What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy? A Sex Therapist Explains

FAQ's on love, honor and polyfidelity

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If you've heard the term “ethical non-monogamy” and are confused or curious about it, you've come to the right place. First and foremost, ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for a type of a relationship style that can be practiced in a multitude of ways. The common thread is that in ethically non-monogamous relationships, all partners are aware of the open relationship dynamic and fully consent to their partner(s) being romantically and/or sexually intimate outside of the relationship.

Meet the Expert

Gigi Engle is a sex and relationships psychotherapist and resident intimacy expert at 3Fun. She's co-host, with Chris Riotta, of The Bad Break Podcast, featuring comics, celebrities and anonymous listener accounts of "bad, bad breakups" and maintains a private practice specializing in working with GSRD (Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diverse) clients, including the LGBTQIA+ community, kinky folx and the polyamorous and open community. Her home base is London.

What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy? ENM Relationships Explained

Honest communication is essential to a functioning ENM relationship. People participating in ENM are consciously choosing what works best for themselves and their relationships rather than other factors, like societal norms for intimacy. In that sense, ENM eliminates the concept of cheating because everyone involved is aware of the open arrangement.

In her book Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Non-monogamy, psychotherapist and trauma and relationship expert Jessica Fern shines light on how a deep dedication to communication is required in practicing ethical non-monogamy with a partner: “It is paramount for them to dialogue with their partner about whether or not that partner wants to be in the role of an attachment figure for them, as well as honestly assessing if the partner has enough time, capacity and/or space in their life and other relationships to show up to the degree required for being polysecure together.”

What Does It Mean to Be Ethically Non-Monogamous (ENM)? 

It simply means that you and your partner don't practice monogamy. "Ethically non monogamous means that you and your partners(s) have sex and/or romantic relationships with multiple people," explains Engle. "In an ENM dynamic, everyone is aware of all of these different partnerships and is consenting to the dynamic." ENM is more accurately called CNM (consensual non-monogamy); it is an umbrella term that can encompass a variety of different "open" styles. Some examples of ENM include swinging, being sexually open, polyamory and more.

By the way, we're referring to ENM because it's the buzzword that's lately floated to the top of the cultural conversation, for example regarding the recent Brooklyn-based More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter. But the term isn't perfect. "Ethical is a controversial term because who is to say what's ethical?" says Engle. "Ethical is a subjective term and what is in line with one person's ethics might not line up with another. It is quite a judgey term. It's more popular to use the term 'consensual' rather than ethical, as it denotes that everyone is consenting, but doesn't bring all this 'ethics' language into the conversation."

What Is the Difference Between Polyamory and Non-Monogamy? 

"Polyamory refers to having multiple intimate and romantic partnerships. Non-monogamy is a broader term that can include not just romantic partnerships but sexual ones as well," says Engle. "Polyamory is a more specific practice under the 'non monogamy' umbrella."

How to Practice ENM

"People will think that ENM is all sex, sex, sex but really it's 10 percent sex and 90 percent talking and negotiating," says Engle. The therapist says that while there aren't any 'rules' of ENM, there is an overall shared understanding that everyone involved is consenting to the dynamic, and is clear about what is going on. "Communication is a huge part of these dynamics and we need to be willing to be flexible and have ongoing conversations to ensure everyone is on board in an ongoing capacity," she says. Finally, it's important to reinforce everyone's autonomy as well as set and be considerate of everyone's boundaries.

Why Do People Practice ENM?

Engler identifies three main reasons people practice consensual non-monogamy:

  • The emphasis on autonomy and freedom allows people to fully explore themselves as a romantic and sexual being.
  • The idea that love is abundant, not a finite resource that has to be given to one person only.
  • The understanding that one partner can't fulfill every need and that having such expectations leads to resentment.

Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy and Polyamory

While ENM and polyamory are often used interchangeably in popular culture, they're not quite the same thing. "Ethical non-monogamy is a big umbrella term that can involve threesomes, going to sex parties, swinging, polyamory and more," explains Engler. Add to this broad list triads, polygamy and even casual dating. By contrast, "polyamory specifically refers to having multiple intimate and romantic partnerships," she says.

As for polyamory, here's an explainer of a few categories that fall under that label:

1. Solo Polyamory 

Solo polyamory refers to a person who has more than one romantic relationship but doesn’t desire to have any of the traditional markers of commitment, like a joint bank account, a shared living space or a marriage with any of their intimate partners. They are experiencing intimate connections with partners on very autonomous terms. It’s pretty much like living a single lifestyle while remaining ethically open about being intimate with more than one person at a time.

2. Polyfidelity

Sometimes known as closed poly-monogamy or polyamory, this relationship involves three or more partners in an exclusive relationship. Anyone outside of the designated relationship is off-limits. This can look like everyone in the relationship dating each other or one person having multiple partners who are monogamous with just them.

3. Hierarchical Polyamory

Hierarchical polyamory involves a couple who consider each other their first priority or “primary partner.” With each other’s consent, they are free to pursue secondary romantic relationships. There are sometimes rules and limitations to how far the other intimate involvements can progress.

4. Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

This arrangement has no primary couple at its center. In fact, there are no labels on any of the people in the intimate relationship. The idea behind this is that everyone has a seat at the table when making decisions, rather than deferring to a primary couple.

Are More People Practicing Ethical Non-Monogomy Than Before?

The practice of ethical non-monogamy may be in the rise in Western culture, or perhaps, it’s finally being talked truthfully about. Notice a theme here? It’s honesty. Using two separate samples based on the U.S. Census, the authors of this article published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that one-fifth of the population in the United States (21.9 percent in the first sample and 21.2 percent in the second sample) has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives.

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