Relationships 101: What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

29.10.2021
Stacey Garratt

“Whose bed have your boots been under?!,” famously airs Shania Twain’s dirty laundry where she exposes her partner's cheating. But, if you listen a little closer, Shania knows the names of the other women: Hello Jill, Lousie, Denise..!

Maybe it's not about cheating after all. Could Shania be a progressive queen singing about communication, boundaries and ethical non-monogamy?! ​​Honestly probably not, but let’s just pretend, okay?!

Wait, what’s ethical non-monogamy? 

Society tells us that monogamy, or having one intimate/romantic partner, is the most common love style among the masses. Ahem, enter ethical non-monogamy or ENM. 

ENM has been gaining traction for decades and has entered the mainstream relatively recently through articles, documentaries, and dating apps. While the exact definition will likely vary for unique people, ENM is an umbrella term for a love style in which folks engage with one or more romantic or sexual partners at a time. 

“Ethical” is essential as it encompasses the consent, understanding and enthusiastic participation needed from all involved for it not to be considered cheating. 

What are the different types of non-monogamous relationships?

If a relationship is consentingly non-monogamous, it probably falls within ENM. It can be sexual, and it can also be romantic. Some folks consider it a lifestyle, while others consider it a liberating and fun experience. Below are examples of the love styles that can be included under the ENM umbrella: 

-  Polyamory: Folks have multiple romantic relationships at the same time. Oftentimes, folks have a primary partner. 

-  Threesomes: A couple has a third person join them for sexual encounters, either as a one-night stand situation or more regularly. 

-  Swinging: A couple meets with other couples for sexual encounters where partners are swapped. Commonly, couples only engage with sex outside their primary couple during these arrangements/parties/dates. 

-  Monogamish: Monogamish refers to couples that principally enjoy a monogamous love style, but from time to time include others from outside the couple for special instances. 

-  One penis policy: When one person in the relationship (often a queer/bisexual female) in a relationship with a man (often who does not identify as queer) will pursue other females/femmes/queer/identifying women, but not other males. 

-  Polyfidelity: A group of folks who are all equal partners in the relationship. Often, sexual encounters and dating do not include people from outside the group. 

-  Open relationships: Considered another umbrella term, open relationships often include primary partners and folks who seek sexual or romantic relationships with others. 

- Hierarchical relationships: A relationship where two folks are primary partners while also having “secondary” partners. 

…and more! The beauty of ENM is it really is all about what best works for you, your love style, and the people you wish to engage with. If you'd like to read more, here's an expanded list of 14 types of non-monogamous relationships.

Why do folks pursue these different love styles? 

To have the cake and eat it too…duh!? But on a more serious note, there are plenty of reasons why people pursue ENM. 

Some folks view monogamy as a very possessive or restraining love style. 

Others pursue ENM because it allows them to be their most authentic and fullest selves, satisfying all their needs – and not just sexually. ENM allows some folks to have their emotional needs more fully met, as they are embraced with an abundance of love and support. 

Ethical non-monogamy can enhance the participants’ confidence and help them meet new people and move with new social circles. Some couples or primary partners turn to ENM to strengthen their relationship and connection since ENM requires effective communication, trust, and boundaries. 

If you're looking to pursue this type of love style, we recommend checking out our list of the best (and worst) dating apps for non-monogamous relationships.

Making ENM work 

There is no “one approach” that will make ENM work for everyone, but one thing that will help is consistent and clear communication. ENM may be something entirely new to you, which is super exciting, but can result in many new emotions and vulnerability. 

Figuring out your communication type is essential; you can discover this through many questions and pure honesty. This will help prevent future grief or hurt. 

If you have a primary partner, you will have to communicate about wants. Some couples want their primary to meet their other partners, while others don’t even want to see pictures. 

Open communication will limit partners from getting hurt, feeling paranoid or jealous (which, by the way, is normal to feel!). It will also be important to discuss schedules like date nights and sleepover patterns with others: are there no sleepovers, once a week, once a month?

Boundaries are everything. It isn’t a one-time convo either. This will be ongoing and ever-changing – because people and feelings evolve all the time! 

It is important to note that there is a considerable difference between rules and boundaries. 

Rules often = control, which is just not cool nor healthy. 

Boundaries, oppositely, are about protection for your individual mental and physical needs and limitations. 

You know deep down what you need to feel loved, safe, and protected. Folks usually find it best to discuss boundaries and limits before adding new dynamics or people to the scene.

Some examples of healthy boundaries include

  • “I do not wish to know the details of your sexual encounters with others.” 
  • “I do not want any affection while we are in public spaces.”
  • “Please do not share my personal information with your other partners.” 

Further, agreements will also make the dream work. 

Agreements can look like this,

  • “We won’t have sex with other partners in our bed.” 
  • “We will keep 3 nights a week for date nights together.” 
  • “We will only have sex with others when we’re both involved.” 
  • “We should pursue people outside of our social circle, no friends.” 

When exploring ENM, it is not the time to be aloof or play hard to get and have your partner guess how you’re feeling! Instead, be honest, open and make space compassionately. 

Monogamy does not = better sexual health

Like the title reads: monogamy does not = better sexual health! 

In fact, plenty of studies have shown the opposite: people in monogamous relationships can be at a higher risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because they may be cheating without communicating. 

These studies have also said those cheating are more likely to engage in risky sexual play, such as not using condoms. That’s not to say monogamy is bad, because it’s not. It just comes back to trust and communication. 

With any relationship that involves sex, there are always risks involved and ways to mitigate: 

Condoms & communication 

Okay, first off, sharing sexual fluids can be halted with the use of condoms to avoid certain STIs (think HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis). 

Still, some tricky ones are transmitted simply through skin touching skin, so they are a bit harder to protect from (think genital herpes and HPV). 

Nonetheless, using condoms is the most effective way to protect yourself and your partner from STIs – but so is communication. Ask your partners when their last STI check was and about their sexual health history. Being clear about that can help keep you both at ease while having fun. 

Testing time 

It’s a good idea to get tested for STIs routinely, which looks like every 3 – 6 months! Speak to trusted pals to get a recommendation for a good doctor familiar with your love style and community. Feeling heard and unjudged by your doctor does wonders for a healthy relationship with your body and mind. 

PrEP & PEP

As a quick refresher, PrEP is a preventative method for folks who are HIV-negative, and when taken as prescribed, daily, is up to 99% effective at protecting you from contracting HIV. PEP is used after a potential exposure to HIV and can reduce the risk of contracting by 80%, when used accordingly, within 72 hours of being exposed. You will want to be mindful of these options if you are sleeping with multiple new partners or having condom-less sex often. As said above, discussing your status with partners is crucial. To access PrEP and PEP, speak to your doctor, or, in an emergency, head to a hospital. 

If you'd like to gauge your need for PrEP, consider taking our free HIV risk assessment.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Having multiple partners can be so exciting and wonderful, but it’s not always going to be sunshine and rainbows. It’s so important to keep on top of how you’re really feeling in yourself and with your partner(s). 

This means checking in with yourself, discussing boundaries regularly, noting any jealousy or envy, and always carving out time for yourself. Never lose yourself to the dating world! 

Lots of folks seek out specific therapists too, which can be a valuable tool for developing coping skills and simply talking it out with other, non-judgemental folks. 

Different strokes for different folks

How you love and how you navigate the dating world should be entirely on your own terms. There’s no right or wrong love style; it comes down to whatever keeps you feeling happy, heard, and satisfied (emotionally and sexually). 

Relationships will never be perfect, but there is nothing more liberating than living and loving on your own terms. 

Written by:
Stacey Garratt

Stacey Garratt is a Los Angeles based writer with a passion for sexuality, comedy, relationships, and intersectional reproductive justice. Her work has won the silver Cleo Entertainment Award, the gold Obie Award, and placed in the Filmmatic Comedy Awards and Webby Awards. As a bisexual, ENM woman, she’s thrilled to be contributing to Freddie Magazine.

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