What Is an Ethical Non-Monogamous (ENM) Relationship?
There’s a noticeable uptick in interest surrounding ENM relationships. ENM, or ethical non-monogamy, takes many forms — the most recognizable being the open relationship.
ENM can be messy, complicated, and challenging. But truthfully, even ardent monogamists aren’t spared from the consistent work and effort that goes into a healthy, happy relationship.
So, if both parties are down, why not learn more about what it means to be ethically non-monogamous and see if you carry some preconceived notions that need clarification?
ENM vs. cheating
Even though someone is likely sleeping outside their primary relationship in both situations, there’s a big difference between cheaters and the ethically non-monogamous.
ENM relationships aren’t just built on trust; they center on mutual agreement and a clear understanding of boundaries. Cheating is basically the exact opposite.
In an ENM, both or multiple parties consent to a multi-partner practice. Cheating involves circumventing that consent, usually causing a breach in trust and potentially ending the relationship.
In short, ENM excludes cheating because everyone is playing by the rules. They’re just your rules, not the ones pre-ordained for your relationship by other labels, people, or society.
Monogamy vs. ethical non-monogamy
Before we dive deeper into ENM, let’s explore its counterpart: monogamy.
What is monogamy, really? Easily the most common relationship archetype, it refers to a relationship between two people who are exclusive to one another — usually both sexually and emotionally. Basically, you have one partner at a time.
So, what is ethical non-monogamy? ENM is an umbrella term for having more than one partner at a time, with some twists and turns thrown in there based on the couple’s or group’s needs. It’s that simple.
Many people, especially queer folks, feel like there’s something stifling about how most people practice monogamy. There’s often an inherent assumption that people are property — you belong to me, I belong to you. These relationships are also challenging for those who struggle to curb their desires, ultimately leading them to cheat and betray when they might have no trouble handling an ENM relationship.
As anyone in the LGBTQ community will tell you, there’s no “right” way to love. Much of the pushback against non-monogamous relationships originated from religion and patriarchal systems of control. Some would even say the “ethical” part of the ENM name should be dropped since it’s no more or less ethical than monogamy and doesn’t need differentiating.
Not that we’re hating on monogamous relationships. Monogamy makes perfect sense, but it makes just as much sense to seek ethical non-monogamy. It all comes down to what you and your lover(s) want and what feels best.
Types of ethical non-monogamy
With so many ways to customize the rule set, there are infinite ways to play the game. Still, relationships tend to fall into one of several categories. Here are the overarching types of ethical non-monogamy you’ll often see:
Despite what you might assume about open relationships — often seen as a death knell for the monogamous — they can absolutely work and be extremely healthy, provided both parties are willing to put in the effort.
Open relationships typically preclude commitments to others outside of the two-person relationship. They’re primarily for pursuing sexual connections. But even if that’s not the case, the primary relationship is always the priority over any other.
Monogamish is a term coined by Dan Savage, a prominent sex advice columnist, writer, and LGBTQ activist. This term is reserved for those who are mostly monogamous but won’t say no to a bit of fun. Whether they allow flirting, threesomes, swinging, or friends with benefits, monogamish couples almost always keep outside encounters sexual rather than romantic. Often, adherents exclusively play with third parties as a couple.
Polyamory probably takes the crown as the “messiest” type of ENM in the public’s eye, as it involves a lot of moving parts (hands, mouths, and hearts). Polyamory is hard to pin down because it can be sexual in nature — with two members courting dedicated partners outside their relationship — or much more intimate.
One example would be three people who are all in one relationship together. Sounds confusing? Not to those who have formed their own polycule. These relationships require masterful communication and emotional maturity but can be sexually and emotionally gratifying to all parties.
If you’re thinking this is basically The Purge, but with sex, well, your heart’s in the right place. But as scary as anarchy may sound, it’s much less intense than you think. Relationship anarchy is more about considering every person in the relationship equally important.
For example, in an open relationship, the primary couple is prioritized. An anarchic relationship wouldn’t have that hierarchy. This model stems from a desire to focus on autonomy and personal freedoms, never pinning down or categorizing your relationships as one single thing unless you choose to.
Swinging is one of the more unique entries on this list, and not just because it evokes dated notions of key parties and “we saw you from across the bar” vibes. Swingers are committed couples who engage in more social sex. It usually involves more than one couple playing together or swapping partners.
6 tips for a successful ENM relationship
There’s no definitive rulebook for successful ethical non-monogamous relationships. You write one with the people in it. Still, we’ve got some tips to ensure all parties feel comfortable and emotionally fulfilled in an ENM relationship:
Truthfully, any relationship must have open communication to succeed. But it’s doubly important in ENM relationships. Don’t hide your feelings or bite back thoughts. Everyone should feel like they’re on the same page.
2. Always be honest
If you’re communicating but aren’t sharing how you really feel, you may as well not be communicating. Jealousy, anger, sadness, and confusion are all common in ENM relationships, so don’t hold back if you feel some kind of way.
3. Do your research
Before making any commitments, we recommend you do some hefty research to ensure this is for you. Even breaching the topic can be challenging — let alone acting on it — so the more information you have about what to expect, the better.
4. Prioritize your mental health
At the end of the day, you have to be your own advocate. If ENM doesn’t feel good to you, you’re the only person who can do something about it. Your mental and physical well-being should always take priority.
Don’t hold anything in or let it fester to make others happy. It’s challenging, but bottling things up will only make you more upset or frustrated.
5. Always stay safe
Safety is a must in ENM relationships. Conversations about condoms, PreP, and STI screenings have to happen. Bringing others into the fold is already hard enough on the psyche, so set physical boundaries to ensure you’re always safe and healthy.
6. Face jealousy — and envy — head on
Jealousy is a natural human emotion that most people in ENM relationships will experience at some point. But it’s crucial to recognize and process it when it comes up so it doesn’t negatively affect you or the relationship.
It also helps to recognize the difference between jealousy and envy. Jealousy is a possessive feeling that arises when you’re afraid someone will take something from you. Envy is when you want what someone else has.
Are you jealous because you think the person will take your partner away? Or are you envious of the person who gets to spend time with your partner? It’s nuanced, but the concept can help you process emotions.
Why people choose ENM relationships
If you’re monogamous, you might wonder what draws others to ENM. Here are a few reasons people gravitate toward these less conventional relationships:
The spectrum of sexuality grows more vibrant by the moment, and many people want to discover where they fall.
People in ENM relationships frequently have different sexualities (e.g., a bisexual man and a heterosexual woman). In these instances, both parties agree that it’s healthiest to allow themself or their partner to be their most authentic self so they don’t feel forced to stifle their sexual identity.
No one person can do everything for another. Many accept that and are satisfied with a monogamous relationship. Most people get some of their emotional needs met by friends.
But what about the physical or sexual ones? That’s where ENM comes in. It’s an excellent way to ensure everyone gets what they want without compromising on their basic human needs.
An abundance of love
Some don’t feel entirely satisfied unless they’re free to express their love to multiple people. Anyone overflowing with love might gravitate toward ENM as an outlet to experience and give this abundance of love.
Find like-minded lovers on Grindr
Want to give ENM relationships a try? Plenty of open and eager individuals on Grindr would love to show you the way.