Expert Insights

How to Practice Ethical Non-Monogamy: 5 Tips

Highlight reel (TL;DR)

  • Practicing non-monogamy allows you to create a relationship aligned with your values.
  • Taking time to learn and express your boundaries will benefit your relationship.
  • Non-monogamy requires enthusiastic consent and communication from all parties involved.

If you’re new to learning about non-monogamy, you may wonder whether it’s ethical. Some people like to use the terms “ethical non-monogamy” (ENM) or “consensual non-monogamy” to differentiate sexual and intimate relationships outside of a monogamous partnership. 

However, people in the queer and polyamorous communities argue that the term should simply be “non-monogamy” since cheating is already a word for when a fidelity agreement is broken. In this article, I’ll use the terms “ethical non-monogamy” and “non-monogamy” interchangeably.

As a sex and relationship therapist, I work with my clients to create relationships based on communication, consent, and care. This applies regardless of relationship structure. 

Read on if you’re interested in learning more about how to practice ethical monogamy and move away from societal relationship expectations.

What is ethical non-monogamy? 

I think of non-monogamy as the broadest term under which polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and more all fall.

A person who is non-monogamous has the potential to engage in more than one intimate or sexual relationship at the same time. You don’t have to have a partner to be non-monogamous because it can be an identity, ideology, or relationship structure.

We grow up in a culture of monogamy. It’s the type of relationship we see in film, music, and television. Monogamy is constantly commemorated through Valentine’s Day, weddings, and anniversary celebrations. And while this structure works well for many, it’s not the only one that works for people.

A harmful impact of monogamous culture is that it can judge those who don’t fall into this narrow expectation. This can cause people to deny, lie about, or hide central parts of themselves.

Benefits of having multiple partners 

You can avoid a lot of hurt in relationships if you custom-build a form of monogamy or non-monogamy that truly works for you. 

One of the main benefits of non-monogamy is that it allows people to create relationship structures that align with their values, which can leave them feeling more fulfilled. 

Other benefits include having more help with household tasks, finances, and caretaking duties for children, parents, and pets. 

Many people who practice non-monogamy also understand that expecting one person to meet all their needs is unreasonable. Non-monogamous relationships can help foster healthy differentiation— meaning that people can define their individuality while remaining connected and caring towards one another.

Non-monogamous individuals experience the personal growth, sense of fulfillment, and self-expression that can come from being in relationships with different people. 

Disadvantages of having multiple partners 

On the flip side, it’s also challenging to go against societal expectations. 

I hope we’re moving towards a more accepting world. But being non-monogamous can still mean facing judgment, stigma, and barriers. 

And, of course, relationships take work.

There’s a limit to how much time in a week you can spend with each partner, for instance, and scheduling dates with multiple people can feel like a job in and of itself. So naturally, when you multiply the number of people in play, things get more complicated. 

Unlike a monogamous relationship, a non-monogamous partnership involves considering more dynamics and emotions.

How to establish boundaries and expectations

Boundaries are your filters for what’s okay and what’s not okay. We all have internal boundaries that inform what we keep private or share and external boundaries that protect us from the outer world. 

Your boundaries aren’t set in stone, though. Your relationships and the context of those relationships can impact your boundaries. 

So, how do you set clear ones? Here are a few tips:

  • Know what it feels like in your own body when someone crosses a boundary.
  • Use that information to communicate to others what will and won’t work for you.
  • Know that boundaries aren’t selfish. They’re a form of self-preservation that allows you to remain connected to others without becoming depressed, withdrawn, or resentful.

5 Tips for How to practice ethical non-monogamy 

If you decide to carve out a non-monogamous path, you’ll face unique challenges. At times, you may be tempted to apply the old template of monogamy where it doesn’t fit anymore. 

Consider the following you delve into non-monogamy:

1. Permit yourself to imagine your dream relationship future

Examine your relationship “shoulds” and default expectations. Explore what truly works for you.

2. Only move forward if it’s a hell yes for both of you

This won’t work if you drag your partner along or vice versa.

3. Use your values to guide you.

You choose to do hard things in life all the time. These challenges are worthwhile when they provide something meaningful to you. The same applies to relationships.

4. Remember, you and your partner are different people.

You have different wants, comfort levels, and feelings. Make equitable relationship agreements that flex to fit rather than everything needing to be equal.

5. Ditch perfectionism.

You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll also learn from them. Practice extending grace to yourself and your partner as you work through inevitable mistakes. It’s not about the ruptures. It’s about the repairs. 

The final word

It’s exciting to explore your relationship identity. Whether in a relationship or not, you’ll benefit from thinking more intentionally about what relationship structure works for you. 

Think of it like curating your inbox. You can opt into the relationship values you want to practice and unsubscribe to societal norms that don’t work for you.

It’s not about one relationship structure being better or worse. It’s about finding what works best for you. 

If you’re interested in learning more about non-monogamy, check out my book designed for non-monogamous beginners: Thriving in Non-Monogamy An Ethical Slut’s Guide: Overcome Jealousy, Enjoy Sex, and Honor Yourself.

Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
Website | + posts

Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.