What is Ethical Non-Monogamy and Could It Work For Your Marriage?

Our sexpert explains this alternative relationship style

Updated 07/31/18

Stocksy

Non-monogamy has been quite the media darling over the last few years. There aren’t nearly enough mainstream shows in which it is explored, but people are talking about it from international podcasts to documentaries and across social media.

We are HERE for it!

With social tolerance on the overall rise (depending on where you live), people are more apt to discuss their relationship practices. It turns out, not everyone is keeping their sex life to one person until death do us part. We just weren’t talking about it until now. The ability to commiserate has brought about a sort of renaissance in how we define relationships.

Suddenly, monogamy is not the only meal on the menu. The practice of non-monogamy deserves to be explained, normalized, and understood.

And what about ethical non-monogamy? Where do the two terms intersect and how do they function together? What does it mean to be both “ethical” and “non-monogamous” in tandem?

What does non-monogamy mean?

The term “non-monogamy” is rather wide-reaching. It's an umbrella term that captures all forms of relationship practices that do not adhere to the strict guidelines of monogamous relationships.

There are many types of relationships that fall under “non-monogamous.” There are those who have one primary partner and explore other sexual relationships, there are those who date multiple people (polyamory-style relationships), and there are those who even live with multiple people at one time.

You may fall under the Dan Savage line of thinking and be in a “monogamish” scenario, wherein you can have discreet sexual relationships outside of the marriage, but for the most part are committed entirely to the primary partnership.

If your relationship structure does not fit inside of the “sex and love with one person and one person only until we die” narrative, then you are practicing a form of non-monogamy. (We’re not covering intentionally celibate and non-dating people in this particular definition, for reference and clarity).

What does it mean to be an ethical non-monogamist?

If you are going to practice an “alternative” relationship style (which, to be honest, kind of sounds pejorative at this point), you need to have strict ethics therein. This may sound counterintuitive to those who aren’t familiar with non-monogamy.

A question often asked is: Wait. If you’re already having loads of sex with other people, aren’t you being unethical AF? Aren’t we supposed to honor marriage and keep it in our pants?

There is nothing inherently wrong with being in an open, non-monogamous relationship. There is only something wrong if your partner doesn’t know you are in an open relationship. You guessed it: Cheating.

Cheating is betrayal. It is unethical and wrong. An open relationship is not cheating. Let's say it together: An open relationship does not constitute cheating. When a relationship is open, in whatever form that takes for the couple in question, everyone involved knows what is going on. And everyone is happy with the setup. The honesty is the key.

If everyone is comfortable with the boundaries set and the relationships had, there is nothing unethical going on. Communication is the essential component. You must be willing to be transparent and honest with your partner.

This kind of relationship will not work for everyone, but then again, neither does monogamy. Just look at cheating and divorce rates in this country.

Do keep in mind that it is not ethical to cajole a partner into an open or polyamorous relationship as a way to keep you in the marriage. This is manipulative and messed up. The only way a non-monogamous structure can thrive is if this is something both you and your partner are excited and enthusiastic to explore. (If you’re curious to learn more about ethical non-monogamy, we encourage you to read Janet W. Hardy's The Ethical Slut.

Could you be ethically non-monogamous?

You’ll have to answer this question for yourself. For most, non-monogamy is simply not on the table. We live in a society where monogamy is touted as the end-all-be-all of relationship styles. The general thinking is: If you or your partner want to explore outside sexual or romantic relationships, there must be something wrong with the relationship.

We seem wholly unwilling to venture outside of these strict bounds. Yet, the glorious pedestal on which monogamy is built has been widely debunked over the last few decades. We’re not saying there is anything wrong with monogamy. If you want to be monogamous, go for it. You do you.

What we are trying convey is that just because monogamy is the most common form of relationship, doesn’t mean it is the best. You have to decide what works for you and what makes you happy.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in an open relationship. We have to stop passing judgment on others for shaping their relationship to fit their needs. And no, they haven’t “just failed to meet the right person yet.” Enough with that noise.

Whatever you choose and however you want to practice love, that is your business.

Gigi Engle is a certified sex coach, educator, and writer living in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.

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