What is Ethical Non-Monogamy? ...And why is it such a mouthful?
Well, all relationships are a mouthful, aren't they? ‘Ethical Non-Monogamy’ just keeps it real. But for all our sakes, I'll refer to it as ENM from here on.
If monogamy is the practice of mutual exclusivity between two partners, then ENM is the practice of mutual fluidity in the art of relationship; ethically. It's casually referred to as "being open", meaning that both partners are open to having multiple partners.
Some examples of ENM configurations include a V (one person has two partners, who do not have an intimate relationship with each other); a Triad (three people in mutual relationship with each other); and a Z (two people have relationship with each other, and each also has one other, separate partner). There are many other ENM configurations; those three are the simplest to describe.
Because ENM specifically includes the word 'Ethical', I personally don't consider polygamy to be a part of the ENM community. That's because polygamy is "the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time" Oxford Languages).
In polygamy, a husband has more than one wife, or a wife has more than one husband. Overwhelmingly, the exclusivity standard is not mutual in polygamous relationships (usually there is one husband with multiple wives). I don't consider any relationship in which the participants have unequal freedoms to be a level (or ethical) playing field.
This brings up some important questions: What is the criteria for an ethical relationship? How come Non-Monogamy has to include 'Ethical' at the beginning, while in Monogamy, ethicality is assumed?
Growing up, I was taught that monogamy is The Right Way to engage in an intimate relationship. This teaching was reinforced by overt and subliminal messaging all around me.
Show of hands - anybody else?
I never dated more than one man at a time, and when I decided that a relationship was over, I did not engage with a new partner until I had severed ties with my current boyfriend. Because if I'm interested in someone other than my boyfriend and want to act on that interest, the responsible thing to do is to end my current relationship - right?
I carried this same mindset into my marriage. I believed that anyone desiring intimacy with a second or third partner must therefore have problems - either personally or in their marriage - which they were ignoring and needed to address.
Monogamy is entrenched in western ideology, thanks to the colonists who brought it over from Europe as the gold standard. Western culture worships monogamy and its inherent flaws: The torture that the complex human mind endures when one *inevitably* develops attraction to someone outside of their tidy little exclusive relationship.
Well, when European foreigners settled on these shores, they encountered indigenous peoples for whom, according to Bartolomé de las Casas as quoted in 'A People's History of the United States':
"Marriage laws are non-existent; men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger." And, "...they put no value on gold and other precious things. ... They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality...."
The indigenous peoples were not religiously devoted to the concept of exclusive property, as we Americans (and Europeans) are. They did not think of land as something to be owned, but rather something with which to exist symbiotically, and to respect. One indigenous tribe's territory was distinguished from another's for the sake of stability and security; not ownership. For example, an indigenous person in those days would never run out of his house yelling at a passerby to, “Get off my grass!”
By the same token, indigenous peoples did not think possessively of each other. They saw each other as human beings; each with an individual mind and heart, and capable of an immeasurable wealth of thought and feeling. A person was not something to be claimed or excluded, but rather someone with whom to connect and build - and perhaps only for a season.
Meanwhile, monogamy in Europe and early America had very real, legal benefits for property-coveting men. It is impossible to ignore the overwhelming advantage monogamy afforded men in those days, thinly veiled by strong moral pronouncements (from the same men who benefitted most). Julia Spruill says (as read in 'A People's History'):
"Besides absolute possession of his wife's personal property and a life estate in her lands, the husband took any other income that might be hers. He collected wages earned by her labor.... Naturally it followed that the proceeds of the joint labor of husband and wife belonged to the husband."
One example of the moralization of monogamy is, "The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights". This English author of unwashed spirit says:
"In this consolidation which we call wedlock is a locking together. It is true, that man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber, or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name.... A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert...that is, "veiled"; as it were, clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her streame. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, Her new self [her husband, the mighty Thames] is her superior; her companion, her master...."
While women are no longer treated as legal property, here you see the framework from which monogamous sentiment arose, and for whose benefit. Monogamy was presented as a moral ideology, while in practice it served to increase a man’s wealth and ownership, and in itself manifested the concept of property.
At the same time, women were taught from childhood that their affirmation and salvation lay in monogamous marriage; that the greatest achievements of womanhood were beauty, grace and docility by which to charm a man into loving her; sign over all of her property and freedom to him, and then bear his children. If she had children out of wedlock, the law punished her for it. Men who had "illegitimate" children were not punished.
You may be tempted to point to the Bible as the origin of standardized monogamy, but you would be mistaken: The Bible is rife with examples of polygamy and other... arrangements. As for the commitment between a man and a woman, it requires only "faithfulness": It does not say that to be faithful, a couple must be exclusive. In other words, two people can be faithful by whatever conditions they set for their marriage.
Language in the Bible was, however, taken and twisted to give the Catholic church power over European monarchs; and to give men power over women.
The European's (and American's) obsession with personal wealth and ownership is inextricably tied to the idea of exclusive rights over another person. I don't think monogamy can ever be fully extracted from the sentiment of ownership, or the concept of property.
Monogamous prevalence lingers for emotional reasons, as much as for financial gain and stability. Having a partner’s singular attention can be affirming to one's femininity or masculinity, and bring a sense of emotional fulfillment which must then be continually attended. In a monogamous framework, one’s sense of self and worth is sometimes increasingly contingent upon the other's trained attention and exlusive affection.
That's not to say that monogamy is all bad. For many people, monogamy suits not only their character and needs as individuals, but also ensures their general health and stability in every area of life.
The problem is that monogamy has been falsely presented as the moral high road; as intrinsically, morally superior to other relationship styles. Meanwhile, open relationships are treated as "fringe", or "alternative", and are often looked on with raised eyebrows, at the very least.
But monogamy is not morally superior. There are many ways to do monogamy wrong (or unethically), just as there are many ways to do non-monogamy wrong.
So what makes any relationship (monogamous or non) ethical? Well, the question of ethics is a subjective one. But here's my list:
1. Honesty. Not just when prodded, but proactive honesty: Taking the initiative to bring up how you’re feeling; what you want; what you like or don’t like; your health status, etc. Frankly, this is hard. It’s hard to open your mouth and say something when you could easily just not. But just as exercise strengthens your body, proactive honesty strengthens your relationships. Done with respect and kind intentions, I’ve found that proactive honesty continuously improves my communication skills with my husband, and in general. And it feels good to see the progress made as a result.
2. Respect. Honesty and Respect go hand-in-hand; either one could be first on the list. Respect your own well-being and needs; respect the well-being and needs of your partner(s). This means not trying to manipulate, groom or cajole someone into a relationship or activity they aren’t comfortable with. It means being up-front about your health, and expecting full disclosure from your partner(s) about their health. It means getting tested together; regularly. It means communicating your physical/emotional needs and expectations, and being attentive to your partner(s) needs; show concern, and be honest if there’s an expectation you can’t meet or feel isn’t being met. It means respecting each other’s time. It means setting equitable guidelines that everyone is comfortable with.
Respect entails a lot more, but that’s some of it.
3. Health. I mentioned this in the last point, but obviously health should be high on everyone’s list, and staying healthy only works if everyone is concerned about it, proactive and communicating honestly. That means getting tested frequently together (I’ve heard some horror stories about people falsifying results). It means wearing contraception, unless you and your partners are operating in a closed and accountable loop. It means exercising good judgment and discretion (be critically observant) in choosing your partners.
4. Motivation. Why are you in a monogamous relationship? Why are you in a non-monogamous relationship? There are healthy reasons to choose either, and there are very unhealthy reasons to choose either. When my husband and I began to consider being “open”, it was not for a healthy reason (we were motivated by problems/unhappiness in our relationship).
When we realized this, we set aside the prospect of ENM to focus on ourselves and each other. A year and a half later, our relationship was immensely improved; we were communicating honestly on a frequent basis about our emotions, needs, and thoughts (not just in terms of intimacy/sex, but on every life subject), and we felt secure with each other. Our desire to interact and be, as a couple, was built up far beyond what it had ever been before.
We returned to the idea of Z-configured ENM and began examining it, not just in terms of what it might look like in practice, but what it looks like versus monogamy, and the psychological implications of each relationship style. While neither of us has yet been intimate with a second partner, we’ve both made some good connections with others that allow us to appreciate how vast and varied humanity is, and reinforced our trust and security in relationship with each other.
It’s beautiful to connect with people for who they are; where they are. There’s poignancy in recognizing that people are complex and sacredly individual. There's also power in consciously choosing not to exercise ownership or control over others. Choosing not to seek affirmation through exclusivity forces one to look inward; to find the beauty and strength in oneself as being enough; to really be address the vices and flaws in oneself; to be able to let another person go, should the season change, with kindness.
If you are not entering a monogamous relationship thoughtfully - that is, if you are entering it because you assume it to be the “normal”, “natural” or “right” way, and believe monogamy is the moral high ground, you’re setting yourself up for serious challenges.
That’s because monogamy is not inherently ethical or moral. It can be about control, manipulation, advantage, financial gain or social connections, just as much as it can be about love, care, adoration and personal connection. Monogamy requires the same standards that ENM requires in order to function well: proactive honesty, respect, concern for health, an examination of motives, etc.
The special danger in monogamy is that, because it’s widely thought of as "correct", people consequently think of a “wandering eye” as incorrect; that if monogamy is moral then desiring other partners is immoral; and monogamous partners are subsequently encouraged to hide, or neglect to communicate, certain thoughts and feelings that occur with alarming regularity.
This inclination to shut off communication on certain subjects; to pretend that natural sensations don’t occur or need to be locked away rather than accountably addressed, hurts communication as a whole. It weakens and warps the communication and trust that you do have with the person who is supposed to be your most intimate confidante.
So ethical monogamy means in part that, even if you don’t act on your connections with other people, you do talk about them (respectfully) with your exclusive partner. It means monogamous partners need to find grace, love and acceptance for the very human, very unavoidable phenomenon of attraction that will continue to occur within themselves and their fellow humans.
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