So, You Want To Try Ethical Non-Monogamy. Let's Talk About It

Non-monogamy is on the rise. As of 2016, one in five people has been in a knowingly non-monogamous relationship, and that percentage is likely higher today based on available data. "In the last decade ... Google searches for the terms 'polyamory' and 'open relationships' have increased, which demonstrates that there's more interest in this topic," Justin Lehmiller, social psychologist and research fellow at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction told BBC.

Non-monogamy is nothing new, though. History is full of polyamorous figures. What is different, experts say, is the modern push for ethical non-monogamy (ENM). With the advent of the digital age, especially dating apps, ENM has been propelled to the forefront like never before. "I think of it almost like a ... relationship menu," Dr. Elisabeth Sheff explained to CBS. "Serial monogamy is at the top of the menu, and probably the most popular dish that people order. But there's all these other things that people can order now." It can feel overwhelming when presented with so many sexual and romantic options that are now more socially acceptable than ever.

It's easy to get lost in the sauce when trying to understand the complex world of ENM. Below, we break it all down from what exactly to expect in a non-monogamous relationship to whether or not it's the right choice for you.

What is ethical non-monogamy?

If you're considering a non-monogamous relationship, then you need to understand the basics. Most importantly, ethical non-monogamy is about trust. It's not cheating because when handled correctly, participants are open with all their partners and potential partners about their situation. It can be complicated, though, as there are no hard and fast rules. For some, ENM can mean you have one long-term partner, and you have sexual encounters on the side. For others, it can mean dating and maintaining an emotional and/or sexual connection with multiple partners at once.

Experts agree it's not one size fits all. "Many people who engage in consensual non-monogamy have emotionally intimate relationships and multiple committed relationships. Some of the relationships include sex but others may not," Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey told Newsweek. ENM is also not to be confused with "swinging" or "partner swapping," in which couples have sexual encounters with other people or couples. The most popular form for ENM, which you are likely already familiar with, is polyamory.

"Polyamory very much focuses on emotional and romantic connection, whereas other types of non-monogamy are more like casual and sexual endeavors," Leann Yau, a polyamory expert, explained to Prevention. "That's a crucial difference between them." The moral of the story, ethical non-monogamy can be just about anything as long as you're honest with your partners about what you're doing.

How does it work?

Now that you know the basics, let's get into the details. There are no hard and fast rules to ethical non-monogamy so long as everyone is being honest. If you and your partner are interested in exploring ENM, you'll need to have some serious conversations about how you see that playing out and what boundaries you each need to be comfortable. "Every relationship has its own agreements, and that's really up to each relationship to figure out," therapist Rachel Wright explained to Mind Body Green. "Some have specific things around STIs because of preexisting conditions, while others may have agreements around emotional involvements and where/how you interact with your non-live-in partner."

Making the jump from traditional monogamy to non-monogamy can be tricky, so it's of paramount importance to keep your primary partners' (or any of your partners) feelings in mind when making decisions. As fun as it may sound, ENM can be a lot of work. Depending only on your arrangements, you might have numerous people depending on you emotionally, and figuring out how to divide your time and energy can be challenging. "I think it's important to note that relationships are relationships are relationships," Wright added. "What I mean by that is, human connection is human connection, and whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, they all have the potential for experiencing challenges, conflict, joy, pain, and every other emotion under the sun."

Is ENM right for you?

Ethical non-monogamy isn't for everyone, but it can work quite well for some. As you begin to consider whether or not this is something you'd be interested in, first think about what issues you're having in your current monogamous relationship and how ENM could fix them. For example, if you and your partner have very different sex drives, then opening up the relationship to other sexual encounters can help stabilize things in your primary relationship. "Many nonmonogamous folks find that partner variety revs up their libido and that this transfers over into increased sex in the primary relationship," Justin Lehmiller told CNN. "Something else we've found in our research is that, beyond sex, these relationships can also mutually reinforce each other. Specifically, being more satisfied with a secondary partner actually predicts being more committed to the primary partner."

There's no blueprint for who gravitates to ENM, but some people might want to think twice before entering into a non-traditional arrangement. For example, if you or your primary partner are prone to jealousy, ENM may not be for you. "There is a common misconception that people who agree to enter ENM relationships don't experience jealousy. This is simply not true," therapist Cheyenne Taylor explained to Mind Body Green. "We are deeply programmed for monogamy, and even when we choose to practice otherwise, the impulses and feelings we get don't follow suit so quickly. There is a big transition process into the mindset of ENM."