There are as many answers to this question as there are non-monogamous people. In general, non-monogamy means having the freedom to be sexually and/or emotionally involved with more than one person. When we say "ethical" non-monogamy, we mean any type of non-monogamous relationship practiced HONESTLY, with the mutual consent of all parties -- where no one is deceived and everyone CHOOSES to enter this type of relationship.
Some non-monogamous people are married or live with a "primary" lover or spouse, but occasionally have casual sexual relationships outside their marriages. Other people oppose marriage and have more than one committed long-term relationship concurrently. Still others are in "group marriages," living with several adults who share sexual and spousal relationships. Other people are inclined toward many relationships of a less committed nature, and are not seeking marriage or long-term relationships.
Many other people embrace the theory of non-monogamy and enjoy having the option of having more than one lover or spouse if they should desire, but may not have the time or energy for more than one relationship, or may not have met the right person or people to enter into such an arrangement. So even though they consider themselves non-monogamous, they may not "practice" non-monogamy, but they like having the option and having an agreement with their lover that this would be acceptable if it does happen. For many people, having the FREEDOM TO CHOOSE additional relationships is just as important and fulfilling as actually acting on this option and having other lovers.
Non-monogamy is nothing new--people have been non-monogamous since the beginning of humankind. However, until recently, it was considered immoral, deviant behavior in most cultures, was identified as a major taboo in most religions, and it was generally done secretly--"cheating" on one's wife or husband and lying about it, while pretending to be the "faithful" spouse.
Due to sexism and women's economic dependence on men throughout most of history, men could usually "get away with" extra-marital affairs, mistresses, sexual relationships with prostitutes, and even having several wives because womenís powerless economic and political position forced them to accept any and all behavior from their husbands. Women were much less at liberty to stray outside of marriage and have other relationships. This was partly because their primary responsibility for home and children seriously restricted their mobility, partly due to lack of effective birth control methods, and partly because the "adulteress" was usually severely punished by society for her transgression. However, the philandering husband generally was tolerated with a "boys will be boys" attitude. Unfortunately, this situation continues in most of the world. However, in Western industrialized nations, we have benefited from the so-called "sexual revolution of the 1960's and 70's. New freedoms were fueled by the advent of effective birth control methods like "the pill" and by women entering the paid labor force and demanding equality with men. This transformation of sexual mores allowed both men and women the opportunity to experiment with many new types of relationships and made it possible to reject the rigid sex roles and limitations of monogamous relationships, particularly marriage.
No one knows the answer to this question, just as no one knows exactly why some people are gay and others are straight or bisexual. Some people are very happy with monogamous relationships, and argue that a monogamous relationship promises security, stability, and protection from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Others feel more fully loved and feel they can experience deeper intimacy in an exclusive relationship with one person. Others feel that monogamy is just simpler and more feasible to fit into their busy lives than non-monogamous relationships.
On the other hand, many people try to live a monogamous lifestyle and find it just does not meet their needs. They come to believe that it is unrealistic to expect any one person to fulfill all their needs for intimacy, companionship, love, and sex, for the rest of their lives. Most people practice "serial monogamy"--having one monogamous relationship after another, each one ending due to some area of incompatibility or dissatisfaction. Many people spend their whole life searching for the perfect mate only to find themselves dissatisfied time after time. They cannot maintain a monogamous relationship over the long haul, because one partner or the other "cheats" and has secret affairs, or one partner loses interest in the other, or one or both partners discover conflicts or incompatible needs. Many people become non-monogamous as a way of avoiding some of the problems they have experienced in monogamous relationships.
Monogamous couples are completely dependent on each other for affection and sex; and many become dissatisfied due to sexual incompatibilities, differences in level or frequency of sex, boredom with their sexual patterns. When they feel strong sexual attractions towards others they must repress these feelings or end their current relationship in order to have sex with someone else. Many complain bitterly that although they love their spouse and feel strongly attracted to him or her, the spouse doesn't want sex frequently enough or does not enjoy the same sexual activities. This leaves one partner always wanting more sex or more variety in sexual practices, and the other always feeling pressured for sex, often resulting in one partner having secret affairs with other lovers to fulfill their sexual needs.
Ethical non-monogamy can alleviate some of these problems. Non-monogamous people are usually independent, and have many friends and many sources of emotional support rather than depending on spouse for everything. Non-monogamous people must be assertive and able to articulate their own needs clearly and honestly. Being in non-monogamous relationships offers the opportunity to meet all your needs rather than repress and resent whichever needs do not conveniently fit into your initial relationship. It allows each partner to have as much sex, or as little sex, as he or she wants; because the partner who wants more sex is free to have other sexual relationships. Many basically good relationships end because of sexual incompatibilities or because of excess dependency, and non-monogamy can offer a way to continue a good relationship while solving some of these problems. Ethical non-monogamy can strengthen relationships by encouraging each partner to be honest with themselves and each other, and to communicate clearly about feelings, needs, anxieties, and insecurities, including jealousy.
Ideally, non-monogamy can enrich the lives of all parties involved and lead to deeper intimacy, love, and satisfaction. However, in real life, making a transition from traditional relationships to a non-monogamous lifestyle can be stressful and involve "growing pains", because living in a new way requires learning new skills and overcoming a lifetime of socialization. What sounds idyllic and reasonable in theory is much more complicated and difficult to work out, logistically as well as emotionally. People with the best of intentions often discover that they have many intense insecurities and fears based on outdated core beliefs about themselves, about their partner(s), and about relationships and family in general.
Most people find that they experience jealousy, to a lesser or greater extent, especially when first embarking on this lifestyle. It usually takes time, thought, talking it out, and reassurance from partner(s) to let go of jealous feelings. Some people find that while they continue to feel jealous at times and to have feelings of conflict and ambivalence about their lifestyle and relationships, these feelings are greatly outweighed by a much more positive experience of the benefits and joys of non-monogamy.
After the initial fear of change and the anxiety of charting unknown territory subsides, many people feel comfortable with non-monogamy as long as they feel secure that they are loved and will not be abandoned. One strategy that has worked well to minimize fears and jealousy is to decide on rules and parameters which feel safe and supportive, and negotiate with your partner(s) to reach agreement on what type of non-monogamous lifestyle best fits your needs. For instance, Is it okay to have casual affairs? Do you want advance notice if your partner meets someone and wants to initiate a sexual relationship? Does your spouse or partner(s) have veto power over your choice of potential partners? Do you have an agreement on safe-sex guidelines to prevent being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, and AIDS? Do you want to participate in sexual relationships with more than one partner, or be involved with your partner(s) lovers? Do you feel you will have enough love and attention from your partner(s) if they have other relationships? How much time will you allow your partner(s) to spend with other lovers? Who will spend holidays and vacations together? What about children and other family members- do you want to have children, and who will have parental responsibilities? Will all partners live with you? Is one partner a primary spouse or are all partners equally important in terms of time and commitment? Will you pool your financial resources or do you want financial autonomy? Are you going to "come out" about your lifestyle to family, friends, and co-workers, or would you prefer to remain closeted? While many of these questions need to be addressed in ANY relationship, they are even more crucial to discuss in non-monogamous relationships, and can go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings, anger, and jealousy. Most people experience less of the anxiety and insecurities and more of the satisfaction and rewards of non-monogamy if they know what to expect, and feel secure that their partners will abide by rules that are mutually agreed upon.
Each situation is as unique as the particular individuals involved, and only trial and error will tell what will work for each relationship or family. A lifestyle may look great on paper but may feel completely different "on the ground," and living the lifestyle- with an open mind and some rules that feel comfortable- is the only way to develop a long-term situation that works for everyone involved.
If you feel that some type of non-monogamous lifestyle may be right for you, there are many resources available to help you think through issues and find support..
Kathy Labriola provides low-fee counseling for individuals, couples, and groups. She has extensive experience assisting people with the challenges of non-traditional relationships, health problems and disabilities, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation crises, political activism, and class struggle. She also facilitates discussion and support groups on open relationships, health and disabilities, and political activism and burnout. For further information, or to receive free educational pamphlets, call (510)464-4652.Kathy Labriola