What Ethical Non-Monogamy Can Teach Us About Healthy Relationships

polyamory love triangle illustration

I’m not so hot on monogamy. It’s always been strange to me that society decides one way of doing romantic relationships: boy meets girl; boy and girl date; boy and girl marry; boy and girl never date or sleep with anyone else ever again. If we’re all unique, why should we accept a one-size-fits-all rule of monogamy?

I’m not the only one skeptical: Increasingly, many people are embracing ethical non-monogamy. In this model of relationship health, having a happy and loving relationship doesn’t depend upon romantic and sexually exclusivity. Rather, ethical non-monogamy emphasizes communication and consent.

Many psychologists argue that the skills people in ethically non-monogamous relationships develop to stay happy and healthy are important lessons for everyone. Here’s how to know if ethical non-monogamy is right for you — and what it can teach us all about mental health in relationships, however we choose to love.

Isn’t ethical non-monogamy just cheating?

Cheating is a violation of trust. When someone cheats, they engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with another person, without their partner’s consent. Ethical non-monogamy, on the other hand, stresses consent above all else. This means that partners agree to see other people and set rules, boundaries, or values for how they will treat each other and communicate about their relationship(s).

There are several different kinds of ethically non-monogamous relationships, like polyamory (which emphasizes loving relationships with multiple people), open relationships (where a couple has more casual encounters with others), and relationship anarchy (a belief against hierarchies of love).

Central to all these forms is communication between partners, respect for each other’s boundaries and values, and consent. The moment a relationship stops being consensual (for example, it’s secret or violates one of the ground rules partners agreed on), it stops being ethical non-monogamy and becomes — you got it — cheating.

Is non-monogamy right for me?

The kind of relationship that’s right with one person isn’t necessarily right for another, and what’s right for one time in your life may not be right for the next. As you reflect on your own relationships, you can ask yourself some guiding questions.

Am I genuinely interested in giving non-monogamy a try, or am I just doing this to please a partner?

Feeling nervous is normal when we take emotional risks. And we might find trying something new for a great partner teaches us something about ourselves. But feeling pressured into something we don’t really want is unhealthy for any relationship.

Am I committed to communicating with my partners and checking in with myself?

Honesty, self-awareness and communication are skills that we all develop over time. You don’t have to be perfect at these — no one is! — but you do have to be ready to learn.

Am I prepared to deal with feelings of jealousy in a healthy way?

Many people in non-monogamous relationships report feeling “compersion,” or happiness that their partner is having positive romantic and sexual experiences with other people. While you definitely don’t have to feel compersion to be non-monogamous — everyone experiences jealousy sometimes — you do have to be ready to unpack feelings of jealousy and deal with them proactively.

Staying Mentally and Emotionally Healthy

Mental and emotional health is fundamental to any relationship, monogamous or not. Here are some ways that people in non-monogamous relationships keep themselves emotionally healthy while communicating with multiple partners — skills we can all grow from.

Setting Rules and Boundaries

When you don’t have typical societal definitions of “cheating” to rely on, it’s up to you to set your own boundaries. That kind of deep self-knowledge can benefit everyone. Think about what you need to stay healthy — safer sex? your partner letting you know if they’re staying out late? — and don’t be afraid to ask others to respect those boundaries.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Expressing your feelings, asking for what you need, and working through conflict is scary. But clear communications is one of the foundations of any healthy relationship — and of being honest with yourself.

Self-Introspecting About Jealousy

Feeling some amount of jealousy is normal. But rather than letting jealousy dictate your actions, which could lead to patterns of anger or control, you can take a moment to understand why you’re feeling jealous. Are you feeling insecure? Do you wish your partner would spend more time with you? Or are you simply not comfortable with your partner seeing other people?

Listen to Your Gut

We’ve all got that little voice inside of us that tells us when something’s just not right. Whatever your relationship style, you deserve to feel loved, cared for, and respected. If your gut is telling you that you’re not being treated well or simply that the relationship isn’t quite right for you, listen.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model of relationships. But whether you’re monogamous or monogamish, learning to check in with yourself, communicate with your partners, and always respect consent are skills that can help all of us flourish.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor