As an on again, off again practitioner of Ethical Non Monogamy (ENM) for more than 15 years now, I’m in the habit of revisiting my thoughts and feelings on non monogamy and it’s place in my life between relationships. It’s part of my process when starting or ending any relationship to dive into what worked for me and what didn’t, as well as what I’d like for myself from future relationships. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought recently as in June a primary relationship ended. I find myself considering both the arguments for and against continuing the pursuit of non monogamous relationships and what you see here is opinion not gospel. It’s not my goal to be another one of those ENM blogs that pretends to have all the answers; this is just how I see things.
I see people struggle with the ethical part of ENM more often than the non monogamy aspect itself. When we break down boundaries with sex, it feels natural that other boundaries will fall away as well, but that only happens when everything is communicated honestly and everyone agrees to respect the same boundaries. When you treat that “E” as ‘entitled to do what I want’, you burn relationships and people out because no one can ever get a proper footing on where they stand; the result is often one person or the other pulling back or full retreat.
The ethical part of ENM is very much about communication, boundaries and expectations. Those things can evolve in relationships and ENM provides an opportunity to ride those changes out to a better relationship, but that can only happen with clear, honest communication. Some people will tell you that having expectations for others is a way to be disappointed but without some level of expectation, you wouldn’t have commitment either. It’s an altruistic idea that on paper seems logical and safe; ‘don’t expect anything from anyone and everyone will be happier!’. Humans by nature love and have the desire to be loved, so it’s in us to want and also to want to be wanted. I’m always wary when people tell say never to expect anything of others; what they are (often) telling you is they don’t want you to expect anything from them.
Not every ENM relationship will be earth shatteringly deep, but the practice of impermanence in relationships can be a trap. It tells you things won’t last and so you shouldn’t invest yourself fully, but your relationship is limited by what you put into it. This is where I see most ENM relationships falter; everything fades because someone limits the depth of connection when they don’t find fulfillment on some front in current relationships and instead of fostering it with who they are with, quickly look to seek it elsewhere. People chase new relationship energy rather than working on the connections that they have.
Making something work doesn’t bring the same feeling as starting something new, so it’s easier to chase after an aspect of a relationship that you are presently lacking with someone new and wrap yourself up in the shiny feeling of fullfilment that comes with it, rather than go to a partner and say ‘Hey, this is something that I need’.
Telling your partner that you need something feels scary for so many reasons: it puts expectation on them, they might say no or they might not be able to give it to you. This is where ENM can derail a relationship because instead of fixing it, many people take a ‘find it someplace else’ approach. This can lead to withholding, which can be both manipulative and dishonest but in a prettier, less guilt inspiring package. Not telling a partner what you want means that you never risk not getting it; it also deprives you both of an opportunity for growth in connection if you did have the guts to communicate your needs.