We’re often taught to be looking for “the one” – our better half, they say. Education on the numerous relationship styles that exist have probably only recently come to your attention. Because most of our sexual education comes from various media, we gain our knowledge on relationship structures from there as well. News flash: monogamy is not the only option and it’s okay if you’re curious about or already practicing alternatives.
So, let’s talk about it, get educated on the topic and dismantle the stigma of ethical non-monogamy. Before discussing ethical non monogamy or otherwise known as consensual non monogamy, let’s begin with the basics.
The concept of monogamy is not biological for most mammals, including us humans – it is just that: a concept imposed on us from the very beginning of our lives through vehicles like religion, films, sex ed (or lackthereof) and so on. But before that, it’s also simply imposed through the systems that have been implemented through history such as the nuclear family. Anything that deviates from what society sees as “normal” or expected, is seen as a failure. A home with a single parent who dates multiple people is seen as broken. A home with three parents is unheard of. A home with monogamous parents who have affairs or cheat on each other is to be pitied – yet it can be argued that amongst certain social circles, cheating is more socially accepted than open discussions about consensual non-monogamy.
Much like in real life, in film and other media, monogamy is the default option. This is what’s called compulsory monogamy – it’s not only presumed, but almost socially obliged. We don’t regularly see romantic comedies or drama-ridden blockbusters involving consensually non-monogamous lovers. We don’t see potential lovers asking each other if they are monogamous or non-monogamous, for example. We witness characters and song lyrics about belonging to one another, using phrases like “you’re mine”. As we know, media representation is crucial and, if non-monogamy is represented in the media, it’s most likely portrayed as cheating or betrayal. Cheating and betrayal would fall under non-consensual non-monogamy but even consensual non-monogamy is imbued with stigma – enforced by the idea of sluttiness, shame around sex, and the suggestion that one cannot love more than one person romantically or that one person should fulfill all your needs.
We aren’t given the option to explore ethical non-monogamous relationships – the two options are: be single or be in a serious monogamous relationship. It’s interesting to examine how monogamy goes by unnoticed, hidden and innocent; whereas anything that deviates from that is completely visible and filled with negative connotations in order to mantain the status quo and reinforce societal values like heterosexuality and monogamy, typical of patriarchy structures.
ENM, sometimes referred to as consensual non-monogamy, is the practice of being involved emotionally, romantically and/or sexually with multiple people, all of whom are aware and consenting of this type of relationship structure.
We may repeat ourselves but we’ll lay it out again and we’ll scream it for the people in the back: ethical non-monogamous relationships are NOT cheating. They are NOT adultery. They are NOT extramarital affairs. Ethical non-monogamous relationships are filled with honesty, vulnerability, communication and consent. Although there aren’t any set rules for practicing ethical non-monogamy, there ideally are set rules within ethical non-monogamous relationships. Following those rules, decided upon with your partner(s), is how the relationship remains ethical. This agreement is based on each partner’s boundaries and limits. For example, if you are interested in opening your relationship to strictly sexual activity but don’t feel comfortable with your partner sleeping with other people in your shared bed or even in your shared home, that can be discussed when communicating your boundaries. As long as all parties agree and consent, it’s ethical and consensual and it isn’t cheating.
However, don’t be tricked into thinking that ethical non-monogamy doesn’t come without its struggles – just like any monogamous relationships, there are of course bumps along the road. Unfortunately, when these bumps arise, ethical non-monogamy is blamed. No matter what the issue is, as a society, we tend to blame the practice rather than look at the root of the problem. As Kiana Lewis explains, “when folks have a hard time with monogamous relationships, no one blames monogamy as a whole.”
Just like monogamy isn’t for everyone, neither is non-monogamy. And that’s totally okay. But as a society, we scrutinize non-monogamy and automatically blame the entire relationship style – or relationship identity some would argue.
Opening up a relationship can be really difficult for even the healthiest of couples. Compulsory monogamy is so ingrained in our value system that often, being asked by your “soulmate” to think about non-monogamy can feel like a gut punch. Of course, that’s not the intention but with that in mind, it’s important to be sure it’s a discussion that you want to bring up.
That’s why we’d first suggest taking a good look at yourself, your needs and your relationship. Is this desire to explore ENM because you think you may be non-monogamous or want to do just that – explore? Or are you trying to use ENM as a solution to a problem in your relationship? ENM shouldn't be used as a bandaid to cover up issues or a way to save a relationship.
Under the umbrella of ENM exists multiple different types of relationship structures. But before we dive into what the most commonly known ethically non-monogamous relationship structures are, it’s important to note that just like monogamy isn’t the “correct” way, there isn’t a correct way to be ethically non-monogamous. If your ethical non-monogamous romantic, sexual and/or emotional situation doesn’t look exactly like the following ones, that’s totally okay! Once again, as long as everyone involved knows and agrees with the situation, you do you.
Some view ENM as a lifestyle choice while others view it as more of an identity. For example, someone could refer to themselves as practicing ethical non-monogamy while another person will identify as a polyamorous person, similarly to how being pansexual, for example, is part of one’s identity. Neither are wrong – as previously mentioned, as long as it feels right for you, it’s right.
If you’ve made it this far, you now hopefully learned something about what it means to be in an ENM relationship. The main thing we’d like you to take away, however, is to be true to you and let others be true to themselves. Subscribe to any relationship style you desire, as long as everyone involved is consenting, and let others do the same.
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures by Dossie Easton & Janet W Hardy.
More than two by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan
The Ready For Polyamory podcast
Poly In Real Life