- In a recent nationally representative survey, 32 percent of American adults said that their ideal relationship style is consensual non-monogamy.
- Ethical non-monogamy has many different subtypes such as polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and being "monogamish."
- When people choose ethical non-monogamy from a place of freedom, they are less anxious and depressed than if they are pressured into it.
We live in a culture that perpetuates the idea that life-long monogamy is meant for everyone. The fairytale goes that we meet someone, fall in love, and live blissfully, happy forever after.
For some, monogamy does provide happiness and fulfillment and the chance to build a life and maybe a family with someone. Yet for others, it feels impossible and limiting.
According to a recent nationally representative survey by YouGov, 32 percent of American adults (and 43 percent of millennials) say that their ideal relationship style is consensual non-monogamy (CNM). Sometimes referred to as ethical non-monogamy (ENM), CNM is a type of relationship agreement where both partners openly agree to have more than one sexual or romantic relationship partner.
CNM is very different from cheating or having an affair, where a couple has agreed to remain sexually and emotionally exclusive and then one or both partners have sexual/emotional/romantic affairs that are hidden from each other. Ethical non-monogamy, in contrast, happens in the context of honesty, transparency, and consent.
Ethical non-monogamy has many different subtypes. For example, some people define their relationship as being “monogamish,” a term coined by Dan Savage which involves being mostly monogamous but occasionally partaking in outside romantic or sexual relationships. Another form includes open relationships or swinging, where two partners allow each other to pursue outside sexual and/or romantic relationships more continuously. A third type is polyamory, which literally means having multiple loving relationships. Often this includes a group of people who are all in a relationship together.
A recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior shows that people choose CNM for a variety of reasons. For some, the desire for multiple sexual or romantic partners represents a way to get their sexual needs met or to introduce sexual variety. For others, the reasons are more existential in nature. Their motivation comes from a desire for personal growth and self-expansion via other people and relationships. Finally, for some, CNM provides a way to reject the traditional gender roles and sexual scripts promoted by a heteronormative society.
Sometimes, the "decision" to be non-monogamous is one that lacks autonomy. The authors found that when one partner feels pressured by the other to open their relationship, their mental health suffers. This often happens when one person agrees to go along or “take one for the team” out of fear of losing their partner. This typically produces anxiety and depression and leads to both partners resenting each other.
Most people who successfully practice ethical non-monogamy emphasize that it best succeeds in the context of clear, ongoing communication and consent. It thrives when there are clearly articulated rules and boundaries. Having a plan for how to address feelings of jealousy or insecurity, should they arise, is helpful. When everyone’s expectations and needs are being met, the outcome is more positive.
There are a lot of stigmas that surround ethical non-monogamy and to many, it seems too “out there.” Some feel they just would be overwhelmed with jealousy. But non-monogamous people are quick to point out that jealousy arises in monogamous relationships as well, and that in either case, it’s something that communication and transparency can solve. For most non-monogamous people, the stress of sexual or romantic restriction greatly outweighs that of jealousy.
Even if ethical monogamy would never be your thing, it raises interesting questions. Why is it that we put monogamy on such a pedestal when almost half of all marriages fail? Maybe we’re expecting too much. Can one partner be our best friend, stimulate us intellectually, and fulfill all of our sexual needs all at once and all of the time? Could relying on different people to fulfill our different needs, even in non-sexual ways, lessen the strain on our relationships and make us happier?
Regardless of how you view the answers to these questions, ethical non-monogamy offers important lessons. We can’t expect our partners to be fully responsible for our happiness. Communication and transparency are critical in all relationships. Healthy relationships require intention and effort and are the most likely to succeed when we have other friends or passions to rely upon. Ultimately, only we have control of our own happiness.
Wood, J., De Santis, C., Desmarais, S. et al. Motivations for Engaging in Consensually Non-Monogamous Relationships. Arch Sex Behav 50, 1253–1272 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01873-x