Shedding Light on Ethical Nonmonogamy
Ethical Nonmonogamy (ENM) is an umbrella term for different forms of non-monogamous relationships in which all participants are aware and consenting. Generally, there are three types of ENM; swinging, open relationships, and polyamorous relationships.
Swinging is usually done as a couple, at a party or a special event. The extra-pair encounters tend to be sexual and not romantic in nature. Open relationships are when one or both partners have the desire and/or ability to engage in sexual, but not romantic, relationships with individuals outside the partnership. Last, Polyamorous relationships are those wherein one or both partners have the desire and/or ability to engage in multiple loving, romantic and sexual relationships. Polyamory can be hierarchical or egalitarian. In hierarchical Poly, there is a primary relationship in which commitment is prioritized and emphasized. In an egalitarian polyamory, all relationships are considered equal, and none is given priority.
There are any number of reasons why ENM relationships emerge. Some individuals feel that they were born polyamorous, while others grew into this love style through curiosity or experience. Some couples might decide to engage in ENM because they have differing sexual interests, desires, or abilities or because it aligns with their values. Others might want to experience intimacy with someone of a different sex and/or gender than their partner. Some simply believe that you cannot, and should not, control the flow of love or where it develops.
The important piece to understand is that, while there are exceptions to every rule, ENM is not a last-ditch effort at fixing a broken relationship nor is it about promiscuity. Research shows, overwhelmingly, that Individuals in ENM relationships engage in them because they love each other, care about each other’s needs and wants, and to optimize their relationships so they feel good to the people in them.
How Does it Work?
Individuals who are in polyamorous relationships are often perceived (by monogamous folks) to be less satisfied in their relationships overall. However, studies repeatedly show that polyamorous individuals have equal levels of overall relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction as monogamous individuals.
The two biggest factors for a successful ENM relationship are consent and honest communication. Everyone involved needs to be willing and honest with themselves and their partners. Of course, every relationship will have its own unique set of expectations and rules about what information is to be shared. However, most ENM people will tell you that consent and honest communication are essential for non-monogamy to be ethical.
What About Jealousy?
Just like monogamous relationships, jealousy is a common issue in ENM relationships. The difference is that often ENM folks don’t expect their partners to change their behaviour when they experience jealousy. In fact, research has found that some polyamorous individuals view jealousy as an opportunity to deepen the intimacy in the relationship. Jealousy forces partners to be vulnerable and talk about what they are experiencing. Moreover, discussions about jealousy are less about trying to change the other person's behaviour and more about having that partner validate how much they care and love them and how special the relationship still is.
Is ENM For Me?
Just like monogamy, ENM isn’t a good fit for everyone or every relationship. It is important to name that being non-monogamous in a society that is set up for monogamy is challenging. A large portion of the challenges faced by ENM folks are the stigma, lack of understanding, and navigating systemic structures that are set up to benefit monogamous couples (think taxes).
ENM likely also goes against what you have been taught to think and feel about love, relationships, and family. Most ENM folks report doing a significant amount of internal reflection and unlearning – it will take some emotional labour!
The most important thing to remember is that your preferences are just that, yours. We cannot judge another person’s love style based on our own values, experiences and culture. Instead, what we can do is observe with curiosity. Be mindful of the ways Western culture prescribes monogamy to us and how that may have shaped your ideas of love and relationships. Be curious about what thoughts or feelings arise in you in response to ENM.
If you are considering ENM as a love style and would like some support, please reach out and set up an appointment with me.
Deri, J. (2012). Polyamory or polyagony? jealousy in open relationships (Doctoral Dissertation, Simon Fraser University). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy.cityu.edu/docview/1516166570?pq-origsite=summon
Rubinsky, V. (2018). Bringing up the green-eyed monster: Conceptualizing and communicating jealousy with a partner who has other partners. The Qualitative Report, 23(6), 1441-1455. Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3297&context=tqr/
Séguin, L. J. (2019). The good, the bad, and the ugly: Lay attitudes and perceptions of polyamory. Sexualities, 22(4), 669-690. https://doi.org/10.1177/13634460717713382
Sheff, E. (2013;2014). Polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. MD: Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.