Ethical Non-Monogamy, A Beginner’s Guide
Feeling limited by monogamy? Thinking about thrupling up? In her latest Sex Ed for Adults, contributing educator Cassandra Corrado talks about re-imagining your sex life in a safe and consensual way.
Have you ever intentionally thought about what type of relationship you want? I mean, really thought it through?
Most of us haven’t. We tend to go through life pursuing and building the relationships we’ve always seen — we meet someone, we date exclusively, and then maybe we get married. In most cases, if one or both partners becomes sexually or romantically interested in somebody else, we break up or try to “move past it.” In the United States and much of the world, monogamy is what most of us are socialized to believe is normal, healthy, “best.”
But that’s started to shift. Ethical non-monogamy has always existed, but in recent years, conversations about it have moved into pop culture, showing up everywhere from The Today Show to TikTok.
If you’re feeling confused or curious (or both!) about ethical non-monogamy, no worries — we’ll cover the basics here. Remember, no type of relationship is inherently better than any other type! They’re just different, and different people have different needs.
If you find yourself feeling judgmental or queasy reading through this, check in with some of those early messages you may have received about monogamy and non-monogamy. And if you find yourself feeling curious, excited, and yeah, even a little queasy, take the time to figure out what you’re responding to!
Let’s dive in.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy (or ENM) isn’t just one thing — it’s an umbrella term referring to many different relationship structures. It basically means intentionally and consensually engaging in either sexual or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time.
The keyword there is consensual. Ethical non-monogamy is not cheating. It’s a mutual decision between everyone involved. That being said, people who practice non-monogamy can still cheat, because non-monogamous relationships still have boundaries and agreements just like any other relationship.
In fact, people who practice ethical non-monogamy typically spend more time talking about boundaries, desires, and needs with their partners, simply because you’re directly facing those issues more often (or at least more openly).
People who practice ENM might…
- Be married to one of their partners
- Be in a sexual relationship with no partners, but romantic relationships with multiple
- Be in sexual relationships with multiple partners, but romantic relationships with just one or two
- Prefer “kinky” sex
- Prefer “vanilla” sex
- Be asexual
- Go to weekly sex clubs
- Be LGBTQ+
- Be heterosexual
There is no one way for a non-monogamous person to look, act, have sex, or love. Everybody, and every relationship, is different! Ethical non-monogamy isn’t for everyone, but if you’re curious about it, here are some basic tips for starting the conversation.
How to bring up non-monogamy to a partner
Talking about any shift in a relationship can be an intimidating experience, but it doesn’t have to be scary! The way that you’ll approach this conversation will depend on your current relationship context.
For example, if you’re in a monogamous long-term relationship, it may be a longer conversation that may even involve some outside support. But if you’re currently single and dating, then you might talk about your desire for ethical non-monogamy on a first date or before you even meet. Those will be two pretty different conversations!
Let’s focus on how to bring up non-monogamy with an existing committed partner. Before you ever have an in-depth conversation about ENM, you might casually float the topic or indirectly bring it up. If you’re watching a TV show that features a non-monogamous storyline, you might use that to ask your partner if they’ve ever considered non-monogamous relationships. Or, if you find an interesting article online, you might share it with them and talk about it later.
But once you’re ready to approach the conversation more directly, here are some basic tips.
- First, identify your own reasons for wanting to change your relationship structure. What needs might it help you fulfill? What desires might it help you explore? Knowing what your reasons are can help you introduce the topic to your partner more clearly, and can help you anticipate some questions that may arise. And if you find yourself focusing on the negative aspects of your current relationship (“my partner annoys me, so I want something different”) then you should probably consider if it’s actually non-monogamy you want…or if you’re really looking for an escape hatch.
- Next, consider what type of relationship shift you’re interested in. To be clear, you don’t need to know what exact thing you’re looking for right away. But it can be helpful to identify the types of things you’re interested in pursuing. Are you looking for other sexual relationships without romantic ties? Sexual and romantic relationships? Something else entirely?
- Plan a time to talk about it. I never recommend springing a big relationship or sex life conversation on your partner without a heads-up. It’s best to give folks time to mentally prepare, that way they can be fully present throughout. You don’t need to give a full agenda, just say, “would you be up for a relationship check-in over dinner this Thursday?” so that they know what’s up. Plan it for a time when you’ll both be able to relax and focus on each other.
- Lead with honesty and compassion. At this point, you might be feeling pretty nervous. That’s okay! Acknowledge it. “I feel pretty nervous about bringing this up, so if I seem ‘off’ right now, it’s just nerves! Lately, I’ve been thinking about ethical non-monogamy and I’m feeling curious about trying it. Would you be open to talking about that now?” Your partner might feel nervous too, and again, that’s okay! Give each other space to feel your feelings and reassure each other when appropriate.
- Know that you probably won’t come to a conclusion right away. Even if your partner responds with “heck yeah!”, your conversation isn’t going to end there. You’ll then start focusing on ways to ground and strengthen your current relationship, plus look toward defining or adjusting boundaries and agreements. But it’s pretty likely that your partner will need some time to think about it. That’s totally normal!
If they want to do some research or soul-searching on their own, you might offer some resources that were helpful for you. Or, you might want to talk to a relationship therapist to address some of the worries you each have and help navigate this new conversation. Make a plan to regularly check-in with each other and tend to your relationship as it is — you don’t need to put that on pause while you figure the rest of this out!
If your partner is a firm “no” right away (or after some soul-searching), then it’s important to respect that. You may also have to consider if staying in the relationship is right for you — but that doesn’t mean that you should give them an ultimatum. Forcing or pressuring someone into a non-monogamous relationship pretty quickly strikes the “ethical” from “ethical non-monogamy.” It’s never okay to pressure someone to do something that they don’t want to do!
- Don’t be afraid to collaborate! If you decide that you’re interested in exploring or considering ethical non-monogamy, you’ll both likely have some agenda items relating to self-exploration, research, STI testing, and more. It’s okay to work through these things together — in fact, being teammates here can help strengthen your existing relationship. Do research and share it with each other, talk through the feelings as they arise, make shared agendas for relationship therapy appointments. Approaching these changes as a team can help soothe some of the challenging feelings that may arise and can help you feel like you’re in this together (because you are!).
How to practice safer sex in non-monogamous relationships
If your non-monogamous relationship involves sex, then you and your partners will probably have some questions about sexual safety. Ultimately, sexual safety looks different for everyone and will vary based on your own context, sexual history, and how frequently you’re having sex with new partners (and how many other people they’re having sex with).
So, here are some key points to focus on.
- Make sure everyone is fully informed. The foundation of consent is being fully informed, and that’s true whether we’re talking a one-night stand, a 20-year marriage, or any other type of relationship. That means making sure people know what the intention of the relationship is, that current partners know that you’re having sex with other people, and that you’ve talked about STIs, barrier methods, and pregnancy prevention (if applicable).
- Come to an agreement about barrier methods. If you or your partners are having sex with other people, it’s important to talk about how you’ll practice STI prevention, including how and when you’ll use barrier methods. Make sure everyone is on the same page about what types of sex you’ll use barrier methods for (oral, anal, vaginal?), how to manage disclosure if a barrier method breaks, and if any groups of partners aren’t using barrier methods together.
- Get an up-to-date STI test. How frequently you should be tested for STIs depends on how frequently you’re having sex with new partners. A general rule of thumb is that you should get an up-to-date test before every new partner, but if you’re having sex with someone new pretty frequently, then that might not be logistically possible. If that’s the case, opt to get up-to-date at least every three months. You can get STI tests delivered to your house to do at home or find your local testing site (including free options) here.
- Have a sexual wellness kit at the ready. To simplify things, keep a little bag of sexual wellness supplies ready for nights (or days!) out. You might include things like dental dams, external condoms, nitrile gloves, a mini bottle of lube, a fresh pair of undies, and even a bullet vibrator or butt plug. Some other things to consider including are emergency contraception and your daily wellness supplies, like PrEP, herpes management medication, and birth control.
- Talk about the feelings. Deciding to pursue non-monogamy doesn’t mean that it’ll be sunshine, cuddles, and orgasms all the time. It’s normal and totally okay to experience jealousy! Check in with your partners often and address the feelings as they come up; both the jealousy and compersion (feeling happy for your partner when you see them with someone else). Come up with a plan for addressing and managing some of the challenging feelings, and acknowledge and celebrate the joy when it appears! Acknowledging your feelings can help you pay attention to your needs, which can help you better advocate for your boundaries and adjust relationship agreements if need be.
Practicing ethical non-monogamy may not be right for you, but also…it might be. Take the time to explore your interests, needs, and what you’ve been taught is “normal” and “right” in relationships. Then, think about what you believe is normal and right.
Remember, the best type of relationship is the one that is best for you and the people you’re involved with! As long as it’s consensual, mutual, and fully informed, and you’re all good.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is a Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.