What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
“Non-monogamy” or “polyamory,” are terms that have been thrown around in recent years and most commonly associated with the kink community. “Ethical non-monogamy,” in particular, is becoming more prevalent in the modern dating scene. Though I’m finding that many people have little to no idea of the basic tenets surrounding it.
Urban Dictionary defines non-monogamy as “a sexual relationship that doesn’t disallow sexual expression or affection with other partners. This may present itself in many forms and many kinds of lifestyles including but not limited to swinging, polyamory, polygamy, open relationships, or simply couples having an occasional -threesome.”
Some Common Questions & Judgements:
“Non-monogamy is just an excuse for men to avoid commitment and use multiple women for sex without any consequences.”
“You’re being taken advantage of!”
“That’s for Mormons, pimps and harems.”
“Yeah, you’re definitely going to hell.”
“How do you have time to date more than one person?” (but really?)
“You’d have to be totally confident in your relationship to let your partner date other people.”
“How do you handle jealousy?”
“How can you trust that they truly care about you?
“They must not love you anymore if they’re looking elsewhere.”
“How do you define what’s cheating?”
“That’s one way to get an STD.”
“Doesn’t that just mean casual sex?”
As always, take what’s helpful and leave what’s not.
I’ve tried this whole “ethical non-monogamy” thing with several people — and have some thoughts on what it could be if done well. Ideally, non-monogamy is a construct which allows further freedom and exploration while in relationship. Well-functioning non-monogamous couples, thruples, etc., have stellar communication skills, great capacities for empathy, strong personal boundaries, and high levels of self-awareness.
Sometimes, they can even treat their partner’s openness to other connections as a way to increase their own capacity for love and intimacy — aka “compersion”— though this is traditionally more poly. In this way, love begets more love, and further exploration can only broaden their own perception and experience of what’s possible between two (or more) people. This isn’t a requirement, and many open relationships do just fine when the primary partner doesn’t interact with the other partner’s dates. This is where clear communication and boundaries come in.
Notice how I said “Ideally.”
Non-monogamy can also be a convenient way to avoid commitment altogether. When opening up an existing relationship, it can be used as a way to indulge in fantasy and escape from reality. If a partnership is already codependent, opening it up will only breed insecurity, jealousy, and martyrdom — meaning one partner will sacrifice their wants and needs in order to prolong the relationship. If one partner is unclear about their own boundaries or keeps breaking them, it is likely that they will be taken advantage of in a non-monogamous partnership.
Non-monogamy and all of it’s derivatives aren’t inherently any better or worse than good ol’ monogamy. It’s definitely not for everyone, nor does everyone have what it takes to make open relationships work. They require a hefty amount of self-worth, and demand a willingness to accept change as it comes, and prioritize clear, sober communication above all else.
Here are 4 things that I believe are absolutely necessary to ensure the “ethical” part of ethical non-monogamy…
#1 Informed Consent & Integrity
I cannot stress this enough. If your partner doesn’t know that you’re seeing other people (or even emotionally attached to other people) — it’s not ethical, it’s infidelity. Yes, really. If you are withholding shared knowledge — i.e., if Bob’s wife doesn’t know about Anna, but Anna thinks she does — it’s infidelity. If you break the boundaries of your open relationship which you agreed to uphold — it’s infidelity.
In order to have an equitable and healthy open relationship, both partners must be on board for the opening up of said relationship. They also must be on the same page about each other’s boundaries and limitations regarding non-monogamy. This means a lot of chatting about what you each want from this new adventure! Which brings me to number two…
#2 Communication, Communication, Communication!
At its most basic level, healthy communication means having the courage to say what you feel, and knowing how to take care of yourself around that feeling, regardless of how your partner shows up. This is much easier said than done, and it takes a lot of practice!
Polyamory and non-monogamy require a number of initiating discussions, which determine shared boundaries and rules, intentions, and expectations for how this dynamic will play out. The most important rules, I may argue, will be around sexual health and safety. How often do you and your partner get tested for STDs? What happens if you or your partner contracts an STD? Are you or your partner allowed to have unprotected sex with other people? This might seem like overkill, but it’s much better to get these things out of the way in the beginning of a dynamic rather than waiting until something actually happens to come up with an answer.
Some other things you may want to consider are how much you actually want to know about your partner’s other relationships. You can choose to be kept in the dark, and you can choose to know every detail — or any combination therein. You can make rules about what kinds of activities, spaces, and mutual friends are off-limits to other partners. You can keep first and/or last names private if it doesn’t feel safe to share them. You can ask for disclosure around developing feelings for other people. You can ask for check-ins before and after dates. You can pretty much craft any rulebook you want, but it must be born out of a mutually beneficial negotiation.
What do I mean by “mutually beneficial?” I mean that the purpose of these boundaries is to keep each of you safe and connected throughout this process, not satisfy one partner’s need for constant validation. You can ask for as much or as little reassurance you need, but you do need to ask for it. You can’t expect that your partner will magically read your mind and then get mad when they don’t. For example, if you expect you and your partner to move at exactly the same pace within external relationships, you’re not allowing for sexual freedom, you’re breeding codependence and heightening the chances for emotional abuse.
#3 Self-Trust & Awareness
This bit plays right into the healthy communication piece. Within my open relationship, I must be able to trust and honor what’s coming up for me. If I feel disappointment because my partner chose to be with someone else on any given night, I have a right to feel that and express it — even if my partner communicates their reasoning behind the decision. If something feels wrong, it probably is. If I start feeling suspicious, paranoid, or disregarded, and my partner isn’t willing to discuss my concerns, I must consider the possibility that the opening of this relationship is no longer serving its original purpose.
I must be able to wholly trust myself and my gut feelings within non-monogamous connections. Perhaps even more so than in monogamous ones. If I’m in danger of breaking one of my own boundaries, or betraying the trust I’ve instilled in my partner, it’s my responsibility to ask for what I need around what’s coming up for me. Basically, I have to teach myself how to track what I’m feeling in the moment, and communicate that in a contained and honest manner.
#4 Letting Go
You must be willing to let your partner date other people, plain and simple. This means letting go of the idea that you will forever be your partner’s one and only — scary, I know! You cannot rely on your partner to constantly make you feel special, prioritize your needs above everyone else’s (including their own), or devote all of their time and energy to your relationship. You must also let this illusion of control over your partner crumble. They were never yours to control, but now that this fact is suddenly shoved into your awareness, it might be a bit more difficult to swallow. You’re not going to figure it out overnight, and jealousy will come up. You will need to learn how to take care of yourself, self-soothe, and yes, ask for more reassurance when you need it!
You’ll also need to address letting go of the relationship ideal that’s built around a monogamous partnership. If you’re the primary partner, the current relationship will need to be redefined. You must let go of the story that adding more people into the mix means less love will be available for you and your primary partner. If you’re entering into a relationship as an additional partner, you’ll need to redefine your expectations about how available this person is going to be for you. In this scenario, embrace the concept that you can be equally loved and valued in a partnership where you’re not the only one.
How Do I Know If This Is Right For Me?
Here’s where we get to the questions that you really should be asking yourself and your partner when considering opening up (or entering) into a non-monogamous partnership.
Am I capable of loving more than one person at a time?
Can I stomach the idea of my partner dating other people?
If I had to live monogamously for the rest of my life, would it feel like a sacrifice?
Do I desire emotional and/or physical connections with people other than my current partner?
Do I feel safe enough to share these thoughts and feelings with them as they arise?
Do I have enough time to take care of myself, be in my current partnership, and date other people?
Do I need monogamy to feel safe, special, or loved?
Can I see the opening of my relationship as an addition, rather than a subtraction?
Do I really want this?
If you answered yes to a few of these, it may be time to do some research! I’ve recommended some good places to start below if you’re interested in learning more. If you got mostly no’s, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking with what’s familiar. I, myself, am curious about further exploring non-monogamy — but I would prefer to have a strong foundation in a primary partnership before considering opening it up.
As always, I’d love to know about other perspectives, thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding open relationships, non-monogamy, and polyamory. What has worked for you? What are the pitfalls you’ve experienced? I think the best way to move forward is by increasing visibility, participating in a larger conversation, and chipping away at any remaining taboo associated with these concepts and practices. I’m all for anything that increases sexual liberation and expression, especially within American culture. So, please, tell me, how does this land on you? ;)