Consensual non-monogamy, (CNM), also called ethical non-monogamy (ENM), is a topic which is coming gradually more into the light. It is something which I feel we need to talk more about in society. Why? Because we need to make it a legitimate and accepted alternative to the monogamous relationship structure. Whilst monogamy can be great and “right” for many people, it is a model which is becoming outdated. It hasn’t kept up with the demands that modern life and expectations put on relationships. We want to put monogamy on a pedestal. However both divorce rates and infidelity statistics suggest it might not be working very well for at least 40-50% of couples. To quote Esther Perel:“Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Now monogamy means one person at a time.”

In a series of articles I will cover the “what”, “why” and “how” aspects of consensual non-monogamy. In this article I will start with the “what”, explaining what it is and what it is not.

Consensual non-monogamy explained

Consensual non-monogamy means to have a relationship with more than one person at the same time. This is the non-monogamy part. The consensual (or ethical) part means that there is consent between all involved. Honesty, consent, respect and agreement are key aspects of CNM. As such there is for example no way that cheating can count as ethical non-monogamy. Cheating is a breach of trust and it is dishonest. Your partner is not able to consent or agree to it. Finally, by going behind their back you are not treating them with respect. You can read my article on what infidelity is here.

Three categories of consensual non monogamy

Firstly, I feel it is important to say that there are probably as many ways to practice CNM as there are people doing it. Therefore, someone might read this and have a different perspective, which is fine. That said we do like to be able to put labels on things to understand it. I’ve made an attempt to explain CNM by categorising it broadly into the common definitions of open relationships, swinging, and polyamory.

Open relationships

Sometimes the term open relationships is used interchangeably with ethical non monogamy. Here I will treat it as a type of CNM, because you can be non-monogamous without having an open relationship (more on that below).  An open relationship essentially means that each person in a couple can have sexual relationships with other people. You can either talk about the encounters, or you can have an agreement that unless one person asks, you don’t talk about it (“don’t ask don’t tell”). There can be rules, such as safe sex, who you are allowed to meet, or what you can and can’t do with other people. You don’t seek to develop ongoing romantic relationships with other partners. Romance or love is something you keep exclusive between you and your main partner.


Swinging is when a couple opens up their relationship to having sexual relationships with others but it has a couple focus. It is common to meet other couples (or singles) together as a couple. Some are more interested in casual sex, some are more interested in the social aspect and making long term friends who share similar values. At the one end of the scale you could have couples who prefer anonymous sex with other couples in for example clubs. At the other end of the scale “progressive swinging” is coming closer to polyamory.


Polyamory, as the name suggests, means being involved in several love-based relationships simultaneously. This form of CNM is characterised by long-term ongoing relationships which can include romantic love, friendship, spiritual connection etc. It goes wider than a sexual relationship.

Polyamory is not the same as polygamy or polyandry which exist in some cultures. Polyamory is based on love, and it doesn’t have to involve married people (although it can do that). Furthermore polyamory doesn’t dictate which sex has the right to choose multiple partners.

In polyamory one of the foundational perspectives is that love is not a limited resource, but that it is possible to love several people simultaneously. Polyamorous relationships exist in many forms and they can be open or they can be closed to new partners (polyfidelity).

Monogamish and Expanded Monogamy

Open relationships and swinging can also go under the term “expanded monogamy”. This is because couples who live this way usually consider themselves romantically monogamous but they can open their relationship to outside sexual experiences and influences.

Monogamish is another term which was termed by sex-advice columnist Dan Savage. This is effectively another word for expanded monogamy. You remain emotionally committed to one partner but you can make space for erotic experiences with others. For some this may just stay at fantasy or flirting, but it could also involve occasional sexual experiences with others. You basically consider yourself monogamous but “with a twist”.

Ethical non-monogamy as orientation vs choice

Non-monogamy can be a lifestyle choice. However, research also supports non-monogamy as an orientation. That is, you can be non-monogamous. Some people feel that it is simply who they are. That having multiple sexual or romantic relationships suits them better than being exclusive. This means that single people can consider themselves non-monogamous or polyamorous even if they are not in a relationship. They could be seeking a relationship which suits their orientation.


So, that was a brief introduction to what ethical or consensual non-monogamy is. Next I’ll go into some reasons why people might live this way. I’ll discuss benefits, challenges, and what to do if you want to try it out. In the meantime, I’d love your questions and comments. You can use my contact form for a private message, or comment below if you are happy for your comment to be made public.

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