Ethical non-monogamy (or ENM) refers to the practice of non-monogamy in a, well, ethical manner. The title implies that you can be unethical in non-monogamy (which I find interesting because how many unethical monogamists do you know? Right, exactly.)
The term and practice has been explored in countless books and blogs, most notably Ethical Slut, More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, and Opening Up. In recent years, it appears people have become more open to non-traditional relationships or have become more open about how free they are in their relationships. ENM might be practiced by your neighbors, friends and family without you knowing it.
In this article I will break down ENM and its different parts and give some tips on how to practice it if you find yourself called to it. If you already have some experience with ENM then you might learn something new.
ENM is sometimes referred to as CNM, which means “consensual non-monogamy.” For the purposes of this article, I will focus on CNM and ENM synonymously because ethical non-monogamy requires consent at its core.
First, let’s back up and get a handle on what non-monogamy means. Generally speaking, non-monogamy means having relationships with more than one partner. According to Wikipedia, non-monogamy is defined as “an umbrella term for every practice or philosophy of intimate relationship that does not strictly hew to the standards of monogamy, particularly that of having only one person with whom to exchange sex, love, and affection.”
Swinging, open relationships, polyamory, and even what is termed “monogamish” can all be part of what is considered non-monogamy.
Now that we have that general overview, let’s look at the “consensual” part of CNM: this means that all parties to the relationship consent to the arrangement, meaning “agree to” the arrangement and boundaries. The communication and consent are what make the relationship parameters “ethical.”
But keep in mind each arrangement or non-monogamous structure can be wildly different. For example, one couple could have a rule that they must each divulge all partners to each other, while another group might have the rule that sex or relationships outside the couple are generally not disclosed to the other partners.
In any event, the “consensual” part generally means the parameters are agreed upon at the outset of the arrangement and prior to venturing out.
The difference between polyamory and an open relationship
Even though polyamory and open relationships are both part of ENM or CNM, they are distinct forms of it.
Polyamory is in the realm of an “open relationship” but is different in that typically the relationships formed both in and outside the core relationship are not just sexual. Love or romance is involved. Polyamorous people are often committed to loving and spending time with multiple partners, not just having a sexual relationship with them.
On the other hand, open relationships tend to refer to a situation where one or more partners in a relationship want to be satisfied sexually outside the relationship (in addition to inside the relationship). For example, perhaps one partner desires more sex and the other partner is comfortable with the current state of their sexual relationship. Both parties could agree that the sexually exploratory partner can go out and have sex with other people. Or both could.
Can you “cheat” while in an ENM relationship?
The answer is: yes. Cheating can be defined as doing anything that you feel you cannot tell your partner. It is not about the sex, it is about the lying and breach of trust. For example, if you are in an open marriage or an open relationship, and your rule is to not start dating someone seriously, any actions to date someone must come with that intent otherwise the dating activity will be a breach of trust. CNM requires communication on steroids – you must communicate, communicate, communicate, whether you want to or not. And especially if you are feeling weird about telling your partner- it usually means it is something that is outside the trust of the relationship and should be disclosed and dealt with.
Should you try ENM?
If you have read this far in this blog post it is clear that you have an interest in ENM. If you if are considering an open relationship, an open marriage, polyamory or just have a new partner who is into non-monogamy, then you might want to carefully consider what you might be getting into.
At the least, you should read up on ENM (check out the books listed above) before entering into a non-monogamous relationship, as well as talk to people who have experience. These resources can help you prepare for the potential pain or jealousy that can come up and also know what to expect. You need to have enough information so that you are (a) sure that this is something you want and (b) are as prepared as you can be. These relationships tend to be complicated and require communication on steroids.
Sometimes you won’t know if you want this type of relationship until you try it. And also remember that it can depend on each person in the relationship. For example, you might feel like you could have an open relationship with one person, but another partner it is clear that you or they or both don’t feel it is right.
If you and your partner decide to open up your relationship, you can use dating apps to find a “third” or other partners. Tinder has been flooded with couples seeking a unicorn (usually a woman to join as a third partner). The trouble is that Tinder wasn’t designed for this type of search. Zin, on the other hand, is designed with couples in mind, allowing them to select what type of relationship they are looking for.
One way to determine if you might want to try ENM is to start to “dip your toes” in the ENM water by getting on a dating app like Zin and communicate with your partner as you look for posts. You can also create a post looking for potential couples (ie, if you are single looking to form a triad), or a post looking for singles (if you are a couple looking to form a triad or a third).
Talk with your partner and get feedback every step of the way. Also, remember to be respectful of the singles or couples you are talking to on the app. They have their specific needs and desires, too.
A successful relationship is built on trust. If you find that it is difficult to overcome jealousy or if you just don’t trust your partner, then it is probably not a great idea to jump into ENM. If, however, you have a solid foundation of trust and have great communication, then ENM might be for you.
Done right, opening up your relationship to ENM could be an adventure that is worth having!