What is Ethical Non-monogamy? Power, Prioritization, and Fidelity
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While many counselors are versed in marriage and family therapy, only a few psych programs address the nuanced world of ethical non-monogamy. In the United States, 5 percent of the population is polyamorous, which equates to 16,600,000 people navigating the highs and lows of having multiple partners.
One study, examining two separate US census-based quota samples, found that at least 21 percent of participants had experimented with ethical nonmonogamy at least once in their life. That means one in five people have taken the time to question, experiment, and expand their conceptualization of relationships.
What does it mean to love more than one person? What do you do when you find yourself loving two or more people in different ways? Can there be more than one kind of love? Is it possible to commit to more than one relationship?
All these questions and more can enter therapy, which is why counselors would do well to deepen their comprehension of ethical non-monogamy.
Ethical non-monogamy, also called consensual non-monogamy, is an umbrella term for all the safe and consenting relationships beyond monogamy. This includes a spectrum of polysexual relationships with more than one sexual partner, and polyamorous relationships, which have more than one romantic partner.
While sexual and romantic affection can certainly blur together or shift from one to the other, they’re worth differentiating to clarify intentions, boundaries, relational needs, and conceptualization of self.
Consider how some couples “open up” their relationship to allow for new sexual partners but draw the line at romantic attachment. Some monogamous people may even engage in sex with multiple partners when they’re single or just looking for a fling.
In 2011, Dan Savage, author and co-founder of the LGBTQ + suicide prevention It Gets Better Project, coined the term “monogamish” to describe ethical extramarital connections. Notably, polysexual behavior is distinct from a polysexual identity, since it’s one thing to have a few hook-ups, and another to know that you, as an individual, need more than one sexual partner in your life.
Sadly, polysexual people are often “slut-shamed,” or overtly objectified by “unicorn hunters” looking for a threesome. Being sensitive to this, counselors must be mindful of any bias they have towards fidelity culture or mono-normativity.
Being polysexual doesn’t mean a person desires to sleep with everyone or that a person is incapable of a romantic of a committed relationship; it’s simply an authentic acceptance of their open sexuality. One of the most widely praised resources in this area is Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton’s third edition (2017) of The Ethical Slut.
Comparatively, polyamory is all about having more than one affectional or romantic relationship. This is important to delineate because sex may or may not be a priority. There is, for example, a unique overlap between the polyamorous community and the asexual community. Such asexual polyamory may resemble platonic families of choice on the surface but have a lot more relational complexity going on.
For some people, ethical non-monogamy describes a relationship style they engage in, yet for others, it’s a part of their identity, not dissimilar to their sexual orientation. This is important for counselors to recognize, as each client will have a unique perspective of themselves and their comfort zones.
Know that some people are totally capable of being in either a monogamous or polyamorous relationship, provided their needs are being met and their relationships are healthy. Yet some may enter into therapy to figure out if they are monogamous, polyamorous, or both. They may present existential questions as they figure out their needs and deconstruct the cultural norms that do not apply to them.
Of course, some people are inherently monogamous, which is to say they thrive in dyads and struggle in poly relationships even if they were initially willing to “try it out.” In turn, some people are inherently polyamorous. They thrive with open affection, yet struggle in “closed relationships,” even if they were initially willing to “make sacrifices.” Some know their truth from a young age, yet others figure it out after years of strained or unsatisfying relationships.
In either case, their self-knowledge is worth validating. Monogamous people can sometimes feel “pushed” by partners to open up their relationship, so it’s important for them to trust their instincts. Likewise, even polyamorous people who are secure in their identity can find themselves invalidated on a familial, cultural, and even political level.
A polycule includes everyone in a poly relationship network and can be drawn like a genogram. There are many polycule formations depending on the number of people and their relationship to one another.
To add more complexity, several lexicons are also used to describe polycules. Some use hierarchical terms like primary, secondary, and tertiary partner to communicate certain priorities and power dynamics. Others break from this hierarchy with more descriptive terms like nesting partner (a committed relationship with financial and/or familial investments), partner (an emotionally committed relationship), and play partner (a relationship based off mutual joy).
Others prefer terms that describe relational placement in a polycule, like amour (life partner), paramour (lover), and metamour (the partner of one’s partner). Some use more traditional language to differentiate their wife from their girlfriend, their husband from their boyfriend, or their boyfriend from their boyfriend’s boyfriend, and so on.
Admittedly, many people mix and match these monikers as needed. For more lingo and in-depth insight, check out the educational website MoreThan Two, or pick up a copy of Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s (2014) More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory.
Whatever language is used, the big thing to understand is how each relationship within a polycule is dynamic, with its own tension and emotional growth points. Everyone has a different set of needs, intentions, attachment styles, levels of commitment, and relational responsibilities—all of which interact with everyone else’s needs, intentions, attachment styles, levels of commitment, and relational responsibilities. Plus, all of these factors naturally change and evolve over time.
Consider the difference between a triad polycule and a vee. In a triad, the three partners interact as a throuple. They may or may not be sexual with each other, but they do interact as a relational unit. A vee style polycule also has three people, where one person dates two people separately. This makes their respective partner’s metamours to each other.
Some metamours can be close friends and even cohabitate, yet some may barely interact, if they ever meet. The latter example is often called parallel poly, since the metamours do not really talk with each other, even though they’re fully aware of the other’s existence. This kind of compartmentalization can benefit those with rigid boundaries, yet it can also create stress for whoever’s at the fulcrum of the vee. Maintaining two fronts of communication and time management in two separate relationships requires much energy and emotional labor.
To compare, some polycules (including triads and vees), prefer kitchen table polyamory (KTP), where everyone can sit around a table and openly communicate with each other in a communal way.
There is a common myth that polyamorous people have commitment issues, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, most polycules yield more commitment, communication, scheduling, life goals, relationship milestones, and social responsibilities. Consider how a quad, with four people, actually generates six unique relationships—seven if you include the quad as a whole.
Power, Prioritization, and Fidelity
Some polycules practice hierarchal polyamory, with power dynamics, relationship contracts, and veto rights.
In hierarchical polycules, primary partners may have an agreement or contract outlining their levels of commitment, time management, or behavior. This pragmatic approach can work for some or become too restricting. Counselors working with hierarchical polycules can help clients examine the reliability and limitation of the relational structure to help their clients adjust expectations, set boundaries, or re-examine power dynamics, depending on their needs. Hierarchical polycules periodically rearrange themselves since people and relationships naturally grow and change over time. If the hierarchy can adapt, room is made for these new developments, if not, conflict can quickly arise.
Non-hierarchical polyamory respects the inter-dynamics and affectional roles of each relationship within the polycule without a ranking system. Some non-hierarchical polycules practice polyfidelity (i.e., agreeing not to see people outside of the polycule). Non-hierarchical polycules may also have certain agreements, like safe sex rules, or protocols around fluid bonding.
Noticeably, polycules can reach their own kind of “polysaturation,” a tongue-in-cheek description for when a polycule becomes “full.” There is, after all, only so much time and energy to maintain relationships. That said, other non-hierarchical polycules adopt a “more the merrier” or “open door” philosophy and have no limits or capacity.
Non-hierarchical polyamory can work for some, yet it requires relational intelligence to meet each change and new development in a mature and compassionate way. While this is true of anyone navigating ethical non-monogamy, non-hierarchical polycules tend to respond to things contextually, rather than trying to maintain a social script or relationship contract.
Relationship anarchy rejects social hierarchies, deconstructing the categorical boxes separating friends from lovers and partners to live freely in the moment. This liberating approach can work for some, yet its focus on personal autonomy can create nebulous relationships. Counselors working with relationship anarchists need to make sure not to project their own assumptions onto the client. A desire to be spontaneous and unrestrained does not equate to a fear of commitment.
Some relationship anarchists belong to communes, committing themselves to a much larger social group than a dyad, triad, or quad. Others maintain loving, evolving relationships for decades precisely because they don’t put a label on it or bog the relationship down with expectation.
Understanding this, relationship anarchists can struggle with internalized shame stemming from fidelity culture. They may also contend with partners who feel insecure or “less special” in relational anarchy, even though a person’s stance against social power systems does not compromise their love.
Love, Jealousy, and Compersion
Frustration, pride, excitement, sadness, ecstasy, anger, contentment, and restlessness pop up in any relationship. Yet because monogamous social norms can be internalized as shame or doubt, non-monogamous people can sometimes wrestle with their feelings or seek out counseling to make sense of their emotional process. Some of the most notable examples include a client’s understanding and personal experience of love, jealousy, and compersion.
Love is not only an emotion, it can also be a personal value, a social moral, or a lofty ideal, which is why love can be a lot to unpack. In many affirmative and mindfulness-based modalities, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Person-Centered Therapy (PCT), clients are asked to observe their feelings without judgement.
When one is no longer gatekeeping what is or isn’t “real love,” it becomes apparent that different relationships meet different needs at different stages of one’s life. Some relationships talk long into the night, some understand each other without words, some are very cerebral, some are very physical, some thrive from shared goals, and some thrive on spontaneity.
Psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed his triangular theory of love in 1986, deriving seven different forms of love based on their level of intimacy, passion, and commitment:
- Romantic Love
- Fatuous Love
- Empty Love
- Consumate Love
This concept was, of course, predated by the ancient Greek’s seven forms of love:
- Eros (Romantic)
- Philia (Friendly)
- Storge (Familial)
- Agape (Selfless)
- Ludus (Playful)
- Pragma (Committed)
- Philautia (Self-Love)
Indeed, there are many interpretations of limerence, lust, affection, and love across the globe, as these feelings and the neurotransmitters behind them are complex and experienced quite differently.
Yet to make room for a client’s authentic feelings, counselors may need to help them address any negative judgments they may have. These may include myths about non-monogamy, from “polyamory isn’t sustainable” to “poly is just cheating” to “poly people just haven’t met the right one yet,” to “poly people aren’t as happy as monogamous people.”
Shame, embarrassment, and relationship doubt can all crop up, but so too can deeper insecurities pertaining to trust, attachment, comparison, and performance. Addressing such anxiety and doubt is certainly challenging, so it’s important to help clients affirm the love they’re experiencing in the moment while navigating both attachment issues and prior relationship trauma. For more on this, see Jessica Fern’s (2020) Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Non-monogamy.
Some polycules try to prevent jealousy from occurring by scheduling as much as they can, and while the positive intent is clear, it may be worth shifting the question from “how do we avoid jealousy” to “what do we do when we feel jealous?” If jealousy is used to consistently ignite argument or manipulate control, it can generate unhealthy relationships. Likewise, if jealousy sets off a chain reaction of insecure beliefs, like “they don’t love me as much” or “I’ve been abandoned” or “they’re trying to steal them away from me,” it can perpetuate an unhealthy view of both self and other.
Yet like any emotion, jealousy is exacerbated by judgment. Instead of feeling jealous and acting spitefully, or feeling jealous and judging oneself as a “bad person,” it’s possible to use jealousy as the starting gun for introspection and communication. When jealousy emerges, it’s a good time to reflect on one’s insecurities, allow oneself to be vulnerable with one’s partners, and clarify one’s needs to the polycule.
Compersion is the sympathetic joy one feels when they observe their partners enjoying themselves, even if it’s with someone else. Because of this, some regard compersion as the emotional antonym of jealousy. The term was coined in the 1990s by a San Francisco poly-group called the Kerista Community, yet this feeling is quite ancient, as can be seen in the Buddhist muditā (vicarious joy) and Christian agape (selfless love).
Of course, there is no inherent failing if a person does not feel compersion in their relationship, though there may be attachment issues to explore. Likewise, there is no inherent failing if one’s compersion fluctuates. Like any positive emotion, compersion is easier to feel when one’s needs are being met.
This is not to say a polycule has to be in balance for compersion to exist, yet if a client desires to cultivate compersion in their life, counselors can help them by mindfully appreciating their partner’s needs, as well as their own. It may sound confusing, but it’s possible to feel compersion and jealousy simultaneously. One can feel jealous of how much time their partner is spending with someone else, yet also glad to see them so happy.
Cognitive defusion practices in ACT, and dialectical exercises in DBT, are both great ways to sift through paradox, understand multifaceted emotions, and move forward with both self-compassion and compassion for others.
Ethical non-monogamy comes in many shapes and sizes, numbers, and arrangements. There’s no single model or system of rules, though some may be inspired by other polycules they’ve seen.
Like any relationship, there are often shared life goals that can bring people together and shared values that can get them through hard times. Counselors working with non-monogamous clients and their partners may need to combine elements of both relationship counseling and family therapy since polycules are both a relational network and a family.
Remember, it is not a counselor’s place to try and convince someone that they are or are not monogamous or non-monogamous. Indeed, people in non-monogamous relationships often struggle to find counselors who understand where they’re coming from, let alone relate to their experience. This is why it’s so important for counselors to have an open mind and situate their client at the heart of their therapeutic experience.