Ethical Non-Monogamy: Basics & Rules For Practicing ENM

Ethical non-monogamy is a relationship structure where all involved parties consent to have multiple romantic or sexual relationships, with honesty and open communication. Unlike cheating, all actions are aboveboard and ethically conducted, with respect for everyone’s boundaries and feelings.


Key Points

  • Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is an umbrella term for the practice of taking part in romantic or intimate relationships that are not completely exclusive between two people and are also consensual.
  • This is the opposite of monogamy, wherein two partners are exclusive with one another and do not engage in romantic or intimate relationships with anyone else.
  • People who engage in ENM are considered to do so with consideration and honesty with their partners.
  • Either one person or both in the relationship can engage in outside relationships, or a single person may engage in ENM with someone who is in multiple relationships.


Ethical non-monogamy Vs. non-monogamy

It is important to note the difference between ENM and non-monogamy in general. Ethical means that there is agreed consent between the parties involved in the relationship.

In contrast, without the word ethical, people can engage in outside relations without the knowledge or consent of everyone involved.

ENM is also not the same as infidelity or cheating.

Infidelity means that a partner in an exclusive relationship has a romantic or intimate relationship with someone outside their relationship without the knowledge or consent of their partner.

When someone is cheating, they are not communicating ethically – they are lying, deceiving, and disrespecting their partner.

Is ethical non-monogamy Accepted?

Society often has it ingrained in us that there is a set structure for how relationships ought to work, as well as establishing what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Society and the media will usually display monogamous relationships as the norm and something everyone should strive for, and many people may not realize that there are other options.

Since the concept is thought to be relatively new, it can be difficult to breach the topic of ENM with friends and family.

Many people who engage in ENM may do so discreetly because they fear the judgment that may follow if they share that their relationships are ENM.

There is the harmful stereotype that those who engage in ENM are cheating or do not truly care for their partners, which can make it difficult for those to share details about their relationships.

Why choose ethical non-monogamy?

There are many reasons why someone may choose to engage in ENM, including the following:

To fulfill other needs

People who engage in ENM may do so to meet other needs they may have that their present relationship cannot provide.

Often, in monogamous relationships, there is the expectation that your one partner must fulfill every need that you have for the relationship to work.

Many who are ENM believe that putting these expectations on a partner is unreasonable as you cannot expect one person to meet every need you have, just as they cannot expect everything from you.

It can be a burden on others and can lead to disappointment or relationship breakdowns.

ENM allows people to look for others with similar romantic or sexual interests that their partner does not have or is not comfortable exploring.

This also allows your partner the chance to explore things that you may not be interested in. This is not to say that their relationship lacks something, but that there is more to gain from others to strengthen it.

To explore their sexuality

Some people may not have had the chance to explore their sexuality before settling down with one person.

They may be extremely happy with the person they are with but feel as if they have missed out on experimenting with people of different genders if they never had this chance.

ENM may then make sense for someone to explore their sexuality without having to give up the relationship they have.

To share the love they can offer

Some people who engage in ENM may argue that it is human nature to want to have multiple romantic connections with others.

They suggest that if it is normal to have more than one friendship, love for all family members, and for all children you have, why are romantic relationships so restricted?

They may feel that having one romantic relationship limits the amount of love they have to share with others. Some people may feel their truest selves when they can love two or more people.

To not have to end a relationship

Some people may have a very strong relationship with their partner, but they find they are attracted to others.

They may not want the relationship to end or cheat on their partner, but they feel pressured to pick one person, as this is what monogamous society states.

Many people may choose to end strong relationships because they believe they need to pick one person or the other and believe that this is the way things are.

Those who engage in ENM recognize that there is the choice to have both, as long as this is discussed and consented to by all parties.

Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy 

ENM is an umbrella term for many types of relationships. ENM can be practiced without following a specific relationship model and can comprise whatever rules that all parties agree on.

Nonetheless, there are different types of ENM relationships, which are described below:


Polyamory is the practice or intent of having other relationships that can be romantic or intimate in nature.

Several people can all have a relationship together, such as a triad (composed of three partners) or a quad (composed of four partners).

In other cases, one person may have numerous partners while one or more of their partners might not have or want any other partners themselves.

People in polyamorous relationships may have primary partners who are the person they prioritize and secondary partners who are not as fully prioritized. This type of ENM relies heavily on communication between all parties involved and about multiple topics such as safe sex and emotions.

Open relationships

Opening the relationship means that one or both partners can pursue sex and sometimes emotional attachments to other people outside the relationship.

In open relationships, usually, the primary partner is the most prioritized, and there is not usually a commitment to outside parties.

Compared to polyamory, people in open relationships can usually have sex with others they are attracted to, with the idea that these relationships only remain casual.

As with all ENM relationships, open relationships require a lot of communication with your partner, especially a discussion of boundaries and what is and is not allowed. Note that these conditions may change over time as the partnership evolves.


This is a term for couples who are monogamous most of the time but will occasionally take part in outside sexual relationships. While it can include emotional relationships, these tend to be sexual relationships a lot of the time.

There may also be long periods of time between these intimate outside relationships. For instance, a couple may have engaged in sexual relations with others once and then not do it again for five years.

Like other ENM relationships, some rules need to be established, such as determining the frequency of outside partners, the number of meetups, and the types of sexual activities that are permitted.

Relationship anarchy

In many societies, romantic or intimate relationships, such as with a spouse, are valued over other types of relationships, such as with friends or family members.

Relationship anarchists, however, do not subscribe to this ideology and prefer to treat all types of relationships as equally important. They treat all relationships as their own entities and do not automatically prioritize romantic relationships over platonic ones.

The parties involved in these relationships also do not use hierarchical terms for partners, which contrasts with relationship hierarchies in which there is a primary relationship.

While people who identify as relationship anarchists may only choose to have one romantic partner, they are considered ENM as they value outside relationships as equally important as their romantic ones.

Relationship anarchy is centered around personal freedom and autonomy and is a non-conventional way of being in a relationship.


Polygamy is marriage to more than one spouse at a time. Polygyny is where there is one husband and multiple wives, whereas polyandry is one wife and multiple husbands.

Polygamy is mentioned in many religious texts, with some sects still practicing it today. While it can be practiced ethically, there are cases that have involved coercion and exploitation.


This type of ENM is where there can be multiple romantic or sexual partners who are restricted to romantic or sexual activity only to members within the group.

The group may be open to allow other members to join, but there are often no romantic or sexual encounters with the new addition until they are added.

ENM Marriage

ENM (Ethical Non-Monogamy) marriage refers to a marital arrangement where both spouses agree, with transparency and consent, to engage in multiple romantic or sexual relationships outside of their union.

This approach emphasizes open communication, honesty, and respect for all involved parties, distinguishing it from infidelity.

The specifics of the arrangement can vary, including polyamory, open marriages, and swinging, among others.

Practicing ethical non-monogamy

How to practice ethical non-monogamy
How to practice ethical non-monogamy

If you decide that you may want to try ENM, although you are already in an exclusive relationship, there are some steps you can take to bring this up with your partner:

Ensure the relationship you have is strong

ENM is not for everyone, and it may not be suitable for some couples, especially if they are experiencing relationship difficulties.

Remember that ENM will not fix a relationship that is breaking down. It is important to ensure you have a strong relationship first and if there are some issues, make sure these are dealt with before getting into ENM.

Consider your capacity

It’s essential to consider whether you have the capacity in your life for additional connections or relationships.

While love is not a limited resource, you may have limited time or emotional bandwidth- meaning the amount of room you feel you have in your life for emotional attachments.

Discuss what you would both like to gain

Communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what you would like and offer them the opportunity to also express what they want.

Discuss what kind of relationship you would like to get into and the aspects of it that would suit both of you. You can discuss timeframes and long-term relationship goals to aim for.

Reassure your partner

Your partner may feel taken aback by your proposal of engaging in ENM. It is important to reassure them that you do not want to seek other relationships because they lack something.

Reassure them that with ENM, you can both add more to an already strong and healthy relationship.

Set clear boundaries

Ensure that you and your partner set clear boundaries and expectations of what is allowed and not allowed in the relationship.

The boundaries can help protect you from the fears you may have. You and your partner can make a list of what you are fearful of and make it a rule that those boundaries are not crossed into outside relationships.


While you cannot always meet the needs of everyone, it is important to negotiate a place in the middle. One partner may be ‘all in’ while the other may be more cautious.

The best communication can happen when everyone involved feels they are being heard with as little judgment as possible.

Consider if both of you are willing to consent to the process or if one person feels like they are being ‘dragged along.’ Ensure you listen to what your partner’s needs are and negotiate their needs with care.

Connect with others

If you and your partner are debating ENM, consider connecting with others who practice ENM and can help in your research of how it works for them.

You can get an understanding of their opinions and their advice on how to go about it before deciding if it is right for you.

Check-in with each other

Whilst engaging in ENM, ensure you check in with your partner regularly.

Make sure they are still consenting to the relationship style and whether there is anything to work on or other boundaries to be put in place.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can ethically non-monogamous people get jealous?

While ENM people can get jealous, many who practice ENM believe monogamous relationships can often be filled with more jealousy or possessive feelings.

ENM often involves letting go of extreme jealous feelings and instead learning to be happy that your partner is doing something which makes them happy.

Many believe jealousy is a useful emotion as it gives people a chance to learn about what they need to feel secure.

Some people who are ENM may get jealous while others do not – what matters is how jealousy is handled and ensuring boundaries are in place to manage this.

Are there any limits to a non-monogamous relationship?

Every relationship is unique in its own way. Boundaries can differ from one relationship to the next, so what might be ok in one relationship may not be ok in the next.

It is up to each partner to communicate their desires and limits, with those limits being respected.

Can ethical non-monogamy be sustainable?

Many people practice ENM for years or longer if this is what all parties involved want.
Research suggests that in ENM and monogamous relationships, there are similar levels of satisfaction, happiness, and relationship longevity in both.

Making time for self-reflection, having realistic expectations, and checking in with your partners can help to ensure the relationships last.

Exploring ENM does not mean you can never return to a monogamous lifestyle. It is possible to be ENM for a short amount of time, then return to being exclusive to one person.

It could be that one person will want to return to monogamy. In contrast, the other wants to stay ENM. These differences can and do sometimes mean that the relationship needs to come to an end, as they can with other types of disagreements not limited to relationship structure.

How can you bring up ethical non-monogamy to a partner?

Consider whether the interest in ENM is equally shared and whether you have the communication skills to broach the subject in a gentle way that still reassures your partner.

Considerate, non-judgmental sharing and listening are usually key.

Whatever the nature of the relationships, it is essential to talk about boundaries and expectations, including those related to shared space, allocated time, and acceptable behavior.

What is the difference between polyamory and ethical non-monogamy?

ENM is an umbrella term for many types of relationship structures, and polyamory is just one way to practice it.

Polyamory refers to having multiple romantic or intimate relationships at the same time, whereas ENM is any arrangement where people have multiple consensual romantic or sexual connections.

Further Information

Haupert, M. L., Gesselman, A. N., Moors, A. C., Fisher, H. E., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 43(5), 424-440.

Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non‐monogamous romantic relationships.


Haupert, M. L., Gesselman, A. N., Moors, A. C., Fisher, H. E., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 43 (5), 424-440.

Heath, M., Gouweloos, J., & Braimoh, J. (2016). Judging women’s sexual agency: Contemporary sex wars in the legal terrain of prostitution and polygamy. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42 (1), 199-225.

Wood, J., De Santis, C., Desmarais, S., & Milhausen, R. (2021). Motivations for engaging in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50 (4), 1253-1272.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.