ETHICAL NON-MONOGAMY: OPENING YOUR RELATIONSHIP
Ethical non-monogamy! It’s estimated that somewhere between 5-20% of Americans are part of ethical arrangements that aren’t monogamous. Ethical non-monogamy is a style of relationship that involves more than two people. Some folks choose to be in relationships of three or more people, cohabiting and raising kids together. Others identify more with what Dan Savage calls “monogamish.” This is essentially when the two people that make up a dyadic relationship decide to seek out extramarital partners. Sometimes for sex, sometimes for dates, and sometimes for love. And sometimes for something else entirely. That’s really up to all of the people involved.
Before we begin, let’s define ethical non-monogamy, shall we?
WHAT IS ETHICAL NON-MONOGAMY?
Well, in short, ethical non-monogamy is exactly what it sounds like. Ethical non-monogamy in its most basic principle is a relationship that involves more than two people. The ethical part of it implies that this relationship is fully consensual and agreed upon by all parties involved. This is a pretty wide open umbrella term. There are lots of ways to have ethically non-monogamous relationships:
- Relationship Anarchy
- Open Relationships
That’s a pretty shortlist. There are an infinite number of ways and means of having relationships with many people. And, ways that feel fulfilling and impactful for everyone involved. Each couple or system will have vastly different needs. Therefore, will probably have pretty different ways of ensuring that everyone gets those needs met. It’s important to recognize the impact of stigma and misinformation that often comes up for folks in relationships like these.
WHAT IS AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP?
Opening your relationship often means that a couple has decided to remain married to, or in a committed relationship with, one person while also opening up the possibilities for more. Each arrangement will entail different ground rules and expectations. Couples who venture down the path of opening their relationship may have different needs. Some may want to know who their partner is meeting up with, when, and where. Others would rather not know the details. It’s really up to the people involved.
WHY DO FOLKS CHOOSE ETHICAL NON-MONAGOMY?
People make the choice to open their relationships for a variety of reasons. An article from Better Help had a really great list already put together:
- They want to explore their sexuality. To some people, one partner at a time makes them feel like they can’t explore their sexuality to the fullest. Ethical non-monogamy allows them to explore their sexuality while still being fully committed to one person.
- They love more than one person at a time. Some people are programmed to romantically love two or more people, and feel monogamy holds them back from their truest self.
- Partners believe monogamy is the product of jealous or possessive feelings. Non-monogamy involves letting go of these feelings to experience more love.
- Some people like having variety in their sex life, and ethical non-monogamy allows them to do so without negative consequences.
- One partner may not be able to meet all of their needs. In some cases, a partner may not be in a position physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally to have sex. One person may be into BDSM but their partner is not. In this case, non-monogamy allows these desires to be fulfilled by a different person.
OTHER REASONS TO OPEN IT UP
It’s also possible to want to open your relationship for reasons not listed above. Perhaps it just feels right for you and your relationship. Your reason might even be a combination of one or more of those. Our relationships, whether monogamous or not, are unique experiences within themselves. Most experts agree, however, that this path may not save your marriage if it’s already on the brink of ending. It isn’t also about shoving away hard feelings after a partner has cheated. It’s possible to open your relationship after hard things happen, and it requires a lot of trust and radically honest communication.
WHAT ABOUT JEALOUSY?
Perhaps one of the most common questions people have when the topic of ethical non-monogamy comes up is, “but what if I get jealous?” You might! In fact, you probably will. Part of the process for each individual person is to learn how to have a new and different relationship with jealousy. More often than not, jealousy is our brain’s sneaky way of avoiding vulnerability. Vulnerability of admitting to a core fear (like not having control or not being enough) and can bypass some of the hurt feelings that come with it.
Central to how successful open relationships work is a solid base of emotionally connected communication. Folks who make this work become really good at being honest about their feelings and often become really good at navigating those feelings as they come up. This stuff requires open and honest dialogue. The contract or agreement that is made will be structured in such a way that it allows for that.
WAIT… A RELATIONSHIP CONTRACT?
Yep! A relationship contract. Of sorts. These agreements make everything we expect from our relationships and partners really explicit. It’s essentially outlining what every party is agreeing to in order to both make space for getting their own needs met and maintaining respect and boundaries for their partners. Many couples will decide what places may or may not be off-limits for taking dates, what consent looks like for everyone involved, and even what kind of sexual acts might not be okay.
Utilizing the help of a trained couples therapist can really help in figuring out the give and take of it all. A really great space to begin is to ask what we and our partner(s) need for emotional safety. Where are the lines and boundaries around sex, communication, and accessibility? These don’t have to be hard and fast rules or laws–the contract or agreement can be a living breathing object. If something stops working, a conversation is had about what might need to change.
IT’S NOT CHEATING
There are huge stigmas surrounding ethically non-monogamous relationships. Research shows that social attitudes are hugely impactful to the experience of the people in the relationship. People tend to believe that those who engage in open relationships are more sexually risky, less trusting, and less morally aware than their strictly monogamous counterparts. Not true! Actually, non-monogamous couples and groups usually score relationship satisfaction pretty highly.
So, how exactly isn’t it cheating? To put it simply, it isn’t cheating because it isn’t a secret betrayal of promises or vows. In fact, the emphasis on ethical. So, those who decide to open their relationship are simply making different promises and vows to one another. It can only be ethical if everyone involved is a consenting adult and agrees to the terms of the relationship.
ETHICAL NON-MONOGAMY: THE TAKEAWAY
There are oodles of reasons a person or couple might choose to open their relationship. And all of those oodles of reasons are valid. They are really important in order to make the process work in each individual relationship. Importantly, ethical non-monogamous relationships are valid and important forms of romantic and/or sexual relationships. Stigma still abounds. But, more and more people are opting for opening their relationship and becoming a least a little bit monogamish. Seeking out a therapist can be really helpful in navigating the territory. Particularly if one or both (or more) of you don’t quite know what to expect.
If you are considering opening your relationship, or are simply curious, here is a shortlist of really fabulous resources:
- Morethantwo.com (which is also a book!)
- The Ethical Slut (long considered to be the ‘bible’ of ethical non-monogamy)
- Sex at Dawn
- Dan Savage’s Lovecast
Lindsay Strong is a Marriage and Family Therapy Intern at Relationship Insights in Minneapolis MN who helps women, couples, queer and nonbinary folks create a foundation for empowerment by finding a different connection with themselves, with relationships, and with their world. She offers warm and nonjudgemental support and has heaps of relationship tools to share! Contact her today: firstname.lastname@example.org.