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The Short Version: Ethical non-monogamy is the term used to describe a wide array of relationships in which people have more than one intimate romantic partner. Dr. Kat Arenella, a sex therapist with Modern Intimacy, told us about ethical non-monogamy and shared tips for individuals and couples considering exploring non-monogamous relationships. From swinging to open relationships, Dr. Kat has the answers to tons of burning questions about how non-monogamy works and what it looks like.
In February 2023, YouGov polled 1,000 American adults about their attitudes toward non-monogamous relationships. The poll asked people to rate their ideal relationships on a scale of 0 to 6, where 0 represents complete monogamy, and 6 represents complete non-monogamy. Twenty-five percent of respondents chose an option somewhere in the middle – between 1 and 5.
Ethical non-monogamy, often shortened to ENM, refers to any kind of relationship in which people consensually engage in romantic relationships with multiple partners. Within ethical non-monogamy, folks practice polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and other relationship styles.
When folks decide to pursue a non-monogamous relationship, they often need a little help. Cultural expectations of relationships tend to lean toward monogamy, and navigating dynamics that aren’t strictly monogamous can come with its own set of challenges. Just like with any other relationship, having support and resources to guide it can be a game-changer.
Dr. Kat Arenella is a sex therapist with Modern Intimacy, a sex therapy and couples therapy practice with providers across five states. Dr. Kat took some time to tell us about non-monogamous relationships and provided tips for folks who are interested in exploring this relationship dynamic.
“Ethical non-monogamy is a broad, umbrella term that can refer to a lot of different types of relationships,” Dr. Kat explained. “Essentially, we use non-monogamy to describe anything that isn’t strictly monogamous.”
Dr. Kat told us that many diverse relationship identities express themselves under the umbrella of non-monogamy. She said that the language folks use to express themselves and their relationships is important, especially in the non-monogamous realm.
“I think it’s important to point out the language used around non-monogamous relationships,” Dr. Kat said. “People choose whatever term works best for them, and of course, we should respect that. Some people love the term ethical non-monogamy, while some prefer consensual non-monogamy or another more specific term.”
Dr. Kat continued, “There are also groups of people who prefer to just say non-monogamy because adding ‘ethical’ at the beginning creates the assumption that non-monogamy is inherently unethical.” Dr. Kat said when it comes to the language around non-monogamy, it’s best to ask people what they prefer to use and go from there.
Non-monogamy can look very different from one relationship to another. Polyamory is one ENM dynamic. In polyamorous relationships, people have multiple romantic connections with different people at the same time. These relationships can have varying levels of intimacy, and the way each relationship functions is up to the folks involved.
Open relationships are another kind of ENM setup. In open relationships, people have a primary partner but are open to having relationships with other people outside of the primary relationship. The people in the primary relationship establish clear boundaries and keep open lines of communication to keep each relationship as transparent as possible.
“Ethical non-monogamy could also look like swinging,” Dr. Kat said. “Couples who swing usually go to discrete events and enjoy sexual activities with people outside of their primary relationship.” At the core of every healthy non-monogamous relationship is clear communication and enthusiastic consent from every person involved.
Many different kinds of people are attracted to non-monogamy for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, one or both people in a partnership may be interested in opening up the relationship or exploring a non-monogamous dynamic. Dr. Kat said that approaching the topic of non-monogamy can be nerve-wracking and challenging, but with the right knowledge and attitude, productive conversations await.
“The biggest piece of advice I could give when approaching these conversations is to be specific and clear,” Dr. Kat said. “Because non-monogamy can mean so many different types of things, it’s important to communicate to other people exactly what you’re interested in. Say exactly what you want to explore, and be clear about what you don’t want to do, too.”
Dr. Kat said it’s also important for people opening up conversations about non-monogamy to hear their partner out. She said that it’s essential for folks approaching the topic of non-monogamy with their partners to be open to their reactions, questions, and concerns.
“If a partner is worried that the other partner might take it badly, or be caught off guard or confused, it can be really helpful to have this conversation from a place of wanting to grow the relationship,” Dr. Kat explained. “It’s a good idea to focus on how it will improve the relationship and grow the intimacy they already share.”
Jealousy issues can arise in non-monogamous relationships. “I think a lot of people, when they first try out non-monogamy, expect that they shouldn’t feel jealous and expect to immediately feel a sense of joy when they see their partner with another person. But this just really isn’t the case for everyone.”
Dr. Kat told us jealousy is a natural emotion, and when it arises, it doesn’t necessarily mean that non-monogamy is the wrong choice for the person experiencing jealousy. She said when jealousy manifests, it’s essential that individuals talk it out with their partner and find a path that will make both feel comfortable and secure.
Dr. Kat said that individuals and couples who decide to explore non-monogamy have the greatest success when they actively keep open lines of communication and seek education about non-monogamy. “There are really great resources available for people who are interested in trying non-monogamy. It’s so important to do your reading and gain an understanding of the dynamics before jumping right in.”
Dr. Kat suggested people interested in non-monogamy read “The Ethical Slut” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. “It’s an old one, but it’s a really important book to read if you’re interested,” she said. “A lot of people who practice polyamory have read this book, and it’s a great way to get some of the language and concepts down.”
Dr. Kat also recommended “Polysecure” by polyamorous psychotherapist Jessica Fern. She said it’s a great book for people who want to learn more about attachment theory and how it can be used to strengthen multiple romantic and intimate relationships.
“A little bit goes a long way when it comes to preparing to have conversations about non-monogamy, whether it be with a partner, kids, friends, or family,” Dr. Kat said. “It can be super helpful to have awareness of the common issues and talk them through before and as they arise.”
Whether monogamous or non-monogamous, couples and individuals often need professional support when navigating these kinds of relationships. Seeking the advice and counsel of a licensed professional can be a deeply transformative experience for couples practicing non-monogamy. Modern Intimacy offers sex and couples therapy and has plenty of therapists, like Dr. Kat, who are familiar with non-monogamy.
“Non-monogamy works at its best when partners are able to have very clear and open lines of communication,” Dr. Kat said. “And it’s not just one conversation at the beginning. It’s constant and continual check-ins about what’s working and what’s not. It’s about being open, honest, and sensitive to the needs of everyone involved.”