Ethical non-monogamy, or ENM, is firmly in its bop era. It feels as though more people than ever are opting to explore relationship and dating alternatives to the traditional monogamous path. As an ethically non-monogamous person that’s still relatively new to the game – around 18 months since I was last monogamous – I know how daunting the world of everything ENM can seem.
At first, ethical non-monogamy seemed like a whole new world of acronyms, rules, and boundaries. I felt like I was dating for the first time again. I had a lot of preconceptions about ENM before I started venturing into it; namely swingers events in a random middle-aged couple’s back gardens after that Louis Theroux documentary and complicated polycule dynamics with my many boyfriends. Needless to say, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
For anyone looking to dip their toe into the wonderful world of non-monogamy, I want to answer the questions I had when I was in your shoes: Here are some things I wish I had known.
Non-Monogamy May Be Challenging Initially
In the Western world, society, and people’s mindsets, are still extremely monogamy-centric. I learned the hard way that your first couple of months of dating as an ENM person might feel utterly counter-intuitive, especially if you have dated a lot previously from a monogamous standpoint.
After a few dates with the first man I was seeing non-monogamously, he went very quiet on a Friday night, and I knew intuitively that he was on a date. I started frantically going through his Instagram followers, trying to figure out who it could be and comparing myself to the potential candidates.
I pulled myself out of it and asked myself if I actually cared. I didn’t in the slightest, but I was so used to the subconscious notion that we are all fighting for the person we are dating to deem us worthy enough to be exclusive with. I didn’t realize how much of my inadvertent dating routine and mindsets had become habitual, as a result of the environment around me. It takes a fair amount of time to learn to shed these habits.
Make Sure You’re Interested In ENM for the Right Reasons
This may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but before you do anything, make sure you are one hundred percent firm in your reasons for moving away from monogamy.
This is especially the case if you are already in a committed relationship and you are contemplating opening it up. As I’ve mentioned above, making the shift into ENM is challenging at first for everyone, especially if it is the suggestion of an existing partner and one party is less convinced.
“It has to be personally motivated. You have to derive a personal benefit from it,” says Leanne Yau, founder of the polyamory education blog Poly Philia to Cashmere. She adds, “…when things get hard you need that to remind yourself what you’re doing this for. People do challenging but rewarding things all the time, what is that reward going to be for you personally?”
Boundaries Are Essential: Know and Honor Yours
To have healthy ethically non-monogamous relationships, that protect not only yourself, but those who you are dating, you will need to be clear, and unwavering, in your personal boundaries.
It’s unlikely this will feel like something you have figured out for a little while. But, even in your first few months, keep note of what makes you uncomfortable: Don’t push, or let anyone push, your boundaries to where you’re engaging in something that doesn’t feel healthy, pleasurable, or right for you.
Where your boundaries sit will vary massively depending on the person, depending on their preferred relationship style, previous relationships, and attachment style. In my case, I know that I don’t feel comfortable getting involved with someone in a long-term primary relationship unless I know that their relationship has been open for a significant period of time.
Remember not to get into the habit of comparing yourself to other ENM people who seem to have fewer boundaries than you. Having multiple and strict boundaries does not make you any less successful or valid as an ENM person.
You Don’t Have To Be Into Orgies (But It’s Cool If You Are)
An overarching stereotype you will hear time and time again when you tell someone you’re polyamorous or non-monogamous is that you must be having loads of threesomes and orgies. (And if you are, or that’s your goal, more power to you!) Personally, despite my penchant for non-monogamy, I need to make sure my sexual partner’s attention is only ever on me in the heat of the moment
There has always been a crossover between the poly communities and the kink communities – the middle ground being fetish events, swingers events, sex parties, etc. Dating apps built for the poly community, such as Feeld, facilitate a lot of discussion surrounding attending orgies and kink parties. This can definitely be confusing if you’re new to either scene and it’s easy to get the two elements conflated!
Being into group sex is 100% not a requirement of ENM. This may only pose an issue if you end up in a throuple or wider polyamorous relationship, but that’s something you can discuss with your partners as and when.
Know Yourself, Love Yourself
Ethical non-monogamy can bring up a plethora of new personal and emotional triggers you didn’t even realize you had. If you have typically been dating monogamously up to this point, completely hauling over what you know when it comes to your romantic and intimate relationships can be extremely unnerving. It’s important to be self-confident, to know your worth, and know that dating isn’t a competition for attention and love.
Ultimately, ethical non-monogamy can be very rewarding if you put in the personal work. Knowing your attachment style and what is likely to cause barriers for you within the realm of ethical non-monogamy is something that helped me in a major way. Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Non-Monogamy by Jessica Fern does a brilliant job of outlining this and giving tangible advice based on your and your partner’s attachment styles.
Jealousy Is Normal
When I first started identifying as ENM, I would do everything I could to suppress any feelings of jealousy I was having. Jealousy is a completely normal emotion to have, being ENM doesn’t magically make you immune.
Getting jealous doesn’t mean you’ve failed at ENM. “There are plenty of people who don’t get jealous who are in monogamous relationships, and there are plenty of people who do get jealous who are in polyamorous relationships,” notes Yau. However, it is important that you address the underlying causes that made you feel jealous at that particular moment in time. Yau adds, “[Jealousy] can be caused by a wide variety of things; whether it’s insecurity, or your partner not meeting your needs, or a general mindset of scarcity. It’s more about what you do to process these feelings and identify where they come from than the fact that you feel these feelings in the first place. Jealousy is not a barrier to practicing polyamory.”
You Make The Rules
When venturing into ENM, it may feel like there are countless unspoken rules. Although it’s always worth it to listen to advice from people who have had more experience in the community, the beauty of ENM is that it is whatever you make it.
Every ENM person you meet will have a different way of practicing than another due to countless factors in their life, from attraction to interest to time. Non-monogamy looks different for everyone, and your relationships with different partners will reflect that. Only you know what works for you, and you’ll learn your interests in time. Try not to think too much about the labels, and instead, tune into what is making you happy and stick with it.
Ethical non-monogamy at its best is wonderful and liberating, but it’s not for everyone. It’s also important to note that being able to live openly as an ENM person is a privilege that not all can afford. If you are venturing into the world of non-monogamy for the first time, be patient with yourself and ultimately – have fun, but be sure to look after yourself at the same time.