What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Most societies promote monogamy as the normal, natural, or even moral way people are supposed to engage in relationships. Monogamy is defined by two people getting romantically and sexually involved only with each other – until they break up or death parts them. There are, however, relationship style options available to us beyond monogamy. That’s where ethical non-monogamy comes in.

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term that encompasses the various relationship styles beyond monogamy. They are defined by an mutual agreement and consent from all parties involved. The agreement and consent bit is particularly important in ethical non-monogamy – without it, it would just be cheating. So essentially, ethical non-monogamy is any type of relationship style in which more than two people are involved in a consensual sexual or romantic way.

One subset of ethical non-monogamy that is not discussed in this article is open relationships. Learn more about open relationship rules and definitions here.

Polyamorous Relationships

Perhaps the most infamous ethical non-monogamy style is polyamory. In her seminal work Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, Tristan Taormino succinctly defines polyamorous relationships as “the desire for or the practice of maintaining multiple significant, intimate relationships simultaneously”.

The meaning of polyamorous relationships can however vary for different people. It may encompass many elements: love, friendship, closeness, emotional intimacy, recurring contact, commitment, affection, flirting, romance, desire, erotic contact, sex, and a spiritual connection. Polyamory is deeply rooted in the ideas that it’s unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all your needs, and that it’s possible to love more than one person.

A polyamorous relationship or marriage may appeal to you if you are looking for more than “just sex” from additional partners. You might choose polyamorous marriage if you have the capacity to love, be emotionally and sexually intimate with, and commit to more than one partner; or you want a variety of sexual or relational dynamics with people of different genders.

There are many types of poly relationships:

  • hierarchical poly (there is a primary relationship and all others are considered secondary to that relationship)
  • multiple primaries or multi-partner groups (AKA polyfidelity)
  • non-hierarchical polyamory (all partners are considered equal)
  • solo polyamory (when a person chooses not to have a primary relationship but has multiple partners)
  • and non-sexual poly (when people are involved in emotional relationships with multiple partners, but without sex).

Polyamorous Relationships vs. Open Relationships

When we are looking at polyamorous relationships versus open relationships of other sorts, we can see there are many different options:

  • Partnered non-monogamy is when a committed couple decides to have a relationship that is erotically non-monogamous but is romantically monogamous. In other words, they are emotionally and romantically monogamous with each other, but they have sex with other people. How deeply involved the people in this committed relationship are with others can vary. They can consists of one-time encounters to recurring ones, but  typically they are non-romantic, casual, temporary, and commitment-free trysts. Partnered non-monogamy is a good choice for those who want their primary relationship to remain the priority but want to explore sex and/or BDSM with other people, or if they want to fulfill fantasies like group sex.
  • Swinging – which is also referred to as being part of “the lifestyle” – is partnered non-monogamy, but with a deeper focus on engaging in sexual activity with others as part of a social activity or recreational event. Swinging parties welcome couples or single women to their events, and participants can engage in anything from pure voyeurism to full-on partner swapping. Like partnered non-monogamy, sexual diversity and exploration is the main purpose of this relationship style – not forming deep, emotional attachments with other couples (although, of course, some swinging couples choose to get to know each other outside of the swing club and become good friends).
  • Monogamous/Non-monogamous combinations (AKA mono/non-mono) are another popular form of ethical non-monogamy. Here, a couple adopts a hybrid style of open relationship, with one partner being non-monogamous while the other partner remains monogamous. This style is a good choice if there is one party that wants to explore more and/or different sex with additional partners while the other doesn’t. The mono/non-mono combination can help to accommodate sexual incompatibility or difference between partners. It supports partnerships in which one partner is straight and the other gay/lesbian, bisexual and not bisexual, kinky and non-kinky, sexual and sexless, low libido and high libido, suffering from a sexual dysfunction, or disabled and not disabled.

Pros and Cons of Ethical Non-Monogamy

Like any relationship style, there are benefits and pitfalls to ethical non-monogamy. For those who feel limited, caged, or stifled by the confines of monogamy, ethical non- monogamy could be the answer. It allows you to create relationships that work for you – whether that means having multiple sexual partners and experiences, or having multiple relationships of different flavors. Ethical non-monogamy challenges anyone who undertakes it to learn and grow through relationships, to work on their self-awareness and on any jealousy issues they may have. (Check out also these interesting Open Marriage Statistics!)

One of the most cited reasons why couples decide to venture into the world of ethical non-monogamy is the belief that it’s impossible for any one person to be everything their partner could ever want and need. We all have different needs, and for a majority of the time, these needs cannot be met by one person within the confines of a monogamous relationship. In order to engage in this type of relating though, it is imperative that all involved are willing to engage in self-reflection. They must be willing to process feelings with others, and rationally deal with conflicts when they arise because misunderstandings are bound to happen.

While there are many benefits to the non-monogamous lifestyle, there are also some challenges that come along with it. For example, more relationships equal more work – especially emotional work related to confronting feelings of jealousy and insecurity. Some people will experience a sense of freedom in this style of relating, while others will feel a sense of insecurity in their relationship. And, depending on whether or not you are “out” about your non-monogamous relationship, you may have to deal with the disapproval of family, friends and your larger community to boot.

Ethical non-monogamy can include polyamorous relationships.

Polyamorous Relationship Rules

In order for you to successfully navigate the world of ethical non-monogamy, it is necessary to make some polyamorous relationship rules with your partner:

  • Who can you go out with? Talk with your partner about what is comfortable for you when it comes to a potential new partner’s gender (male, female, trans, etc.), coupled status (single or partnered), sexual orientation (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc.), age (similar age, older, younger), S/M and D/s orientation (top, bottom, switch, dominant, submissive), and familiarity (stranger, friend, coworker, neighbor, ex-partner, etc.)
  • What can the new relationship include? Consider the following activities and which ones will work for you: socializing, flirting, dating, romance and courtship, BDSM, non-genital erotic touch, oral sex, manual stimulation/hand job, analingus, penis in vagina or anus intercourse, fingering or toy insertion into orifices, travel or vacations together, sleepovers, emotional connection, or love.
  • When will time be spent with the new partner? What is the frequency of the connection (e.g. one time only vs ongoing vs infrequent)? Are there specific days or times that are reserved for a particular partner?
  • Where can you get together with a new partner? Can you only see them when you are out of town, or is it ok for them to be in town? Can you see them in public places or are you limited to a hotel room? Can you bring them home?

As you can see, there is a lot of thought and communication about boundaries, needs, and desires necessary if you want to engage in a polyamorous relationship. For those who are willing to put in the work however, the rewards can potentially be great.

How a Sex Coach Can Help

If you have decided you want to embark on an ethically non-monogamous journey and would like to negotiate your polyamorous relationship rules, it can be very helpful to have an expert talk you through the process. When looking for a sex coach to help you with this, make sure they are familiar with and supportive of the relationship choices you are considering.

A sex coach can help you navigate through any challenging topics or triggers that might arise. They can help you articulate your desires to see which structure will be best for you. They can also make sure you have covered as many bases as possible before you dive into ethical non-monogamy – so you will be less likely to have major misunderstandings and more likely to get as many of your desires met as possible.

Previous articlePsychological Effects of a Sexless Marriage
Next articleBenefits of Kegel Exercises and Balls (Ben Wa Balls)
Danielle Harel
Danielle Harel, PhD is the Co-creator of the Somatica® Method and the Co-Founder of the Somatica® Institute. She trains coaches in the Somatica® Method of Sex and Relationship Coaching. She has her own private practice in Sunnyvale, where she supports her clients in having amazing sex and relationships as well as passion-fueled lives. She has published original research on Orgasmic Birth and is the co-author of two books, Cockfidence - The Definitive Guide to Being the Man You Want to Be and Driving Women Wild and Making Love Real - The Intelligent Couples Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Passion. Danielle Has her Masters in Clinical Social Work From Haifa University in Israel and her PhD in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS). She is a Clinical Sexologist and a Certified Sexological Bodyworker. Danielle is a Certified Body Positive Facilitator and took many trainings in embodied and mindfulness based therapeutic approaches such as Hakomi.