What The &#*@ Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy, consensual non-monogamy, polyamory, polygamy, swinging, open relating… huh?
A lot of these words get used interchangeably – a symptom of the mononormative world that we live in and its hostility towards deviations from the nuclear family. However, there are functional differences between these terms. With more people discussing these relational possibilities, and more coverage of ethical non-monogamy in the mainstream media, let’s dig into some distinctions.
Roughly 4 – 5% of Americans self-disclose as ethically non-monogamous, which is certainly the minority. Perhaps this is why so few people, even those practicing non-monogamy, understand its nuances. And we get it, some people are used to living life a certain way, in accordance with certain norms, so it can seem pointless and maybe even daunting(!?) to learn about relational diversity. But, we truly believe that knowing a little bit more about ethical non-monogamy and relationships by design can #open your horizons (pardon the pun, we really can’t help ourselves) to new possibilities of living, loving, relating, communicating, and growing.
What’s Ethical Non-monogamy (ENM) Anyway? What’s Mononormativity?
ENM, also known as consensual non-monogamy (CNM), refers to a structure of relating romantically or sexually with multiple people. The ethical or consensual piece means that everyone involved is aware of all other partners and they’re all on board. ENM is an umbrella term that encompasses the many different ways in which non-traditional relationships manifest IRL. And we know that more people are considering and exploring this lifestyle in our rapidly changing post-pandemic world.
ENM is a living, breathing way of relating –– a sentient relationship style that is constantly shifting and changing based upon the needs, wants, and capacities of those involved. Some people decide on certain structures and rules to follow whilst practicing ENM, whereas others specifically choose not to subscribe to any particular model.
It is interesting to contemplate why the word “ethical” is used when referring to non-monogamy but not monogamy. Perhaps this is another manifestation of mononormativity where the normative (monogamous) style of relating is seen as inherently ethical and anything that differs from it is not. Either way, many people prefer to simply call it ‘non-monogamy’, leaving off any moral qualifiers.
Beyond sexuality and romance, NM is a way of relating to others and the world beyond the normative expectations built into our modern society. Mononormativity, as defined by Wiktionary, refers to “the assumption that romantic and sexual relationships can only occur, or are only normal, between two monogamous partners.” NM, by definition, challenges this assumption and endeavors to find ways of existing and relating outside of the normative paradigm.
Mononormativity impacts everyone, not just those who have a natural inclination to stray away from cultural norms. Monogamous relationships can also be negatively impacted by the constraints of mononormativity too. One study found that marriage causes other social bonds to be weakened. The Atlantic piece linked above comments that “social alienation is so fully integrated into the American ideology of marriage that it’s easy to overlook.”
Check out our #openEd episode with Nayeli Rancon from @antimononormative for a juicy discussion on Deconstructing Mononormativity:
‘Relationships by design’, a phrase that acknowledges that we deserve to create relationships that we actually want, is an important part of non-monogamy. It gives us autonomy in how we show up in relationships, how we communicate, how our needs get met, and how we meet the needs of the ones we love (or don’t). At #open, we like to call this the Relationship Choice Approach, and it also understands that when you’re clear about your wants, needs, intentions, kinks, fantasies, and end goal, your chances at compatibility with other(s) is much higher! The relationship choice approach is why we allow so much transparency in user profiles. After all, there are as many ways to practice ENM as there are labels for those practices. There are just as many ways to play the game as players playing it. And, there can be as many players as the players playing want to play with.
A lot of our vocabulary is still evolving and it’s exciting to be a dating app on the front lines of this modern wave of people exploring alternative, regenerative and community-focused ways to live and love. Any expression of ENM, that is practiced with care, communication and consent, is valid.
As its etymology suggests, polyamory strongly emphasizes “love” and emotional connection. In this style of relating, those involved are open to one or more sexual or romantic relationships with multiple partners.
It opens the possibility for commitment and deep emotional bonds to be made among multiple partners. In this way a sense of freedom is given to all members, whereby there isn’t an expectation or pressure to meet all of the needs of one partner.
Many styles of polyamory exist, with some being hierarchical, and some anarchical.
In hierarchical polyamory, priority is given to a primary relationship, while others are labeled ‘secondary’. Certain partners (primaries) prioritize each other for things like cohabitation, vacations, or other milestones typically associated with the relationship escalator, but are still permitted to make new connections. Sometimes, primary partners are allowed to ‘veto’ their partner’s secondary relationships, but there’s been a lot of pushback against this practice. In fact, hierarchical polyamory gets viewed as an unfair and unethical way of practicing polyamory in many spaces, but as long as everyone is communicating and consenting, we maintain that this is a valid relationship style.
In anarchical or non-hierarchical polyamory no prioritizing or ranking system is enforced. There are no primary or secondary partners and no particular relationship is designated as having the right to make decisions and set limitations about other relationships in the polycule. Some people believe that anarchical polyamory is the superior way because of the inherent equality between all involved.
A polycule is a group of people who are connected in a network by shared romantic relationships, though not necessarily directly. Polycules may be formed of throuples and quads where every member has a romantic relationship with another.
A throuple also known as a triad is an intentional, committed romantic relationship between three partners.
A quad is a polyamorous relationship that involves four individuals in some capacity. Some quads are four-way committed relationships, while others have different dynamics.
However, polycules are often formed where two or more people may be connected through a mutual partner(s), but may not necessarily be sexually or romantically relating to eachother.
Polyfidedlity refers to a polycule structure in which all members are equal partners that agree to restrict sexual or romantic activity only to other members of the group.
A V relationship, also known as a hinge, is a structure where one person is in a romantic relationship with two people, but those two people are not in a committed partnership with each other.
Polygamy, often confused with polyamory, refers to when one individual is married to more than one spouse. It often adheres to gender ratios where one man has two or more wives, who are romantically limited to him only –– more specifically, this is called polygyny. Alternatively, a relationship dynamic where a woman has two or more husbands is known as polyandry.
Polygamy raises ethical concerns in the U.S. for reinforcing heteronormativity and other systemic inequalities. It is often viewed exclusively as a means for subjugating women due to sexist and xenophobic misunderstandings of the practice but there are socioeconomic factors that cause women to desire it. Polygamy researcher Debra Majeed noted the importance of dismantling ideas of powerless Black American Muslim women, and powerless women overall, who choose to practice polygyny.
“Some women I have interviewed look for an opportunity to be a second wife because they want to continue their careers, they do not want the full-time responsibilities of a husband and they are economically set, but they do want to experience the benefits of marriage,” she stated in an interview for NPR. “And in Islam, the family is the nucleus of Islamic society, and legitimate sexual intercourse can occur only within the bounds of marriage. So for some women, sharing a husband is preferred.”
While #open does not support any relationship dynamic that harms or subjugates women, we do not want to assert an ethnocentric view that ignores women’s agency or directs moral outrage at a cultural practice. In fact, it would be hypocritical of us; monogamy is demonstrably rooted in women’s subjugation and abuse.
Interestingly, U.S. laws regarding polygamy emerged in the nineteenth century as a pretext for attacking the Mormon community, as well as due to anti-blackness and xenophobia. Because the LDS church publicly practiced polygamy –– which was seen as a barbaric practice exclusive to African and Asian peoples –– lawmakers felt that the (Christian) American ideal of the nuclear family was under threat. In that context, we felt a nuanced definition of polygamy was important to include, with the caveat that many people take offense when their polyamory is mislabeled polygamy, polygyny, or polyandry.
In an open relationship, partners open up to sexual relationships with other people. They might search for new relationships together, separately, or a combination of both. Usually what differs between open relationships and polyamory is that polyamory can involve multiple committed partners; in an open relationship, there may be additional emotional and romantic connections made, but the primary relationship may get top priority.
As with many forms of ENM, definitions for open and polyamorous relationships can overlap. Some polyamorous relationships might be open, in that people are welcome to date and commit to new partners. On the other hand, a polycule could be closed, where no one is actively looking for a new partner.
Swinging is a sexual practice in which singles or people in committed, ethically non-monogamous relationships engage in sexual activities with other couples and singles as a form of recreation and socialization. Swinging often involves, but is not limited to, switching partners.
Monogamish is a word coined by sex columnist Dan Savage that describes a person that is not quite monogamous, yet doesn’t consider themselves fully non-monogamous either. Perhaps two people are in a committed relationship but they occasionally open up the relationship to have sex with other individual partners or in a group sex setting , or perhaps it’s two people simply attending play events together but not sleeping with anyone else. There are so many different ways to be monogamish, just like the other labels we’ve mentioned.
People can shift and change in their living expression of ethical non-monogamy. A couple might move from being monogamous to being in an open relationship, to swinging, to being in a closed polycule. Sometimes people temporarily close their relationships to focus on a pregnancy, childcare, or other life responsibilities. Someone can be single and ethically non-monogamous. Someone can currently have one partner and be ethically non-monogamous. Someone in a non-monogamous couple could be dating less people than their partner and still count as ethically non-monogamous. We want to reiterate that no one form of NM is more valid than the other as long as there is care, communication, and consent between all involved.
Why Would Anyone Practice Non-Monogamy?
There are many reasons for choosing ENM. Often it stems from a desire to be more creative in how our sexuality is expressed, to explore different ways to have our needs met, and to learn how to grow as an individual and unit.
For ethical non-monogamy to work, honest, open communication is key. To be a good communicator, one must first understand what’s happening within themselves emotionally, mentally, physically and energetically. Thus, those who actively practice ENM tend to have a certain awareness about their inner landscapes that others might lack. Research has found that people in monogamous relationships are less satisfied with the amount of communication and openness they have with their partners compared to people in non-monogamous relationships.
If you’re interested in actively participating in your relationships with yourself and others, want to dismantle mononormativity, wish to inquire about how to meet your needs without overburdening one individual, are curious to explore your sexuality, or just have an interest in relational diversity, you might enjoy the colorful, inclusive, and welcoming #open community. Download the app today and #open a whole new world of possibilities.