Ethical Non-Monogamy – Challenges and Benefits
I previously wrote about what consensual (or ethical) non-monogamy (CNM) is, as well as why some people practise it. But what are actually the challenges and benefits of ethical non-monogamy such as open relationships, swinging, polyamory and other forms? In this article I will share insights from surveys, from speaking to people and from my own experience.
Note that “challenges and benefits” makes it sound as if you have a choice to live this way. This is true but also not true. How is that? Well, many people can be happy either way, monogamous or non-monogamous. They might choose this way of living for part or all of their life depending on circumstances. For others it’s an orientation, meaning it is simply who they are. If you think that sounds unnatural, let me remind you that it wasn’t so long ago that homosexuality was criminalised and considered a disorder in our part of the world. Now thankfully we know better but society is still full of homophobic ideas. Unfortunately consensual non-monogamy is often also judged through a filter of learnt ideas. These ideas are based on religious and cultural beliefs that lack scientific evidence.
Ethical Non-Monogamy Challenges
All relationships have their difficulties, and so does CNM relationships. For people who know little about it, it is often all about difficulty, jealousy, and immorality. Monogamy is a deeply entrenched cultural belief in society, at least among heterosexual people. Research has actually shown that CNM relationships can be perceived as dysfunctional. For that reason, one of the greatest ethical non-monogamy challenges is precisely the judgement people can face who live this lifestyle.
Prejudice is one of the biggest ethical non-monogamy challenges
In 2020 I conducted a survey with some fellow colleagues. We asked 157 Norwegians who practise ethical non-monogamy about their lifestyle. Only 12% were open about it. The biggest reason for this was prejudice from society. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which include: non-monogamous people are sex addicts; it’s not possible to love more than one person at the same time; you can’t love your partner; it is harmful for children; and so on. The list is long but is sadly based on lack of understanding, and not supported by facts or research.
What are some of the other relationship challenges aside from often needing to go under the radar, facing potential discrimination, and worry about what people will think?
Jealousy exists in many relationships, it is not uniquely a non-monogamy challenge. The difference is perhaps that in CNM relationships you talk about it more. How CNM relationships navigate jealousy varies, and who is more prone to it also varies. This probably has less to do with the relationship format and more to do with individual attachment style and trust between partners. If you know that you easily get jealous then you might find CNM extra challenging.
Some people have rules, for example that you can only have sexual relationships with others and not romantic. This is one way of trying to limit jealousy. Others do everything together as a couple. Polyamorous people, who have romantic or emotional relationships with more than one person, will have to work through jealousy when it arises. Other but related problems can occur if for example you do not like your partner’s partner(s).
Research has actually shown that CNM relationships have lower levels of jealousy than monogamous relationships.
Not having enough time
Time can be an issue no matter which form of CNM you practice. For example, if you have an open relationship, seeing someone else means not spending that time with your primary partner. Therefore, finding ways which mean both partners in the primary relationship feel seen and valued can be a good idea.
Swingers, who mostly want to meet other couples together, might struggle to find time away from family life if they have kids. This can mean having to do careful planning. In addition to time, for many swingers it’s also an expensive lifestyle. This is because few people want to meet others where they live. This is for example out of fear of the prejudice I mentioned. Therefore many choose to travel which then involves hotel nights away and other travel costs.
Polyamorous people, unless everyone is living together, have to figure out how to divide their time between different partners. Whilst polyamorous people subscribe to the idea that romantic love is no finite, sadly the same cannot be said for time.
Different needs or preferences regarding ethical non-monogamy
People in CNM relationships can have different reasons for wanting to live this way and different ways they want to practise it. For example a monogamous couple might open their relationship because one partner wants it but the other is hesitant. Or, one partner might want to have a sexually open relationship whilst the other wishes to be polyamorous. Or, there can be a perceived imbalance if one person has more options for people to date than the other does.
These challenges might be especially noticeable if a couple started out as monogamous and then decided to move to ethical non-monogamy. The reason being that you were perhaps not aware of your CNM preferences when you first met and they could in fact be different. People who are already in the CNM lifestyle might have a better idea of what they seek and can be upfront about it when they meet potential partners.
So, those were some common challenges that people in CNM relationships can face. What about the upsides? What are some of the benefits?
Ethical Non-Monogamy Benefits
More trust and freedom
In a 2017 study researchers were comparing monogamous to consensually non-monogamous relationships. They found that CNM relationships had greater levels of trust and lower levels of jealousy than monogamous relationships. The research has not concluded if people who engage in CNM are simply more trusting, or if it is the relationship dynamic that creates more trust. In any case this is an interesting difference, especially as it crushes one of the commonly held beliefs, which is that monogamy is better for preventing jealousy. Our own survey from 2020 also confirms this finding with more openness and trust being the top scoring non-monogamy benefit.
If you trust someone you can give them greater freedom. When you allow relationships beyond friendships outside of the primary relationship you do not need to be jealous of such relationships to the same degree. Perhaps because of this you also do not need to play detective or attempt to control your partner (if you are so inclined).
Better communication is mentioned by many as an ethical non-monogamy benefit. In our survey from 2020 it scored as one of the top benefits. Unfortunately you can slot straight into the monogamous relationship structure and go about your life without actually having much communication with your partner. Sure you can have poor communication in CNM relationships as well, but it becomes more difficult. In CNM relationships you typically have to negotiate and make agreements, talk about matters related to love, jealousy and sex in quite some detail, discuss boundaries, preferences, rules, emotions. I usually say that “if you can talk about sex you can talk about anything”. General communication can improve when you have deep trust and develop the skills within the relationship to talk about more difficult topics.
More interesting sex- and love life
A more interesting sex- and love life is an often cited reason to engage in non-monogamy as well as a positive outcome of the lifestyle. Basically when one partner is not expected to fulfil all your sexual needs, it could open up for more possibilities.
Sex is stigmatised in society and putting value on sex is often considered a taboo topic. This is why a lot of people for example live in involuntary celibacy imposed on them by their partner without knowing how to deal with this. Exploring our sexuality is however healthy and good for us. Consensual non-monogamy offers an opportunity to do this whether it be simply having new experiences, or perhaps exploring an orientation, kink or fetish. Of course you can have a fantastic and flourishing sex life in a monogamous relationship, but this is what many people report.
Encouraging novelty, change, and less predictability in relationships can contribute to increased sexual desire over time and CNM is one way of doing this.
Not having to suppress or ignore feelings that can occur for others also men that you can explore new relationships with curiosity. There is not the same need to limit yourself, or to cut off friendships or romances that may occur.
Personal growth from ethical non-monogamy
Personal growth is a perhaps a resulting benefit of all of the above. When you can give love to, and receive love from, multiple partners; have deep conversations; trust and be trusted; and explore your sexuality without judgement and inhibitions; then doesn’t that inevitably lead to personal growth?
Furthermore, being non-monogamous doesn’t have all to do with sex. This is perhaps a common misconception. You can have all sorts of relationships. Some may be purely sexual and some may not be sexual at all. The point is that you have multiple relationships that can fulfil your needs and that can nourish and develop you in different ways. So just as sexual diversity is a benefit that people report in non-monogamy, so is non-sexual diversity.
Those were some thoughts and research findings on what ethical non-monogamy can bring in terms of its challenges and benefits. It’s important to state that this relationship form is not found to be superior to monogamy, but the opposite is not true either. We are different, have different needs, preferences and orientations. Therefore we should welcome with an open mind that not all people can, should or need to fit into the same box!
If you are curious whether this is for you, or if you want to discuss any personal questions or concerns related to this topic, please get in touch. You can read more about my services here and book a consultation with me here.
Jessica Fern, Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy, Thorntree Press, 2020
Ikke-Monogam Livsstil i Norge – utfordringer og fordeler med å leve i et åpent forhold i et mono-normativt samfunn, 2020 (contact Elisabet Barnes for details)
Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Schechinger, H. A. (2017). Unique and shared relationship benefits of consensually non-monogamous and monogamous relationships: A review and insights for moving forward. European Psychologist, 22(1), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000278
Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories, methods, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 205–232. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616667925
Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L. C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(2), 237–258. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000148