson, licensed supervisor of couples and sex therapy, owner of Respark Therapy, and owner of Sexual Health Alliance, which provides certification programs for therapists, coaches and healthcare providers, emphasizes that if participants aren’t feeling 100 percent on board, or they see it as a way to repair a broken relationship, it can put the arrangement in jeopardy. “It should be noted that if one partner has consented under coercion,” she says, “or because they are afraid they will lose the relationship, the agreement may be compromised.”
What are the different kinds of ethical non-monogamy?
There are many flavors of ENM, and every relationship will have its own structures and agreements. Think of it an umbrella term for all the ways you can, with consent, explore love and sex with multiple people. If someone says they’re non-monogamous, don’t assume you know what that means; instead respectfully ask them for more information.
One of the most recurrent questions is this: Is an ethically non-monogamous relationship the same as an open one? “It all depends on what what the participants rules are,” says Hannah, who’s polyamorous and shares an apartment in Brooklyn with their primary and secondary partners. “ENM means you’re ‘opening up’ your relationship in some way. I think the only distinction is that people who identify as poly tend to have more romantic connections and significant others, where ENM can be casual, or just about sexual connections, depending on who’s defining it.”
Those new to ethical non-monogamy tend to have the same worries. Aren’t you jealous? Isn’t an open relationship just infidelity? How do you even have time to date another person?
It’s hard to grasp that people could simultaneously have healthy, happy relationships with each other while also being intimate with other people. To chip away at the taboos, let’s talk about what ENM is not. It’s not an excuse for men to go wild and use women for sex. It’s not something that always incites jealousy or breaks trust. And it’s definitely not infidelity, because everyone is consenting to the relationship and committed to each other. In fact, if your partner doesn’t know you’re seeing other people, that’s still considered cheating and it’s seriously messed up! (Thanks for letting me get ranty!)
While you’re exploring ENM, McPherson has a few independent research starting points that will deep dive some of those widespread concerns. “Read ‘how to’ books ( like the Ethical Slut and Opening Up) and listen to podcasts (like Dan Savage and Orgy Story) about open relationships,” she says. Most importantly, find a therapist that has a certification in consensual non-monogamy or has had advanced training in non-monogamy relationship structures, that can guide you through and answer your most pressing questions.
Does consensual non-monogamy work for everyone?
People in ENM relationships tend to have heightened communication skills, a sophisticated understanding of boundaries, and tons of empathy — because you have to do so much talking to make sure everyone involved feels safe, special, and loved. McPherson says to expect to work on your relationship and communicate twice as much as you once did, “at least for the first few years.”
Keep in mind that you’re not going to figure it out overnight. There might be some feelings of jealousy at the beginning, when your primary partner no longer devotes all their time to you, but you can always ask for reassurance when you need it. Adding people into the mix shouldn’t mean love is less available, as long as you define expectations. It’s totally possible to be valued equally in a relationship where you’re not the only one. A 2020 study conducted by Western University, York University and the University of Utah actually found that people with consensually non-monogamous connections had increased life satisfaction, relationship quality, and sexual contentment.
But no, non-monogamy definitely does not work for everyone. And that’s OK! Every relationship (open or not) has its pitfalls, and constant happiness isn’t a guarantee. However, if something feels wrong, it probably is. EMN doesn’t mean you have to tolerate disrespect or mistreatment. That might be a signal to part ways with a partner, just like you would in a monogamous relationship.
Communication is the key to a successful ENM
Are you currently monogamous and thinking opening up your relationship? Everyone agrees that one practice helps ENM relationships succeed: constant communication.
Communication is hard and terrifying, but it’s super important to get on the same page about boundaries and limitations early on through some mutually beneficial negotiation. “In ENM, communication is key,” says Dr. Pitagora. “Especially for people who are new to ethical and consensual non-monogamy, it can feel awkward to have conversations about new partners, so I always advise having conversations about conversations.”
They emphasize the importance of Initiating discussions with your partner about how the dynamic will play out: “Whenever there are new partners/romantic interests/sexual partners, I suggest that each dyad/triad/etc. has a conversation about what level of detail they want from their partners about who they’re seeing and what they’ll be doing with whom, and also when they would like to have that information (before or after interactions, what time of day, in what context). Figuring out and agreeing on how to have conversations makes it easier to have those conversations.”
Having the courage to say what you feel takes a lot of practice! But boundaries are there to keep you safe — that’s why it’s better to set your tenets in the beginning, rather than waiting until something actually happens to come up with an answer.
You will likely want to set up terms for the following (but remember that these rules can change over time as your relationship evolves):
How long you’d like to open your relationship
How much you want to know about your partner’s other relationships
Check-ins before or after dates
What kinds of activities, spaces, and friends are off limits to other partners
Sexual health and safety
Disclosure around developing feelings
“Once these parameters are in place,” Dr. Pitagora continues, “I recommend regular check-ins and whatever frequency makes sense to everyone involved, even if the check-in is to confirm the status quo. Having a communication practice already in place makes it easier to have the more difficult conversations.”
While ENM can encompass open relationships, the occasional threesome and everything in between, it’s there to broaden the possibilities for who you can make intimate connections with. When it comes to setting terms in your relationship, take what’s helpful and leave what’s not.
A version of this story was published August 2020.
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