What Is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

ENM can take many forms, but consent and communication are key

Ways to practice ethical non-monogamy

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is the practice of taking part in romantic relationships that are not completely exclusive between two people.

Though the majority of couples in our society are monogamous, meaning that once partnered with one another they do not have romantic or sexual relationships with anyone else, about one in five people engage in non-monogamous relationships at some point in their lives.

This article discusses the types of non-monogamous relationships, why people choose them, and how to practice them in a way that is safe and fulfilling for all parties involved.

Practicing Ethical Non-Monogamy

There are numerous ways to practice ethical non-monogamy, all of which involve open communication between all parties involved.

Although it may not be the default way to conduct romantic relationships, assorted forms of non-monogamy have grown in popularity in recent years.

ENM can present in a relationship in many different ways. It may involve one person acting outside of the relationship or both parties doing that. It may involve only sexual connections with others, only romantic connections, or both romantic and sexual connections.

Even if both people in the primary relationship practice ENM, they may have different habits in relation to the emotional connections they establish with their romantic and/or sexual partners.

What matters most is that everyone involved consents to the situation without coercion, deception, or guilt-tripping.

ENM vs. Cheating

What separates ethical non-monogamy from cheating is that no matter what type of ethical non-monogamy you practice in your relationship, both people in the relationship consent to it.

With cheating, the partner does not consent. ENM isn't cheating because both you and your partner have agreed in advance that you'll be practicing non-monogamy.

"Ethical" implies that all parts of the practice are handled consensually and in a way both parties have agreed upon.

Why People Choose ENM

There are many reasons to desire an ethically non-monogamous relationship setup. These are just a few of them:

  • The ability to explore one's sexuality: Sexuality can change over time, and it can take time for us to understand fully. For those who wish to explore their sexual identity by experimenting with people of a different gender than their partner, ENM makes sense because it doesn't require them to give up their relationship in order to become better in touch with their sexual identity.
  • Some relationships don't meet all of a person's needs: Expecting one human to fit perfectly with you and love everything you love is a lot of pressure. To alleviate this pressure, people who practice ENM have the freedom to look outside their relationship for others who may have similar sexual or romantic interests that their partner doesn't.
  • Enough love to go around: There are people who are capable of loving multiple people at once and who feel more satisfied in life when they are able to do that.

ENM Types

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term. That means that an assortment of different individual relationship models fall under the broad definition of it.

What they all have in common is that the relationship is not fully monogamous and that everyone involved consents to being in that type of relationship.

ENM As Its Own Practice

It's worth noting that you can practice ENM without following one of the below relationship models. Relationships are composed of whatever the people in them agree on, and you don't have to stick to the rules of any existing relationship models.

Some couples who practice ENM do not subscribe to any other relationship models. They simply make their own rules about what is and isn't acceptable for their individual relationship, and then they follow them.


Polyamory is probably the most well-known version of ethical non-monogamy. Like ENM at large, polyamory can be done in many different ways.

In one model, several people are all in a relationship together. Another model involves a pair of two individuals who are each committed to additional partners of their own. In other cases, one person in a relationship may be poly and have numerous partners, but one or more of their partners might not have, or want, any other partners themselves.

Polyamorous relationships rely on communication between parties about matters from safe sex to emotions. Polyamory may involve a long-term commitment to more than one person simultaneously. The word polycule is often used to describe a connected polyamorous network.

Open Relationships

Unlike polyamory, open relationships do not generally involve a commitment to parties outside of a two-person relationship. This relationship model is most known for partners being able to pursue outside sexual connections, but it may involve romantic and/or emotional connections with others as well.

However, these are usually conducted under the premise that the primary, two-person relationship is the most prioritized.

Relationship Anarchy

Don't be scared by the word anarchy; relationship anarchy isn't trying to overthrow anything but conventional ways of being in relationships. It's a model wherein the people involved don't use hierarchical terms for partners or think of them in terms of priority. It contrasts with relationship hierarchy, in which there is a primary relationship that gets most of a person's attention.

In relationship anarchy, everyone is equal. An individual won't necessarily view a romantic relationship as more important than a friendship, and they may not even categorize their relationships as strictly platonic, romantic, and/or sexual. This model is centered around personal freedom and autonomy.


Popularized by writer Dan Savage, monogamish is the term for couples who are mostly monogamous but occasionally take part in outside sexual relationships.

People who are monogamish tend to focus on outside sexual encounters only, not romantic connections with others besides their partner. They also may go long periods of time in between outside sexual encounters.


Famous mostly as a biblical or religious practice, polygamy is when one person has multiple spouses. This can be one husband having multiple wives or one wife with multiple husbands, but it is best known as the former.

Polygamy is not legal in the United States. Though it may be practiced ethically, there have been cases that have involved coercion and exploitation.

How to Practice ENM

Nothing is more important to a successful ethically non-monogamous relationship than open communication. Before embarking on the journey of a new relationship style, you and your partner should make sure you are on the same page about what you both want.

You'll benefit from discussing everything, from your long-term relationship goals to how you will handle the minutiae of everyday ENM life. Additionally, as you move into becoming an ENM couple, you'll benefit from checking in regularly with your partner about how each of you is doing with your new relationship setup.

A Note About "Ethics"

As we shift into a progressively more open society, many people believe that the "e" in "ENM" should be dropped. Entire essays have been written about this. The idea that monogamy is the only inherently ethical relationship model and that all others must be qualified with the word in front of them to denote that they, too, have morality is one that stems from colonialism.

Nonmonogamy has existed in indigenous societies throughout time. In a quest to force indigenous societies into Christianity and behave in more "civilized" manners, Western conquerors shifted society in a direction where church-sanctioned marriages between one man and one woman were considered the only acceptable relationship format.

If you are non-monogamous, it's acceptable to state that without using the word ethical or consensual.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.