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Sunday, September 18, 2022

What is Consensual Nonmonogamy?

The vast majority of people in the United States are in traditional monogamous relationships, which means they are in an exclusive relationship with one other person where they will only be sexual and romantic with each other.  

What is Serial Monogamy?
There are also serial monogamists.  They're usually in one monogamous relationship at a time, but they might take breaks from the relationship to see other people (see my articles: Understanding Serial Monogamists - Part 1 and Part 2).

What is Consensual Nonmonogamy (CNM)?
Consensual nonmonogamy is also known as ethical nonmonogamy (ENM).

In research surveys approximately 1 in 5 people indicate they are (or were in the past) in some form of a nonmonogamous relationship (see my articles: Are You and Your Partner Are on the Same Page About Your Relationship? and Telltale Signs That Indicate You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page ).

One blog article can't cover the variety and complexity of all ethical nonmonogamous relationships, so I'll provide resources at the bottom of this article.

What is Consensual Nonmonogamy?

Consensual nonmonogamy comes under the umbrella of open relationships

However, at the most basic level, CNM usually means that people are in a consensual non-monogamous relationship where they have worked out an agreement between them about the nature of their nonmonogamy (see my article: The Power of Novelty to Enhance Sexual Desire in a Relationship).

The agreement should be well-thought out, written and formalized by both people.  There are various forms of agreements and some of them are very detailed and elaborate.  

Consensual Nonmonogamy

In their most basic form, they cover what is permitted and what is not permitted as part of the agreement (for a more detailed explanation of these types of ENM agreements, see Dr. Tammy Nelson's book, Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement).

One of the major goals of having a formalized agreement is that both people are honest and open with each other to avoid misunderstandings and emotional pain later on.  

A formal agreement also allows other people, who get involved with one or both people, to know the nature of the relationship they will be entering into and the boundaries.

There are some people who have an informal "Don't ask, don't tell" agreement where they agree that one or both people can see other people, but they won't give each other the details of these other relationships.  However, this type of arrangement can often lead to misunderstandings, suspicion, jealousy and, in some cases, the end of the relationship.

There are also various types of ENM relationships, including romantic and/or sexual, where only one person in the relationship sees other individuals.  

Also, there might be a primary relationship where two people agree that they are primary to each other.  This is considered a hierarchical nonmonogamous relationship.

In a hierarchical nonmonogamous relationship, the people in the primary relationship prioritize their relationship with regard to time spent together, commitment, space and other issues.  This means that anyone else who becomes romantically and/or sexually involved is secondary to the primary couple.

Aside from the hierarchical form of the nonmonogamous relationship, there are many other forms of nonmonogamy, including:

Cheating is obviously not considered a form of ethical nonmonogamy (see my articles: Coping With Secrets and Lies in Your Relationship).

With modern technology, like the personal computers and cellphones, cheating has become easier and more prevalent than in the past.

Cheating on Your Partner

Cheating is a form of betrayal and, when cheating is discovered, it breaks the trust in a relationship and trust is hard, if not impossible, to reestablish.  

In many cases, people choose to stay in the relationship to try to work things out.  Often this is due to feelings that the partners have an emotional investment in their relationship.  

However, there are times when the person who was betrayed doesn't overcome the pain and never regains the trust, but they feel too insecure or unworthy to leave the relationship or they don't want to be alone. 

Often, with the encouragement of the partner who cheated, the person who was betrayed might blame themselves for their partner's infidelity (if they are in a relationship with a highly narcissistic partner, the partner might manipulate them into believing this).  

They might tell themselves that they're to blame for not having sex with their partner more often or not doing certain sexual acts their partner wants.

In addition, there might be cultural, religious, familial or economic factors that keep a couple together even when the person who was betrayed no longer trusts the cheating partner and doesn't want to be in the relationship anymore.

The data varies, but researchers estimate that a whopping 20-25% of heterosexual married men and 10-15% of married heterosexual women admit to cheating.  

People differ in terms of how they define cheating.

The following list include the activities (along a continuum) that many people consider cheating:
  • Viewing pornography alone (without the partner)
  • Maintaining a Codependent Relationship With an Ex
  • Flirting with other people
  • Having a close friend or confidante of the opposite sex (for hetero couples)
  • Having sexual chemistry with someone else (other than the spouse or partner)
  • Having secret sexual fantasies
  • Having an emotional affair
  • Having a non-consensual sexual affair (or affairs)
  • Texting people of the opposite sex with flirty, sexual or romantic content
  • Having Secret Social Media Accounts With the Goal of Having an Affair
  • Having secret phone numbers or email accounts to hide affairs
  • Engaging in cyber affairs where a partner is in secret contact with others for romantic or sexual purposes
  • Engaging in financial infidelity where a partner has secret bank accounts or spends considerable sums of money without telling the other partner
Cheating Can Also Occur in Ethical Nonmonogamous Relationships
Even though one of the major reasons to be in an ENM relationship is that everything is honest and above board, there are some people who break the agreement with their partner by cheating. 

For example, if the agreement indicates that both partners must mutually agree to the people they get romantically or sexually involved with, they will go outside the agreement to have secret affairs.  For some people, the thrill of secretly cheating on their partner is so enticing that they engage in infidelity despite the agreement.

Polyamory or Polyfidelity
Polyamory is a form of ethical nonmonogamy that allows people to have more than one romantic relationship simultaneously.  

Polyfidelity is similar to polyamory. It specifically allows people to be faithful to a group of two or more people.  The expectation is they won't have relationships outside that group.

Generally speaking, swinging involves heterosexual couples getting sexually involved with one or more people.  

Usually, a couple would do this together at a swingers party, club or a swingers resort. They might also have an agreement to do this individually without the other partner.  

Swingers Party

In the early days of swinging, it was called "Wife Swapping," which involved married couples having wife swapping parties in the 1970s and beyond.

Swinging often involves a couple getting sexually involved with another couple.  It might also involve threesomes or other forms of group sex where other people are asked to join the couple in sexual activity (see my article: What is a Unicorn in a Nonmonogamous Relationship?).

In addition, swinging includes heterosexual couples seeking out bisexual or sexually fluid women--although sometimes they seek bisexual men (see my article: The Fetishization of Lesbian and Bisexual Women is a Social Justice Issue).

This might involve what is called "girl-on-girl" sexual activity where the man gets sexually aroused watching his partner having sex with a bisexual woman.  

In another variation, both the man and the woman both get sexually involved with the bisexual woman.

Is an "Agreed Upon" Nonmonogamous Relationship Always Consensual?
Ideally, in ethical nonmonogamy both people have freely agreed and they openly and enthusiastically consent to the agreement.

But sometimes one partner feels pressured into being nonmonogamous and goes along with it because they know it's what their partner wants and they don't want to lose their partner (this is often a woman in a heterosexual relationship, but now always).

The pressure can be explicit where the other partner says they are either non-monogamous or the relationship is over.  

Or, the pressure can be implicit where the partner who wants to be nonmonogamous doesn't say so directly, but they communicate their displeasure in other acting out behavior (i.e., acting sullen, shutting down/giving the "silent treatment," being hostile and so on).

In that case, it wouldn't be considered consensual nonmonogamy because the partner, who is being pressured is just going along with the other partner to please them, and they really don't want it.  

In many relationships, where one partner feels pressured in this way, the relationship collapses under the weight of longstanding resentment by the partner who is just going along with non-monogamy out of fear.

Is Consensual Nonmonogamy Right For You?
Only you can decide if CNM is right for you.  

Depending upon your personal history, it may or may not be right for you.  

For instance, if you have an anxious attachment style with your partner, ENM will, most likely, make you feel insecure and worried about the relationship.  So, you would have to think long and hard before you consented to a ENM relationship agreement.

Some people try it for a period of time and decide whether or not it's right for them.  But, once again, this should be done with a lot of forethought and a mutual agreement.

Consensual Nonmonogamy Won't Fix an Unstable Relationship
Many people open up their relationship because they believe it will help to stabilize an unstable relationship.

These couples usually have misguided ideas about ethical nonmonogamy.  Not only do they confound their own problems, but they also create chaos and confusion for the other people with whom they are getting involved.

Couples in an unstable relationship should work on their relationship first to try to repair it before considering CNM.  

Alternatively, if the problems in their relationship can't be fixed, they might do better separating.

Is There a Risk of Losing Your Partner in Consensual Nonmonogamy?
Most people who are in ENM are ethical and have integrity about their choices.  

However, just as there is a risk in any relationship, people in an CNM relationship could risk losing their partner to someone outside the relationship.  

For example, a couple might have an agreement that their non-monogamous agreement only involves sexual and not emotional ties with others, but emotional ties can still form with others--even if everyone involved has the intention of being true to the agreement.  

Many people in CNM relationships would say that there is more of a risk of losing partner in a monogamous relationship because of the high rate of infidelity.

Also, in most monogamous relationships there is no agreement about the subtleties of monogamy and how they define cheating. 

To give one example mentioned above: Is flirting cheating or is watching porn alone cheating? Some people would say yes and others would say no.  So, when these areas are assumed and not defined, it can be a slippery slope in terms of what is defined as cheating.

Next Articles:
See my articles: 

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a sex positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.


  • Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement by Dr. Tammy Nelson (as mentioned above)
  • Tell Me What You Want by Dr. Justin Lehmiller
  • So, Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex by Dr. Ian Kerner
  • The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures by Janet Hardy
  • Polysecure by Jessica Fern
  • Mating in Captivity by Dr. Esther Perel
  • The State of Affairs by Dr. Ester Perel