By Gabrielle Smith
When it comes to ethical non-monogamy (ENM), we mean any relationship that is non-monogamous and consensually agreed upon by all parties involved. While such a broad definition can seem overwhelming, what makes ENM especially fulfilling is that you get to set the terms of it. To find out what’s right for you, let’s explore the different kinds of non-monogamy.
Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy
Swinging is usually defined as couples having sexual experiences with other couples. Swingers can have a specific type of arrangement (full swap, soft swap, same room, separate room etc), but typically only have sex with others on the same premises and at the same time. Sometimes they are watched by their partners, sometimes not. What really defines swinging is the openness and honesty partners take when engaging in sex with other people - everything they do, they do together, and nobody engages with someone else behind their back.
Coined by writer Dan Savage, the term ‘monogamish’ means that a couple essentially functions as monogamous, with small exceptions to the rule. One example is the zip code rule, when a couple agrees to sexual exploration outside their relationship when travelling out of town. Unlike swinging, couples can be monogamish with or without each other. However, the deal is pre-agreed by all partners.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Don’t ask, don’t tell is a relationship arrangement where partners consent to sexual exploration outside of their partnership, but do not discuss it. This can be tricky depending on how explicit each partner is about just exactly what acts and relations are and aren’t OK with them so this needs some careful pre-discussion and some healthy setting of boundaries before it’s embarked upon.
‘Open’ can be a catch-all term for any couple sexually exploring outside of their primary relationship. This might be on the terms of sex alone, which means when a couple can sleep with others outside of their relationship, but they cannot form romantic bonds. It could also be classed as polyamory. Polyamory is when partners choose to have multiple relationships with one or more person. Polyamory itself can also take different forms. There’s polyfidelity or closed polyamory, in which partners agree to only date and have sex with a select group of others. This can entail a hierarchy, which means selecting one person as your ‘primary partner’ and other partners as ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ to the primary relationship. Some people don’t opt for hierarchy though, and see all their relationships with different people as equal. There is also solo polyamory. This means choosing to treat yourself or a non-romantic partner as your primary partner. And finally, there is relationship anarchy – a relationship philosophy that seeks to remove the hierarchy between platonic and romantic relationships. Relationship anarchists often choose to take relationships on a case-by-case basis, letting them grow naturally instead of defining between platonic and romantic.
Figuring out what relationship style is right for you
Here are some of the key questions to consider when determining your relationship style.
Understanding what you are most excited and most apprehensive about
Your level of excitement for certain aspects of ENM will show you what you want from non-monogamy. Are you mostly excited to have group sex? Are you more excited to forge emotional connections and have multiple partners? Or do you just want to explore a kink your partner isn’t open to? If you find yourself more drawn to sexual exploration then maybe swinging, an open relationship or a monogamish arrangement is better for you. Polyfidelity can be a good choice for those who want multiple lovers, but the safety of a closed circuit.
It’s also important to know what might cause you anxiety. Ethical non-monogamy does take a lot of work, and it’s good to talk out the worst-case-scenarios before they happen. Many people fear they will be jealous, insecure, or lose their partner. It is imperative to do your own self-work in order to really refine what you want out of an arrangement that will be different to monogamy.
Considering the boundaries for you and your partner(s)
As with any good relationship, boundaries and agreements are a pillar of ethical non-monogamy. If you’re pursuing ENM within a preexisting relationship, it’s important to anticipate scenarios that may occur before they happen. It’s worth considering how you’d feel in some of the following situations. For example, perhaps your partner has gone out on a date and you are left at home on your own. How will you ensure that you don’t feel lonely or jealous? At some point you are sure to notice that your partner is texting one of their other lovers. Will you feel upset that they are giving their attention to someone other than you? If you go to a play party with a partner and they find someone to play with while you haven’t, how will you handle that and what will you do with yourself? And finally, how do you think you would feel about watching your partner have sex with someone else infront of you? And what would need to feel emotionally safe in that circumstance?
Metamours, a polycule or…?
There’s also one more significant thing to consider if you’re thinking of embarking on an ethical non-monogamous relationship. We call the partners of partners metamours, and it’s worth considering what kind of relationship you would like with them. How much would you like them to feature in your life? Similarly, do you think you would like to create a polycule (which means family) with all the people you are involved with, or would rather the relationships exist in parallel, separately from each other?
What scenario would best suit me?
No matter your relationship status, it’s important to discover what you want out of ethical non-monogamy. It’s okay if you want to be polyamorous and your partner wants an open relationship. There’s often a compromise in that mix!
Alternative relationship styles are build-your-own, and that’s what’s so fulfilling about them. What you want out of ethical non-monogamy might not be on this list but that doesn’t mean you’re alone. That just means the language for what you want isn’t out there yet – but the people who share your desires definitely are.