We asked 4 ethically non-monogamous daters what their terms are
Exploring an online dating profile descriptor that remains mysterious
If you've been on a dating app recently, chances are you've seen a new tagline under some of the profile shots: "ethically non-monogamous" it reads… whatever that means.
Non-monogamy at its most basic is a relationship that involves more than two people. "Ethical" non-monogamy implies that all parties are being treated respectfully, and that enthusiastic consent to the arrangement has been given by everyone involved. I first encountered consensual non-monogamy six years ago, right as I started dating for the first time, and I felt certain that it wouldn't work for me. How could I withstand the jealousy? Was I just being duped and cheated on? These fears are extremely common, and the stigma they generate weighs on non-monogamous partnerships all the time.
But what do these relationships actually look like from the inside? I found 4 ethically non-monogamous individuals in Montréal to speak with me about their experiences dating multiple people at once, often for many years at a time. Only their first names are given.
On an early August morning, I took the metro to St. Henri to meet up with Tristan, who lives with his primary partner of 4.5 years and their inscrutable cat, Smush. "I have my primary partner, then I have my comet relationships which are people I care about a lot, but only come into my life a little bit," Tristan told me over coffee. "Then there are more long-term relationships where I'll date someone for years within my primary relationship."
I asked him to explain how he navigates his dating life within the routine he's established with his partner, and Tristan reaches across the table. He shows me the background on his phone: a photo of his primary partner and his current boyfriend, both smiling, together, after a night out. "When I'm excited about someone new, I want to share that with [my partner]. It's normal for us to go to brunch together and spend time together." By getting to know one another, Tristan's partner and boyfriend can both feel like they're in the loop. They can negotiate time with Tristan amongst themselves in a friendly manner, as opposed to two strangers adhering to a competitive schedule.
The image surprised me. I'd cast secrets and stress as necessary byproducts of non-monogamy, but none of the people I spoke with backed this up.
Alicia, a McGill anthropology grad (she wrote her thesis on non-monogamy), has one long-term partner of 4.5 years, and another of 3.5 years. She currently lives with one of her partner's lovers, and they decided to move in together knowing that they were both dating the same man. It's a surprisingly calm arrangement, she told me, when we met up on the Plateau to chat.
"There's a lot to parse through," she said, "like the fact that our rooms are next to each other. But all in all it's been quite successful." When they first moved in together, their mutual lover was doing most of the communication between them, but as time went on, the two women formed their own friendship and communication tools. "I live in a very dense sphere of people dating each other all the time, so sometimes it's about having an immediate conversation for an hour about something I'm uncomfortable with. Sometimes it's a longer process of deciding whether or not I want to work through this experience alone or with them."
This seems to be the key to successful, ethically non-monogamous relationships: constant communication.
"Talk more than you're even comfortable talking," Tristan told me, laughing. "If a relationship is worth it at all, then you should be able to get into tough conversations. About what you're afraid of, and of what you're not getting. We have a habit of only talking about these things when we're upset, things that come out in a fight. But they almost never come out in an assessment of one's own needs."
Tristan feels that in monogamy, "if your eyes wander, then you're automatically a bad partner," He explains:"Within that guilt and shame and illusionary control, people don't necessarily unpack their feelings of inadequacy in the right way because it's immediately thrown to attack the partner. In polyamory, if you have feelings of jealousy, it's going to come out and hard. Eventually you get over it, you realize that your partner has dated many people and none of it has taken away from your relationship with them."
Vivien, who has been practicing non-monogamy for over a decade, emphasized positive communication above all else. "A lot of people think of communication between partners as somehow a buzzkill or burdensome, but it can be totally the opposite. Think dirty talk or fantasizing! Ultimately it can make your connection much stronger and create a foundation of deep trust."
The biggest hurdle: Jealousy
Vivien was eager to confront my worries over jealousy; my biggest reason for avoiding non-monogamous relationships.
"Your partner could meet someone else and leave you, yes!" She confirmed, curling up on the sofa after dinner. "But that happens in monogamous relationships, too."
"It's not like jealousy goes away," she continued. "Hopefully it's something that comes to the surface in a productive way, instead of being destructive. Reassurance is a big word. If my partner isn't okay with something, then it's really important for them to feel safe enough in the relationship to communicate that to me. It comes down to being very considerate and kind. If you're with someone who wants to be able to have sexual experiences with other people, but they're not willing to listen to your concerns and jealousy issues, then that can become coercive."
Jealousy can signal that a relationship is in need of attention; underlying problems may be present regardless of a partner's attraction to others, manifesting only when anger and heartbreak seem justified. Without sufficient communication and reassurance, jealousy can piggyback on these feelings and run amok.
Tristan told me, "Admitting those feelings to your partner gives them an in to help you deal with those emotions before they get the best of you."
The all-important ground rules
Beyond the constant talking, there needs to be some rules to keep the whole thing afloat.
"Ground rules are the backbone of the whole thing," Vivien explained. "If you enter into something like this with no structure at all, then people's feelings can be hurt unnecessarily."
Tristan has a very tangible set of rules in place. "I might have multiple partners, and my personal safety and the safety of my partners would be compromised if I'm not being safe." Beyond that, he told me that regular check-ins are paramount. "I need to be honest and open with everybody," he said. "It's not so much a rule, it's the ethos behind ethical polyamory and any kind of relationship."
The last person I spoke with, Simon, hopped on the phone with me on his way to work. We spoke at length about the need to set rules, and how this contradicts - according to some people - the very concept of non-monogamy as 'free love.'
"We should think of ground rules the same way we think of consent," he told me over the distant sounds of traffic. "It should be enthusiastically and clearly given." I asked him how he goes about getting consent for things far in the future, like a potential crush or flirtation. "It's an ongoing thing. When you've been cheated on, you feel violated because you were in the dark. The idea of non-monogamy is that it's above board and consensual; you respect your partners enough to be honest with them"
Alicia, whose friends date one another regularly, was a lot less keen on the absolute honesty often heralded as a must in non-monogamous circles. "It's a really high level of communication, almost to a fault," she said. "I don't think brute force sharing every aspect of something is good for a relationship. There's a lot of learning when to let something go."
When I brought up the idea of raising a family in a non-monogamous relationship, Alicia immediately pointed out the greatest modern challenge in monogamous households. "Financially, it's very difficult for one or two people to raise children; it's a task suited to a much larger group of people." In tomorrow's economy, it may take a village (and all of their salaries) to raise a child.
Tristan, who wants children of his own eventually, was at one point dating a man who has two children with a primary partner. Tristan was invited into their home, and the children were very aware of what was going on. "They asked if I was daddy's new boyfriend, and their mother and I collaborated on a few teaching activities with the kids." Tristan believes that, had the relationship progressed, his relationship with the children would have developed in tandem; a net positive for all involved.
But these kinds of all-in relationships are rare, and Vivien expressed trepidation at the idea of continuing to be non-monogamous after having children. "It's a lot of emotional work to be non-monogamous," she said, "and when you have young kids then it seems to me that there would be little time to connect even with your primary partner, so it might just be too much to juggle."
With that in mind, ethical non-monogamy might not be possible for everyone, and it certainly isn't something to take on lightly.
Alicia summed up this perpetual, emotional work at the end of our interview. "In order to process things properly and to rationally articulate your feelings, even though you're no longer having to 'master your lust' in order to be in a relationship, there's this incredible self-mastery that has to happen in order to be in good form. It's an ongoing process."
Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her most recent works on tech, gender, and finance have appeared in CBC, Quartz, and Lilith