What actually is ethical non-monogamy?
Non monogamy has a vast and sprawling history but “ENM” seems to be the buzzword we’re all currently obsessing over. That’s ethical non-monogamy for the uninitiated. But what is ethical non-monogamy, and why does it seem to be everywhere right now?
Non-monogamous people seem to be all over mainstream dating apps these days and discourse over whether this is ‘fair’ on single people seeking other single people for monogamous unions are rife online. OkCupid allowed polyamorous couples to link their profiles way back in 2016 and Hinge introduced its relationship style tags, giving users the power to disclose whether they were exploring as a couple, single person or whether they were in an open or ENM relationship.
Many academics and sexperts argue that we’re not hardwired for monogamy and that monogamous relationships only came about due to a mix of cultural necessity, self preservation and the advent of patriarchal society (love that for us).
Recent studies go some way to proving this point, in fact in January 2020, a YouGov poll found that about one-third of US adults believe that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous “to some degree”.
“Non-monogamy has been around throughout civilisation.” says intimacy and sex coach, Dr Lori Beth Bisbey. “The term ethical non-monogamy has appeared over the past 15 or so years as a way of differentiating ‘cheating’ from chosen non-monogamous relationships. Consensual non-monogamy is the preferred term these days because it highlights the fact that consent, which is crucial to these relationships working.”
Everyone seems to be in an “ENM” relationship these days, but what does that actually mean? And what’s the difference between ethical non-monogamy, polyamory and consensual non-monogamy? And if something is specifically “ethical” does that mean “unethical” monogamy is a relationship style that people are choosing too? All sounds kind of fun, IDK.
Is ENM the same as polyamory?
There are several different types of what people consider to be ethical non-monogamy. “ENM and CNM are umbrella terms that cover lots of forms of sexual and romantic connections involving more than one partner.” explains Dr Bisbey. “ These range from monogamish - a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage - where a couple is mostly monogamous but allows an occasional sexual dalliance outside the relationship, through to polyamory where there are full relationships with more than one partner.” Within these relationships there may be long-term marriages, primary, secondary and casual partners and solid polycules.
Dr Bisbey explains that “these might include throuples, where three people are in a relationship together or “kitchen table” polyamory where all partners and metamours (partners of partners) know and get along with each other.” There are also V relationships - in which one person will have relationships with two people but these people don’t socialise or connect and there’s or solo polyamory - where a person has multiple relationships but prioritises their status as solo. They might unicorn, date couples or be seeing a few people at one time with full transparency.
ENM also encompasses swinging and partner swapping, which is deemed closer to being “monogamish” than polyamory by most communities. Any kind of open relationship, whether you’re coupled up and committed or single and exploring can technically fall under the umbrella of ENM or CNM. Even those who deem themselves “relationship anarchists” and reject all forms of hierarchy or labelling when it comes to love and sex are still, ironically, ENM.
What’s a primary partner?
Polycule, polysecure, primary partner - there’s a lot of lingo that comes with the territory and the vast lexicon of ENM can be confusing. It seems that most people who explore any type of relationship outside of traditional cis-het monogamy will apply the label “ENM” to their relationship to make it easier to explain it to others.
“I am in a mono-poly parallel relationship” says Alanis, a 25-year old who lives in Wiltshire with her partner, Aaron, 28. “My partner engages in sex outside of our relationship and I will join sometimes but I have only played with girls. That works for us because I like to only have one male partner at a time. However, I still do enjoy playing with multiple people and feel it strengthens our connection and exercises our trust and loyalty to each other.”
Alanis says she defines ENM as “a relationship dynamic that allows for multiple sexual and romantic connections at the same time. One that requires a strong foundation built on trust, communication and a strong understanding of the other person’s values and morals.”
Aaron, agrees. “I truly believe that the act of trusting one another has only brought us closer and built a solid foundation. Nothing makes me smile more than being out with my committed primary partner and seeing a beautiful woman and we both look at each other and smile. Neither of us are ashamed of finding other people attractive and it feels liberating to be able to speak our minds.” he says.
But is ENM really ethical?
There’s been a spike in the use of the term ENM, especially among younger people. However, some seem to be using the term *very* loosely, seemingly in order to justify good old fashioned fucboi behaviour.
“It is trendy to be ENM or CNM now - but it is not the easiest of relationship styles.” says Dr Bisbey, whose Channel 4 TV show Open House: The Great Sex Experiment sees people from all walks of life opening their relationships. “You need superb communication, emotional and negotiation skills to make it work long-term. Many people do not have a good grasp of consent and so use these terms without actually gaining consent from all of their partners. And some use ENM as a way of justifying their behaviour.”
There's plenty of dishonesty in consensual non-monogamy that I have seen, as someone studying it full time since 2015.” agrees Dr Martin. “Plenty of open non-monogamy is happening because one partner reluctantly agrees to do it to save the relationship.”
And that’s why the E in ENM really matters. Your intentions, your care and empathy for your partners and your treatment of them, including how you communicate and how transparent you are about your actions all characterise ENM. After all, just saying you’re ENM and hooking up with multiple people doesn’t make it okay if your partner isn’t okay with it.
“The majority find the subject quite polarising and some find it quite shocking. It can be a negative reaction as they can't relate and feel it's wrong.” explains Aaron. “But what makes it ‘ethical’ for us is that we can be completely transparent and open with each other. It allows us to set boundaries and put trust in one another. The act of testing the trust between us, leads to there being more trust, truly feels backwards but it's beautiful.”
But Dr Wednesday Martin argues that we need a better term than “ethical non-monogamy” to describe this style of relationship. “People who practise open non-monogamy or disclosed non-monogamy are not more "ethical" than a woman who is covertly non-monogamous because she might be killed for it.” she explains. “The term ‘ethical’ non-monogamy is for people who haven't examined their privilege. You're not more ethical, you're lucky and privileged to live in an ecology where you won't experience reputational assault or literal assault and potential lethal violence for being non-monogamous. DNM or ONM (disclosed or open non monogamy are much better terms).”
And Dr Martin makes a very good point. DNM does seem to be a mainstay of certain communities and dating app users. Is there a ‘right’ or ‘ethical’ way to practise non-monogamy? Given that many people view non-monogamy as inherently immoral anyway?
“Also plenty of people who are DNM are far from ethical. They might not disclose their STI status. They might have retrograde gender politics which are harmful to themselves and their partners. They might never have ‘done the work’ to develop excellent communication, empathy and relational skills, which when you're into DNM is very unethical in my view.”
How to be non-monogamous
“It’s very easy to think of an ENM relationship as one where both parties do what they want and don’t respect each other.” says Alanis. “There are always going to be people with that view. Maybe in the future this will change! I suppose the choices we make are ethical because we make them together. Whilst my partner can make the choices he wants to, he also will always talk to me about them first and make it clear if I don’t want him to do something, he won’t do it. That I am his priority. For us, this dynamic feels fair and natural.”
There’s no right way to be non-monogamous or practise polyamory, it really varies from person to person, depending on your attachment style and what you feel comfortable with as an individual or as a couple. For Daisy, a 34-year old PR from London, ENM is a part of her marriage. “Our idea of non-monogamy has changed, and how it fits into our relationship has changed. Most times, we share sexual experiences together, as a couple with other couples and individuals, but we have started to explore separately, which dramatically helps several areas of our relationship, including communication.” she says.
“This is the first time both of us have been in this type of relationship, and we would both agree that it is the healthiest relationship that we have each had, and we are both better for it. But it wasn’t easy, it has taken a lot of trust, communication, support, growth and respect for us to get to this point and it is an ongoing process. But we have had some negative reactions which can make us feel uncomfortable, frustrated and has sadly damaged friendships.”
Daisy says that communication, honesty and never assuming anything have been key to building her ENM relationship. She also recommends taking things slowly, going at a pace that suits you, regardless of whether your partner wants to dive in headfirst and building a community of like-minded people using apps like Feeld and WeAreX.
“The main challenges of being in an ENM relationship are setting up experiences - many plans fall through, or people go off the grid after talking for ages.” says Daisy. “You’ll also have to struggle with your insecurities as they do get the better of you. And you have to navigate sexual libidos. There will be times where you won’t be on the same page sexually, and one person will want to be involved more than the other, or you’ll be on your period, or just not in the mood. It really is the same as any other kind of dating.”
If you have the benefit of being with someone who is keen to do what it takes to open your relationship, it seems ENM can be an incredibly enriching experience. People who practise polyamory often use the term “compersion” when describing the pleasure they get from seeing a partner romantically or sexually fulfilled by another person. It’s that empathy that seems to be the sweet spot for people who engage in consensually non-monogamous relationships.
And the latest research does seem to support the idea that we are naturally curious about open relationships. “When I interviewed dozens of experts and women for my book Untrue I learned that women in partnerships are often initiating the conversations around non-monogamy.” says Dr Martin. “We do know that in the aggregate, monogamy is a much tighter shoe for women than it is for men and the more political, financial and professional power women get, the more they will be reinventing relationships in ways that suit them.”
“I like the thought that we are both free to do what we want but still choose each other without having to sacrifice who we are.” Alanis tells Cosmopolitan UK. “I don’t want to change my partner. I love him and I never thought I would be in an ENM relationship, however, I couldn’t imagine being happier.”
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