Non-monogamy has been practiced in some circles for a long time, but recently, there’s been more curiosity about the topic.
According to Google data, the term “ethical non-monogamy” has seen more than a 250% increase in search traffic over the past year. A 2020 YouGov poll of 1,300 U.S. adults found that a third of respondents say their ideal relationship is non-monogamous to a degree. And more than 20% of single Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives, per a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.
“It’s not just a new fad,” polyamory educator Leanne Yau told HuffPost. “People have been doing non-monogamy for a very long time. I think people are just talking about it more now.”
So what does it mean exactly? Non-monogamy is an umbrella term that encompasses various relationship styles that are not sexually and/or romantically exclusive between two people.
Sarah Stroh, a non-monogamous writer and creator behind the @monogamish_me Instagram account, described it to HuffPost as: “Any relationship structure that is consensually and openly non-monogamous, meaning either — or more likely both — partners in a couple have romantic and/or sexual contact with people other than each other.”
You may have come across the term “ethical non-monogamy,” sometimes referred to as “ENM.” The word “ethical” has been used to differentiate these kinds of relationships — where all parties have talked about and agreed to the arrangement — from ones where cheating is happening.
But some experts take issue with the term, said Zachary Zane, a sex columnist and sex expert for Archer, a new dating app for queer men. In his book “Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto,” he explains the pushback from researchers, educators and activists in the space about use of the word “ethical.”
“They don’t like the term ‘ethical’ because it implies that non-monogamy is inherently unethical. Why else would you feel compelled to preface with ‘ethical’?” he writes in the book.
“It also holds non-monogamy to an unfair, higher standard than monogamy. Monogamous people constantly lie and cheat on their partners, and they don’t have to preface their behaviors with [being] ethical or unethical, so why do non-monogamous folks? Then, of course, many ENM relationships are not ethical. You can absolutely still be a piece of shit even when practicing ENM.”
Instead, many people prefer terms like “consensual non-monogamy” (CNM) or just “non-monogamy.”
There are four main types of non-monogamous relationships.
Some of the common relationship structures that fall under the non-monogamous umbrella include monogamish, swinging, open relationships and polyamory.
“Things can be very fluid between them, but broadly, I see them falling into four types,” Yau said.
Monogamish is a term that was coined by sex and relationships writer and podcast host Dan Savage, and refers to a predominantly monogamous relationship in which “sexual activity outside the relationship is seen as the exception rather than the norm,” Yau said.
“So, that might look like having a threesome on special occasions, or occasionally going to a sex party. Or if there’s a kink that you want to explore, telling your partner and then finding someone to indulge that with,” she explained.
Swinging is when couples have sexual experiences with multiple partners, typically (but not always) as a unit. It often involves swapping partners or engaging in group sex, among other types of sexual play.
“Swinging is something that couples do together, as in they sleep with other people together, and they engage with other singles and/or couples. So that might look like threesomes, foursomes, orgies, sex parties, that kind of thing,” said Yau, noting that the term “swinger” has fallen out of favor to a degree. Some people, especially those in younger generations, may prefer to say they’re part of “the lifestyle” instead.
An open relationship is typically one that is sexually non-monogamous, but romantically monogamous. (Previously, however, people used the term as a catch-all to describe any non-monogamous relationship, Yau noted.)
“So when someone says that they are in an open relationship, I take that to mean that they are only romantically dating one person, but both of them can have casual sex with other people, either separately or together, on the side,” Yau said.
Polyamory is the only form of non-monogamy “where you not only have sexual non-exclusivity, but also romantic non-exclusivity,” Yau said. In other words, you’re part of multiple loving relationships at the same time. This stands in contrast to the other non-monogamous relationships described above in which everything outside of the primary relationship is “kept strictly sexual or casual, however you define that,” Yau explained.
While there still may be some hierarchy within certain polyamorous relationships, “it’s the one type where there isn’t necessarily a focus on a primary romantic relationship,” Yau said.
Many common assumptions about non-monogamy aren’t true.
Non-monogamy may be gaining traction but is still very much at odds with our monogamous cultural norms. Stigma and misunderstandings about these types of relationships persist. One common misconception: Non-monogamous relationships aren’t serious or lasting.
“My partner of over three years and I are non-monogamous and expecting a child in January,” Stroh said. “Non-monogamy is not just a phase or a structure for people who want something casual.”
Zane echoed a similar sentiment: “There’s this notion that ENM, specifically polyamory, isn’t sustainable long-term, meaning eventually, you and your partner(s) will break up,” he said. “Needless to say, that isn’t the case. There are poly folks who’ve been with their partners for decades.”
Some people mistakenly believe non-monogamy is cheating, which it's not. In non-monogamous relationships, everyone should be aware, engaged and “enthusiastically participating,” Yau said. Honest communication, established guidelines and recurring check-ins are foundational here, just as they are in any healthy relationship.
“Non-monogamous relationships, just like monogamous relationships, require that everyone be aware and consenting,” Yau said. “It’s not the same as going behind someone else’s back and just kind of doing your own thing and having multiple partners without anyone knowing.”
Another common misconception is that non-monogamy is just a last-ditch effort for couples trying to save their marriage.
“Of course, there are some folks who do attempt ENM as their relationship is failing, and the vast majority of the time, it does not save the relationship,” Zane said. “But that’s not the majority of folks who are ENM.”
In fact, if your relationship is in a bad place, introducing non-monogamy is probably only going to make matters worse, Yau said.
“Because non-monogamy requires quite a lot of security and confidence and trust in your partner in order to engage with it in a sustainable and healthy way,” she said. “A relationship that is on its way towards ending anyway is probably not going to be the best fit for that.”
Monogamous people may also assume that non-monogamous people are just inherently less jealous, which isn’t necessarily true.
“Non-monogamous folks are still human,” Zane said. “We still get jealous. We just — hopefully — address it better. Instead of lashing out at our partners, we admit that we’re feeling jealous and insecure, attempt to figure out the root of the jealousy and work together to find a solution.”
There also tends to be this assumption that at least one person in a non-monogamous relationship is being pushed into it against their will.
“Meaning, one partner would prefer to be monogamous but ‘can’t get their partner to commit to them,’” Stroh said. “Of course, these things are true sometimes for people who claim they are polyamorous, but it’s often not the case.”
This perception that one partner is being dragged into it and crying themselves to sleep every night is “really unfair,” Yau said.
“It portrays non-monogamous people as being selfish or toxic or abusive when we’re not interested in dating monogamous people, for the most part,” Yau said. “We want other people who fully accept and validate us and our desires.”
This article originally appeared on www.huffpost.com.