Is Your Non-Monogamy Ethical?

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Is Your Non-Monogamy Ethical?

Whether you claim the L, B, T, or any combination from the acronym, the idea of non-monogamy is probably familiar to you. This compound, catch-all concept describes the many relationship dynamics where people consent to having simultaneous intimate partnerships with more than one person. Intimate partnerships, in this context, may include queerplatonic, romantic, sexual or any other relevant kind of relationship. 

Roughly seven years ago, I entered my first non-monogamous relationship. It was casual and I was curious and enthusiastic. I had always wanted to experience a non-monogamous dynamic, so this seemed like a good starting point. What I expected to be a fun and non-committal tryst, slingshot me into a world of complexity. With the fear, insecurity, and nervousness present in every relationship, inexplicable bouts of intimacy and compersion followed right along. After this first relationship ended, I tried again, and again, and again. I needed to learn to identify what made a relationship special and sustainable outside of the promise of exclusivity that came with monogamy. A relationship of any kind is a practice. Taking the time to learn another person, unlearning the misinformation we’ve been taught, building routines together; these are practices. I kept trying polyamory until it became an integral part of how I navigate my intimate relationships. 

Every relationship comes with a learning curve, and in non-monogamy, there are many. This is why it is important to practice our relationship styles ethically, regardless of how casual or committed they may be. Ethical non-monogamy emphasizes the consent of everyone involved when deciding the terms of the shared relationships. It took some time before I could grasp the ‘E’ in ENM. Whether mishandling came from myself or the people with whom I partnered, the curves were steep. I still constantly learn new ideas about how to negotiate relationship needs and boundaries with each interaction. Many of these lessons came from books and reading materials, conversations with friends, and lived experiences. Practicing ethical non-monogamy requires assessing the way we are taught to engage in relationships, and applying adjustments so we can make aligned actions. 

This guide offers prompts that can help individuals, couples and groups to explore existing or desired approaches to ENM in their own relationships. The questions act as writing or conversation prompts. Feel free to do them in any order, frequency, or time period that is comfortable for you. I’ll be revisiting them too. 

Do you know what you want?

Indulging in people freely doesn’t have to mean doing so ambiguously. A common assumption is that specifying boundaries and terms is contradictory to non-monogamy. However, partnerships are agreements. Ambiguity can increase the possibility of harm. Deciding to have a sexual, romantic or otherwise defined partnership with another person comes with boundaries to consider;  how these boundaries look is up to you. With different people come varying needs, roles and expectations. Identify dynamics that feel comfortable, ones you are willing to approach with flexibility, and your own uncompromising boundaries. When you know which actions and expectations are consistent or inconsistent with what you want out of a relationship dynamic, there is more space for you to fully participate. 

What are you uncertain about?

Uncertainty is not dispelled by simply knowing what you want. Practicing any relationship dynamic requires willingness to learn from mistakes as much as we learn from precision. There is so much freedom that comes with admitting a lack of knowledge. Let ‘I don’t know’ roll freely off your tongue. That means you can learn something new. We aren’t born knowing exactly what to do in relationships, and most of us only learned through observation and experience. This is especially true for non-monogamy, since the popular opinions imply that there is something inherently wrong with desiring more than one partner. Expressing your uncertainty allows you to make room for complexity. The question isn’t about how you can never be uncertain again, but about what you can learn to clarify your needs. There are people, books, articles and resources available to help with the emergence of clarity.

How do you communicate your expectations?

It can sometimes be hard to voice our needs. Ideally, we would all clearly express what we need with no difficulty. In reality, there can be more barriers to being vulnerable than we anticipate. Regardless of the nature of the agreed relationship, there will be needs and desires that require negotiations. This could look like only using frequent or familiar sex toys within the boundaries of sex with a regular partner(s), and new or unused toys with a new or short-term sex partner. By stating this need, you create a term of engagement that can help to emphasize the sexual safety of you and your partners. Communicating your expectations can be guided by principles of honesty, openness and good faith. Consider what is necessary to feel secure that is also within the means and boundaries of your partner. 

What is your relationship to jealousy?

Jealousy arises. This can be in platonic, romantic, or sexual relationships and is also presented in varying ways. Like every other ‘difficult’ feeling, jealousy is not inherently harmful. What you do with these feelings is usually what can instigate harm. Non-monogamy is a crash course in jealousy for many people; emphasis on the crash. However, contrary to popular belief, jealousy does not always have to end in harm and separation. Frequently, this emotional response has something to tell you about the fears you have incurred over time. A question you can ask of your jealousy is “what happened in the past to make me feel like this?” 

The way you respond to the feeling of jealousy can be internal (feeling insecurity or embarrassment for feeling that way) or external (being reactive or judgmental to your partner’s desires or experiences of other people). There is a difference between saying “You hurt me by getting closer to another person even though we both agreed that that is a part of this relationship” and “I am worried that you will not see value in me anymore, now that you’ve gotten closer to your new partner”. 

The latter not only assumes accountability, it also expresses your fear for your partner to hopefully offer reassurance. Jealousy can help to identify unmet needs in a current relationship, or even help you to work through past traumas. However, this is only possible when there is openness. Being open about how you feel, as well as being open to hearing uncomfortable truths from your partner offers the possibility of growth for you and your relationships.

How do you define infidelity?

How many times have you heard something to the tune of “non-monogamy is just cheating with extra steps”? I am here to confirm that is incorrect. Cheating can also exist within a non-monogamous dynamic. The difference is that in ethically non-monogamous partnerships, infidelity is defined by the people in the relationship. Negotiating infidelity is not about anticipating harm, but meant to reduce it. A triad could agree that cheating would be defined by secrecy, meaning that there is an expectation to share whether you are dating new people seriously or casually and failure to share that information would be cheating. In a similar context, another relationship may not need updates about every relationship, and define cheating as failure to notify their partners when a connection becomes emotionally intimate. Infidelity is based on the needs and boundaries of participating partners. Having a conversation about what constitutes cheating can contribute to affirming more trust and curating emotional safety in your partnerships. 

How do you respond to conflict?

Conflicts range from minor disagreements to divisive arguments. When they are identified in relationships, they can bring attention to new and longstanding issues. Whether or not a conflict can be resolved is dependent on the participating partners. Conflicts can be understood as a misalignment between two or more partners. We can nudge the situation with conversations, solutions and aligned actions until things fit comfortably in place again. For many of us, friction comes with a lot of trepidation. Doubts and fears arise, and we get consumed by the possibility of losing those we care about. This can result in reactivity, where arguments start and words become harmful; or avoidance, where people try to prioritize a false sense of peace by ignoring the issue at hand. Either way, the only way to resolve conflicts is to face them.  I like to think of conflicts as opportunities to unlearn patterns that act as barriers to knowing myself and my partner. The feelings may still be uncomfortable, but it becomes easier to address problems. Taking your partner(s) in good faith, being accountable by accepting your mistakes, and approaching problems with curiosity can be key factors in being able to understand and resolve conflict. 

How do you engage metamours?

A metamour is your partner’s partner with whom you do not also share an intimate relationship. They exist most frequently in polyamorous dynamics. Non-monogamy is accompanied by copious amounts of unlearning. For some this comes naturally, others have to put in more work.  One step in unlearning monogamy is to understand that you are not competing for a ‘best partner’ award. A metamour is not a rival nor opponent. Similar to you, they are someone who finds pleasure in sharing intimacy with your partner. As an aromantic person, I think of metamours in the same way I think of a friend-of-a-friend. In some non-monogamous relationships, like couples or triads with external partners, it is important to consider how some commitment privileges affect  your other partners or metamours. 

Some people may prefer to keep metamours separate, others prefer to get to know them through sharing space and time together. The important thing to consider is why you choose the ways you want to interact with metamours. Deciding to keep relationships separate because you disapprove or are insecure about their relationship is much different than keeping things separate because you simply have nothing in common. With the former, it is very easy for this kind of boundary to lead to resentment or dysfunctional experiences. Your level of interaction with metamours may vary depending on comfort levels and preferences of the people involved. 

Ethically non-monogamous relationships can take various forms. Even the most flexible relationships can benefit from clear structures. With the many ways we can learn to understand each other, the most important consideration should be about whether there is mutual trust and accountability.