What Exactly Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

In recent years, we've heard the term ethical non-monogamy (ENM) used more frequently. In fact, if you use dating apps, you probably see it quite a bit — people saying they're in ethically non-monogamous relationships but looking for someone to have fun with.

"ENM is the practice of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships with the knowledge and agreement of all partners involved," sexuality and relationship scientist Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., tells Cosmopolitan. What makes it ethical is that all partners are on board with what's happening, and there's an agreement on what's allowed. Meanwhile, non-monogamy is, for lack of a better word, cheating — that is, if someone is in a relationship but chooses to have sex with other people without their partner knowing.

But while ethical non-monogamy is on the rise, with a third of Americans defining it as their preferred type of relationship, the term can be confusing for those who don't practice it (via Psychology Today).

What is ethical non-monogamy

For the most part, ENM is an umbrella term under which other non-monogamous relationships fall, like polyamory, swinging, and open relationships. "Ethically non-monogamous relationships are those that are not entirely exclusive between two people," psychotherapist Sarah Kaufman tells Bustle. "What makes ENM different from infidelity or cheating is that all parties involved have consented to whatever arrangement or rules have been set. And that's an incredibly important part of ENM: defined, communicated, and agreed-upon rules."

Each ENM relationship looks different because the people in the relationship have their own rules and agreements as to what's acceptable and what isn't (via PsychCentral). For example, having sex with someone else in the bed shared by the primary partners is a no-no for some, while going out on dates in certain parts of town can be a no-no for others. But no matter what the rules and boundaries are, the primary relationship always comes first. In the simplest of explanations, ethical non-monogamy is a relationship in which both partners are aware that there's sex and dating outside the relationship, and they're both fine with it and even supportive of it. 

How to make an ethical non-monogamous relationship work

It goes without saying that ENM relationships aren't for everyone. Although our ancestors had no problem having multiple sexual partners — and we're talking way back to Ancient Rome — our society has decided in the last few hundred years that the "right" relationship is one that involves two people. But that doesn't work for everyone. People who are capable of loving more than one person, dating more than one person, and having sex with one person are actually fortunate because there's a good chance that all their needs are being met by the various people in their life. However, managing all those relationships can be tricky. You know, because it's not difficult enough trying to manage one relationship.

"I think it's important to note that relationships are relationships are relationships," psychotherapist Rachel Wright, M.A., tells MindBodyGreen. "What I mean by that is, human connection is human connection, and whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, they all have the potential for experiencing challenges, conflict, joy, pain, and every other emotion under the sun."

To pull off a non-ethical relationship, communication is absolutely paramount (via PureWow). Having an open dialogue at all times and knowing that everything should be on the table is essential. One can't go willy-nilly into an ENM relationship, or things won't work. There needs to be support, mutual respect, and the ability to enjoy the fact that your partner is finding enjoyment with others. If you can do that, then maybe an ENM is for you. If you can't, and the thought of your partner being with others sounds like a nightmare situation, then it's definitely best to stick to monogamy.