Can Non-Monogamy Ever Be Ethical?

Photographed by Refinery29.
If you’ve opened a dating app in the last five years, you’ll know that non-monogamy is neither a new trend nor a fringe lifestyle. From dating platforms like Feeld and OkCupid, which are built to accommodate alternative relationship structures, to people who drop 'ethically non-monogamous' into their Tinder bio and work 'polyamory' into their Hinge prompts, the term is everywhere. 
"Now I’m in this, I’m so surprised by how many people I know also are," Nadine*, who is in an open relationship, is telling me. The 28-year-old opened up her relationship with her partner of six years, Chris*, in February last year and now dates men and women using Feeld. "I matched with somebody who I met five years ago at a conference and I was like, 'You? What?!'" 
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Ethical non-monogamy is perhaps more mainstream than it ever has been before but Nadine still feels unable to talk about that part of her life to many of her circle and says the practice is still "stigmatised". She is out as bisexual to many of her friends and colleagues but few of them know she is non-monogamous, so she has asked not to use her real name in this article. Her parents don’t know she is bi and she says "their minds would explode" if they knew she dates multiple people.
Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term which encompasses a number of different styles of relationship and approaches to dating. These include polyamory, where people pursue romantic relationships with more than one person, as well as open relationships in which partners pursue casual sex with other people. Within polyamory, people can take a hierarchical or non-hierarchical approach, meaning they may have a ‘primary’ partner (who is their top priority) or a ‘nesting’ partner (who they live with), or that all their relationships may be treated equally. 
By now, you’re likely familiar with at least some of the theory behind ethical non-monogamy and the central belief that negative emotions like jealousy and feelings of inadequacy can be managed through clear and honest communication. But are we truly capable of evolving beyond these impulses? Can non-monogamy ever be truly ethical and, if so, on what terms? 

With people who are in relationships, I felt like I was a fun diversion from their normal path and that, in some ways, you have to play up and be the fun 'cool girl' ... because this person is looking for something outside of their relationship.

Tia*
For Nadine, consent and transparency are key to making her open relationship ethical. "Everybody's super clear with what they want and there's no assumptions," she says of her experiences of using Feeld, adding that it’s a "different kettle of fish" from the dating sphere she was used to when she originally met her partner. "People are a little bit more fun. There’s no games because you know exactly what's going on. I'm having such a good time dating, just because of the different dynamics."
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While poly people can’t commit infidelity as such, that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules and boundaries that can be broken. One rule Nadine and Chris, who live together, have set is that they must be home by midnight after a date – a boundary Chris once crossed. "It was after I'd been seeing people for a while, and it was his first time," Nadine remembers. "He came back after midnight and I was like, 'Is this almost revenge for me doing my thing?'" 
Similarly, Joanna Ferret, who is polyamorous, once experienced a nesting partner breaking an agreed boundary. "I really did fall all kinds of head over heels in love with him, and he kissed my best friend," she recalls. "We had previously set a boundary that was like, 'You can literally sleep with anyone in the entire world but please don't go for my best friend.'" 
"He ended up kissing her anyway and not going for permission but going for forgiveness," continues the 38-year-old, who lives in Sheffield. "The relationship ended because I just couldn't forgive him."
Setting terms for a relationship isn’t unique to non-monogamy, says psychotherapist Grant Denkinson, explaining that monogamous relationships also involve negotiation of different boundaries. While Denkinson, who himself is polyamorous, believes it is possible to have ethical non-monogamous relationships that meet each party’s needs, he says it isn’t always easy or possible for people to speak up and advocate for themselves, especially in scenarios where there is a power imbalance.
"'Will they be okay with me? Will they reject me? Will they throw me out the house? Will they get violent?'" Denkinson says that some people may have to ask themselves these types of questions before setting a boundary. "A lot of women say, 'Well, I can't directly say no to certain things because the guy will get angry.'"  
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Nadine says her relationship involves "constantly renegotiating" and checking in. After Chris broke the couple’s curfew rule, she says they had an open discussion about what his transgression meant. "I was really honest with the fact that I thought that it might have been retaliation and he was like, 'No, I'm just not very organised,'" she laughs. "I was really upfront about how that made me feel, and it was actually a non-thing immediately after, because I didn't want to sit with that feeling and build resentment."
Some discussions are more complex and ongoing. "I am seeing somebody super regularly and I definitely have feelings for them," says Nadine. "It's a complicated thing and we're still working through the boundaries of that and what's allowed and not allowed."
In relationships where there is a primary partner, careful thought may be required on what can and cannot be shared with a person who falls outside that central relationship. 
Tia*, who is single, has casually dated several non-monogamous men while using dating apps. "With people who are in relationships, I felt like I was a fun diversion from their normal path and that, in some ways, you have to play up and be the fun 'cool girl'," the 28-year-old Londoner explains. "That's how I felt anyway, that I had to perform in some way because this person was looking for something outside of their relationship."
Although Tia was aware that all the men she dated had primary partners, she found they were not always totally transparent, with one date only mentioning he was married to his partner once he met Tia in real life. "It was this slightly slow reveal," she says. "It was a bit cheeky, and he should have come clean on his profile."
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When this same man left Tia’s apartment the morning after their date and they hugged goodbye, his parting words left her feeling disquieted. "He said something like, ‘Oh, are you sad that I'm leaving?’ and I was like, ‘Well, yeah,’ and I was in a way, because I hadn’t shared a bed with anyone in a really long time," she says. "But it just felt slightly manipulative, because I know that you're going home to your partner eventually… It was like he was leveraging this emotional intimacy over me."

It's important not to get too evangelical when people first find a freedom – not to say, 'This is better, and we're more highly evolved and everyone should do this.'

Grant Denkinson
Tia values honesty but says that, at times, interacting with someone who has a primary partner can feel transactional. "They say, 'This is what I want and this is what I can offer you and that’s it,'" she explains. "It means you can’t really say, 'But this makes me feel this way' or 'I'm not sure about this.'"
"It doesn't allow for things to develop in an organic way," she continues. "If you were in a bar and went to chat to someone, you wouldn't be like, 'I'm polyamorous, these are all the things I expect from a relationship with you and this is what I can provide.'" 
In some cases, people like Tia, who isn’t looking to enter a poly relationship herself, start relationships with people who are polyamorous – arrangements which are known as 'poly-mono' relationships.  
In Joanna’s experience, poly-mono frequently doesn’t work. "I have had so many monogamous guys tell me that they're totally cool with polyamory because, basically, they want to sleep with me," she says. "Then, a couple of weeks into dating, or maybe a month or two, depending on how long it lasts, suddenly they pull away and they’re like, 'I can't deal with polyamory.'"
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Joanna says one misconception by monogamous people is that polyamory is all about sex. Joanna, who is on the asexuality spectrum, has only a sporadic interest in having sex and has found polyamory a good way to make connections without the pressure to be sexual – something she found difficult in her exclusive relationships in the past. "I think that's why polyamory works so well because if I'm dating someone that really needs to have sex, it's like, 'You can just go get that from whoever you want – go have some fun!'"
"Most people I know are trying to organise their shopping schedule or their work schedule or all the other bits of life," says Denkinson of non-monogamous people. "There are shapes of non-monogamy where it's about going out, finding nice sex, that's great. But there are a lot of shapes that are about 'Who do I want to live with? Who do I want to spend my time with? Who do I want to hang out with? Who shares my worldview?'"
Denkinson says many people also incorrectly believe that non-monogamy is the preserve of one kind of person, specifically that "it’s young people, it's white people, it's one guy and two women, it's bi women who are there as a fantasy addition to a male/female couple."
It’s easy to see, though, how some people might associate ethical non-monogamy with groups who have more time and flexibility, are more financially secure or well-educated. Ideas of self-improvement, scheduling and ‘unlearning’ existing societal structures can feel reminiscent of neoliberal ideas of optimisation, or dating as a kind of consumer. Perceptions of high-end exclusive sex parties and the 'girlbossification' of female sexuality only serve to reinforce these ideas. And, of course, how easy is it to have multiple relationships when you also have to hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet?  
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Denkinson confirms that being part of a polyamorous community can be easier for some people than others. "A lot of movements and other social things are set up by people that have more resources and more privilege," he says. "It's easy for me to organise an event, I can get hold of a venue, people will probably give me one, I can pay for it. I'm not going to have major problems, probably, at my job, if I do that. For other people, that's not true, because of their gender, race or background."
Far from everyone is drawn to non-monogamy by intellectualism and utopian theory, though, Denkinson explains. "Some people come to non-monogamy because it fits their spiritual, political self-awareness and way of doing things," he acknowledges, adding that others have simply "found they're in love [with] more than one person". 
The idea that non-monogamy is a more enlightened way of living can be off-putting and alienating, and Denkinson says it’s important to recognise that the lifestyle is not a utopian panacea. "It's important not to get too evangelical when people first find a freedom – not to say, ‘This is better, and we're more highly evolved and everyone should do this,'" he explains. "It might be better for you, at this time, which is great. And at another time in your life, this might not be right, or it might not be right for everyone, and that's okay." 
So can non-monogamy be ethical? Perhaps a better question is: can it work? For some people it clearly does. But clear communication requires an even distribution of power and a shared understanding, and any relationship structure is only as ethical as the person practising it. Problems found in polyamory are (perhaps magnified) versions of the problems found in all our relationships. Whatever relationship style we choose, we shouldn’t have to contort ourselves to make it work, to please a partner or to be accepted by our peers.   
*Names have been changed to protect identities 

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