Being in a committed couple is comfortable, safe, and great for some people, but loving one person doesn’t make all those hot people that aren’t your partner less hot. In fact, if there’s anyone that does risk becoming less hot in a monogamous relationship, it’s your partner. Some people, however, have found a way to skirt that – to make the flame in their relationship shine brighter and last longer.
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM), also known as consensual non-monogamy, is one answer to the confines of couple culture, which is apparently something people have been looking to solve, as the popularity of ENM has skyrocketed in the last decade. As a result, ENM is getting more media attention, as well as representation in pop culture, with polyamorous characters in movies and series like You Me Her and Broad City, inspiring viewers to give non-monogamy a go.
Unsurprisingly, some people are finding that it’s not easy. Because of cultural conditioning, many of us are likely to be at least mildly discouraged or intimidated at the thought of hooking up with another person’s partner or, yikes, another person hooking up with yours. We get it, sharing is hard. Any three-year-old will confirm.
But when it comes to openly non-monogamous people, you’ve got to hand it to them. This lifestyle requires learning to deal with jealousy in a healthy way. They’re out there living their best lives, developing multiple sexual, as well as emotional, relationships, and getting laid way more than the rest of us, probably. That’s called having your cake and eating it too, and they do it with total transparency. Hence, ethical.
We are in a new era of honesty, in which it’s no longer taboo to say you love your partner but want to fuck other people too because, duh, of course you do. Unlike monogamy, sexual attraction is human nature and let’s be honest, repression is tired and passé. We are not about that life in 2019.
That said, ethical non-monogamy isn’t for everyone and there really isn’t anything wrong with being monogamous. If you are comfortable being with one person and prefer to be that way, more power to you.
Still, the trend toward open relationships does represent an interesting shift in social constructs of love and sex. To talk about that shift, though, we must first address the status quo ante. So, let’s talk about monogamy and how against all odds, humans wound up stuck in it.
From an anthropological standpoint, human monogamy is really weird. Of more than 5,000 species of mammals, only 3 to 5 percent are monogamous, putting humans in the same ranks as bats, beavers, and foxes. The other 95 to 98 percent are more free-wheeling, with males doing their rounds, so to speak, for the fate of their species. Otherwise stated, most male mammals are driven to mate and have offspring, and by mating with many females, they increase their chances of doing just that. Nothing personal, just logic.
No species is unmarked by evolution, though, and many, humans among them, developed monogamy as a way of solving certain evolutionary problems. For example, 90% of bird species developed monogamy as a way to protect their young against predators invading the nest.
What, then, caused humans to be monogamous? Research out of the University of Liverpool has found that hominoids of 4.4 million years ago were primarily mating with many females, but by 3.5 million years ago they had already made the shift to social monogamy. The reason behind that shift researchers have yet to agree upon.
Some say that, like with birds, it has to do with the survival of their offspring. As males stuck around longer to protect their young, they eventually took to joint parenting. Others say it was a matter of distance, that monogamy was the easiest way to avoid facing off with competing males during their search to locate a potential mate. Still others chalk it up to a matter of hormones.
Whatever the reason, the resulting monogamy was more of a social development than a fundamental change in human nature, and it actually has little to do with monogamy as we know it today.
When scientists talk about human monogamy, they mean “social monogamy,” or the tendency of individuals to pair up for any length of time, for some practical reason. However, that’s not all that it connotes in today’s society.
For anyone from a Western culture, monogamy has more complex functions and is better defined as the romantic and sexual relationship with a single partner. It’s also the only legal form of marriage in the United States and most other Western countries. And because this article is written by someone from a Western country, for a primarily Western audience, monogamy is hereby referred to as the “norm,” in spite of the fact that on a global scale, it’s actually far from it.
In fact, monogamy is a purely cultural phenomenon practiced by a mere 17% of all human cultures. Hordes of societies across Africa, Asia, and South America practice some form of non-monogamy, such as polygyny (one man with multiple wives) in sub-Saharan Africa and polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) in Tibet.
Because sex, for some reason, needs to be a moral issue, it’s tempting to attribute the Western prevalence of monogamy to Christian moral code, but monogamy actually dates back to long before the religion ever existed, specifically to ancient Greece and Rome. There, monogamy was legally imposed as a way to grow the military by allowing lower-class men to marry in exchange for military service. Up to that point, elite men had claimed all the wives, leaving lower-class men alone and unhappy.
Eventually, as Greco-Roman societies evolved into modern nations, notably those that make up all of Western Europe, they guarded the idea of state-sponsored monogamy, ingraining it into the Western culture we know today.
Monogamy as a concept may not be natural, but isn’t wrong. People have been doing it for millennia, so it clearly has its merits. It does, however, pose certain challenges to a relationship that might not factor quite as strongly in a non-monogamous relationship.
Over the summer, a New York-based sex writer chronicled her various romantic endeavors for Yahoo and, in one article, recounts her experience dating a guy in an open and polyamorous relationship. On their first and only date, she inquires about his decision to be polyamorous and his response is simple: the idea of monogamy made his “dick soft.”
Ok, so his ribald answer could have been his way of showing how edgy and avant-garde he is (they met at Art Basel, mind you) or it could have been a way of making his preference for non-monogamy exuberantly and, ahem, graphically clear. No doubt he’s encountered some who’ve believed they could sway his stance. But it was also the literal truth. Monogamy, not just for this dude, but for humans in general, is a turn off.
As soon as a relationship becomes institutionalized, desire begins to dwindle. And many are surprised to learn that it actually happens quicker for women than for men. Desire take a continual effort to upkeep. So for anyone in a monogamous relationship for the long haul, toys and lingerie are indispensable.
But fading desire isn’t the only problem with monogamy. As desire in a couple fades, it inevitably appears elsewhere and because we tend to hold our partners to higher standards than we hold ourselves, that shift can lead to jealousy, monitoring, and suspicion—feelings that can undermine any relationship.
Esther Perel, a sex and relationship guru and author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, frames the problem perfectly:
“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”
No, Esther, it’s no wonder. Monogamy demands a lot, sometimes too much, of each partner. Perhaps it’s this burden that’s inspired so many people to try out ethical non-monogamy—not as a way to escape, but as a way to lighten the load.
If you haven’t heard about ethical non-monogamy by now, you’ve must be living under a rock, because it is truly everywhere these days. But in case you are not yet familiar with the concept, ethical non-monogamy basically means being in a relationship in which partners consent to being non-monogamous. ENM is in direct opposition to non-ethical non-monogamy, or as most people call it, cheating.
Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term that includes every possible arrangement outside of monogamy, from occasional threesomes with a unicorn to having additional sexual relationships outside of your primary relationship to watching your partner boink a stranger. If you and your partner agreed upon it, that’s ENM.
By no measure is ethical non-monogamy a new concept. Already 20 years ago, it was used as a plot device in multiple episodes of Friends. However, our collective perception of it has changed as the conversation around non-monogamy continues to grow and evolve. In the last decade, mainstream media outlets like Vice, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times, among others have even taken to publishing these “alternative love” stories, slowly but surely normalizing the idea.
But it’s not all talk—research confirms the trend. A 2016 study found that 1 in 5 people had already tried some form of ethical non-monogamy and a YouGov poll from the same year found that 31% of women and 38% of men think that some form of ENM would be ideal.
But finding the iteration of ethical non-monogamy that works for your relationship isn’t a given. ENM comes in nigh infinite shades and working out the right one requires a little experimentation.
Here are a few of the most common versions of ethical non-monogamy to give you a taste:
Polyamory is the version of ethical non-monogamy that people are most likely to be familiar with, despite being tricky to pin down. It literally means ‘loving many,’ which can play out a million different ways. For example, it may involve a primary relationship with one or more people, who are open to additional emotional, though not necessarily sexual, relationships with other people.
Throuples, triads, quads... polyfidelity is a closed romantic relationship between multiple people, in which all partners play an equal role. It’s similar to polyamory in that it involves loving more than one person, but is not what you might call an ‘open relationship.’
Swinging involves engaging in sex outside of a relationship. Couples may do it together or separately with one or more other people.
As opposed to polyamory or polyfidelity, swinging couples are not interested making a romantic, emotional connection with anyone other than their primary partner.
An open relationships is a general way of referring to a non-monogamous arrangement for which a couple has established rules and boundaries. For example, partners may see other people, but not discuss other relationships with their primary partner, or partners may seek sexual, but not romantic relationships with other people. Basically, if there are other people involved and you and your partners have negotiated the terms and conditions, it’s an open relationship.
A common version of an open relationship is a hierarchical open relationship, in which partners in a primary couple have secondary partners. In this arrangement, the secondary partner is aware that their partner’s principal loyalty lies with their primary partner.
Pretty much what it sounds like, sexually monogamous polyamory is having multiple emotional relationships, but only one sexual partner. Polyamorous relationships, especially like these, are more likely to involve asexual people.
This rather new term was coined by the sex writer and love columnist Dan Savage to describe a relationship that is committed and mostly monogamous, except that partners can hook up with other people from time to time—to hit refresh, so to speak.
In the past, non-monogamous relationships, ethical or otherwise, were harshly judged. Western history has always tilted toward the puritanical, after all. One common stereotype that people waged against those less inclined toward monogamy is that they must be depraved for obsessed with sex.
First of all, yes, sometimes it’s about sex. But is that such a bad thing?
Commenting on the prudishness of Western culture, Freud once wrote that “in matters of sexuality we are at present, every one of us, ill or well, nothing but hypocrites.” It would seem he was speaking directly to the non-monogamy naysayers.
It’s healthy to feed your sexuality, to deny and repress it is not. Asexuals aside, we are all horny, nearly all the time; non-monogamous people are just more upfront about it.
But depravity isn’t the only unfair stereotype associated with non-monogamy. There is also the notion that they make for fleeting, disinterested, maybe even dishonest, partners; that having multiple relationships decreases the quality of each one individually. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most people report that their non-monogamous partners are the most honest and sincere partners they’ve ever had, owing to the fact that honesty is at the core of any open or poly relationship. Without it, it just wouldn’t work. Many people also find that their non-monogamous relationships are more intense and fulfilling, which makes sense considering that anyone interested in having multiple relationships is probably someone who really values them.
The point is, ENM can be about cursory sex, but it can also be about making meaningful connections and intimacy. And who’s to say it can’t be about all of the above at once?
These days, criticisms of non-monogamy have slowed as cultural ideals are becoming more liberal thanks to free-thinking Millennials and Gen Z-ers, for whom non-nonmonogamy is practically a given. It’s no wonder, then, that a large part of the exploration of ethical non-monogamy takes place online, a space that is both designed and dominated by these younger generations.
If you’ve ever used a dating app, there’s a good chance you’ve come across more than one profile with the fine print “in an open relationship” while on a late night swiping spree. Profiles like these are common on dating apps because the platform serves as an easy way for curious people to experiment with alternative lifestyle choices, whether it be their sexual identity or their relationship status.
Those who are already committed to an ethically non-monogamous lifestyle have their share of niche dating apps as well, and have a home on plenty of mainstream dating sites. A 2016 survey by OkCupid actually found that those seeking monogamous arrangements made up the minority of users, counting only 44%, as opposed to 56% in 2010. OkCupid then went on to make it possible to filter for people in ENM relationships, with categories like married, in an open relationship, and polyamorous, to name a few.
With such a strong presence of non-monogamous users, it’s no wonder that dating apps play a large role in exposing people to and turning them on to alternative relationship structures. After all, when you come across an attractive profile of someone in an open relationship, it inevitably forces you to question whether or not you should swipe right, how dating an openly non-monogamous person would even work, and whether you’d consider being open too. It could also be part of the reason ‘polyamory’ was Google’s fourth most-searched term in 2017...
The arguments behind ENM are strong, but reason doesn’t automatically make jealousy disappear, and that’s only one of many challenges to a non-monogamous lifestyle that make people skeptical about whether it can really work.
While non-monogamy can definitely work for some, the reality is that not everybody is cut out for it. Personality is a big factor determining whether or not ethical non-monogamy will work for you. For example, you really have to love relationships, whether it’s your primary relationship or any additional ones. If you dive into an open relationship just because it sounds like fun and ignore the personal and emotional aspects, there’s a good chance you, your partner, or your relationship will end up wounded.
Remember that any relationship is a contract, and to keep it healthy, communication is key. You have to be willing to talk and set rules and boundaries; this is true for ENM relationships as much as it is for monogamous ones.
In fact, one reason monogamy can feel so difficult is that we assume that as partners, we’re on the same page, when in reality we’re far from it. The psychologist Joe Kort outlines the necessity of communication in Psychology Today:
“The irony here is that most monogamous couples I see have never talked about or negotiated what monogamy actually means for them—something as vague as ‘being loyal to one another.’ But when you begin to ask about specifics, one partner may believe that looking at pornography is cheating. For another, masturbating feels like betrayal. And for another, engaging in sexting or cybersex without ever meeting each other or even being in the same country is cheating.”
...And for yet another, buying used panties online may be cheating. Or maybe not. The point is that for a relationship to work, you need to be able to talk and figure out the rules together. If you already struggle to do this in a monogamous relationship, you’ll have a hell of a time surviving in a non-monogamous one.
By this point, non-monogamy probably sounds great, whether it’s because you’re DTF or because you’re into the communicative value of it. But before you head to the apps to trawl for polys, swingers, and unicorns, double check that you and your relationship can handle it.
If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then by all means, go chase your non-monogamous dreams now!