Is non-monogamy really ethical?

Timaree answers your questions about sex, love and relationships.

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Sex advice shouldn’t be syndicated. We wanted a local feel to ours so we’ve enlisted the sound advice of resident sex professor Timaree Schmit. Have a question about your love life that needs answers? Email her at asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com. | Image: Redlite photos

Q: I don’t know if I have a question, exactly. I think I just want your thoughts because I’ve seen you write about polyamory a few times. 

Five years ago, I fell ass backward into non-monogamy. My (now ex) husband got caught cheating and he told me polyamory is his sexual orientation and he’s not really capable of monogamy but had been forced into it by society. Wanting to save our marriage, I forgave him. We went to counseling and officially opened our relationship. 

It was hard and scary and not something I would have pursued on my own, but after a few months of going on dates and to events, I met people, had a lot of fun, and ended up with a few really fantastic lovers. This period also allowed me to explore my bisexuality in a way that I might not have otherwise. But as soon as I started to really get comfortable with the arrangement, I discovered my husband was still violating our agreements. Despite the fact we were open, he was still going behind my back, lying about things and cheating. He and I have since split, but I found myself with three other partners who were much more supportive and honest than he had been, and so I have continued to stay non-monogamous. 

Again, I don’t really have a question. But I just get angry every time I read about polyamory being so enlightened and mature and monogamy being possessive and basic, because in my experience, it’s not that simple. 

It’s still possible to be fired or lose custody of your kids for being poly, and there’s virtually no institutional recognition of relationships outside monogamous marriage.

Wow, what a whirlwind. First: I’m sorry your first foray into non-monogamy was so hurtful and wildly unethical. This is one reason why some use the term “consensual non-monogamy” rather than “ethical non-monogamy:” It more accurately describes the reality of human relationships. Being consensually in a relationship does not guarantee it is being lived ethically. 

You’re absolutely right that a lot of writings about consensual non-monogamy (CNM) and polyamory (polyamory is an example of non-monogamy) seem to view monogamous folks as inherently jealous or brainwashed by society and suggest that having multiple partners is a more elevated level of relating. Some of that comes from the need to logically justify a socially marginalized position. It’s still possible to be fired or lose custody of your kids for being poly, and there’s virtually no institutional recognition of relationships outside monogamous marriage. Having more than one partner is still stigmatized, even as it becomes more mainstream. 

Another reason that CNM gives off this elitist vibe is that describing how it functions means punching holes in compulsory monogamy. In a world where you can only love one person at a time, jealousy is often dealt with by cutting off temptations and there’s always a fear of being replaced by a better, hotter, younger, wealthier deal. Your wife is threatened by the hot, single woman next door? Rather than exploring why she feels insecure in the marriage, let’s demand her husband never speak to the neighbor! That’s the kind of reasoning we’ll get from a culture of possessiveness. 

Your husband hates kink but you need it to feel alive? In CNM, you can just find a person who shares that interest and everyone is satisfied…at least in theory.

Meanwhile, if you don’t need one person to complete you and meet all your social, domestic, recreational, romantic and sexual needs, you can connect with people where they are and there’s (potentially) less pressure to compromise and cut off parts of yourself. Your husband hates kink but you need it to feel alive? In CNM, you can just find a person who shares that interest and everyone is satisfied…at least in theory.

But that’s really more about the lessons on healthy relationships that we can all use, regardless of how many partners we want or have. Your experience is a perfect example. You can have an open relationship where folks are free to pursue sex and love with others, and still find that what they want isn’t the freedom. It’s the subterfuge.

Just because CNM necessitates greater communication, self-reflection and disclosure, doesn’t mean that a person is good at it. It’s totally possible to allow your lover to explore every facet of themselves openly but still only have sex with each other. What matters is that everyone is on board, able to convey their fears, needs and desires. 

All that is to say: I agree with you. There is no one correct way to design relationships. There is no size that fits all people. And I applaud you for finding a silver lining, despite the betrayal you’ve experienced. I hope you find your current (and future!) relationships allow you to continue to explore and grow as a person but without the trauma. Good luck!

Have a question for Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.


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  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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