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Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) Explained

Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) Explained

Although monogamous dynamics make up a majority of relationships, the known percentage of those who engage in ethical non-monogamous relationships (ENM) is on the rise. A 2016 study found that 1 in 5 single adults in the United States report engaging within ENM at least once in their lifetime. Another poll found that one-third of American adults say their ideal relationship is an ethical non-monogamous relationship. Of course, this may not necessarily reflect that more people are engaging in ENM, but perhaps that it is more out in the open.

As ENM relationships become more visible in media and in conversations, there is still a prevalence of stigma about the dynamic. Looking through the lens of Western culture, monogamous relationships are typically considered the norm – therefore, a lot of people may be skeptical or have misunderstandings about ENM. In this article, we will talk about exactly what ethical non-monogamy is (and what it’s not) and how you can determine whether it is right for you.

What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Polyamory, open relationships, and swinging are different terms you may have heard that are used to refer to different non-monogamous relationship dynamics that people participate in.

Ethical non-monogamy is the practice of having multiple sexual or romantic partners with the consent of all parties involved. ENM is a personal choice; therefore, each relationship dynamic is different for everybody. It is important not to generalize or assume that all ENM relationships are the same. Other terms, like polyamory, swinging, or open relationships refer to specific dynamics that can (but don't always) fall under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy.

The most important aspect of ENM is that it is consensual and there is an established understanding between partners that the relationship is non-monogamous.

Common Myths & Misconceptions

It’s no secret that there is a fairly heavy stigma surrounding non-monogamous relationships. When learning about ENM, it’s important to confront the myths and misconceptions about the relationship dynamic, such as the following.

“Ethical non-monogamy is the same as cheating.”

This is one of the most prevalent misconceptions about ENM. In order for a non-monogamous relationship to be ethical, all parties involved must consent and be aware that their other partner(s) are engaging in romantic or sexual intimacy with other parties. Therefore, ENM is not cheating – because all parties are completely aware and okay with the non-monogamous dynamics they have agreed to with their partner(s).

“All non-monogamous dynamics are the same.”

When some hear the concept of ENM, they may assume all non-monogamous relationships follow polyamorous standards or practice swinging. While these are definitely dynamics that can be practiced in ENM relationships, they do not represent the totality of the non-monogamous community. All relationships are different, and every person has a different desire or preference with how they choose to engage in ENM.

“All people who engage in non-monogamy are gay or bisexual.”

There is no reason to assume that ENM relationships involve having sexual or romantic relationships with people of the same gender. People of all sexualities and gender identities engage in ENM relationships. Choosing to partake in an ethically monogamous relationship is completely unrelated to sexuality or gender identity.

“There is a higher risk of contracting STIs.”

While this myth is understandable, considering that non-monogamous folks have sex with more people than folks in monogamous relationships, statistics disprove this misconception. According to a 2015 study, people in non-monogamous relationships have the same risk of contracting sexually-transmitted infections as those in monogamous relationships.

3 Steps to Consider Before Choosing ENM

If the idea of being in a non-monogamous relationship sounds appealing to you, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for engaging in this type of relationship dynamic.

1. Educate Yourself

This is one of the best ways to prepare for trying ENM. Reading books, listening to podcasts (resources will be linked at the end of the article), or following influencers in the ENM community can help you familiarize yourself with the space and allow you to distinguish what your preferences or desires may be.

Our friends Cami and Niki of the Double Teamed podcast told us that “Educating yourself on ENM ​​will help you grow more comfortable with the world of non-monogamy and help you gain a better understanding of the possibilities and options within the space.”

2. Establish Your “Whys”

Asking yourself questions about why exactly you may be interested in ethical non-monogamy can help you become clearer on your desires and preferences in your exploration of non-monogamy.

Niki and Cami suggest answering the following questions if you are interested in ENM:

  • Why do you want to explore ENM?
  • What are you looking to fulfill?
  • What would boundaries look like?
  • Why do you feel it will benefit your lifestyle and relationships?

3. Be Prepared to Prioritize Communication

Communication is one of the most important aspects of having a successful and healthy ENM relationship. The hosts of Double Teamed podcast highlight the importance of effective communication in non-monogamous dynamics: “If you think you're communicating enough, communicate some more. Use the first two tips [educating yourself and pondering personal questions] to prepare for a conversation with your partner. If you choose to begin practicing ENM, maintain communication throughout, align the ways you want to approach it together, and do regular check-ins with your partner as things change and flow.”

The Benefits of Non-Monogamy

In order to determine whether or not ENM may be for you, it’s important to understand both the benefits and the challenges that can come with engaging in this type of relationship dynamic. There are numerous benefits to ENM relationships including:

Developing Trust and Freedom in Your Relationship(s)

Those who are not familiar with ENM relationships may find this surprising, but a 2017 study found that ethical non-monogamous relationships had greater levels of trust and lower levels of jealousy than monogamous relationships. This may be partially due to the level of understanding and communication between partners in non-monogamous relationships.

When engaging in non-monogamy, it’s common for partners to establish an agreement between one another and remain openly communicative about relations with other people. With this trust established, it creates an opportunity for all parties involved to feel a greater freedom in interacting with others within and outside of their relationship.

Personal Growth

If you believe ENM is right for you, it presents a great opportunity for personal growth and coming to understand yourself better. Through engaging in sexual and romantic relations with multiple partners, building intimacy, and exploring your sexuality, you can come to understand yourself at a deeper level. Those who engage in ENM might reach a greater awareness of their preferences in sexual or romantic relationships, and may build a greater sense of personal freedom.

Improved Communication

Many people who engage in ENM cite that effective communication is a benefit of this relationship dynamic. This is mainly because it is definitely a requirement to maintain trust and understanding of what each party is expecting in the relationship. With the established understanding that all parties are engaging in consensual non-monogamy, all parties involved can feel open and free to express their thoughts and experiences related to the relations they have with others to their partner(s).

An Exciting Sex and Love Life

This is one of the most obvious benefits of partaking in an ENM relationship. Through exploring sexual and romantic relations with multiple partners, it is guaranteed that one will have an exciting and interesting sex-love life.

This dynamic also allows you to explore different sexual or romantic needs and preferences with other people – allowing you to explore different sides of yourself based on the partner you are engaging with. Exploring our sexuality in a healthy and consensual way is greatly beneficial, and can allow us to get to know ourselves in a deeper way than we have before.

Some Challenges You Might Face

Just as there are multiple benefits to ethical non-monogamous relationships, there can also be added difficulties.

Prejudice

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of partaking in an ENM relationship dynamic. As monogamous relationships are seen as the norm in Western society, it can be difficult to share your experience in ENM relationships with others. This is why many people who do engage in ENM relationships choose to be private about it, because they do not want to face judgement or prejudice regarding their relationship dynamics.

Prejudice largely stems from the many myths that are attached to the idea of non-monogamy, such as the idea that non-monogamous relationships are immoral, those who do engage in non-monogamy are sex addicts, that it is harmful for all parties involved, and many more. It is important to reiterate that ethical non-monogamy is a consensual choice between all parties, and that no relationship is the same as the next.

Jealousy

If you are someone who has typically preferred a monogamous dynamic, it is possible that you may struggle with possessiveness or jealousy when engaging in an ENM relationship. It’s important to remember that this is okay, and that ENM is not for everyone. If you think you may struggle with knowing your partner is engaging in romantic or sexual acts with other parties, ENM may not be for you.

Different Preferences or Needs

This is a very important aspect of ENM to remember, and is why open communication is so important when engaging in sexual or romantic intimacy with multiple partners. Just like any other relationship, people who engage in ENM have different preferences and needs that they are looking to meet while partaking in intimacy. Make sure that you have open conversations with all partners so you both can truly understand what each other are looking for.

Each person who engages in ENM have different reasons for why they do it, which is why it is very important to have an open discussion. Some people may prefer to only be sexually non-monogamous, but wish to remain romantically monogamous, while others may choose to be completely polyamorous.

These distinctions and differences can cause challenges in non-monogamous dynamics if the needs and preferences of each person is not communicated clearly.

Learn More 

Non-monogamy may not be for everyone, but it is a healthy relationship dynamic that deserves to be celebrated and affirmed. If you think that ENM may be right for you, consider communicating to your current partner about it or get to know members of the community.

To learn more about ethical non-monogamy, check out these helpful resources:

Podcasts

  • Double Teamed Podcast: A podcast about non-monogamy, kink, sexuality & open relationships. Find them on Spotify and Instagram.
  • Multiamory: A podcast all about giving advice to people who are curious or exploring non-monogamy. 
  • Normalizing Non Monogamy: A podcast that aims to break the stigma around ENM relationships.

Books

Online Communities

  • Criticalpolyamorist.com: created by Dr. Kim TallBear who focuses on the colonial influences in monogamy and how ethical non-monogamy can expand your ability to experience love and intimacy more sincerely. You may also want to check out her guest appearance on Good Clean Love's Dear Sex Podcast.
  • Nonmono.org: A website focused on emphasizing how nonmonogamous relationships liberate love, and how normalizing ENM relationships can establish a restoration of morality.
  • Polyamory subreddit: A subreddit used by the polyamory community to discuss issues, build community, offer/receive advice, or learn about topics being discussed. This is a great resource to connect with other members in the ENM community.
  • A list of several more non-monogamy resources