Written by Sexual Wellness Institute Therapist, Eric Anfinson, MS LMFT
Ethical Non-Monogamy: The "New" Fad
In the last couple of years I've seen the rise of a new fad-open relationships. Now ethical non-monogamy has existed for centuries and when approached in a healthy way is can make for a fulfilling relationship. However, with the rise in visibility of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, I've seen many couples approach opening up in an unhealthy way that ultimately dooms the relationship. Today we'll try to answer just what is ethical non-monogamy, is it right for you, and how you can open up in a healthy way. There are many great resources out there on this topic so if it interests you I would recommend reading a book or two on the topic before taking any steps. I'll refer some great books on the topic at the end. This blog will help feel out if that's a path you want to go down. To do a little clarification before we begin, we'll say very generally that polyamory/ethical non-monogamy refer to individuals who are happy in some form of non-dyadic relationship. Maybe they only love their partner but sleep with other people to expand the meeting of physical needs or maybe they are committed or loving to each person they are with. It varies. There is no one correct form of any of polyamory or ethical non-monogamy.
Am I Poly?
The most important question I see people miss, and the one that gets people in the most trouble, is am I poly/non-monogamous? In my experience as a sex therapist ethical non-monogamy is an orientation in the same way that gay, straight, queer, etc. are orientations. They describe who we are, not who we choose to be. I couldn't decide to be polyamorous tomorrow the same way I couldn't decide to be gay tomorrow. Just like people come to terms with their sexual orientations and come out at different times in their lives, people do the same with their "relational orientation." As I said before, society is slowly becoming more accepting of different relational orientations, so more people are coming out. If you feel like this is who you are, or who you have always been, then maybe checking out one of the reference books will be a good step for you. There are also many different levels of ethical non-monogamy. Maybe you're ok with casually dating someone while they also date other people. Maybe you're ok with being married to someone and you both sleep with other people. Maybe you're in a committed relationship with more than one person. Polyamory and ethical non-monogamy take many forms, and any of them may be right or not right for you. Now that we've got a little bit of an understanding of what these things are, we'll look at what they're not.
Let's Open the Relationship
There are a number of ways I see the use of the titles of polyamory or ethical non-monogamy cause harm to people. The first of which is when one or both people in a relationship are not happy with their physical intimacy, so they suggest opening the relationship as a way to get needs met. You can decide to open your relationship all you want, but you can't decide to be someone you aren't. I could sleep with another man but it wouldn't make me gay. Something is going to feel horribly wrong, and this is only going to compound the problems that already exist in the relationship, especially around why sexual needs are being met in the first place. This can often come up when one partner has lower desire, a physical ailment, or even a long distance relationship. What needs to happen in this situation is to heal the relationship, not look to someone else to just fix things. A similar line of reasoning might be, "let's just have a baby together, that'll solve all our problems." Even in an ethically non-monogamous relationship, using the openness of the relationship to avoid internal problems is only going to make things worse.
So here we've really got the two primary problems rolled into one. You can't just decide to be poly, and opening the relationship to avoid internal problems is only going to make things worse. I often see these two happen in tandem, and lead to the end of a relationship. One other thing I like to mention here is the difference between fantasy and reality. There are many people who find the thought of their partner having sex with someone else, or having a threesome etc., really sexy. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is a massive difference between indulging in this fantasy as fantasy, and making it happen in real life. It's ok to play with fantasies as ideas without making them happen for real. The last major problem I see is couples who are genuinely open to exploring their ethical non-monogamy/polyamory orientation, but don't understand what these things really entail. There is a lot of work that goes into figuring out how these things work for you.
Relationships Have Boundaries
When looking at opening your relationship there are many things to consider. We'll look at a few here, and if this is all sounding good to you then I would suggest the books at the end of the blog again. The first, and most important thing, is clarifying your boundaries. Every relationship has boundaries, even if we're not all that great about talking to each other about them. In a monogamous relationship there are some pretty standard cultural norms about what's ok and what isn't. Even with these norms in place I work with a lot of couples who get in trouble because they assumed their partner shared the same boundaries as them. In an open relationship these boundary norms disappear and the opportunity for harm increases exponentially, if you don't talk about it.
Here are a couple things to consider when talking about boundaries for your open relationship.
How are you maintaining your primary relationship?
This is not even close to an exhaustive list of boundaries/questions to think about. The last question there, about maintaining your primary relationship, is also of key importance. Even for people who identify with these orientations, feelings of jealousy or insecurity can arise. Knowing how you're going to deal with this and manage these feelings for yourself and with your partner are very important. Monogamous relationships also take a lot of work, these kinds of relationships just often make people do work, or ask questions they're not used to. So preparing yourself as best you can will lead you to the best chance of success.
Books to Read About Poly and Ethical Non-Monogamy:
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