ENM Relationship: What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Relationships A-Z
17 Aug 2023
11 min read
ENM Relationship Defined: What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy Today

Ethical non-monogamy (or ENM) is a newer term, used to describe many different types of relationships that have been gaining more and more popularity over time. But what does it mean? Let’s take a look at what exactly ENM relationship is and why some people choose to partake in this relationship and look at some answers to some of the more commonly asked questions.

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What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM)?

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term used to describe both romantic and sexual relationships that challenge the structure of monogamous relationships.

When a person chooses to practice ethical non-monogamy, they choose to explore different relationship structures. Sexual relationships with ethical non-monogamy can range from simple open relationships to polyamorous relationships that result in a person having multiple wives or husbands.

Ethical Non-Monogamy vs Unethical Monogamous Relationships

The concept of an ethically non-monogamous relationship exists for one reason. That’s because there are people who choose to engage in non-monogamy in unethical ways. That makes it necessary to define some guidelines as to what is ethical vs. unethical non-monogamy.

This starts with the concept of consensual non-monogamy. This is just like it sounds. It is never ethical to involve someone in a plural relationship without their enthusiastic consent.

Related reading: Rules of Open Relationships

Why Do Some Choose This Relationship Type?

There are many reasons people choose to practice ethical non-monogamy. Perhaps their primary relationship isn’t as fulfilling as they wish for it to be. Or there is also the fact that open relationships are becoming more and more common for people to partake in. The idea of multiple partners simply isn’t as taboo as it once was.

Here are some of the more detailed reasons why people may choose to pursue ethical non-monogamy.

1. The Need to Escape Toxic Monogamy

Monogamous relationships can be wonderful things and work out great for many people. But for some, it can also trap them in a toxic, and sometimes outright abusive relationship dynamic. Stories about men having their stuff destroyed because they treated an employee at the store kindly. Or stories of women who are beaten and belittled when nobody is around are not uncommon.

Although these situations are relatively rare, it still happens and ENM relationships give the people who have or are wanting to escape from the world of toxic monogamy an outlet.

Related reading: What Is Monogamy Today?

2. Non-Hierarchal Relationships

For some people, it’s normal to just want to show how much they love others without having to put a hierarchy of romantic or intimate interests on the line. Of course, you can have preferred partners when practicing enm relationships. However, some people don’t want to have to put a hierarchy on their romantic partners.

Some people choose to practice ethically non-monogamous relationships because they want it to be clear that they are either dating a group of people or they are not dating a group of people.

3. The Ability to Explore One’s Sexuality

Ethical non-monogamy is a great way for people to really explore their sexuality. By having multiple people as sexual partners, a person can better understand their sexual derivative by having a romantic or intimate relationship with more than one person.

This is particularly beneficial if one partner is interested in pursuing some kinds of sexual encounters that their partner isn’t interested in. ENM can remove that issue as a point of contention keeping each person satisfied and respected.

4. Finding Ways to Meet One’s Needs

When exploring this type of relationship style, a person in an ENM relationship has the chance to develop sexual and romantic connections with multiple people. This means that people can have their needs met to different degrees. Some people are better at handling the emotional needs of others, and others are better at handling the sexual or physical needs of their partners.

By pursuing these types of relationships, whether they are primarily romantic or intimate relationships. People are able to make the romantic and emotional connections they need more easily and don’t have to rely on just one partner to supply what they need.

Related reading: How to Build Trust in a Relationship: 15 Tips

5 main ENM relationship types

5 Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM)

Based on the relationship dynamic, researchers distinguish 5 different types of ENM relationships. They will help you get a better idea as to what ethical non-monogamy is.

1. Open Relationships

As a common form of consensual non-monogamy, an open relationship starts off with an established couple choosing and agreeing to open up their relationship in order to pursue other sexual partners.

Open relationships can lead to other types of non-monogamous relationships. However, with an open relationship, you still tend to have a base monogamous relationship with a primary partner.

2. Polyamory

Polyamory takes the concept of an open relationship and takes it to a different level. With polyamory, you are in a romantic relationship, with more than one person. Sometimes these intimate relationships can cross over with one another. So you and one person can both be dating each other, as well as another partner. Some may also have a romantic relationship with you, but a more intimate or sexual one with another person. The only rule to poly is that everyone needs to be on the same page and be aware of any other partners a person has.

Polyamory can take many different kinds of forms, and revolve around gaining relationship satisfaction through multiple romantic partners. This is a spectrum ranging from casual sex only outside of a primary relationship to fully committed relationships that lead to the formation of social-sexual communities.

Related reading: Throuple Dating? Make It Work!

3. Relationship Anarchy

This is a form of ethical non-monogamy where anarchist principles are applied. Relationship anarchy eschews the hierarchical nature of most relationships. That includes other forms of non-monogamy.

Additionally, while most forms of non-monogamous relationships are sexual or romantic in nature, relationship anarchy has a broader reach. Relationship anarchists often apply these principles to friendships and familial relationships.

For example, someone in a monogamous relationship might see their connection to their partner as being the most important. Then, they prioritize family members, and then friends. Another person who practices other types of non-monogamy may categorize their relationships similarly with a primary partner, other romantic and sexual partners, and then friends. Under the rules of relationship anarchy, these hierarchies don’t exist. Someone isn’t given higher priority simply because sex is involved.

4. Monogamish

Monogamish relationships straddle the ground between closed relationships and consensually non-monogamous relationships. Couples embrace this approach for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, the goal is to eventually have a traditional, committed relationship. Have you ever met a long-distance couple that agrees to see other people within certain guidelines? That is monogamish. Other couples will become monogamish as they begin to explore the possibilities of adopting a fully ethically non-monogamous relationship.

5. ENM

Ethical non-monogamy is considered to be a practice all on its own. Essentially some people like the idea of having a non-monogamous relationship by having multiple romantic partners. But they don’t like the relationship models that some of these other multiple relationships types of relationships.

Therefore they set the pace and the rules themselves for their non-monogamous partnerships. Rules can include how to deal with emotional connections. What a person needs to do before connecting with other partners, and more.

7 Questions About Ethical Non-Monogamy

As we look into the world of an ethical non-monogamous relationship, many questions start to come up. Here are 7 most common among them with answers to help you further interpret the reality of ethical non-monogamy.

1. Is Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) Cheating?

Ethically non-monogamous relationships are not necessarily cheating. When monogamous relationships are considered to be the norm it is easy for people to get the idea that if you have a relationship other than your primary relationship with your primary partner it could be cheating.

Just remember that relationships can take many different forms and that monogamous relationships are not the only default for the people involved in any type of sexual or romantic relationships.

Related reading: Psychology Behind Cheating and Lying

2. Can You Cheat While in an ENM Relationship?

Yes, while ENM itself is not cheating, there are certain rules and boundaries you need to abide by while partaking in that relationship. These rules are often decided between the parties involved, and will often be used to set boundaries when it comes to open relationships.

Some of the more common rules can include points such as, how many people involved are there going to be? Or, having to know each person they are dating. These are only a couple of rules and boundaries, and if you happen to keep a partner secret, or refuse to follow those rules you could be cheating throughout your ethically non-monogamous relationships.

Related reading: Is Sexting Cheating? It’s Complicated

3. Can Ethically Non-Monogamous People Get Jealous?

Yes, jealousy is a natural emotion that everyone feels, even in ENM relationships. This feeling does not have a preferred relationship dynamic. When it comes to any type of sexual or romantic relationship you will likely experience feelings of jealousy at some point. You may even feel it more, especially when you are romantically involved with multiple people.

Also, as you are opening yourself up to other relationships, you will have to navigate jealous feelings that your partners express. It’s important to do this in a way that is respectful and affirming. View jealousy as an emotion to be dealt with together, and not something for one person to feel shamed about.

Can ENM turn into long-term romantic relationships?

4. Is It Possible to Have a Long Term Relationship Involving ENM?

Yes, it is. Many couples engage in ENM experimentally or switch to more traditional romantic and sexual behavior over time. But, that isn’t reflective of every couple. Others continue to be open to consensual sexual experiences outside of their primary romantic and emotional relationships.

5. How Can You Bring Up Ethical Non-Monogamy to a Partner?

If you want to bring up the idea of ethical non-monogamous relationships to your primary partner, the best way is to be upfront and open about it. Explain to them why you think these types of romantic or sexual relationships will benefit you both. Be ready to explain how having romantic connections with multiple people can be a good thing.

Remember that open communication is vital, especially in the beginning. But if you believe that any aspect would be a deal breaker for the person you currently have a committed relationship with, it’s highly unlikely they will accept your idea.

6. Are There Any Limits to a Non-Monogamous Relationship?

Yes and no. In reality, the only limits for these relationship models are the ones that you create in order to have a healthy relationship. Whether you are looking to have multiple spouses or are just looking for casual sex. The phrase, non-monogamous relationship is simply an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of relationship styles, and all the limits are created based on the needs of you and your partners.

7. How Do You Communicate Your Thoughts and Feelings in a Relationship?

When practicing ethical non-monogamy, it can sometimes be hard to involve open communication. Whether you have two partners involved in the relationship or even more. In order to have a good emotional connection with your romantic or sexual partner you need to be able to communicate.

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Establish with yourself what the issue is. You may end up thinking about it for a few days but establishing what the issue is will allow you to more easily communicate the thoughts and feelings that come with it. Sit down with your primary partners and let them know what you have been thinking of and why you have been thinking of it. Whether you need to talk to just one partner, or you need to talk to multiple sexual partners, it’s important to this type of relationship structure for you and all parties involved to be able to communicate honestly.

Is an Ethical Non-Monogamous Relationship for You?

It may be. If not, that’s also okay. The more important thing is to discuss your needs and desires openly and honestly with your partner. Ultimately, you may not be able to come to an agreement that aligns with both of your visions of a great partnership. Even then, you will know that you treated them with respect while honoring your own boundaries.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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