Ethical Non-Monogamy: Learning the Basics

friends in the kitchen

What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?

Have you heard of ethical non-monogamy? Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what relationship structure is best suited to them, their desires, and their needs. As a culture, we’re taught subconsciously that monogamy (the practice of being in a relationship with another person at a time) is our only option. And while monogamy is a structure that works well for a lot of people, we all have different needs, so why wouldn’t we all have different relationship formats? 

Ethical non-monogamy is any relationship functioning outside of the boundaries of the single partner monogamous structure. While some people define their relationship as “ethically non-monogamous,” it is actually an umbrella term! Ethically non-monogamous relationships can take the form of a throuple, people with open relationships, people who swing, people who don’t have any primary partners but several partners, or people who don’t enjoy defining their relationship beyond the bounds of ethical non-monogamy. 

What isn’t ethical non-monogamy?

There is still some stigma around ethically non-monogamous relationships. The most common misunderstanding of non-monogamy is that it’s for people who can’t commit, for people who aren’t loyal or caring, or that it’s just an excuse to cheat on your partner. In reality, none of that is true in ethical non-monogamy!

The ethical component of ethical non-monogamy means that it’s done with everyone’s knowledge and consent. That means, no matter what role you play in the relationship (primary partner, nesting partner, sexual relationship, romantic and sexual relationship, etc.) you know of all parties involved in the relationship, or who are involved with your partners, even if they aren’t involved with you. That means it’s the opposite of cheating–with open and honest communication; everyone is being encouraged to explore their desires and meet other needs outside of a single relationship.

Types of Ethically Non-Monogamous Relationship Structures:

people sitting on a couch
Ethical Non-Monogamy:

Ethical non-monogamy is any form of a relationship outside of the boundaries of monogamy. Whether the people within the relationship decide to label their structure more specifically is up to them. Much like “queer” can function as both an umbrella term and an identity, ethical non-monogamy is both an umbrella term and a label that can be used for any relationship outside of monogamy. 


Some people use polyamory and ethical non-monogamy interchangeably. Polyamory indicates that the people within the relationship are not just casually dating others outside of their “primary” partner but that they (and/or their partners) are in more than one committed, romantic relationship. This would be different from an open relationship, where the connections outside of the relationship may be less permanent or more casual. 

Solo Poly:

Solo poly is when one person doesn’t have a “primary” partner but dates or is in a relationship with many people at the same time.

Open Relationship:

An open relationship is when primary partners have opened their relationship to whatever degree is comfortable to them. Whether that’s making room for partners to date or have sex outside of the primary relationship, or just flirting and making out with others, the boundaries are up to the people within the relationship to decide.



A throuple is just what it sounds like–it’s a “couple” (a relationship) made of three people instead of two. Rather than each partner having their own additional relationships outside of the primary relationship, all three partners are in one relationship together.



While often more of a kink lifestyle choice, swingers do technically count within ethical non-monogamy! Swingers are couples who enjoy having sex with other couples, “swapping” partners, and other things like that.

Relationship Anarchy: 


Relationship anarchy isn’t exclusive to ethical non-monogamy (monogamous people can also practice relationship anarchy), but it’s a practice more commonly discussed in non-monogamous spaces! Relationship anarchy is the practice of eliminating any hierarchy in your relationships; with this belief, your romantic partner doesn’t take precedence over your other relationships. Instead, all of your relationships hold equal weight, whether romantic, sexual, platonic, or familial.

What else should you know about ethical non-monogamy?

Just like monogamous people, ethically, non-monogamous people still feel jealousy! And, no, that doesn’t mean they’re failing at non-monogamy. We all have our own emotions, and none of them are “bad.” People in ethically non-monogamous relationships may just need to work on jealousy more consciously as there may be more opportunities for feeling jealous in a non-monogamous relationship. 

Communication is what allows non-monogamous relationships to function & flourish. Without honest and open communication, those jealous feelings could fester and turn into larger issues. The relationships would be secretive, which would lead to hurt feelings, lack of trust, feelings of betrayal, etc.  So it’s necessary to be clear about the boundaries within your non-monogamous relationship so that all parties involved are confident they understand & can feel good about their role.

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With open and honest communication; everyone is being encouraged to explore their desires and meet other needs outside of a single relationship.

And remember, it’s okay if none of those labels feel exactly right for the boundaries you and your partner(s) have navigated–all that matters is that the people involved in the relationship are happy and comfortable with the established boundaries!