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Types of Open Relationships: How to Approach Ethical Non-Monogamy

Ashlyn Graff

Jan 25, 2024

As society evolves towards greater inclusivity and openness, our understanding of what constitutes a healthy and fulfilling relationship broadens to embrace diverse perspectives and experiences. With an increasing awareness and understanding of concepts like ‘polyamory’ and ‘open relationships’ within our communities, there is a significant shift in society’s perspective on what defines a happy and healthy relationship. Couples and individuals are questioning whether traditional monogamy is the only way and beginning to explore more open and diverse relationship dynamics. Ethical non-monogamy (or open relationships) encompasses various relationships where partners agree to have more than one romantic or sexual partner. When navigated with care and intentionality, it can provide couples with new dimensions of freedom, trust, and intimacy. Approaching these relationships healthily requires a deep understanding of consent, communication, trust, and boundaries. From a therapeutic perspective, fostering an environment of honesty and respect is crucial, ensuring all parties feel valued and understood. This article will explore nine primary types of open relationships and how to approach them with your partner.

What is ethical non-monogamy?

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for various forms of open relationship where partners consensually engage in romantic or sexual relationships with more than one person. Unlike traditional monogamy, which involves exclusive emotional and sexual commitment to one partner, ethical non-monogamy emphasizes openness and consent. Consensual non-monogamy is distinct from cheating, as it is based on honesty, transparency, and the agreement of all parties involved. Ethical non-monogamy can offer individuals the freedom to explore different aspects of their identity and relationships. However, it demands strong communication skills, emotional maturity, and the ability to navigate complex emotions like jealousy and insecurity. It’s also vital to remember that even if one’s capacity for love is great, time and energy are limited. Managing these resources wisely is key to maintaining healthy and respectful relationships.

9 Types of ethical non-monogamous romantic relationships

Exploring the landscape of ethical non-monogamy reveals a spectrum of relationship styles, each with unique dynamics and considerations. Here are nine types that illustrate the diversity within open relationships:

1. Open Marriage

Open marriage is a form of relationship where married partners mutually consent to engage in romantic or sexual relationships outside the marriage. This agreement allows each partner to explore connections with others while still maintaining the bond and commitment of their marriage. People may choose an open marriage for various reasons, including a desire for more diverse sexual experiences, the need to meet different emotional or intellectual needs, or simply the inclination to explore love and intimacy beyond the confines of traditional monogamy. For some, it’s a way to bring new energy into their marital relationship, fostering a sense of freedom and personal growth while maintaining their marriage’s security and deep connection.

While an open marriage can offer greater freedom and exploration, it demands a high level of emotional awareness, communication, and commitment to the health of the primary relationship. It can present challenges such as managing jealousy, ensuring both partners feel equally satisfied with the arrangement, and dealing with societal judgments or misunderstandings about their relationship choice. It requires continuous and thoughtful management of boundaries to ensure that the primary marital relationship and all individuals involved remain strong and unharmed by open marriage involvement.

2. Polyamorous Relationships

Polyamorous relationships involve engaging in multiple romantic and emotional relationships simultaneously, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. Polyamory is rooted in the belief that love is not limited to a single partner and that each partner can have deep, meaningful connections with multiple people at the same time. Individuals may choose a polyamorous relationship for various reasons, such as a desire for diversity in their romantic and emotional life, a deeper fulfillment of different aspects of their personality and needs, or simply because they naturally find themselves loving more than one person. Polyamory allows for a broadened support system and the opportunity to experience love in its varied forms, transcending the traditional one-partner model of romance and intimacy. 

While polyamory offers a unique and enriching way to experience love, it demands significant emotional work, maturity, and a commitment to ethical relationship practices. Polyamory can be emotionally demanding and time-consuming. It requires a high level of communication and negotiation to ensure that all partners’ needs and boundaries are respected. However, engaging in multiple relationships can encourage individuals to communicate more openly and honestly, strengthening emotional intelligence and conflict-resolution skills. It also allows for exploring different aspects of one’s identity in a supportive environment. 

3. Swinging

Swinging, often referred to as partner swapping, is a form of non-monogamy where committed couples consensually exchange sexual partners, either privately or in a group setting. Swinging allows couples to explore their sexual desires and fantasies in a socially accepted framework that provides a sense of adventure and novelty to their relationship. It can also be a way for couples to strengthen their bond by exploring new, exciting aspects of their sexuality, keeping the sexual aspect of their marriage vibrant and dynamic while remaining emotionally committed to each other.

Swinging requires a great deal of trust and communication. Without these, it can lead to jealousy, insecurity, or even damage the primary relationship. Therefore, while swinging can offer excitement and variety, it demands mutual respect, clear boundaries, and a solid emotional foundation in the primary relationship. By engaging in a sexual relationship with others, couples can experience a renewed sense of attraction and appreciation for each other. It can also provide an opportunity to learn and experiment in a relatively safe and controlled environment. 

4. Monogamish

Monogamish is a term used to describe an open relationship that is primarily monogamous but allows for occasional casual sex outside of the primary partnership. Monogamish relationships acknowledge that even in committed relationships, there can be a desire for sexual variety and experiences beyond the primary partner. Couples who identify as monogamish often do so to strike a balance between the security and depth of a monogamous relationship and the excitement and novelty of new sexual experiences. It’s an arrangement that can bring a sense of openness and honesty into the relationship, allowing partners to discuss and fulfill their desires without the secrecy or guilt associated with infidelity.

Like any relationship structure, being monogamish has its pros and cons. It can lead to increased communication and trust between partners, as navigating this relationship requires honest discussions about desires, boundaries, and expectations. However, it may also not be suitable for couples who are not on the same page regarding the reasons for and rules of the arrangement, leading to emotional turmoil. Monogamish relationship can offer a flexible approach to fidelity, but it requires a strong foundation of trust, ongoing communication, and a deep understanding of each partner’s needs and boundaries.

5. Hierarchical Polyamory

Hierarchical polyamory is a form of non-monogamous relationship where individuals have multiple romantic partners but prioritize their ‘primary’ relationship above others. Primary partners typically take precedence regarding time, emotional investment, and decision-making. It often includes shared life commitments like cohabitation, finances, and parenting. Secondary or tertiary relationships are also meaningful but do not have the same influence. This structure can provide a sense of security and continuity, as the primary relationship often serves as a home base or anchor, offering a consistent and deep bond that is complemented, but not threatened, by other connections.

Hierarchical polyamory allows couples to explore new romantic and sexual relationships without disrupting the foundation of the primary partnership, which can lead to a rich and varied romantic life. That said, hierarchical polyamory can create challenges for secondary partners, who may feel less valued or experience limitations on the depth and progression of the relationship. There can be an inherent imbalance in power dynamics, and secondary partners may feel at the mercy of the primary relationship’s boundaries and decisions. Therefore, hierarchical polyamory demands careful navigation of boundaries, transparent communication, and a sensitive balancing of everyone’s needs and feelings.

6. Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

Non-Hierarchical Polyamory is an open relationship style where individuals engage in multiple romantic relationships without assigning a rank or priority to one partner. In this model, no single relationship is considered primary, and each is valued for its unique emotional and intimate connection. It appeals to those who seek to avoid the potential power dynamics and constraints that can come with primary-secondary structures. Not designing a primary relationship allows for a more fluid and organic development of each romantic and sexual relationship based on mutual desires and needs rather than pre-set hierarchies.

One of the significant advantages of non-hierarchical polyamory is the egalitarian nature of the relationships. Each partner can feel equally important and valued, fostering a sense of fairness and respect. Maintaining each individual’s needs met in multiple relationships without a clear hierarchy requires excellent communication skills, time management, and emotional labor. Each relationship’s  functions and requirements might vary and demand different levels of attention and care, requiring a high level of maturity, emotional intelligence, and dedication to maintaining multiple, equally committed partnerships.

7. Solo Polyamory

Solo Polyamory is a unique approach to non-monogamous relationships where individuals pursue multiple romantic and emotional connections without seeking to establish a primary partnership or cohabitate with partners. Those who identify with solo polyamory strongly emphasize their independence and self-sufficiency. They prioritize personal space, goals, and freedom while maintaining multiple intimate relationships. It allows individuals to explore and nurture diverse emotional and romantic bonds without the constraints or obligations that often come with more conventional relationship structures.

Solo polyamory provides a high degree of personal freedom and independence. Individuals can explore relationships at their own pace and according to their rules without compromising their personal space or life choices. Solo polyamory can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation or lack of support, especially in cultures where traditional coupling is the norm. The absence of a primary partner to share daily life and responsibilities means solo polyamorists must be self-reliant in managing their personal and emotional needs.

8. Polyfidelity

Polyfidelity is a form of polyamory where all members of a relationship, typically more than two, are equally committed and involved with each other and do not seek romantic or sexual relationships outside of the group. Polyfidelity is often chosen by those who seek the emotional and romantic diversity of polyamory but within a stable, secure environment. It appeals to those who value deep bonds with multiple partners and want to cultivate a shared life with a sense of community and mutual responsibility. This form of open relationship allows for a dynamic interplay of connections within the group, offering security and variety within a strong support network that provides a sense of belonging and inclusivity.

While polyfidelity provides a unique combination of community, stability, and intimacy, it requires a solid commitment to open communication, mutual respect, and ongoing negotiation to balance the needs and desires of all members. It fosters trust and intimacy among all members navigating their relationship dynamics. Still, it can be challenging in terms of managing multiple relationships simultaneously. Polyfidelity requires a high level of communication, emotional intelligence, and time management. The closed nature of the relationship can limit personal freedom and may lead to complex internal dynamics if issues arise within the group. Additionally, finding and maintaining a group where everyone is equally committed and compatible can be challenging.

9. Relationship Anarchy

Relationship Anarchy (RA) is a more radical approach to relationships that rejects traditional hierarchical structures and societal norms in favor of complete autonomy and personal freedom. This philosophy is based on the belief that all relationships are equally valuable and that individuals should be free to engage in romantic, sexual, or platonic relationships as they see fit, without needing labels or predefined roles. Relationship Anarchy is not just about romantic relationships; it encompasses all forms of human interaction, emphasizing respect, consent, spontaneity, abundance, embracing non-heteronormative relationship styles, and honest communication as foundational principles.

RA encourages individuals to communicate openly and honestly about their needs and boundaries to foster stronger and more transparent connections. It can be challenging to navigate in a society where traditional relationship models are the norm and require high self-awareness and communication skills to navigate misunderstandings, especially with partners who may not share the same philosophy. Additionally, the lack of structure in RA can sometimes lead to feelings of insecurity or uncertainty about the nature and future of relationships. Therefore, while Relationship Anarchy offers a liberating approach to interpersonal connections, it demands a deep understanding of oneself and others and a commitment to open and ongoing communication to ensure that all parties involved feel valued and respected.

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Strong communication is the golden rule of ethical non-monogamy

Strong communication is the cornerstone and the golden rule of all  intentional relationships. The success of such relationships hinges on the ability of all parties to express their needs, fears, boundaries, and desires clearly and compassionately. Effective communication becomes even more critical in the landscape of non-monogamy, where the dynamics can be intricate and the emotions intense. It is the tool that navigates boundaries, soothes insecurities, and builds trust among partners. Marriage counseling and couples therapy can play a pivotal role in facilitating this level of communication. Therapeutic spaces provide guidance, tools, and strategies to enhance dialogue, understand emotional undercurrents, and develop conflict resolution skills. They offer a safe and neutral environment for partners to explore and articulate their feelings, learn to listen actively and understand each other’s perspectives. By investing in solid communication and seeking professional support when needed, individuals and couples can create a foundation for a healthy, fulfilling, and respectful non-monogamous relationship.

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