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What is Polyamory and Ethical Monogamy

Updated: May 30

Have you ever fallen in love with multiple people at the same time? Or have you ever felt attracted to another person while you were in a relationship? Many of us have. In that situation, we might feel as if we’re doing something wrong. Many people think that this means they have a disorder, or that they’re bound to be unfaithful to their partners.

Although this experience may feel confusing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ethical Non-Monogamy leans into our ability to be attracted to multiple people at once. It’s about embracing that and navigating it in a respectful, healthy way.

It is possible to have a healthy relationship that is not monogamous. There are many different ways, and they all fall under the umbrella term of ethical non-monogamy or ENM. Now, take a deep breath and explore the sexy side of ENM and all the different roads one can take while exploring this lifestyle.

Let’s be clear, this is not about cheating. Cheating is done in secret. Cheating is lying to your partner. With ENM, all partners are aware of the others, even if they never meet.

First, there are two established ground rules in these practices. One is no “unicorn hunting.” This is where both members of a couple seek to date the same person together, a third if you will. This is a power imbalance as the people who are already a couple are inviting someone into their house, their rules, and their established boundaries, and trying to make it fit. What happens when the third is madly in love with only one partner and not the other? Imbalance and unfairness. Now triads do form organically through mutual respect and love for each partner equally as well as realizing that in a triad there are six separate relationships that all must be nurtured (a+b, a+c, b+c, and a, b, and c individually). If any of those are lacking in equality, it is not a healthy relationship.

The other established ground rule that comes into play: rules vs. boundaries. A rule is something where you impose your will on another person. A rule looks like this: you must always use condoms with any partner but me. The boundary is: if you have unprotected sex with anyone but me, I will use a condom when we are intimate.

Now that we have established the basics of ENM, let's look at the different types of ENM.

Polyamory (not to be confused with polygamy, as that is illegal) is building relationships with more than one person. Both parties in a couple do not have to choose this route as long as both are consenting. I know many couples where one party is monogamous and the other is poly. What matters is that you are building relationships that are healthy. Not everyone will have sex in a poly relationship, some are truly just deep love for another person outside of their primary relationship.

Swinging is “swapping” partners. Swapping partners can be an open situation, with different couples swapping partners as they please, or closed where 2 or more couples only swap among themselves. This type of relationship may or may not involve romantic feelings among the partners, sometimes it is just safe sex in a safe environment that provides a little excitement in the bedroom.

Some other forms of ENM:

● Open relationships: involve sexual relationships among multiple people

● Polyfidelity: all partners in a group agree not to have romantic and sexual relationships outside the established group

● Casual sex: people have sexual relationships without any romantic relationship or commitments, possibly with multiple sexual partners

● Casual dating: people date multiple people

Myth 1: Non-monogamous people don’t get jealous

Some polyamorous people don’t feel jealous, and others do. What matters is how you handle jealousy. In some cases, jealousy might actually be a sign that you need more attention and affection from your partner, in which case, that can be solved without becoming monogamous.

Myth 2: It’s all about sex

Some people who do ethical non-monogamy might not have sex at all. Some people might choose to have sex with only one person. Others may enjoy sex with multiple people or group sex. Every person who engages in non-monogamy is different.

And on that note, sex in ethically non-monogamous relationships doesn’t necessarily carry a greater risk to your health. One study showed that people who practice ethical non-monogamy are more likely to practice sex with a condom or other barrier method than those who are unfaithful in monogamous relationships.

Myth 3: Anything goes

As mentioned, every relationship is different. Boundaries differ from one relationship to the next, so what might be OK in one relationship might not be OK in the next. It’s up to each partner to communicate their desires and limits — and those limits should be respected.

Myth 4: Ethical non-monogamy is unsustainable

Many couples and polycules (that is, a group of polyamorous partners) practice ethical non-monogamy for years. Non-monogamous relationships can last a long time if that’s what all parties want.

In fact, some research indicates that there’s no difference in relationship quality and psychological well-being between consensual non-monogamous and monogamous partnerships. This means partners in both forms of relationships report similar levels of satisfaction, happiness, sexual frequency, and relationship longevity.

Myth 5: Ethical non-monogamy is always better than monogamy

Ethical non-monogamy suits some people. Monogamy suits others. Many people feel poly flexible, which means they can be happy with either relationship style. What works for the individual is unique to the individual.

Plus, infidelity, abuse, and coercion can happen in any relationship, no matter whether it’s non-monogamous or monogamous. Ethical non-monogamy can be great, but people in these relationships aren’t necessarily protected from harm.

ENM is not for everyone. There is a lot of shadow work that occurs in ENM. Also, effective and open communication is key in every relationship. Honesty is vital. You may encounter difficult topics, mistakes will happen, and how you handle those situations can set the path for how successful ENM will be for you. If you are looking to explore ENM, I recommend reading More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and utilizing the Jealousy Workbook by Kathy Labriola/Leanne Yau. The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton is also a good read.

The final recommendation I have is to have an ENM-friendly therapist or a relationship coach who can guide you and your partner(s) through building healthy relationships.

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