1. the practice of marrying or state of being married to one person at a time.
2. the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner.
3. the habit of having only one mate at a time.
Human beings have been practising monogamy for roughly 3.5 million years. But like many other species in the animal kingdom human beings are also prone to bouts of non-monogamy. Although monogamous relationships tend to be the ‘norm’ some researchers aren’t convinced that humans are actually supposed to be monogamous.
Having said that there are benefits to monogamy; probably the most common advantage for those who choose to take part in a two person partnership is the assumption that allowing your life partner to connect with other people would cause unmanageable feelings of jealousy. The practice of monogamy, allegedly also provides genetic advantages as well as increasing infant survival rates. And in theory the less sexual partners someone has, reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Also forming emotional connections can be tiring for some people, so aspiring to be in a monogamous relationship could mean less pressure on an individuals emotional bandwidth, as well as having more time to give to the one romantic partner in their life.
As with anything of course there are also drawbacks to monogamy. The most obvious being a lack of variety and new experiences, which can lead to boredom over time which in turn can lead to unfaithfulness. A survey completed by YouGov found that 1 in 5 (20%) of people surveyed admitted to cheating outside of their committed relationship. Also as some people choose to centre their entire worlds around their partner, if anything were to happen to that person or if they decide to leave, there are some who feel unable to function without that one person in their lives.
Most animal species (including humans) share an innate drive to compete for the females of the species (apologies for reinforcing hetero-normative structures), meaning that the males who display the characteristics the females are looking for, to procreate, end up as the victors. This high-level of competition could end up with some men being more ‘successful’ and therefore limiting genetic variation. In the past this also led to males not necessarily knowing who all of their offspring were and therefore not sticking around to share child rearing responsibilities.
Historically, monogamous marriage was created as a social contract which gave those entering into it the mutual benefits of combined resources, as well as building alliances between families. In the past most marriages were arranged by the parents/families of the intended who may have had little to no say in who they ended up married to. However nowadays (in western society) we tend to focus more on love and forming an emotional connection with one person or ‘soulmate’. Whatever the reasons, the concept of monogamy is still pretty deeply rooted in modern societal standards
Partly due to society not being the same as it was in the past when monogamous marriage made sense there are some who question whether there is just one person who is supposed to fulfil all of our love needs and are breaking the tradition of finding only one person whom they are supposed to be romantically involved with for the rest of their lives.
Enter the concept of Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM). Ethical non-monogamy or consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is the practice of individuals choosing to have more than one romantic and/or sexual partner. The ethical part comes in as all parties involved are aware that the individual they are with has other romantic connections. Ethically non-monogamous individuals are extremely focused on being honest, open and transparent with their chosen romantic and sexual partners. These types of relationships have been around for a number of years particularly in the swinging sixties but there has been an increase in individuals wanting to explore ENM relationships over the past 10 years or so.
There are various types of ethical non-monogamy including:
Open relationships – where one or both people in a couple may choose to have sex with other individuals, sometimes separately but also together. These can come in the form of Swinging or being Monogamish:
Monogamish – is a form of open relationship where two people in a couple have deep emotional ties to each other but are allowed to pursue sexual partners or take part in group sex outside of their relationship.
Swinging – where a couple chooses to swap sexual partners with (an)other couple(s).
Polyamory – where an individual has committed romantic relationships with multiple people at the same time. The concept of Polyamory is explored in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix.
Polygamy – essentially polyamory but with the additional cementing of the relationship through marriage. There are two common types; Polygyny where one man is married to various women or polyandry where one woman is married to multiple men.
Polyfidelity – this is like monogamy plus, where more than two individuals are in a relationship and each person inside the relationship is treated as an equal partner and there is no exploration outside of the relationship. You may have seen You Me Her on Netflix which follows the story of a married couple meeting and falling for a single girl and then becoming a thruple.
Relationship anarchy – is a way to approach relationships that rejects traditional rules and societal expectations of what relationships should look like. People who identify as relationship anarchists believe that all forms intimacy are valid and don’t subscribe to prioritising romantic relationships above platonic or familial relationships.
As with monogamy there are also advantages to ethically non-monogamous relationships. Again the most obvious being the liberty to not feel constrained within a two person partnership. I have to be honest and say that I’ve always struggled with the notion that one person is supposed to provide you everything that you need emotionally. And so for people who are possibly more emotionally needy than their partners this may be an avenue that allows their needs to be fulfilled by a variety of people. Similarly there are some who do not feel that their chosen partners are able to fulfil all of their sexual desires, and being in an ENM relationship may mean that they’re able to fully explore their sexuality while still having the advantages of enjoying an emotional connection. Also in polyamorous (being in committed relationships with multiple people) partnerings there are even more resources to go round and even more sharing of responsibilities.
And of course to remain balanced we must also look at the potential pitfalls of ENM situations. Again the most obvious downside is our green-eyed monster! People in monogamous relationships may think that only people who don’t experience jealousy can partake in an open-relationship or multi-relationships. However we’re all human and jealousy is a natural human emotion that we all experience. Most of us will have grown up in environments where monogamy was the default setting and so navigating and letting go of our own feelings of shame and wrong-ness when thinking about exploring non-monogamy could be tricky. In addition to this having to deal with the opinions and remarks of others who may not be as open-minded to non-traditional entanglements could become a constant battle some may not think is worth having.
For those wishing to explore ethical-non monogamy there are a few things to note/remember:
First of all – human beings are capable of loving and forming attachments to more than one person at a time. So if this is something that appeals to you, don’t let shame or society bully you into not exploring this side of yourself as it could lead to having the most fulfilling and enriching experiences of your life. There is no right or wrong relationship dynamic, and how a relationship should work can only be decided between those in it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you do you boo!
The most important aspect of any relationship but particularly if you’re thinking of exploring an ethically non-monogamous lifestyle is to be open and honest with yourself, your partner and potential partners you may meet in the future. Ethically non-monogamous partners are honest to a fault, but also remember to keep checking in with yourself and ensuring that you are comfortable and your needs are being met.
Communication is absolutely vital, both sharing what you want and need but also being an empathetic listener. As mentioned your jealousy emotion is likely to be continually triggered so equipping yourself with tools to be able to communicate with your partner(s) really well will set you up for success. You may even wish to enlist the support of a counsellor/therapist who specialises in non-monogamous relationships.
Find your tribe. Because ethically non-monogamous relationships are still in the minority, it can be difficult to feel you can share your experiences with those around you. Yet we all know that we need support particularly when our relationships with others bring up emotional unrest. So it’s key to connect with those who are in the ENM community to be able to have open, non-judgemental conversations and learn how others deal with some of the issues that can come up.
And finally, through your exploration make sure you figure out and set your boundaries. Ensuring that you centre your needs and don’t allow anyone to cross your boundaries and that you feel secure with what you’re doing is crucial but we must always be mindful of where our and our partners comfort ends.
Whether ethical non-monogamy floats your boat or not, essentially the core themes of respect, building trust, listening to yourself, and compassionately communicating your needs and desires with your partner in a non-judgemental way are vital to the success of any relationship!