Brief guide to “ethical non-monogamy”

That is, to the types of non-traditional relationships, which involve multiple partners with the consent of those involved: from polyamory to relational anarchy

In an article published on Rolling Stone in 2017, journalist Anna Fitzpatrick interviewed sex educator Janet W. Hardy, author of one of the most famous books that talk about alternatives to monogamous relationships (i.e. with more than one partner), The ethical bitch, published for the first time in 1997. In the interview, Hardy explained how much the approach (and interest) of many people towards non-monogamous relationships had changed since the 1990s: «Twenty years ago I was constantly receiving phone calls from producers [che volevano dedicare un segmento televisivo al tema, ndr] who asked me, “Can you point me to a polyamorous family that isn’t old hippies or screaming lunatics?” And I said no because, first, those people represented a large part of the people I wrote about in my column and, second, the people who practiced polyamory at the time were mainly those. But today, when I give talks with people who practice polyamory, they are all young professionals who are fully integrated into society. It is very different”.

In the six years that separate 2017 and 2023, polyamory – and more generally the so-called “ethical non-monogamy”, a term that includes almost all types of relationships that are not based on monogamy – have attracted even more people, and not just in cities that have historically attracted people interested in unconventional lifestyles, such as San Francisco or Berlin. In addition to the tens of thousands of people using apps specifically made for people interested in various types of ethical non-monogamy, such as Feeld, more popular and generalist dating apps such as Hinge and more recently Tinder have also updated their design to ask users whether they are looking for a monogamous relationship or not.

For those approaching this world for the first time, however, navigating through the many definitions and sub-categories of ethical non-monogamy can be complex and confusing. This guide serves to shed some light on the most common terms, keeping in mind that despite the apparent complexity of this kind of relationship, most of the people who choose to have them experience them with the same serenity and normality with which you live in a monogamous relationship.

Ethical non-monogamy (or consensual non-monogamy)

It is used as an umbrella term encompassing most non-monogamous romantic and/or sexual relationships, i.e. those that explicitly involve forming romantic or sexual relationships with more than one partner. What distinguishes them from ordinary infidelity within a monogamous couple is the consent and awareness of all parties involved. It includes tons of different relationship types.


Term composed of the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love”. Some see it as a lifestyle or an identity, e they consider themselves polyamorous (or simply “poly”) even if in a specific moment they do not have a romantic relationship with more than one person, while for others it is only a practice, and therefore they say they to be in a polyamorous relationship. In any case, the term applies to the concept of having (or being able to have, or wanting to have) several romantic and intimate relationships simultaneously, not all necessarily sexual, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. People in a polyamorous relationship feel an emotional connection to their partners and are involved in their lives in a similar way to what is expected of a monogamous relationship.

Polyamorous people can decide to set up their love life in many different ways: there are those who voluntarily choose not to have any main partner and do not want to live with any of their partners (“only poly”), rejecting the idea on the basis to which cohabitation (and marriage) is one of the goals of relationships.

The number of people who can compose a polyamorous relationship varies: “throuple” (“triads”), romantic relationships made up of three people, are quite common in the community. The individual relationships between the members of the triad are not necessarily identical to each other: there are triads in which all the members have an equally strong reciprocal relationship (the so-called “triangles”), others (commonly called “V-shaped”) in which one person has a very close relationship with the other two, but they do not have such a close relationship with each other. There may also be triads that are triangles emotionally, but “V-shaped” sexually.

Then there are situations of hierarchical polyamory, where some of the relationships are considered more important than others. This does not necessarily imply that there are different levels of love or dedication towards the various partners: for example, it can indicate situations in which a polyamorous couple lives together or has children and therefore tends to spend much more time together than with the other partners.

In hierarchical relationships, terms such as “primary partner” and “secondary partner” tend to be used: they can be purely descriptive definitions (“I share finances and rent with one person, and therefore she is my primary partner, while with other partners I haven’t made that kind of commitment, and so they are my secondary partners”) or prescriptive (“one person is my primary partner, so the needs of that relationship will always come before those of my other partners”).

Especially within polyamorous relationships made up of a heterosexual man and a bisexual woman, it may happen that the man asks his partner for a “one penis policy”, essentially asking her to have relationships only with women . However, there are those who consider this practice problematic, believing it is almost always designed to protect man from insecurity and jealousy towards other men.

The very concept of “hierarchy” is often debated and viewed with some suspicion within the poly community, because it is sometimes imposed on partners considered secondary without the possibility of discussion. Which can lead to painful situations. A large part of the community considers non-hierarchical polyamory less controversial, which does not mean that all partners are necessarily treated equally, but that every relationship can be expected to grow naturally, without a priori rules imposed by third parties, and giving everyone an opportunity to discuss the terms of the relationship without outside influence. To try to avoid hierarchical language, but still describe a relationship in which you have a high level of commitment because you live together, there is the term “nesting partner”.

Some polyamorous people end up forming so-called “polycule”, or groups that include both their partners and their partners’ partners, forming a community whose rules of mutual involvement and communication can be established. In some polycule it is normal to have relationships with other outside people, in others romantic and sexual relationships are restricted only to people in the polycule itself. In the latter case we speak of “polyfidelity”, and any relationship outside the polycule is considered a betrayal, as would happen in a monogamous relationship.

On the other hand, we speak of “parallel polyamory” when we avoid creating a wider network of relationships between partners and carry on various individual relationships with single people who very rarely interact with each other.

Relational anarchy

A smaller number of people reject the very idea that any kind of relationship must necessarily be set up (or defined) in a single way. Those who practice relational anarchy seek to establish relationships with a fluid and constantly evolving structure and tend not to give more importance to a romantic or sexual relationship than a platonic relationship, nor do they want to label their relationships with traditional terms such as “partner”, “friend” or “lover”.

Other types of ethical non-monogamy

The category also includes various types of relationships that are also very common. There are open relationships, or those relationships in which the participants agree to have sexual relations with other people, with the partner’s consent.

An open relationship can be set up in many ways. One of the most common solutions is to introduce a so-called “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, whereby both members of the couple know that the partner may have intercourse with someone else, but do not discuss the details of their meetings with each other. Often, those who decide to open their relationship only agree on the fact that their partner has sexual relationships with other people, but not sentimental ones.

The definition of “open relationship” coincides in many points with that of “swinger”, a term used for decades to define relationships in which two people, often married to each other, have sex with other people for fun without pursuing other romantic relationships . Some swingers prefer to participate in sex parties in which to meet other couples to “exchange” partners – hence the origin of the term – while others form even very strong friendships with other couples (or single people) with whom they have frequent sexual relations out of its pair.

Also included in ethical non-monogamy are the so-called “friendship friendships” (which some also call with English words such as “friends with benefits”), which are those in which two people have sex with each other with a certain frequency without having any sentimental relationship outside of friendship.

Practices such as the “cuckolding”whereby a person receives sexual gratification from seeing their partner have sexual experiences with other people without being included, knowingly and willingly.

However, cuckolding also falls more properly into another category: that of BDSM relationships, term born as an acronym that refers to a series of practices – Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism – and which over time has extended to also cover adjacent sexual practices. Among the most common are binding or being tied up during the sexual act, or whipping or being whipped as a sexual game. There are very detailed tests to understand if one’s sexual tastes are to be considered “kinky” (the word that is often used to indicate one’s preference for one or more of these practices) or if one tends to have preferences “vanilla”, i.e. rather conventional. However, those who practice BDSM do not necessarily have non-monogamous relationships: the practices can take place within a monogamous, heterosexual or homosexual couple.

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