Feminist Voices Column

Deconstructing monogamy, Part-2: Exploring Ethical Non-monogamy

By Flavian Mèche and Clara Schöpfel

In this second piece on deconstructing monogamy, I aim at offering a more detailed view on how to explore the concept of ethical non-monogamy. Even though I am not adept at labelling, I believe that defining certain types of relationship arrangements is useful when trying to portray the landscape of all existing possibilities. This, however, is my own categorisation, open to adaptations. It must also be noted that no consensus exists in the Polyamorous community with some finding hierarchism useful and others completely rejecting any kind of label. I will, however, aim to offer an alternative perspective and a basis to enhance each and everyone’s agency in defining their own relationship style, with some of my own personal thoughts on my journey to determine a suitable romantic and sexual model, according to my own needs.

According to my understanding, most relationships could be placed in three categories: Monogamy, Polygamy, and Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM, also called Polyamory). Polygamy and monogamy are matrimonial concepts that oppose each other. Both are fundamentally related to the institution  of marriage. While monogamy means that an individual will only have one partner in their lifetime, a polygamy allows one to have many spouses.

Although monogamy is first a matrimonial idea, its concept of having a only one partner can be extended to sexual or romantic relationships. Ethical non-monogamy, on the other hand, is a concept used to define any sort of relationship that is non-conforming to the monogamous “norm”. I believe that monogamy is a normative concept that has more to do with how we envision the core dynamics in which our relationship is rooted, rather than the expression of the principle of exclusivity. In a monogamous relationship, be it exclusive, consensually non-exclusive, or otherwise, there is a clear distinction between the nuclear couple and the rest of the world. On the other hand, ethical non-monogamy is about opening up and welcoming others into this loving and caring dynamic. Non-monogamous settings can take many forms. Some feel more comfortable to have a hierarchy in their relationships, with a core (or primary) one and one or more secondaries revolving around. Others may arrange to be in an exclusive relationship with more than one partner, or to get involved with other non-monogamous individuals who also have their own settings, then forming a constellation, or polycule, of individuals. 

Personally, I believe that there is a fine line between non-monogamy and consensual non-exclusive monogamy. One could argue that this is where the term ethical is important as it refers to how second or more parties will be treated: Are they fully informed? Is a safe space created to express needs and boundaries? Is their well-being taken into consideration? OR are they just some external, exciting, new tools whose purpose is to spice up one’s monogamous relationship? As I believe that respecting others’ feelings is fundamental in every social interaction – whether or not sex, romance and/or love are involved – categorisation would rather come down to a personal choice of how and if individuals want to define their relationship.

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that not only are these concepts fluid and can evolve through time, but they are also not the only existing arrangement. Ethical non-monogamy is about creating what suits our needs best at a particular time and place.  

Practicalities:

If you are already committed to the style and concept of monogamy, it can be overwhelming to envision challenging its comfort. Even if the theory of non-monogamy seems appealing, thinking about putting it in practice may generate psychological and emotional obstacles, often based on fears. “What if they meet someone, who makes them happier?”, “What if it breaks something in our connection, and we reach a point of no return”, “If I mention my interest in it, would my partner think that I do not find them attractive or that I do not want to be with them anymore?”. But curiously enough, we rarely envision the best outcomes: “What if I am able to explore romantically and sexually, while being supported by my partner?” , “What if it brings our connection and communication skills to a new level?” , “What if my partner has a similar interest and has asked themselves the same questions?”.

Although there is no instruction manual on how to explore non-monogamy, let me touch upon three building-blocks that can help through the process: communicating in a constructive way, dealing with emotions, and introspection. These skills are, anyway, applicable to all social relationships.

First, it is probably no news to you that healthy and constructive communication is key. This skill is far from being intuitive, and like any competency it has to be practised. It also means that we can take the pressure  for it to be perfect from the start off our shoulders… But, it rarely happens this way. . Mistakes will be made, but if you approach it with kindness, tolerance, and as a mutual learning process, you will improve.

A few tips to remember:

  1. It is okay to be clumsy, just mention it: “I am going to try to express a deep feeling, I may be clumsy and will probably have to reformulate”;
  2. I-statements are one of the best tools out there to express needs, boundaries and discomfort: “Sometimes, it makes me feel underappreciated when […] . It would make me feel more valued if…”;
  3. Active listening through rephrasing is a great way to make sure that we understand what our partner is trying to tell us, and it will make them feel more heard: “If I understand it well, this makes you feel that way for xyz reason”;
  4. “I don’t know” is a valid answer, and often brainstorming together is the best way to figure out boundaries: “Would you want me to ask questions, or would you rather have some time to figure out how you feel on your own? Maybe I can try asking questions and you stop me if you don’t feel comfortable anymore”. 

Second, the process of deconstruction can be really emotionally heavy, and strong, uncontrolled negative emotions can erupt when questioning monogamy. The most common assumption regarding the polyamorous community is that they do not feel jealousy, hence they probably are not really in love with their partner(s). Feeling jealous, either in a monogamous or a polyamorous relationship, is definitely commonly human, and there is a lot of diversity in how one deals with it. Jealousy can actually be broken down into three basic core emotions, each felt to various degrees:  fear, anger and sadness.1 For as much as it hurts, it is important to recognise it as a valid and natural emotion that should not be avoided by any  means. Instead, it helps to focus on its impermanency and on finding ways to make it less salient, by rationalising and understanding it as a result of our own fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities. Moreover, the concept of self-responsibilisation is often overlooked when dealing with jealousy and emotions in general. We tend to attribute to others the responsibility for our own feelings. It helps to understand our emotions as our own and, if help and support is appreciated, to know that most of the time, we are the ones who can actively handle them.

Finally, the capacity of introspection is essential yet not always easy to enact. Thus, in the heat of dealing with negative emotions we often are blinded by an urge to restore our wellbeing. What usually helps is time. When a fear or a negative emotion arises, I acknowledge it without trying to suppress it, and I rarely act on it right away. I often try to distract myself from it and give myself a few hours or days for it to settle and be unconsciously processed. With time and a step back, I usually manage to make sense of it and rationalise why I felt that uncomfortable. Be trustful, patient, and kind with yourself, as out of self-reflection, you will be able to better understand the roots of your needs, your insecurities and your vulnerabilities. When I finally am able to put words on it, I communicate them, not expecting a change in behaviour, but rather in an informative fashion, to help the other person/s understand me better. Thus, we should not suppress our discomfort to make someone else happy or pretend that we are comfortable when we are not because we love someone and are afraid to lose them. That is not love, that is disrespect for yourself and your partner(s), because both deserve someone who is happy for them and happy in their relationship.

Conclusion

I can feel that, often, a pressure of success is put on non-monogamous relationships. They are expected to be flawless, easy and perfect from the get-go, otherwise their failure could be a reason to condemn their validity, or as proof for their abnormality and impracticability. This may, as a result, discourage us from seeking help or talking about negative emotions. But let’s stress here that, even though it is rarely held against it, monogamy does not prevent messing-up, conflicts and break-ups. In the end, non-monogamous relationships are before anything else: relationships, with their ups and downs. We as (non-)monogamous human beings will feel all kinds of emotions, make mistakes, grow and learn. Ultimately, the decision is each and everyone’s on whether they believe that the outcomes are worth the challenges.2

In any kind of relationship, views and expectations can differ from one partner to the other. As partners can be at different levels of readiness to explore non-monogamy, talking about the need or the curiosity for it can be frightening. In order to feel the temperature, try to bring the subject in an open and non-judgmental mindset, you will probably be surprised how these simple statements will probably do the trick: “Have you ever heard about polyamory? How do you feel about it?”, “I recently read this Graduate Press article about deconstructing monogamy, I do not know how I feel about it yet, but I would love to exchange on the subject”.

On the opposite end, even though totally valid, expressing that you do not want it at all, or that you are not ready for a test at this point in your life, can also be frightening. By communicating your boundaries, you can either close the door to it: “Thank you for being honest that you want an open relationship, but I am just not comfortable with that.”3 Or, leave it open: “It is not a concept that I am totally against in theory, yet at the moment I do not feel comfortable with the idea and would need some time to reflect on it.”

Ethical non-monogamy is neither a recipe for happiness, nor a ‘one size fits all’. But it can be as valid a model as monogamy. As it is still very new to me, I cannot give an assertive answer, whether consensual non-monogamy is THE only model that I’ll ever need, but it does serve well its purpose in this period of my life. Having different options (monogamy also being one of them) is an important step towards the self-determination of my romantic and sexual life and I am grateful that my positionalities gave me the privileges to explore it – so far – in a safe and healthy environment.


  1. @Polyfilia. 02.03.2022

2. ibid. 28.02.2022

3. @Polyphilia.03.03.2022


Influences:

  • The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures (Dossie Easton, Janet Hardy 1997) – Most of my thoughts were built on it – Maybe some parts are a bit dry and repetitive, but gives a great base to deconstruct monogamy.
  • C. Amanpour (2018). Sex & Love Around the World. Netflix. – decentralisation from western conception of love and sexuality. Helped understand that there is not just one model, and that all are valid.
  • T. Schechter (2013). How to lose your virginity: Myths & Misogyny Around a Rite of Passage. Women make movies.
  • B. Melkor-Kadior (2020). Balance ton corps (2020). La Musardine Eds.
  • V. Despentes (2006). King Kong Théorie. Paris: Grasset
  • @Polyphilia. Instagram account.

Photo from pixabay.

1 comment on “Deconstructing monogamy, Part-2: Exploring Ethical Non-monogamy

  1. Pingback: It takes a village: An alternative to the monocentric (patriarchal) institution of marriage in Switzerland – The Graduate Press

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