As you can tell from our blog post on getting to ethical or consensual in your relationship, we feel it can take a bit to get to ethical and consensual in a nonmonogamous relationship. The main thing that you need to actually be ethical or consensual is intentionality, and unfortunately, many people just don’t go through life with a lot of intention. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone for this. Part of why we built Nonmonogamy Academy is to help people become more intentional in their relationships. We expect most of the people coming to us aren’t quite sure how to be intentional. After all, not all of you were given any models in your family or in society on how to do this. How could you possibly be intentional with your nonmonogamy when you don’t have proper models?
(Image credit to https://www.smbc-comics.com/)
Making Responsible Life Decisions About Nonmonogamy
For younger folk just getting into nonmonogamy, research says that their prefrontal cortex – the bit responsible for intentional decisions – may not be fully developed until they’re around 25. So making those hard and heavy decisions, and wading through all the feels and desires in this brave new world could prove tricky!
After your prefrontal cortex is fully developed, you still have a whole bunch of automatic responses to work through. Those automatic responses are built during your childhood and early teenage years. Even if you grew up in a loving family, there’s a really good chance it was a monogamous one. You learned scripts and expectations from your parents and society that are deeply set in your nervous system. It takes a lot of effort to work through those patterns.
Unless you’ve been taught at a very young age to think through your decisions and explicitly apply an ethical or consensual framework to them, you aren’t automatically doing that. This isn’t your fault, this is just how most of us were raised. Most people who are in monogamous relationships aren’t applying ethical or consensual frameworks to those relationship decisions either!
That’s not the only reason we avoid using the words ethical and consensual in our name. In fact, we avoid using them in general when referring to nonmonogamy.
Ethical Monogamy? Consensual Monogamy?
Think about it this way. Do you say Ethical Monogamy? Do you say Consensual Monogamy? How silly does that sound to you? We already assume that you are practicing some form of ethical or consensual monogamy, even when people practicing monogamy are less likely to have a framework. Plus, there are plenty of unethical and nonconsensual forms of monogamy: arranged marriages, child marriages, marriages that stay together due to power imbalances. Can we talk about most of human history where women had almost no power in marriage? In truth, monogamy has a terrible track record when it comes to being consensual or ethical. So why do we feel the knee-jerk reaction to differentiate nonmonogamy as being consensual and ethical so everyone knows we’re “not cheating”.
Utilizing the words ethical or consensual at the beginning of nonmonogamy is really just another form of internalized monogamy. When we use these words at the start, what we are trying to do is distinguish it from cheating. What I want to know is why is it so important that we do this? When we are talking about monogamy, we start with the assumption that it is done “the right way”, despite its long history of being practiced in very oppressive ways. Why can’t we also start with the assumption that nonmonogamy is also being done in the “right way”? After all, we never call it non-consensual nonmonogamy or unethical nonmonogamy when we’re discussing cheating, forced polygamy, or hidden bigamy. We just call it what it is in the same way we refer to child marriages and shotgun weddings when things aren’t done within a consensual framework.
When Your Nonmonogamy Isn’t Even Ethical or Consensual
There are also plenty of times people call their nonmonogamy consensual or ethical without even really thinking about what they mean by that. When you look at their behavior and the way they conduct their relationships, it’s clear these components are missing. We are not of the belief that the only truly ethical nonmonogamy is some variation of relationship anarchy. It is absolutely possible to have fidelous and restricted forms that are just as valid and ethical as all the others. However, some forms need a lot more careful consideration, and are sometimes set up to handle jealousy and insecurity more than they are to live within one’s values. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Unicorn Hunting: It’s totally possible for a couple to look for an individual to date, or an individual to want to date an established couple. However, a whole lot of work has to be done in these arrangements for them to be ethical. I know when I first started dating, I would often go on a date with a woman only to discover half way through the date that I was expected to date her boyfriend/husband as well. That is not an ethical way to find someone to bring into your relationship.
One Penis Policy: both misogynistic and trans-exclusionary, this gives all the power to one person to make the rules and devalue other relationships by sexualizing them. Mostly, this rule is created out of fear and insecurity, not intentionality.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: This is one that we occasionally see people start out their nonmonogamy with some form of a don’t ask don’t tell policy. However, there’s a lot about consent that gets lost in this one. Your partner that doesn’t want to hear may barely be consenting to the arrangement. Additionally, not enough information may be getting shared about sexual health for this to be a “fully informed” arrangement.
Here’s the thing about many of these arrangements: they are often a bridge that people take on getting from monogamy to more ethical and consensual forms of nonmonogamy. Sure, we would love it if everyone would just be able to automatically adopt intentional and mindful ways of executing their relationships, but that isn’t reality. And also, we’d be out of a job. People need room to learn and grow, and occasionally they end up making choices that look not so great when someone finally hands you a clearer framework for better decision making.
We think it’s time that we stop using these terms. It often confuses the situation and leads people to think that they are better than they are by giving them a false sense of security around whatever they are doing. Something isn’t ethical or consensual just because you slapped that word at the beginning of your phrase.
One other point to be made here is an extension of my argument in the blog on how to make sure your relationship is ethical or consensual. Not every decision or action you make in your relationship is going to need to be tested against whether it’s consensual or ethical. It would be exhausting and unnecessary when making plans for the week to pit every decision against an ethical framework. As long as you are making an effort, taking responsibility when you fall short, and looking inwards to understand how you get there, eventually you will learn to live within an ethical and consensual framework more naturally.