Hey peeps. Okay, so. Living an ethically non-monogamous lifestyle isn’t for everyone. In fact, some people might find the very idea of ethical non-monogamy downright offensive.
To be sure, choosing a way of life so different from the socially accepted Western standard isn’t necessarily easy or popular. So we ENM types tend to be a relatively small but very interesting and often very outspoken group.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
The term “ethical non-monogamy” actually encompasses a very wide range of relationship frameworks and styles, many of which are misunderstood, lumped together with often-unrelated relationship styles, and stereotyped and stigmatized in ways that don’t necessary lend themselves to intelligent discussion. I’d like to change that.
Word choices are often a source of confusion regarding ENM. To start with, “polyamory” is a term that is often used interchangeably with “ethical non-monogamy” as an overarching alternative-lifestyle umbrella. However, some people in the ENM community use the term polyamory differently — specifically to describe relationships that involve loving more than one person simultaneously (this makes sense, with “love” being the “amor” part of the word “polyamory”).
Polyamory in this “amor/emotional love” sense stands in stark opposition to the swingers’ lifestyle, in which sex with more than one person is the norm and partner-swapping is common, but emotional intimacy is typically NOT on the table. In fact, some life-partnered couples enter the swinging lifestyle with the express agreement that they will not fall in love with or develop feelings for any of their swinging partners (something that even some of my swinger friends will admit is sometimes easier said than done).
Sidenote: Swinging has actually never been something that appealed to me, since I’ve always fallen pretty squarely in the demisexual camp (demisexuals need to feel some deeper sense of connection to another person in order to be attracted to them).
Side-sidenote: Before we move forward, I’d like to clear up another common misconception. Polygamy and polyamory are NOT the same thing. Polygamy refers specifically to multiple spouses, a practice heavily stigmatized and often railed against by those with strong religious and/or moral opinions. Polyamory is a more broad term in that it refers to multiple loves or relationship interests, regardless of marital status.
With that said, it is very interesting to me that while same-sex marriage has been gaining ground in the political arena, any hint of moving toward a multiple-spouse system is still met with overwhelming disapproval by the majority. Seriously, y’all, some politicians and special interest groups have actually used the public’s general fear and abhorrence of polygamy to rally support against same-sex marriage by arguing that legalizing same-sex marriage will pave the way for legalizing polygamy. And while I have no strong desire to marry at this point, I would like to see this whole situation change. It makes me sad. Equality for everyone, am I right?
Most importantly, ethical non-monogamy is, by its very definition, not cheating. Yet “cheater” is a derogatory label that is often wrongly attached to a person who publicly declares themselves to be a part of the ENM community.
So let’s deconstruct this whole “cheating” concept for a minute and get to the bottom of the problem. I think we can all agree that cheating on a lover is unethical, right? Well, this may surprise you, but in fact, it IS possible to cheat on a lover even if you are both openly polyamorous. Because anytime you sneak around behind a lover’s back and do something sexual or intimate with another person that you feel the need to hide or lie about, that’s cheating. And sadly, that still happens, even in the ENM community.
You might be asking yourself now, why would you need to cheat if you’re polyamorous? It does sound a little crazy, but it happens, for any number of reasons. Sometimes because one partner doesn’t like something about a specific person that their partner has expressed attraction to and asks them not to pursue that person as a romantic interest. Sometimes because one partner meets a new person and hits it off really well with them and things get hot and heavy and cross sexual lines quickly, in violation of pre-established relationship rules with another partner (more in the blog later about my own past experiences with opening up an existing monogamous relationship and how setting up RULES like that are bound to cause problems for you).
Informed consent is…
And all of that is to say, living non-monogamously and ethically means taking steps to ensure that everyone involved in or impacted by a relationship is aware, informed, and willing and able to give consent to being a part of what is happening.
On the flip side, this open communication and awareness also means that anyone has the right to revoke consent to being a part of what is happening and walk away at any time (although in any long-standing ENM relationship grounded in mutual respect, in my experience, this is a drastic step that is often unnecessary when ALL the parties involved in a situation or issue can talk things through, even those not directly dating each other… which is a type of family-style roundtable communication often referred to as “kitchen-table poly”… which might mean a series of serious discussions about whether the needs of all involved are being met, whether anyone’s personal boundaries need to be redefined/re-examined, and/or what’s at the heart of anyone’s squicky feelings about X, Y, or Z).
The bottom line, though, is that ethical non-monogamy is built on the foundation of INFORMED CONSENT. And that’s not an easy thing to establish. It requires maturity, self-awareness, and the ability to stay with moments of discomfort — skills that are beneficial in ANY relationship model, but that are practically indispensable in ethical non-monogamy.
A path of personal growth
Basically, being successful at an ENM lifestyle means being super f*cking honest about every damn thing, really, and having all the uncomfortable, hard conversations that you’d rather avoid if you had a choice. Bottling up your feelings or having communication problems in a monogamous relationship is problematic. In a non-monogamous relationship, it’s catastrophic and completely UNWORKABLE. In short, being ENM means a lot of self-exploration, a lot of owning your own sh*t, and a lot of personal growth, which makes it a tough road to travel and not for the faint of heart, but one full of amazing and beautiful things too. Anyway, if you’re thinking of traveling this road, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 😉
Why ethical non-monogamy?
When I was growing up, a part of me always questioned the standard relationship narrative — the story that is given to us as children about what a good relationship “should” look like. Typically, the standard narrative follows the lines of the so-called “storybook romance” — one cis-gendered male and one cis-gendered female meet, date, fall in love, get married, and have 1.5 children together, and live happily ever after. (And sometimes there’s a princess in a castle that needs to be rescued or some sh*t like that. Ack. Don’t get me wrong, I loved thinking of myself as a princess growing up, but I don’t want to be rescued. I want to rescue myself.)
Now the standard relationship narrative is all well and good for some, but the reality is that this is a very restrictive view of relationships, and the way that many of us identify and/or choose to live our lives does not fit this mold at all. I’ve always believed that my heart was big enough to hold the whole world, and the idea that I couldn’t have romantic love for more than one person at a time (yet loving my mother, my brother, my sister, my dog, and my best friend at the same time was perfectly acceptable) always rubbed me the wrong way.
Full disclosure: I’m also a little hedonistic and always wanted to have more than one lover at a time, LOL. And now I can! Yay!
Love without limits
Seriously though, people connect with each other so differently and every connection we make to another person brings something unique and special into our life.
And I don’t want to cut myself off from awesome potential connections just because I have awesome existing connections. Why do we do this anyway? We don’t do it with friendships. Can you imagine? “Sorry, I already have a best friend, so I can’t make friends with you. Nope. Move along.”
So basically, I subscribe to the idea that life is not a zero-sum game. It isn’t “this person OR that person.” It can be this person AND that person AND that person over there too!
I think the zero-sum viewpoint is at the heart of what many people find threatening about those who choose ethical non-monogamy, because ENM reflects what is essentially the polar opposite of the scarcity perspective on relationships. Scarcity/zero-sum thinking goes along the lines that there is just not enough to go around, and that if you “have” this person, then I can’t “have” them and neither can anyone else (and don’t even get me started on the ownership assumption that underlies this perspective, but more on that in future blog posts for sure).
Another big problem, for me anyway, with the scarcity thinking reflected in the monogamous relationship model is that, when you know that you will only ever have access to one romantic partner at a time, what often happens is that that ONE person ends up being pretty much expected to meet ALL of your romantic needs, which is not only unrealistic but also really just a lot of pressure to put on that one person (they have their own needs and issues to deal with, after all).
Emotional vs. sexual monogamy
And before we wrap this particular discussion up, here’s another curveball for you… not all emotionally intimate relationships are necessarily sexual. And yet emotional monogamy is another expectation that the standard relationship narrative tries to saddle us with (cue the “work wife” / “work husband” jealousy memes). Scarcity thinking would have us believe that having more than one close, intimate relationship connection will somehow subtract from the specialness of all the other close, intimate connections we make.
But we don’t feel the same way when a family decides to have more than one child. And yet, isn’t the issue at heart the same? In fact, when expecting a second child, parents often spend a great deal of time reassuring their first child that they won’t be loved or cared for any less just because there’s a new baby in the picture. And I know some people might argue that love for a child is different than love for a partner. But love is love, isn’t it?
Anyway, a bunch of food for thought and consideration, and a few snippets of my personal take on the many facets of ethical non-monogamy and the many questions and issues that come up about this topic. In case you can’t tell, this is a topic I have a lot of passion about, and I can’t wait to get more in-depth on this in future blog posts. Stay tuned, y’all!