Ethical Nonmonogamy 101

Enjoy the video or read the same content below.

Lately, I’ve seen an increase in chatter about ethical nonmonogamy on social media. With more chatter often comes more understanding—but also sometimes more misunderstanding.

As someone who has been practicing and writing about ethical nonmonogamy since 2007, and also as someone who is a teacher at heart, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to add some clarity to the conversation.

So, with my teaching background and English degree in hand, let’s break down what is (and isn’t) ethical nonmonogamy.

What is ethical nonmonogamy?

Ethical nonmonogamy is the practice of having more than one sexual or romantic partner at a time with the enthusiastic consent of all partners. In order to be ethical, all partners need to be fully aware of and comfortable with the existence of other partners in the nonmonogamous structure.

As a language nerd, I like to break it down this way:

  • Monogamy, the base word of this phrase, is sexual or romantic fidelity to one partner (literally “one union”). Most people have sex with their romantic partners. As a result, this means that monogamous people typically pair up into couples. Partners in a monogamous couple work to meet all of each other’s romantic and sexual needs.
  • With nonmonogamy, a person has or is open to having more than one sexual or romantic partner (“not one union”). For some people, this is strictly sexual: they can be romantically monogamous, but want to be sexually nonmonogamous. Others may want sexual monogamy but still feel romantic about other people.

Monogamy is the norm in western culture. As a result, most people hear about nonmonogamy and think, “well, that’s just cheating”.

This assumption is sometimes right: cheating is one form of nonmonogamy. However, many people practice nonmonogamy in a way where nobody feels cheated. This has come to be known as ethical or consensual nonmonogamy.

In ethical or consensual nonmonogamy, every person involved sexually or romantically is aware of the presence of other sexual or romantic partners. Some people frame this as “giving a partner permission to cheat”, but most ethically nonmonogamous people would say it goes deeper than that.

Being ethically nonmonogamous in an upfront, honest approach to relationships for people who don’t want to be or can’t happily be monogamous. It takes a lot of vulnerability, communication, and work for people in ethically nonmonogamous relationships to navigate the challenges that come with this unconventional way of loving or partnering.

Wait, doesn’t everyone want to be nonmonogamous?

Photo by Sharefaith

For some people, being ethically nonmonogamous is a choice. It may sound appealing to:

  • an individual or couple seeking variety
  • a couple where one partner’s sexual desire has disappeared
  • someone who holds a strong belief in personal autonomy

In these cases, ethical nonmonogamy is a path that someone chooses to take either to address a challenge, live out a philosophy, or have fun.

For other people, being ethically nonmonogamous is more of an orientation. For these people, choosing to be monogamous would be as difficult as a gay person trying to choose to be straight. Sure, they can behave in the way popular culture expects them to, but it wouldn’t be true to who they are on the inside.

There’s a lot of argument out there about how many of us are monogamous by nature and how much value we place on choosing monogamy even if we have nonmonogamous desires. I’m not going to dig too deeply into that in this post, but suffice it to say that so far, evidence suggests that some people seem ‘wired’ for monogamy and others seem ‘wired’ for nonmonogamy. Neither is right or wrong: they both just are.

Isn’t ethical nonmonogamy basically just having threesomes?

Photo by cottonbro

Threesomes are one possible example of ethical nonmonogamy, but there are many forms this practice can take. Because it is nonmonogamy where no one feels cheated, the possibilities are genuinely endless.

Here are a few common examples:

Being single

Believe it or not, many single people practice ethical nonmonogamy without even knowing it.

Depending on where you live, most people would agree that if you’re single you’re free to have sex with whoever you’d like. (As long as they also want to have sex with you, of course.)

As long as anyone you sleep with understands that you’re likely sleeping with other people, and as long as they’re comfortable with that, that’s ethical nonmonogamy. All that’s required is a shared understanding and appreciation that the relationship is not exclusive.

When I meet people who are excited at the idea of multiple sex partners, I encourage them to consider whether they’re just fantasizing about being single. Just be clear to the people you’re having sex with about the fact that you’re not looking for nor offering exclusivity, and safely enjoy your multiple partners.

Open relationships or the “pass”

In the west, we tend to end our single life when we find a partner we feel romantic about. At that point, many people have “the talk” about exclusivity. Let’s talk about what ethical nonmonogamy might look like as an alternative.

Say you and a friend-with-benefits develop romantic feelings for each other. You each have other sex partners you’ve cultivated during your single life, and maybe each of you has some partners you don’t want to let go of.

Maybe you and your partner give each other a “pass” for specific people. This pass may only apply strictly to pre-existing partners, or perhaps new partners are okay. Maybe the pass is only offered one time, or a few times a year. It’s up to you!

A great example of the “pass” is when a partner participates in a kink you’re not interested in. If you’re comfortable with it, they can still have access to other partners who can enjoy that kink with them.

The pass is a strict type of open relationship. Other open relationships might be much looser, where each partner is free to sleep with others as much as they like, or while out of town, or as long as they don’t intend on developing feelings for anyone else.

Swinging or swapping

For some couples swinging, also called swapping, offers an open relationship structure that feels safer or more desirable compared to the more free-range open relationship model.

Swinging typically involves trading partners between two couples. This way, everyone gets to have a sexual experience with someone new, and everyone still goes home with the partner they showed up with.


Photo by fauxels

So far, we’ve talked a lot about forms of nonmonogamy that attempt to keep feelings at bay. Many ethically nonmonogamous people, however, are open to the fact that feelings often can, and do, develop. This brings us to polyamory.

Polyamory is focused mostly on love, not sex. People tend to have sex with the people they romantically love, of course, so sex certainly happens. It just isn’t the main focus for this form of ethical nonmonogamy.

There are many ways a polyamorous relationship can form:

  • A person who develops romantic feelings for multiple people may be honest with all partners about what they’re experiencing. If all of those people are comfortable with the situation and consent to continue their relationships, that’s polyamory.
  • A swinging couple may fall in love with another couple. If the other couple feels the same way or is open to exploring it, the four may enter a polyamorous relationship.
  • Someone in an open relationship may develop feelings for one of their outside sex partners. All three can make time to talk about those feelings and, if everyone is comfortable with it, it can be a new polyamorous feature of the relationship.

Obviously, polyamory and other forms of ethical nonmonogamy can be really complex and take a lot of work. It’s important to note that no one is obligated to take on this work, no matter how in love with or attracted to a partner they are. If someone is not interested in navigating the complexity of polyamory, then they don’t consent to it. Without consent, it isn’t polyamory or ethical nonmonogamy.

I highly recommend reading books like The Ethical Slut and Polysecure if you’re interested in learning more about polyamory and ENM in general.

Is ethical nonmonogamy right for you?

Photo by Alex Green

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding ethical nonmonogamy.

One way to explore which forms of ethical nonmonogamy may be for you is to use the Yes-No-Maybe List for ENM found in my communication activity book:

You’re also invited to join my private Sensually Sourced Community for ENM-friendly resources and support:

Once inside, you’ll find people and activities to help you along your journey.

See you there!

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Published by Shannon Burton

Erotic Ignition Coach by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house and enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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