The societal norm is to have one romantic partner, whereas it's entirely "normal" for us to have many friends. We don't ever ask, "won't your other friends be jealous if you see that friend tonight?" Romantic relationships are relationships, just like friendships are relationships. If you love your friend and your other friend, you know what it's like to love two people and what it's like to be in multiple relationships with varying levels of intimacy — with or without sex.
Monogamy culture is all around us. It assumes that everyone strives to be married to or partnered with one person and finds complete fulfillment in that romantic endeavor. It's the idea that this one romantic partner not only completes us but also fulfills every need and desire we have.
We are taught that monogamy is the only relationship structure available. We are not encouraged to seek out other options for relationship structures to decide what feels best for us.
There is a growing number of people who are rethinking cultural norms, exploring instead the benefits of “liminal relationships”—connections that exist in the in-betweens. That might be the exes who are best friends and sometimes more, or the married couple exploring “open monogamy.” Whatever it is, exploring liminal relationships can be an important opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Relationships don't necessarily fit into boxes, and people don't, either.
Liminal relationships offer a huge opportunity for growth and reflection. This shift in thinking is at the heart of a new Hulu Original series, “Conversations with Friends.” Based on the best-selling novel by Sally Rooney, the show tells the story of best friends and exes Bobbi and Frances, two queer twentysomething women, as they become entwined in the marriage of thirtysomethings Melissa and Nick. Through an ever-shifting web of friendships and romantic entanglements, the characters free themselves from traditional boundaries to try and develop a truer understanding of who they are, and what they want.
According to research, nearly 35% of Gen Z daters are in loosely defined “situationships.” And one recent global survey found that one in five young adults today say they do not identify as straight. Younger people are more apt to explore non-monogamous experiences, and are more open-minded. They’re more prepared to give themselves and others bandwidth to be themselves.
However, exploring relationships in-between society’s prescribed boundaries has its challenges. Within our monogamy culture, we will have friends and family members who simply won’t “get” non-monogamy. They cannot understand how a relationship can be considered “committed” if it is not monogamous.
Knowing that non-monogamy is an option does not mean that it will be for everyone — it simply allows people to decide what relationship structure and boundaries work for them while eliminating the shame some may feel when they have a hard time fitting into monogamy culture.
It's important to note that practicing monogamy doesn't put you on a higher moral ground than someone practicing non-monogamy. And practicing non-monogamy doesn't put you on a higher moral ground than someone who is monogamous. How you treat other humans determines what moral ground you're on, not your relationship structure. Just trust that everyone is making the best, informed decision for what feels the best for their life.
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is a catch all term for all relationships where all partners are aware of the dynamic and consent to their partner(s) either dating or having sex outside of the relationship. Some of the ways folks can practice ENM are polyamory, stranger sex, random hookups, relationship anarchy, swinging, liminal relationships, and friends with benefits.
There are a few myths and stigma around ENM:
ENM is cheating.
ENM is driven by communication and consent. Cheating occurs when there is no consent or no agreement. It is not ethical when we aren't being truthful to people who trust us.
There are healthy liminal relationships, and there are unhealthy liminal relationships. The difference comes down to two crucial factors: care and communication.
Something is wrong or lacking in the primary relationship.
Practicing ENM can actually bring people closer. Most couples who practice ENM are fully happy together. In the same way that a single person ideally needs to be a complete human before entering into a relationship, a couple will have more success and healthier relationships if they are solid and happy.
ENM is an excuse not to commit.
Commitment doesn't necessarily mean exclusivity. Everyone’s definition of commitment is different. You can be committed to multiple friendships just as you can be committed to multiple romantic relationships.
ENM is all about sex.
For some, yes, and that's perfectly fine. For most, ENM is much more than “just sex.” It's also a narrow understanding of ENM — we don't assume monogamous people are only together for sex, so it's naive to assume the same of ENM.
ENM can't work long-term.
There are so many happy ENM individuals, couples, throuples, quads, and families living worldwide. However, we don’t hear much about them because of the compulsive monogamous culture we're living in.
Is ENM for you?
You have a history of serial monogamy.
A serial monogamist feels most comfortable in committed relationships. They have a series of monogamous relationships and don't typically take breaks between relationships to be single or to casually date. This is the closest thing to ENM there is while still practicing monogamy. Usually, when a serial monogamist ends a relationship to move to another one, it is because they want to try something new and have been told that means they need to end their existing relationship. So, they do — and the pattern forms.
You've cheated in the past.
Often, when someone cheats, it's not because they are trying to be malicious — it's because they are missing something in their life, acting out, processing trauma, or trying to navigate a lifestyle that is expected of them.
For example, many people who cheat while married don't wish to be divorced — but want a casual sex partner that isn't their life partner or they did it without thinking. If you've cheated in past relationships, ask yourself about your motivation. Did you want out of your primary relationship? What were you looking for? Was something missing in your relationship?
You don't believe there's one person out there that can fulfill everything you desire, want, and need.
If you're feeling this way, it's likely felt confusing at times when the world values monogamy above all else. It’s okay to try things out in our lives and see how they feel. You don't have to label yourself as something to try it out — you can try it on for a bit and see if it feels natural.
If this is something you have been desiring, begin ethically dating multiple people and exploring this part of you. We already have many people in our lives meeting different needs for us. This is possible in romantic relationships as well.
You have or had the desire to have multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at once.
It is natural to want sex and romance with multiple people. It is natural to nurture and cultivate intimacy with many people at the same time. Each person offers us different things.
People who are worried that their partners will leave because they found better sex elsewhere, have bigger problems than sex and romance.
You are in a monogamous relationship and you have a strong desire to explore a relationship with another.
Have you ever met someone and immediately felt chemistry of some sort? It's that feeling of "wow, this person needs to be in my life, and I want to know them and do things with them.”
Usually, we meet someone by chance, or we get introduced to someone at work. In that moment, you are overcome with the feeling or thought, "I wish I could see what was really here between us," sexually or romantically, you may be wired for ENM.
Something is missing for you — even though you adore your partner.
One of the myths monogamy teaches us is that it's "wrong" or "bad" if our one partner doesn't meet all of our needs. We’ll think or say to ourselves, "Well, they must not be the one if we feel like something is missing for us.”
Wanting more of something doesn't have to correlate with how much you love your current partner. It's just the reality — you want more. And that is absolutely okay.
How to discuss ENM with a partner
When approaching our partners about new desires, possibilities, or opportunities, it's best to approach them with gentleness, curiosity, and empathy.
Acknowledge your partner’s feelings to let them know that you care about them. You may say, “I know we've never really talked about monogamy before." Or, “On our first date, we talked about threesomes, and since then, we haven't really talked about monogamy."
Be honest about your feelings to help them see you — it also helps them know why ENM is important to you. You may say, “I feel scared to talk about this concept with you." Or, “I feel excited about the idea that we could ethically and honestly have multiple partners."
Offer opportunities to your partner to let them decide their boundaries, what they are comfortable with, and if they want to continue the current conversation. Our partners, and any relationship for that matter, will be far more successful if we approach them with an offer instead of an ultimatum. You may offer, “Can I share an article I found with you about this?" Or, “What I'd love to do is find a time to talk about ENM and an article I read; what do you think?"
Monogamy isn't for everyone. Ethical non-monogamy isn't for everyone. We cannot possibly know what's best for ourselves unless we understand what we're choosing and that we actually have a choice. Whether you explore monogamy or ENM, you should be mindful and intentional. There isn't one right way to "do" relationships. Learning what aligns best for you and your partner(s) is an integral part of your growth and the success of your relationship(s).