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How to explore ethical non-monogamy | Psyche

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

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Guide

How to explore ethical non-monogamy

Before enjoying the freedoms of a more open relationship, get a handle on the practical and emotional complexities ahead

by Meg Wilson + BIO

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

Need to know

Not many people stop to think about the blueprint they use for romantic relationships. Chances are that, while growing up, you were given an implicit step-by-step guide on how to love romantically, as well as information about what’s acceptable and unacceptable in this pursuit. If you are anything other than heterosexual, then you might have learned pretty early on that the blueprint you were given doesn’t work for the ‘who you choose’ bit. But what if it wasn’t who you choose but how many people you choose that goes against the blueprint?

Non-monogamous is the term most widely used these days for people who form multiple significant romantic and/or sexual relationships. Non-monogamy is more common than it might seem: one study in the United States, for example, found that around 21 per cent of people surveyed in 2017 had engaged in some sort of consensual non-monogamy in their lifetime. People in this situation often see themselves as different in a way that requires secrecy, out of fear that their families and wider community will label them as immoral, promiscuous, narcissistic or noncommittal. I’ve written this Guide as an attempt to lay down a path for those very people who see themselves as being outside of monogamy and who might like to explore a different relationship blueprint.

You might find yourself reading this because at some point you encountered non-monogamy in passing and would like to learn a bit more before you take action. In my work as a therapist, I have encountered all sorts of unique individuals and people in relationships who come with their own valid reasons for wanting to try a different style of relationship. Perhaps you grew up in a conservative (perhaps religious) household in which the scope of acceptable behaviour and lifestyle was relatively narrow. Or maybe you entered a committed relationship when you were very young and, while you would still like to maintain this loving relationship, you also feel a sense that there is more you could explore with others – in a physical or a romantic way. You also might be aware of a sexual desire that your current partner does not align with and that you would like the opportunity to explore outside of the relationship in an ethical way. Regardless of the romantic or sexual desires you have, it’s my aim to help you feel more secure in your decision-making.

Those who approach non-monogamy with consideration, accountability and honesty are called ethically non-monogamous (ENM) or consensually non-monogamous (CNM). These labels form an umbrella that covers concepts such as polyamory, swinging, relationship anarchists and other items in the ever-evolving list of non-monogamous approaches to relating. (I will expand more on these later.) It’s important to know that the label you use for yourself is completely up to you and might change over the course of your life. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using the acronym ENM to broadly describe any and all of these approaches to relationships.

Carrie is a client of my therapy practice, where I work specifically with people practising ENM. Carrie and her partner Doug (I’ve changed their names for confidentiality) have been a couple since they were in high school. Their relationship developed quickly into something significant, and they started out by following the monogamous blueprint, committing only to each other. Carrie said she had long felt comfortable being open with Doug about her bisexuality, and that it even fuelled some level of sexual excitement for them. She was years into the relationship when a television show mentioned polyamory, the practice of openly having more than one romantic relationship. ‘I felt right away that it was something that fit me and that I wanted to explore more,’ Carrie said. Over time, the two began reading and attending public speaking events in order to learn more about the lifestyle directly from the people who were living it.

Once they were ready to take the first steps, they quickly realised that there were unexpected challenges that come with the transition to ENM. Carrie naturally moved towards other relationships and connections at a quicker speed than Doug, who preferred to move at a slower, more considered pace. This difference became their first major challenge as they processed new insights about themselves and the impact on their relationship. Ultimately, they found a way to accommodate the difference in pace that each of them took towards others by communicating regularly and making small adjustments as they went.

‘Five years in,’ Carrie says, ‘and now we each have different kinds of relationships and also relationships that have morphed into friendships, which has been nice.’ But she is quick to point out that the ENM lifestyle comes with a considerable amount of emotional labour and that it takes a significant amount of time to get used to the new way of relating.

For people who begin to go down the non-monogamous route, they soon see the world with a perspective that can be quite frustrating and lonely at times. Western society is generally mononormative, meaning that monogamy is considered normal (and other ways of relating are not). The assumptions made by our loved ones, or by our neighbours, co-workers, grocery store check-out clerks, parents of other children at school, etc, mostly come from a mononormative worldview. One might encounter a range of reactions in other people, from gentle curiosity to full-on judgment. Popular culture is a painfully obvious source of mononormativity: the default is the pursuit of the ‘one true love’, and sex plays a pivotal role in ownership and commitment. This preoccupation with singular love begins with children’s television and goes all the way to Hollywood blockbusters.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with romantically loving just one person. It would be hard to find an openly non-monogamous person who sees fault in that, and the belief that the ENM community is out to prove monogamy wrong is incorrect. The issue that ENM people face is the denial that they have the capacity to love more than one person. It is just not true that humans are able to sustain romantic desire only for one person at a time. The countless books and TV shows in which non-monogamy is pursued in secret dramatise the painful dilemma of people who get drawn towards more than one person.

For ENM people, however, the sharing of affection and love with more than one person is the accepted norm. For Carrie and Doug, the expression of affection is a fluid part of relating, and indicates nothing more than a degree of comfort and safety with their friends and partners. Physical affection is seen as a spontaneous display of excitement, generosity or sexuality, and it lives just within the moment – unless one specifies otherwise. There can also be significant ENM relationships that do not include any sexual intimacy but nonetheless play an important role in the lives of the people involved, including romantic ones. ENM naturally leans towards personal freedom so there is less need for the labels that typically help to identify what a relationship is. The question of whether someone is a friend or a lover or a partner or chosen family is asked a bit less often. This idea might feel a bit uncomfortable to someone new to ENM, but ultimately what matters is that you know who matters to you.

What to do

Decide if it’s the right path for you

It is possible to see yourself as an ENM-oriented person while also taking into account the capacity you have in your life for additional connections or relationships. Love is not a limited resource but we might have limited time or emotional bandwidth, and it is very important to know the difference. By emotional bandwidth, I mean the amount of room you feel you have in your own life for emotional attachments – and not just romantic attachments, but also those with family and friends. Some people have emotional bandwidth for relatively few individuals, and those relationships are often quite meaningful, while other people will comfortably have many emotional attachments, including multiple romantic attachments. You learn about your emotional bandwidth through your life experiences and, while this bandwidth can change over the course of your life, it is valuable to pay attention to what it is at any given point and adjust your levels of relational activity accordingly.

Even for monogamous people, there are times when one might do better to focus on oneself for all sorts of good reasons (mental health, physical health, life goals, etc). Then there are times when space is available for meeting people, dating, having sex, and building a new relationship. The same is also true for ENM. Someone who identifies as ethically non-monogamous might know that they relate easily or deeply with others and could see this as a trait rather than a lifestyle. Much like your sexuality, you do not have to take action in order to know something is true about yourself.

How do you know if you’re in the right place to start your ENM journey? Your answer will likely be an intuitive one. However, periods of time that are not already filled up by major obligations or commitments are most likely where you’ll find the opportunity to start making new connections.

If you’re in a relationship, proceed with care

If you are currently in a monogamous relationship and you are considering a transition to an ENM lifestyle, there are a few things that are useful to consider.

Does the desire to be ENM come primarily from one person in the relationship or do you both share it? If the desire does come largely from one person, then it’s all the more important to approach the topic gently. It can be quite a vulnerable experience for both people to share their desires and fears. Most often, the best communication happens when everyone involved feels that they are being heard with as little judgment as possible.

Do you both have well-practised communication skills that can help you adapt to unexpected challenges in an ENM transition? Basic validation and active listening skills are essential to an effective emotional conversation, regardless of the style of relationship. And sharing how you feel in a way that gives the other person clarity without sparking their defences is an art. In the context of starting a discussion about an interest in ENM, this might sound like: ‘I’ve been feeling curious lately about whether or not a non-monogamous approach might be a good fit for us. It would mean a lot to me if we could talk a bit about it.’

Are you both willing to consent to the process or does someone feel like they are being ‘dragged along’ (or doing the dragging)? In a relationship, everyone’s needs deserve to be met to the extent possible, and while we cannot always meet both our own needs and someone else’s all the time, it is important to negotiate a place in the middle. Some people experience a heightened level of excitement at the prospect of connecting in this new and meaningful way with others, and this fuels an ‘all in’ approach akin to the experience of going to Disney World. Other people approach ENM with cautious curiosity. Neither approach is wrong. But when each person in a relationship naturally leans toward a different approach, they might have to negotiate their needs with more care.

Do you both feel safe and comfortable speaking up, seeking support and being open about where your boundaries lie? It can be difficult to say ‘no’, and for some people it feels impossible. This sort of issue can arise if your partner shares their attraction to someone and you don’t feel quite ready yet to take further steps toward making your relationship non-monogamous. You might feel pressure both internally and externally to open up your relationship quicker than you are actually ready. If that’s the case, take advantage of a relaxed moment with your partner to talk about how decisions can best be made together and about the difficulty you might have in saying ‘no’.

It might also help to speak to an ENM-friendly therapist about the transition and to consider ways to strengthen your existing relationship. While there are not many therapists who understand ENM relationships in depth, there are directories that list inclusive and knowledgeable therapists for various regions and countries (see the end of this Guide for links). Therapists are usually happy to answer potential clients’ queries about their area of knowledge or their familiarity with the ENM lifestyle. Meetups for the ENM community will often invite along ENM-friendly therapists for guidance and to give people the opportunity to decide if seeing a therapist is right for them.

Connect with the ENM community

Since ENM relationships aren’t quite the norm, most people find comfort in seeking out the like-minded to share information about their experiences and validate each other. Joining a community that normalises non-monogamous relationships can help with the feelings of shame that might arise from the conditioning of a mononormative society.

In most major cities, people in the ENM community will meet up for discussion groups, information sessions and more casual evening events where the point is to just socialise and get to know each other (and, yes, flirt). In these spaces, there is often a very wide variety of ways that individuals and people in relationships have approached ENM, and with that comes wisdom that can be gained only from experience. This is the kind of wisdom that the monogamy culture has in abundance.

Use these spaces to practise your skills at communicating about ENM. Almost everyone has their own style of ENM, so this is an opportunity to learn. Some more common examples of ENM include ‘socially sexual’ people (or swingers) who actively engage in group sex or casual sex with their friends, lovers or strangers in a way that’s, for the most part, about physical affection and satisfaction. On the more romantic side of relating, there is the polyamorous community, in which there is typically a greater level of emotional bonding between the individuals involved. A related community of people who identify as relationship anarchists see themselves as more autonomous and without limitations on their expression of love, whereas the polyamorous community tends to commit at a deeper level with partners. Cohabiting, sharing finances and having children together will more often take place among the polyamorous, and not necessarily with just one primary partner. A polyamorous person might have a child with one current partner and live with another, for example.

The term ‘open relationship’ is the most general way to describe a non-monogamous lifestyle and tends to give the most freedom of interpretation for those involved. For this reason, it is often the term that people use when they are early in their ENM journey. The monogamous community is usually quite clear about what its general steps and expectations are, while people making the transition to ENM often find that they are having these conversations for the first time. As such, it is best to expect to stumble at times.

If you’re not quite ready for the in-person experience, another way to engage with the community is by listening to podcasts where the topic of ENM is featured (see links below). Here, you will almost certainly find a wealth of conversations and stories that expand your understanding of the ENM lifestyle. A podcast can also be a great way to introduce the topic to your current partner if you are seeking to begin a conversation about ENM.

Despite my earlier point about mononormative popular culture, television has recently begun to tell stories about ENM relationships that don’t result in violence or heartbreak. The Netflix series Sense8 (2015-18) uses fantasy to create romantic and deeply significant relationships through telepathy. The show illustrates how important relationships can exist well outside the typical relationship framework and do not even necessarily need a label of any kind in order to function. Many ENM people tend to agree that the removal of relationship labels creates the opportunity to author your own experiences with others. Other TV shows you might want to see are She’s Gotta Have It (2017-19), Wanderlust (2018), You Me Her (2016-20) and Siren (2018-20). These shows give me hope for the expansion of the ENM story in modern television and, with that, hopefully a greater acceptance of this lifestyle in society.

Understand jealousy well

It’s true that non-monogamous people get jealous, just like monogamous people do. It is not necessarily an indication that ENM isn’t right for you or that you’re doing it wrong, but it does suggest that something needs your attention.

Jealousy can be useful because it gives you a chance to learn about your own sense of self-worth as well as what you need to feel secure. In ENM, jealousy is an experience that generally arises out of a fear of loss, abandonment, feeling ‘less than’, or having unmet needs. Perhaps one person feels less attractive, less intelligent or not as charismatic as someone else in their partner’s life, and this feeling feeds into a sense of insecurity. In an ideal situation, jealousy will be met with validation and bring to light things that might have gone unaddressed (such as worries about being less desirable than someone else), and the person experiencing jealousy will feel heard and understood. This of course won’t always be the case, but the pursuit of a healthy conversation about jealousy is worthwhile, even if it isn’t perfect.

Healthy jealousy can feel like the urgency that rises up when you see a partner in their element, as the centre of attention, doing what they feel most confident doing while others are impressed by and maybe attracted to their energy. While desire is fuelled by this kind of mystery, jealousy is fuelled by wanting to remain within your partner’s field of vision – and to be clear, that is OK. Of course you want your partner to be in their element and to also be thinking of you. In ENM, there tend to be more opportunities to see your partner from a distance, and this in turn can fuel a greater degree of desire and eroticism.

The therapist Esther Perel talks about how love urges us to be fully connected and to know everything about someone, while desire requires mystery and intrigue. People tend to want to take in everything and simultaneously also need the pull of curiosity to create an erotic connection. Healthy jealousy might have a role to play in how we keep eroticism alive in long-term relationships, including in ENM.

Plan for the practicalities of non-monogamy

Not only is an ENM lifestyle a change in relating, but it’s also full of practical and logistical changes, which can spark excitement but also insecurity or discomfort.

A good rule of thumb is to have a discussion about desires and expectations every time a new opportunity for connection arises. For a sexual environment (eg, dates where sexual activity might take place, swinging parties) there will need to be discussions around risk prevention and the degree to which connection and communication should be maintained if you are attending with someone. Planning for this might entail deciding to go home together from the event, and agreeing to use condoms and/or engage only in non-penetrative sexual activity.

For the person interested in a solo approach to ENM (where you live and relate as a single individual) the communication you have with others might revolve primarily around the agreements between you and them, and not necessarily how they might impact a wider circle of people. Nevertheless, honest and open communication will help to ensure that the expected level of autonomy is clear. A solo ENM person might not necessarily want to commit a specific amount of time or emotional support to someone they are currently with – despite the connection itself having meaning and value – and so autonomy in this sense is about establishing expectations.

In the logistics of ENM dating, worthwhile conversations might focus on fairly practical matters such as: the use of rooms or beds in a shared home; what time someone might ideally get home from a date; if there are boundaries around seeing friends or co-workers in a romantic way; and how deeply any new relationships become a part of your everyday life. If you are negotiating an ENM lifestyle with a current partner, then you might not be aware that certain aspects of the relationship related to your shared space or your time together really matter to them. They could see the bed you share as a sacred space, or a specific day of the week as really special. These things might not become obvious until someone feels a bit (or a lot) of discomfort. There is a degree of trial and error that most certainly comes with ENM, especially in the beginning. Expect to feel discomfort over something that surprises you, and also to feel fine about something that you thought you wouldn’t. What really matters is that you communicate both of these to your partner(s).

Clients I’ve worked with have come up with all sorts of logistical solutions for everyday ENM, such as building a tiny house on their property for other partners to stay in, having a house with two master bedrooms so each person has their own personal space, using business trips and other times away as the specified opportunities for seeing other people, or choosing to live alone – while still remaining committed to a primary relationship – in order to maintain greater autonomy. There is no one ‘right’ way for ENM to work for individuals or relationships; this can be both freeing and bewildering, coming from the monogamous approach, with its more standard steps and expectations.

A new rhythm takes time to develop and so taking small steps means that you and your relationships can adjust more easily. Many people find it helpful to have a scheduled weekly time for a relationship ‘check-in’, where feelings and emotions are shared and logistical agreements are adjusted to better suit everyone and ensure that the basis of security remains strong.

Key points – How to explore ethical non-monogamy

  1. Humans are capable of loving more than one person at a time. There is nothing wrong with committing to one partner, but non-monogamous people show that other lifestyles are possible, too.
  2. Non-monogamy is a valid alternative to monogamy. Ethically non-monogamous (ENM) people live non-monogamous lives with consideration, accountability and honesty.
  3. Decide if it’s the right path for you. You can feel an inclination toward ENM without necessarily having to act on it. If you have the time and emotional bandwidth to explore more than one relationship, a journey into ENM might be for you.
  4. If you’re already in a relationship, proceed with care. Consider whether the interest in ENM is equally shared, and whether you have the communication skills to weather turbulence in a transition to ENM. Considerate, non-judgmental sharing and listening are key.
  5. Connect with the ENM community. Meeting up with other ENM people can provide the validation and wisdom you need. So can ENM-relevant podcasts, films and other media.
  6. Understand jealousy well. Jealousy can draw our attention to fears, feelings of insecurity, or unmet needs – all of which can be addressed through listening and validation. A measure of healthy jealousy might even provide fuel for desire.
  7. Plan for the practicalities of non-monogamy. Whatever the nature and number of your relationships, it’s essential to talk about boundaries and expectations – including those related to shared space, the allocation of time, and acceptable behaviour.

Learn more

Should I tell my friends and family?

A potentially daunting part of ENM is letting other people know, in a direct way, what’s going on. Yes, there is always the option of just going about your ENM life as you see fit and allowing others to put the pieces together for themselves. Or, if you’d find it easy to shrug it off that your neighbour might think there’s an affair going on, or that your dad might find it odd that your best friend is moving in with you and your partner, then you might not care to reveal the details. Generally speaking, it’s probably a healthy move to practise letting go of how others might think about you and your relationships. That being said, if a relationship you develop as part of an ENM lifestyle becomes meaningful to such a degree that you think it would be appropriate for your friends and family to know, you might find yourself wondering how to tell them.

There’s a possibility that you are imagining the look on your family member’s face when you first mention that you’re considering or have embraced an ENM lifestyle. They obviously care for you and want you to be happy, but their expressions of concern might seem more like judgment. This is almost never about you or your choices, and usually more about them, their assumptions and their fears (or envy?). Educating the people who care about you is the easiest and quickest way to help them get past their concern. Film and television can be a casual path toward the conversation, or you might share an article or social media post about ENM to make your interest known.

To be fair, almost every major life change can bring on some amount of concern. Moving to a new town, having a baby or changing careers all come with risks and potential benefits. To get the support you deserve following any of the decisions you make, the best thing is to just ask for it, eg: ‘I know this might not seem to make sense to you, but I’ve put a lot of thought into my choice and, no matter how it goes, I’d value your support.’

If we lived in a world that normalised non-monogamous relationships, then you most likely wouldn’t need to have such a conversation, any more than a monogamous person would with their friends and family. Remember that cultures these days can change fast and, as such change unfolds, people can become more accustomed to new ideas.

Is there no going back?

Gaining knowledge about and exploring ENM does not mean that you can never return to a monogamous lifestyle. One difficulty that can arise during this process is that one partner in a relationship wishes to return to mutual monogamy while another person wishes to remain ENM. These differences can and do sometimes mean that the relationship needs to come to an end. (This is a risk that comes with other kinds of differences too, such as disagreements over having children, the management of finances, or the choice of where and how to live.)

When I work with clients who are at this kind of turning point, I tend to encourage what I call ‘compassionate honesty’, which involves both seeing yourself truthfully and communicating with those who matter to you, in a way that takes into account what’s important. Important things might include existing commitments you’ve made to partners, shared goals, risks relating to sexual health and other physical needs, and also (perhaps most importantly) compassion for yourself and the need to be seen and understood for who you are.

Simone de Beauvoir suggested that bodies are more like situations than things. We are always changing and evolving, and so our relationship styles and sexuality can evolve as well. The challenge isn’t so much in accepting that this is true, but more in being gentle with yourself when the change happens.

Links & books

The journalist Dan Savage does a great job at exploring ENM in his podcast Savage Lovecast. It’s an honest look at the variety of lifestyles, sexualities and relationships that people experience through interviews and in-depth analysis, with a pleasant dose of humour.

Another podcast to watch out for is Normalizing Non-Monogamy. Hosted by Emma and Fin, who have been together since college and are themselves non-monogamous, it addresses all things non-monogamy in interviews with guests from all over the relationships spectrum.

The book Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy (2020) by the polyamorous psychotherapist Jessica Fern examines non-monogamy through the lens of attachment theory. This is a useful read, no matter what relationship style you engage in as Fern explores all the ways that people relate to one another and how to compose safe and secure attachments.

The Poly-Friendly Professionals directory offers a list of professionals around the world – including psychotherapists – who are ‘sensitive to the unique needs of polyamorous clientele’.

In some regions, there are also local directories of therapists who have experience working with non-monogamous people. For example, for the state of Victoria in Australia, Victorian Inclusive Practitioners keeps a list that includes such therapists.

Heath Schechinger is a counselling psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley who maintains a collection of resources, including academic papers and helpful links, for anyone looking to gain support and additional information regarding the ENM lifestyle.

The book Nonviolent Communication (3rd ed, 2015) by the late psychologist Marshall Rosenburg is a wonderful resource, providing techniques for sharing your thoughts and feelings with compassion and reducing the likelihood of sparking defensiveness in another person.

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16 February 2022