ENM Relationships: What is ethical non-monogamy?

What does ENM relationship mean?
on March 07, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Ever wondered what ethical non-monogamy or ENM relationships are all about? (Or what is ENM’s meaning in the first place?) 

Well, buckle up for a journey beyond traditional relationship norms! 

ENM, the umbrella term for non-traditional relationships, invites you to explore connections beyond the monogamous landscape. Picture it as a relationship buffet — diverse, customizable, and all about consent.

Let’s unravel the mysteries of ENM and discover why it's not just about breaking the rules but rewriting them to suit your relationship dynamics. 

Key Takeaways
  • Ethical non-monogamy, or ENM, represents a broad spectrum of non-traditional relationships where participants engage in romantic or sexual connections beyond a singular, monogamous partnership.
  • These relationships are founded on the principles of consent, awareness, and communication among all involved. ENM encourages exploring diverse relationship dynamics without the constraints of traditional monogamy.
  • ENM encompasses various relationship models, including polyamory, open relationships, 'monogamish' arrangements, swinging, and relationship anarchy. Each model offers different approaches to love and sex outside of conventional monogamous commitments, catering to the diverse needs and preferences of individuals.
  • Deciding whether ENM is right for you involves introspection about your values, desires, and emotional responses, such as jealousy and insecurity. Open and honest communication with current or potential partners is crucial for navigating and sustaining healthy ENM relationships.

What is ethical non-monogamy (ENM)? 

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term that describes any type of non-traditional relationship, where partners are free to explore connections beyond the usual monogamous framework. 

If you are ethically non-monogamous, it means that your relationships are not entirely exclusive. However, instead of being unfaithful or unloyal to your partner, everyone in the dynamic is fully consenting and aware of the situation. 

Studies around ethical non-monogamy have been much more limited, as adult attachment researchers focus almost exclusively on monogamous relationships and often interchange the terms “adult attachment” and “love” with “pair bond”. 

However, ethical non-monogamy has had a renaissance in recent years, as there are many different types of relationships that you can pursue under this concept. For example, you could have one primary partner and have other sexual partners, or you could be in a throuple in which you share partners — with many relationship models on offer. 

Since ethical non-monogamy steers from tradition, these kinds of relationships are highly stigmatized, but studies show that these relationships report relatively high levels of trust, honesty, intimacy, friendship, and satisfaction as well as relatively low levels of jealousy within their relationships. 

Further studies showed that most individuals engaged in these relationships reported that their marriage improved. This may seem surprising to traditional monogamists, but if both partners are consenting, there is no reason why loving relationships can’t thrive under these conditions. 

What is an ENM relationship? 

Ethical non-monogamous relationships refer to any relationship that involves multiple romantic partners, straying outside the ‘norm’ of monogamous relationships. Within this dynamic, both partners consent to pursuing sexual and romantic connections beyond each other. 

Rather than being limited by the lens of monogamy, these individuals see no reason why they should be restricted in their romantic or sexual pursuits. They do not do this behind their partner's back but with full consent and awareness of their loved ones. 

This is also commonly referred to as consensual non-monogamy (CNM), with both of these considered subsections of non-monogamous relationships. 

While some traditional folk might balk at the concept, it’s actually becoming much more prevalent within modern society as individuals shed the restrictions that monogamy entails. 

Research suggests that 4–5% of individuals identify themselves as part of a CNM relationship, an arrangement in which all partners involved agree to have extradyadic romantic and/or sexual relationships. 

Types of Ethical Non-Monogamy 

Under the ENM framework, non-monogamous people can pursue many different types of relationship structures, depending on their preferences. 

Since this is an umbrella term, it can encapsulate a number of different relationship types, including polyamory, open relationships, and any other romantic relationship where you can consensually pursue other intimate relationships. 

1. Polyamorous relationships 

Many people often ask “What is ENM vs poly?” or “What is the difference between polyamorous couples and ethically non-monogamous people?” This is a common misconception, as instead of being different, ethical non-monogamy is simply the umbrella concept to which polyamory conforms. 

Polyamorous relationships refer to a relationship dynamic whereby all partners have a sexual and emotional connection with one another. These partnerships rely on open communication and trust, with this structure also commonly referred to as polyfidelity. While this dynamic is not limited to any specific sexual identity, it’s quite popular amongst bisexuals or the queer community. 

This relationship style differs from polygamy, as this refers to having multiple spouses, which is illegal in most modern societies. 

2. Open relationships

So, is ENM the same as an open relationship? 

Once again, ENM relationships encapsulate the concept of open relationships, as all individuals in an open relationship are consenting to this dynamic. 

Within long-term relationships, whereby both partners are monogamous, there may come a time when they want to consider opening the relationship up to spice things up. This dynamic usually features one primary relationship, with a focus on casual sex or other sexual encounters outside of the main dynamic. 

Open relationships are founded on trust and respect for one another, as while you might be pursuing other sexual relationships (whether through dating apps or other means) — your primary attention is on your one committed relationship. 

While it might sound like a good idea to switch up your relationship style from monogamy to open relationships, you must be both fully on board to avoid any underlying insecurities or trust issues corrupting your dynamic. 

3. Monogamish 

Some people might be mainly interested in sticking to a monogamous lifestyle but with the freedom to dabble in other sexual encounters from time to time. 

This is referred to as ‘monogamish’, whereby partners might seek consent occasionally to pursue a different sexual connection. Or they might want to invite someone else into their dynamic temporarily, such as a threesome

4. Swinging 

Swinging is usually defined as a couple (usually a married couple) who pursues sexual relationships with other couples. 

There are different kinds of arrangements suited to the couple's needs, but typically all sexual activity happens under the same roof at the same time. Sometimes their partner might be watching them, sometimes they won’t be. 

Swingers should be very open and honest about all of their activities, and should not engage in sex with anyone outside of a pre-agreed arrangement. Therefore, partners should consistently check in with one another, making sure their loved one’s wellness is their priority. 

5. Relationship anarchy 

This term might sound extreme or scary, but relationship anarchy is about the total abandonment of any relationship structure. 

Rather than keeping track of primary relationships, or opting for the polycule model, these individuals don’t believe in any labels when it comes to love and sex — they are totally free to explore any connections without any worries about structure or labels.  

What are the benefits of ENM?

Diverse connections: When considering ethical non-monogamy vs more traditional monogamous relationships, this relationship dynamic can result in a much richer emotional and social life due to the connections you form. Since ENM allows this kind of exploration, it can foster a more diverse range of relationships.
Personal growth: Managing multiple relationships can challenge individuals to develop better communication, time management, and emotional regulation skills. It also promotes sexual responsibility, with safe sex encouraged among multiple partners to avoid STIs or other issues.
Customized intimacy: ENM provides an opportunity for partners to tailor their relationships to meet their unique needs. Different partners may fulfill various emotional, intellectual, or physical aspects, creating a more customized and fulfilling experience. “Each of us can get stuck in sexual scripts in a relationship with one partner and not feel clear on how to experiment or try something new with them, for fear of causing relationship distress,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired. “So as relationships are dynamic and changing, having someone new to engage with sexually can often allow people a new sense of freedom to explore and now feel limited to the same patterns of connection.”
Reduced pressure: In a monogamous relationship, the expectation often falls on one person to fulfill all emotional and physical needs. ENM distributes these expectations among multiple partners, potentially reducing pressure on any single individual and improving their mental health overall.
Increased autonomy: ENM can empower individuals to explore their desires, needs, and boundaries more freely. The autonomy to negotiate and set individual relationship agreements can lead to a stronger sense of self.

How do I know if an ENM relationship would suit me? 

If you’re considering pursuing a non-monogamous relationship structure in your love life, there are many things to consider. 

Before diving into this relationship style, it’s important to reflect on your values, desires, and needs in a relationship. Consider whether you are naturally inclined towards forming connections with multiple people or if you have a strong preference for monogamous relationships. It’s also important to consider your ability to tolerate feelings of jealousy, or if you have any insecurities that you feel would not align with this dynamic. 

Remember that ethically non-monogamous relationships are not for everyone and you should never feel pressured by your partner to pursue this dynamic if it makes you feel uncomfortable. 

The suitability of an ENM relationship is highly individual, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer. It's okay to evolve in your understanding and preferences over time, and ongoing communication with your partner(s) is key.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between poly and ENM and open relationship?

    The terms polyamory, ethically non-monogamous (ENM), and open relationship are often used interchangeably, but they have nuanced differences. ENM is the broad term that encapsulates both polyamorous and open relationships, as they all involve multiple romantic partners. Polyamory involves engaging in multiple romantic or emotional relationships, while open relationships typically refer to relationships where partners are allowed to engage in sexual activities with others outside the primary partnership — both with the knowledge and consent of their partners.
  • Is ENM allowed on Tinder?

    Tinder allows users to define their specific relationship preferences within this bio. For example, you can specify whether you are interested in monogamous relationships, or non-monogamous relationships, or are open to various relationship structures. Clearly stating your interest in ethically non-monogamous relationships or open arrangements can help attract like-minded individuals.
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