Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM; also sometimes referred to as consensual non-monogamy) is an umbrella term that describes relationship philosophies and practices that deliberately make room for intimate interpersonal relationships which are not exclusively between two people.
Ethically non-monogamous individuals may form multiple and simultaneous relationships at a time while respecting any terms they have discussed and co-created with their partner(s). These relationships can be loving, affectionate, romantic, and/or sexual in nature.
Why People Choose Ethical Non-Monogamy
The ways people approach and participate in non-monogamy, as well as the range of reasons why someone subscribes to such a relationship philosophy or lifestyle, are vast.
The freedom to explore one's sexuality is a common motive. Whether it’s to experiment with one’s sexual orientation or explore fantasies or kinks their partner isn’t comfortable with, ethical-monogamy allows a person to delve into other experiences without compromising their current relationship.
Another typical reason is that some relationships, while still important and loving, can’t meet all of one’s sexual and romantic needs. To reduce the strain on the individuals within the relationship, an agreement is met to look outside that relationship in some way in order to fulfill these unmet needs.
Whatever the justification, a consensual and informed understanding is met through communication of needs and boundaries on all sides for it to be considered ethical non-monogamy.
Non-Monogamy versus Cheating
Non-monogamy refers broadly to any interpersonal circumstances which do not adhere to the committed and exclusive coupling of two people, and therefore can include infidelity, or cheating. In an ethically non-monogamous structure, the terms of any given relationship structure are determined by the people involved in the relationship or interwoven collection of relationships (also sometimes known as a “polycule”).
The ethical descriptor in ENM stresses that all parties have communicated the terms of their relationship and respect those boundaries in context. While infidelity within an ethically non-monogamous relationship is as possible as it is in any relationship structure, it is not inherent.
Common Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy
Polyamory is a common form of ethical non-monogamy where multiple sexual or romantic relationships are maintained, often simultaneously. It continues to gain in popularity as mainstream discussions of this relationship model have increased in recent years.
Polyamory emphasizes practices of open communication and negotiation to assure the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved is respected. It can involve long-term committed relationships to one or more people. The greater network of interweaving and overlapping partnerships is referred to as a polycule.
Polyamory can be hierarchical in nature or not. Some people approach it from the foundation of a main, or primary, dyadic (two-person) relationship, where a two-person partnership opens itself up to include other simultaneous relationships. In other cases, such as in solo polyamory, a single person may engage in multiple meaningful relationships while maintaining their independence or single living status.
In the case where a main partnership exists, it can be considered primary under a hierarchical structure. Other descriptions include nesting partner (i.e. a partner with whom you choose to live and create a home with) and anchor partner. In non-hierarchical structures, anchor partner is used as the equivalent to “primary”, given to a partner one deems a prominent or central figure in one’s life, but without assigning it a hierarchical classification.
An open relationship is an arrangement within a dyadic relationship where one or both partners are open to engaging intimately with others outside the confines of the primary relationship.
Most often, this approach gives permission to one or both partners to pursue sexual encounters outside the relationship if and when they arise. This model can also include occasionally inviting a third person into the dyadic dynamic for sexual threesomes or other casual group sex activities.
Compared to polyamory which tends to involve more commitment to ongoing relationships, open relationships typically lend themselves more often to trysts and casual sexual affairs. Romantic and/or affectionate connections can happen ethically under the terms of a given open relationship, however they seem to be less common.
Regardless of its iteration, open relationships tend to operate under the understanding that the dyadic relationship which has been opened is the primary relationship and takes precedence over any other engagement, indicating a hierarchy of importance.
Relationship anarchy is a relationship approach, typically non-hierarchical in nature, where the pre-set rules and expectations of conventional relationship models are not observed. The partners involved in the relationship structure determine what systems and structures suit them and their current needs. They agree upon and maintain them together.
This structure tends to be non-hierarchical, in that a primary partnership does not take priority over any others. Everyone and all partnerships are considered equal and important in their own right. This philosophy carries through all important and intimate relationships, from close friendships to romantic and sexual connections.
If relationship anarchy prioritizes anything it is personal autonomy within and without any relationship.
Other types of ethical non-monogamy can include:
- Threesomes: When a primary couple brings in a third person to have sex with them, or three people agree to engage in consensual sexual activity.
- Triads or Throuples: When three people form a relationship together.
- Cuckolding: When a couple invites a third person in to have sex with one of them, typically while the other person. watches. Sometimes, also referred to as hotwifing or cuckqueaning depending on the configuration.
- Swinging: When a couple makes arrangements with another couple with the intention of trading or swapping their partners for the occasion.
- Polyfidelity: When a group of more than two people are all equal partners to other members of the group.
- Monogamish: A form of open relationship where a couple considers itself monogamous for all intents and purposes, however may occasionally engage in sexual activities with people outside their relationship under certain agreed upon circumstsances.
- Casual sex and/or dating: When someone dates and pursues sexual relationships, possibly with multiple people simultaneously, without the expectations of a romantic or committed relationship