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Ethical Non-Monogamous (ENM) Relationships

Amanda Swisher, LPC-IT

What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Most of those who have grown up in the United States are usually well aware of what monogamy is. Often portrayed as the acceptable journey towards love in pop culture, it is a very familiar story; Boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl), they fall madly in love, and begin the journey towards marriage, having children and raising them together as a nuclear family. But what of those individuals that do not fall neatly into this picturesque view of romance?

Today, words like open-relationship, polyamory, and swinging are heard more often than they have been in the past. Which is great news, as it means these terms are coming into a more accepting light within the general population, although still marginalized as they don’t conform to societal norms. But what do terms like these really mean?

These terms fall under the beautiful umbrella of ethical non-monogamy (ENM). What this truly means is that individuals who identify as being ENM engage in romantic/intimate (or platonic, if we’re being really honest) relationships that are not exclusive to two people. For instance, in thinking of the terms used in the paragraph above, those engaging in an open-relationship typically agree to see other people sexually outside of the primary relationship. For those who identify as polyamorous, typically the agreement is that each is free to pursue other romantic attachments outside of the primary relationship, meaning you could be married… but also have a boyfriend or girlfriend… or several boyfriends or girlfriends. Swinging typically implies that the couple has decided to engage in sexual relationships together, usually within group settings.

Now, the term “typically” is repeated often and for good reason. The ENM lifestyle is so beautifully diverse and covers a wide variety of possible relationship connections, one ENM relationship could look completely different from someone else’s. The ability for these relationships to be so different is accomplished through self-examination and the simple questions: What do you want your relationship to look like? With your partner, with your neighbor down the street, your best friend of 20 years or the acquaintance you met at the gym last week, and most importantly, what of the relationship with yourself?

Cheating Vs. ENM

Those out there who have only ever been associated with or exposed to monogamous relationships may find themselves asking, “Okay, so how is this not cheating?” Or administering a much more common stereotype often heard by those within the ENM community: “This is just an excuse to slut around.” Unfortunately, while crass, that may be one of the nicest ways that someone in the community has heard ENM described as.

ENM differs from cheating due to one key word: ETHICAL. The reality of a cheating spouse is that one person has already decided to find outside sexual/intimate/romantic relationships outside of their primary one… but the partner left sitting at home is completely unaware. The myriad of issues that can come from this arrangement are feelings of betrayal, loss of trust, resentment towards the offending parties, etc. Yet, in ENM relationships, an abundance of importance is placed upon the concept of informed consent.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is a term usually heard in a doctor’s office or the counselor’s office! But it is an integral principle of ENM as well. Informed consent in this reality means everyone in any relationship style has full awareness of what is going on, and what their partner is doing. An ethical decision making model ensures that all parties know what’s going on when, what boundaries are set between partners, and what kinds of relationships each person is looking for.

Transparency and communication are key in any relationship. A conversation in an ENM household could look something like this:

Aleksei: Hey honey, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve scheduled a date for tomorrow night.

Ben: Oh really? Who is it with?

Aleksei: It’s a new girl that I met through (random dating app site inserted here). Her name is Isidora and I’m really excited to meet her.

Ben: That’s great! I hope you two really hit it off.

Aleksei: Thank you. I’ll be sure to let you know when I am on my way home.

Ben: Okay. Be safe.

Now this exchange could imply a lot of different things. Isidora could be a potential sexual partner. Maybe Aleksei is looking for a long time commitment, like they have found with Ben. It’s also entirely possible that they’re looking for an individual that would be comfortable dating them both! Then there’s the question of what is their relationship dynamic? What boundaries have they laid down? Are there certain things that Aleksei can and can’t do on their date? Will Aleksei be bringing Isidora home to meet Ben if they do well? Or is Ben not open to meeting the partners in Aleksei’s life?

Those are just some of the questions that come to mind. Trust me, there are certainly more that could be asked, with this being the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, Ben and Aleksei have already sat down and had this difficult conversation with each other. They know what they want their relationship to look like, and what their relationships with other partners looks like. Many couples first opening up their relationship create a list of “rules” or agreements, and do their best to abide by them, but are ready to have a conversation with their partners when/if they are unable to meet an agreement.

Make no mistake, ENM relationships have the same common problems that monogamous couples do. Feelings of betrayal, resentment and jealousy exist here as well, but someone who has been practicing ENM may have a better toolkit for dealing with them when they come up.

Unfortunately, those who struggle with some of the concepts within ENM or with navigating the difficult emotions that can occur have not always possessed a safe space to discuss their concerns. Many within the ENM community have horror stories about seeing a counselor for the first time and being either turned away, or being told how ENM is not natural and they need to change.

Which is why, on a personal level, I strive to ensure that my office is a welcoming space, where conversations can occur to explore these topics. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable, or shameful regarding their personal views, beliefs, or relationship styles.

I encourage you, if you are curious and would like to educate yourself, there are a myriad of books and articles available online to assist in your journey. Two resources I keep in my office are The Ethical Slut and More Than Two. These two are excellent first choices, especially when it comes to learning all the concepts and vocabulary that accompany ENM. Or, you can always interact with the community. I believe statistics say that about 1 in 20 people are ENM, so the chances that you know someone within the community are pretty high. You can also find many groups on Facebook dedicated to ENM relationships. And of course, you can always call your friendly neighborhood counselor (me!), who would be happy to assist in education and navigating the world of ENM.