A Beginner’s Guide to Ethical Non-Monogamy

More people than ever before are redesigning their relationships to better suit them. But what exactly can that look like, and what does that mean? Ethical non-monogamy (ENM), which can take many forms, is a way of crafting relationships that differs from monogamy, and can be an option when people are redesigning how their relationships function. Here four people outline what that looks like for them and how to know if it’s for you. Written by Alice Broster 

Many people will remember the first time they learnt about sex and relationships. It may have been at home or in the classroom. Playground whisperings may have taught you what love and lust could look like, or TV series like Skins and Gossip Girl may have played a big part in your sexual awakening. When the notion that two people meet and fall for each other (even for one night) is so normalised it can be easy to not even question the structures of your relationship. 

However, if you’ve read the Killing Kittens blog or attended a party then you may already be questioning whether opening up your relationships to include more people might be something that would make you happy. If you’ve communicated that desire to any partners you already have, and perhaps are beginning to take steps towards this opening up, then what you’re starting to explore can be broadly described as ethical non-monogamy.

Ethical Non-Monogamy: ENM Meaning

Simply put, ethical non-monogamy is when people consensually decide to add more sexual or romantic partners to their lives. This may mean expanding or opening up an existing monogamous relationship, or it might refer to the preferences of a single person who is looking for connections. Not everyone in ENM relationships might call themselves ethically non-monogamous. It may be that one person in a couple is polyamorous, and goes on dates, whilst the other person in the couple is monogamous with their polyamorous partner. The foundation of ENM is that it’s consensual and versatile, designed to suit the needs and desires of everyone involved. All parties in any kind of ENM relationship know exactly what’s going on. 

Consensual Non Monogamy

It’s becoming increasingly popular to refer to ENM as consensual non-monogamy, as this elides the implicit moral judgement couched in the word “ethical”. It also centres the absolute importance of the informed consent of all parties in these non-monogamous arrangements. For the purposes of this article, we are going to use ENM and consensual non-monogamy interchangeably. 

Different Types Of Ethical Non-Monogamy

Some different types of ethical or consensual non-monogamy can also be labelled as: 

Swinging

When couples or individuals meet to swap partners, often for one night at a time. 

Polyamory

Preferring to have multiple intimate relationships with different people. You may choose to have primary and secondary relationships, in which a primary relationship may be of more emotional or practical significance (e.g. if you live and share financial commitments with your primary relationship) or you may have several relationships of entirely equal weight.

Having an open relationship

Having an open relationship can mean pretty much anything you’d like it to. It refers to when couples ‘open’ their relationship to others, sexually, romantically, or both. Most typically, an open relationship is understood to refer to a monogamous couple that has sex with other people, either together or seperately. 

Polyfidelity 

This is where multiple partners are in a relationship together and all are considered equal. All partners agree to restrict sexual or romantic activity only to members of the group. 

Being monogamish

Like swinging or being in an open relationship this could describe an individual or couple who mostly choose to engage in two-person relationships (monogamy) but are open to inviting others in under certain circumstances or at certain times. 

What Should I Call My ENM Relationship? 

How you choose to label your relationship and the guidelines you decide to follow are entirely up to you. ENM is a freeing way to express your love and sexuality in a way that fits you and your partners. That means it can look entirely different for many people. These labels can be seen to serve more as guidelines than rules, offering space rather than delineating boundaries.

Consensual non-monogamy has become increasingly popular in mainstream American and European culture and dating. A YouGov study highlighted that of the 1,300 US adults they spoke to, 32% said their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous to some degree. 

What Does Monogamous Mean?

As ethical non-monogamy is the consensual decision to expand from the hegemonic model of a two-person partnership, monogamy describes having a romantic and sexual relationship with one person at a time. 

Aiden and Shea were in a monogamous relationship for four years before they spoke about ENM. “I think the biggest challenges we’ve faced is from friends who think because we’ve found that opening our relationship is the best thing for us, we are somehow condemning monogamy as a whole, which isn’t the case” says Shea. “It’s totally possible to love more than one person.”

In many ways, monogamy and ENM should be about the same things. They are both about finding ways to receive the love, affection, and pleasure that each partner wants and deserves; whether that’s with one partner or more. That ENM and monogamy can be perceived differently comes from cultural norms, perceptions and stigma, as well as patriarchy and capitalism, systems that have directly shaped and benefit from the heteronormative model of monogamy. 

Non-Monogamy Meaning (vs. ENM)

As mentioned above, the ethical part of ethical non-monogamy isn’t a decorative add-on. It’s more than a fun buzzword. It cuts to the very core of what ethical or consensual non-monogamy is. 

“There are other forms of non-monogamy that aren’t ethical or consensual,” says Liv, who identifies as polyamorous. “Cheating on your partner is non-monogamy. Lying to your partner about sleeping with other people is non-monogamy. It definitely isn’t ethical though.” 

Ethical non-monogamy isn’t pressuring your partner into opening up your relationship so you can have sex with other people. It isn’t having sex with people who aren’t your partner and not telling them, unless this has been discussed and established as part of your consensual or ethical non-monogamous set-up, and it isn’t a way of hurting your partner or making them jealous. Those emotions are totally valid and may well come up, regardless of the number of conversations that are had about ENM, but you shouldn’t enter a non-monogamous set-up with the intention to cause those feelings. 

Ensuring that every person is aware of other partners, whether they’re romantic or sexual, means that they can make an informed decision that that’s something they’re comfortable with and happy to pursue. This is fundamental to the philosophy of consensual non-monogamy.

“I know, having now had multiple partners, I am a much better communicator in my relationships because you have to be,” says Liv. “While I might have the desire to be with more than one person, that person has every right to say that it isn’t for them.” 

How Do You Know If ENM Is For You?

There’s no tick list to confirm that ethical non-monogamy will definitely be for you. Any person may discover that they benefit from exploring ENM.

You may have been with your current partner for weeks, months, or years, or maybe you’re single. You may be excited by the notion of opening up your relationship if you have enjoyed, or enjoy the idea of, multiple partner sex.

Maybe you’ll want to explore ENM in your relationships if you’ve been to sex clubs and parties before, like our KK parties, and have enjoyed playing with multiple people – although it’s worth noting that sex parties aren’t necessarily the best measure of ENM compatibility. It’s possible to go to a sex party as a monogamous couple, and play only with each other, and not be interested in any kind of ENM. Maybe you’ve never been to a sex club or party or experienced multiple partners before.

There is no prescriptive way to find your way to ENM. So long as it feels true to you, you can be assured that you are joining a thriving community that is ready to welcome you. 

Luca had spoken to their partner about their desire for consensual non-monogamy long before they acted on it. “I wanted to make sure we were on the same page, and we knew we wanted to open our relationship long before we actually went to a sex party,” they say. “Talking about it and setting our boundaries made it feel incredibly safe.” 

How to speak to your partners about ethical non-monogamy 

So, if you’ve heard about ethical non-monogamy and think it could be the relationship dynamic that could make you happiest, the next step is talking to your current partner, if you are in a relationship already. Transparency and being open about desires are fundamental to allowing your current and any future partner/s to consent. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t daunting. 

“When I first approached Aiden to explain I might want to explore consensual non-monogamy, my first fear was that he would leave me or that he’d think he wasn’t enough,” says Shea. “I now realise that’s a stigma that I’ve internalised from a society that pushes the idea that if you’re looking for intimacy or affection outside of a monogamous relationship then you must be missing something.” 

She says that she now sees ethical non-monogamy as enhancing the relationship she has to ensure that she’s getting everything she needs. And that doesn’t just have to come from one person. 

However, before you start exploring ethical non-monogamy it can be good to consider these five things. 

Do your research

Before you work out how you might want to be ethically non-monogamous it can be good to explore why you want to do this. What type of relationships are you interested in? What is it that most excites, comforts and challenges you when you think about ENM? Reach out to other people (perhaps within the Killing Kittens community) who are already ethically non-monogamous. They’ll be able to provide you with a wealth of lived experiences, funny stories, and ways to explore what you might want. 

Communication

From your first conversation about ethical non-monogamy you need to approach your partner/s, and indeed yourself, with respect, honesty, and empathy. If you’re nervous or confused then say so. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or jealous then try to create a safe space where you can express that. Just because you’ve initiated something doesn’t mean you have to always be okay with it! ENM is challenging, even if you’re wholeheartedly invested in exploring it.

“When there are multiple people in a relationship dynamic it can be really easy for people’s feelings to be hurt and for them to be overlooked,” says Luca. “Many people are coming to ethical non-monogamy from a place of love so don’t be afraid to express how you feel.” 

Check-ins

One way to build this communication with your partners could be by doing regular check-ins. Checking in with your partners may give them the space to talk about any desires or anything they’re concerned about without having to raise it themselves out of nowhere. 

This can be as formalised or not as suits you. Your check-ins could be a once a week date night where you make sure you give each other space to talk about your feelings. It could be that you both have a journal that you write your thoughts and emotions in, and the other will read over the latest additions. Maybe you can develop a phrase that will check if the conversation is available. This phrase can then be used any time you are alone together. There are so many options: the important thing is that conversation keeps flowing and people feel able to express themselves. 

Ground rules

Ethical non-monogamy can look really different for different people so setting ground rules may help you understand and navigate what both you and your partners want. 

Do you want to invite new partners into your current relationship or pursue new partnerships separately? Do you want to know about each other’s partners? Is there anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with? If you have children together, will you bring these partners into their lives at any point?

Nothing is set in stone

Lastly, it’s so important to remember that nothing is set in stone. Just because you’ve made a decision doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it.

“Consensual non-monogamy can be a real journey and the awesome thing is [when already in a relationship] you’re taking it with someone you love,” says Aiden. “There’s a lot of trial and error so we took it in baby steps. Dip your toe in and see what you like. If you’re not into something then you don’t have to do it again.” 

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