An Introduction to Ethical Nonmonogamy
The normal shape of a committed relationship has long been viewed as two people exclusively dating, having sex with each other and building a life together. And to take that viewpoint one step further, when two people commit to each other, it is generally assumed that no one else will be allowed to fulfill sexual or romantic desires for either party, regardless of marital status.
Unfortunately, this traditional and almost universally expected arrangement leads to guilt and resentment for some couples. As routines become monotonous, some people might begin to wonder what they might be missing.
The truth is there's nothing wrong with experiencing attraction, sexual or otherwise, to people outside your relationship. It's actually pretty natural: Only 29 percent of all 200 species of primates are monogamous, after all.
However, situations get tricky when commitments and feelings are involved, so it's important to engage in open and honest conversations with your partner if you want to experiment with nonmonogamy ethically.
What is ethical nonmonogamy anyway?
First, let's start by defining monogamy. In simple terms, monogamy means having sex only with the other person in your relationship. This means that nonmonogamy is having multiple sexual partners at the same time. If you have sex with someone other than the person you're in a relationship with, you're then considered nonmonogamous.
While your first reaction may be to assume that this behavior is simply cheating, there's a growing movement that is "rebranding" nonmonogamy away from more judgmental categorizations and defining different types of ethical nonmonogamy that include:
- Open relationships
For nonmonogamy to be ethical, an understanding of what constitutes infidelity must be agreed to by all people involved. Though ethical nonmonogamy can take many forms, one element they all require at their core is consent: All parties must agree to the established terms for seeking sex and/or romance outside the relationship for nonmonogamy to truly be ethical.
Defining the terms of ethical nonmonogamy
I interviewed a woman, who we'll call Rae, who's in a polyamorous marriage. According to Rae, the terms of a nonmonogamous relationship are fluid and they can get "scrapped and reworked" as time goes on.
"Polyamory is such a journey—flexibility and checking in periodically are so important," Rae said.
Rae and her husband, who we'll call Dane, currently have a few hard-and-fast rules for their polyamorous exploration:
- A "hard-stop button." If either Rae or Dane decides at any point that they no longer wish to have an open marriage, they can push the hard-stop button and halt all existing external relationships.
- No PIV (penis-in-vagina) intercourse for Dane. Rae and Dane share one child, and they are adamant about keeping it that way. Dane plans to get a vasectomy so he can safely have PIV intercourse with other partners without worrying about pregnancy, but until then, it's off the table.
The terms of an ethical nonmonogamy arrangement will vary from couple to couple. Open and ongoing communication and negotiation between you and your partner will help determine what you are and aren't comfortable with as you make progress in opening up your relationship.
Honesty is the best policy
In your early ethical nonmonogamy conversations, what you're agreeing to may not have clear repercussions. And that's OK. Relationship counseling is an option for couples who wish to explore nonmonogamy but need help establishing parameters and boundaries.
The most important aspect to remember when preparing for ethical nonmonogamy conversations with your partner is that full transparency is the key to success. You are not wrong for expressing your needs, interests and desires. If your relationship is a safe, judgment-free zone—as it should be—then you should have no problem being open and honest about your desire to explore an open arrangement.
Always remember one important detail: Your curiosity about ethical nonmonogamy and how your partner perceives it are not negative reflections on your morals. The most moral action you can take with someone you love is to be honest with them.