ENM Relationships 101: What Is An Ethical Non-Monogamous Relationship, And Is It For Me?
Feb 14, 2023, 8 min read
Curious about non-monogamous relationships (ENMs)? No judgement here! We’re dishing up everything you need to know about all things ENM; what it is, what all the terms mean (what the heck is polyfidelity and monogamish?!), the potential benefits, whether or not it’s right for you, and how to give yourself the best chance of ENM success if you decide to try it.
At Augmentive, we’re all about providing holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest. Since relationships are closely entwined with mental health, we thought we’d consider the recent increase in popularity of non-monogamous relationships.
It’s always worth considering your mental health when thinking about whether or not ENM is for you. Whether you’re against the idea, curious to try it, or just want to learn more about how it works, we’re shedding some light on the topic…
So, what is an ENM relationship?
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is an umbrella term for relationships that are not entirely exclusive between two people. The intricacies of ENM relationships are about as complex as any other relationship, since every couple is different and will desire different things, but the foundation of any ENM relationship — and the element that differentiates them from cheating — is that everyone involved in the ENM relationship consents to it with no pressure to do so, no deception, and no guilt-tripping involved.
In a nutshell, ENM requires an open, honest conversation with your partner to set out the “rules”. Having multiple partners isn’t considered cheating if it’s consensual and agreed upon in advance.
Why do people have ENM relationships?
According to research, around 4-5% of relationships are consensually non-monogamous. It has grown in popularity in recent years, with a 2020 YouGov poll finding 32% of US adults said their ideal relationship is non-monogamous in some way.
But why? There are a number of reasons people pursue a non-monogamous relationship, such as:
- Exploring sexuality: Our sexuality can change over time, and some people get into relationships before they have fully explored their own. This could mean experimenting in their sex life, or exploring their sexual identity by becoming involved with someone of a different gender to their current partner. People may find an ENM relationship works for them because they can continue a relationship with their current partner while being open to other experiences.
- Fulfilling needs outside of a relationship: Many of us have a romcom-perfect vision that our partner will fulfil every need and desire we have in a relationship, from our home life to our financial needs to our sexual desires and more. In reality, sometimes a partner doesn’t. ENM relationships can be a way for people to have their needs met in other areas of life.
- Being in love with more than one person: In some cases, people fall in love with more than one person at a time and seek an arrangement that enables them to spend time with someone else, too.
I’ve heard a lot of terms I don’t understand. How do I learn about them?
You may have heard some words floating around that you’re unsure of, so here are a few common terms that may help you differentiate the many kinds of ENM relationship structures. An ENM glossary, if you will!
- Consensual non-monogamy (CNM): This is another phrase to describe ENM
- Open relationship: When an established couple becomes open to the possibility of a new partner, either romantically or sexually
- Monogamish: When a couple that’s mostly monogamous occasionally has sex with other people in certain pre-agreed situations
- Polyamory: When people have multiple romantic/sexual partners at the same time
- Hierarchical relationships: When a couple considers each other to be their ‘primary partner’ (the priority), but also engages in a relationship with a ‘secondary partner’
- Non-hierarchical relationships: Sometimes called ‘relationship anarchy’, this type of relationship means there are no rules, expectations, or priorities. A person in a non-hierarchical relationship may treat multiple partners with equal importance
- A threesome: When an established couple invites a third person to have sex with them, either as a one-off or a regular occurrence
- Cuckolding: Similar to a threesome, but the couple usually invites a third person to have sex with one person while the other watches
- Swinging: This is sometimes known as a ‘partner swap’, when an established couple ‘swaps’ partners with another couple for a sexual relationship
- Polyfidelity: When a group of people (not just a couple) are exclusive to one another, with all members being equal partners. In this scenario, no one has a relationship with anyone outside the group. This could be a ‘throuple’ (group of 3), a ‘quad’ (group of 4), or more
- Vees: A ‘vee’ is a type of polyfidelity, however it’s more of a ‘V’ structure. There is typically one person in a romantic/sexual relationship with two people, while those two people are not in a romantic/sexual relationship with each other
Can an ENM relationship be healthy?
Non-monogamous relationships still tend to hold stigma in society, and are often judged as being somehow less trustworthy, more promiscuous, and not as ‘real’ and solid as a monogamous relationship.
The truth is, ENM relationships can be healthy and unhealthy, just as traditional monogamous relationships can be both healthy and unhealthy. It all comes down to the individuals involved and how they choose to communicate and explore their needs.
You should always consider your mental health in any relationship. If a particular style of relationship is making you feel unhappy, stressed, trapped, overly jealous or other negative emotions, then it may not be healthy for you.
Are there any benefits to an ENM relationship?
Besides offering a chance to explore sexuality and fulfil multiple needs that can’t be met by one partner, it has also been reported that monogamous couples can feel less content with their communication and openness with their partner compared to non-monogamous couples. This could be because ENM couples tend to have conversations to establish boundaries, with a potential benefit being the opportunity to think about those boundaries and how best to communicate them with a partner, more so than one might in a monogamous relationship.
That said, having and communicating boundaries is thought to be a staple of any healthy relationship, regardless of whether it's monogamous or polyamorous, and this is often taught in individual and couples therapy. So the benefits may come more from the communication and boundaries rather than the ENM.
How do I know if an ENM relationship is right for me?
If you believe you are currently in an unhealthy relationship, it is highly unlikely that turning to ENM will fix the foundational issues in your relationship. A better approach would be working on your communication skills, or exploring couple counselling instead.
You should also know studies have found no significant difference in relationship satisfaction between monogamous and ENM relationships, so one doesn’t trump the other. It’s all about your own individual needs and what’s best for you.
If you’re considering an ENM relationship, you need to think about things like how you handle jealousy, and how your communication skills are, especially as you’ll need to be open with your partner (unless they ask you not to be).
The act of being so open and honest can deepen the level of trust and intimacy couples feel, so it’s no surprise some say ENM has improved their relationship. On the other hand, others will tell you it was the beginning of the end for their relationship, so you do need to think carefully about what more openness could mean for you as a couple and whether or not you feel it’s right for you.
I want an ENM relationship but my partner is unsure. What can I do?
If you think ENM could be a positive thing for you and your partner, but they aren’t as sure as you are, it’s important to remember an ENM relationship is only successful if both people feel comfortable with the arrangement and fully agree to it.
This isn’t something that requires you to give your partner an encouraging shove off the starting line, this is something they need to decide for themselves so if they aren’t ready, don’t push it.
Perhaps think about what it is you want from ENM (i.e. better communication, more sexual excitement, sexual exploration, etc.) and discuss how else you may be able to achieve this within your relationship.
My partner wants an ENM relationship but I’m unsure. What can I do?
As above, no one should be pressuring you into ENM or trying to ‘convince’ you it’s a good idea. While it’s important to listen to your partner’s feelings and reasons for suggesting such an arrangement, you shouldn’t go through with anything that makes you uncomfortable, or because you feel it is the only way to keep your partner around.
If monogamy is something you feel you need in your relationship, don’t be afraid to make this known.
I’m single but I think an ENM relationship is for me. How do I approach dating?
It can be tricky to broach the subject of an ENM relationship with a new person. Many dating sites and apps now let you make your preferences clear on your profile — a handy way to bypass awkward conversations!
If you prefer meeting people for the first time in person, honesty is always best. If you already have a partner, it’s courteous to let a new person know and explain the terms of your existing relationship so they feel comfortable.
If you continue to date a new person and it becomes clear you’re heading for a relationship, let them know how you feel about monogamy and what you imagine your future relationship(s) looking like. Never hide this until you are exclusive as this goes against the main principle of openness in ENM relationships, and your new partner may feel you have been dishonest.
My partner and I are ready to explore an ENM relationship. Where do we start?
Starting an ENM journey can be both thrilling and a little confusing at the same time! Where do you start?! Here are some first steps and talking points to consider before you begin:
- Discuss what you both want to gain from ENM. You will both have personal reasons for wanting to explore this, so lay them out on the table to kick-off the honesty
- Discuss the rules. Successful ENM relationships have clear, pre-determined boundaries and expectations. Start by discussing your relationship fears and set rules around these. For example, your partner may not want to be told anything about what you do with other people, or they may want to know absolutely everything
- Discuss a relationship structure you both feel comfortable with. There are so many of them (see our list above!) and it’s always best to decide beforehand to avoid blindsiding your partner down the line with a new arrangement
- Keep the communication going. It’s always a good idea to set aside regular time to check in with each other, address any concerns, and update the rules as you go
- Discuss an end point. You shouldn’t be sticking to an arrangement if you no longer want to. There is no shame in trying out ENM to see how it feels for you, and if it starts to become a problem or you no longer enjoy it, return to what feels secure. Discuss whether your arrangement should have an end point, or remain ongoing
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, Augmentive is the state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform giving you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms. If you have a question about ENM relationships in relation to your mental health or the wellbeing of your existing relationships, we’re here to help on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.