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Ethical Nonmonogamy (ENM) is a term that entered my universe a few years ago and it’s slowly permeating its way into the larger social consciousness too. So… what is it? And why on earth would someone choose to do it? Here are my thoughts.
Nonmonogamy is effectively an umbrella term for any relationship that functions outside the bounds of monogamy. It can range from couples that choose to remain mostly monogamous but play with other people together, to individuals that invest fully in multiple emotional/ romantic/ sexual relationships in a hierarchical or non-hierarchical way.
There is a lot of terminology (swinging, polyamory, polygamy, open relationships, relationship anarchy) that goes along with the various types of relationships and, honestly, I’ve chosen not to worry too much about them for my own personal journey. While it can be helpful to understand the different ways people choose to define themselves, for me it’s been more about figuring out what I want, like and hold dear, regardless of the label that is applied to it.
The pivotal piece of lived information that led me down this path was a slow realisation that monogamy wasn’t working particularly well… I felt trapped and weighed down by expectations. I found myself being drawn to other people, I struggled to communicate openly and honestly about these feelings and this manifested in a kind of projected possessiveness towards my partners: if I was feeling this way, surely they were too? Whether or not that was true, following the breakdown of a long-term relationship I decided to do some research into what other options I had.
On reading How to Think More About Sex by philosopher Alain de Botton, I unearthed some facts about monogamy. Something that has become our unquestioned social norm is relatively very new in the scope of human history, and there are a lot of arguments that suggest humans are not really biologically wired to be monogamous; the divorce rates and statistics regarding infidelity speak volumes. Regardless of this, many people do choose monogamy, and are successful at it but my question is this: how many people actively choose monogamy, as opposed to half-blindly doing what society says they should do. How many people truly consider the alternatives before saying, “I do”? If I do choose to be monogamous one day, I’d like it to be that… an active and informed decision.
This rabbit hole of thinking led me to read The Ethical Slut and suddenly I was opened up to a whole new – ethical – way of conducting relationships that didn’t mean hiding my feelings for or attractions to other people, that meant I didn’t have to be someone’s “everything”. But… understanding the theory is one thing. Putting ENM into practise is a whole different ball game.
The past few years then, have been full of mistakes and revelations. I’ve had conversations with close monogamous friends who have felt personally attacked by my lifestyle choices. I’ve fallen into relationships with people who said they wanted to be nonmonogamous but ultimately weren’t able to be and I’ve questioned whether it’s for me too. I’ve been unethically nonmonogamous as well, and this was probably the most important lesson of all: that the “ethical” part is non negotiable. I’ve had to face into jealousy, and the disappointment that comes with any type of dating, let alone dating that can include multiple people. I’ve met wonderful humans, had amazing conversations with people who are in all sorts of different types of ethically nonmonogamous set ups. I’ve met people who view nonmonogamy as a way to simply serial date without actually investing any time or effort into someone. It’s been an exhausting and exhilarating journey and one that certainly isn’t over yet.
And, whether or not it’s a long-term choice, or something I continue to explore for a while, the impact it’s had on me has been incredible. But it hasn’t been easy.
First and foremost, exploring the feelings associated with ENM and questioning the social conditioning I’ve had embedded in me since childhood has been confronting to say the least. I grew up believing in “The One” and, while I still very much believe in love, I do not believe that I need another person to complete me, or even that there is just one person out there who is perfect for me. But I have learned that true connection is important. And in order to truly connect, I need to live my truth.
I have spent much of my life trying to “fit in”, and shedding that impulse has been hard, going against society’s expectations of me has been a challenge. But I’ve learned that I can be brave and resilient, that I’m kind, caring, loving and loveable… I’ve learned that I’m also headstrong and stubborn, that I’m fearful of emotional intimacy, that I find it hard to make and maintain boundaries and that, often, compromise feels like I’m giving up a part of myself. These are all things I am working on. Most importantly, though, I’ve discovered that there are people out there who believe the same things I believe and that do love and value me for exactly who I am.
After being honest with myself, the next stumbling block has been learning how to communicate with other people and the listening part is as hard (if not harder!) than the talking part. I used to rely heavily on text messages, because writing has always been my prefered mode of communication. As time has passed, I’ve become so much more confident communicating in person and now I prefer it; I love to hear the nuances of someone’s voice and read their body language as much as I hear the words they say.
I’m becoming more able to ask the tricky questions and I’m learning to acknowledge and navigate my own responses rather than projecting them onto someone else. I trust myself to respond more truthfully than I did. I’ve learned to say, “No,” and not always have to explain why. Communicating really is a skill, and it’s one that can be learned for sure. Navigating complex emotions and communicating them with kindness is something I am increasingly proud of, and something that I believe many monogamous couples do not do enough of; at least I didn’t.
One of the most difficult emotions to navigate has been jealousy. I believe we are taught that the strength of a relationship is directly proportional to how jealous we are; it’s completely normalised by society. I also believe this is an unhealthy representation of jealousy. Jealousy is not inherently a good nor bad thing and it’s often an umbrella emotion for far more complex feelings. Mine is often rooted in feelings of inadequacy and fear of abandonment. Learning to sit with and talk about my jealousy has been invaluable for me. It’s still a work in progress.
Despite all of this positive self growth, I still find myself constantly questioning my choices. A lot of this is to do with the choices my peers have made: whenever I spend time with my oldest friends I see their marriages and their babies and, for all their struggles, they are settled and — for the most part — content. It is me that leaves to go home alone. This always leads to self doubt… What am I doing? Am I just making my life harder than it needs to be? On balance, would I be happier if I was leading a more conventional life. I constantly feel like I’m both “too much” and “not enough”, so would toning myself down and finding a life partner solve that? Possibly. But… I also know myself. And as real as these emotions are in the moment, I also don’t think that right now that’s what I really want.
However, I am aware that the majority of the successful long-term ethically nonmonogamous relationships I see began from a monogamous base. And this is a very real question: do I need to invest my time and energy into one person for a period of time before evolving to something more open? The problem is, that I am also exploring my sexuality and, right now, that is more pressing. I do not want to be limited, I do not want boundaries imposed on me by other people, so my current brand of ENM is very much one where I am allowed my freedom and I allow my partners theirs. It does make building emotional connections a little more difficult, but with honesty and openness it also does work.
This is, of course, not everyone’s experience of nonmonogamy, and I know that the vast majority of people are not interested in trying it at all. The beauty of it is, though, that once you shed the confines of monogamy you can make your relationships whatever you want them to be. There is no right or wrong way to do ENM… Each person, each couple, makes their own rules.
I went headlong into it a few years ago determined to find myself a “primary” partner and, unsurprisingly, this has not been what has actually happened. Ultimately, I would still like to find this, and perhaps in time I will; but in the meantime what has evolved organically has been magical in its own right. I feel more sexually and emotionally empowered than I did in my previous monogamous relationships and I feel more loved and understood than ever before.