This article originally appeared on the Polysingleish blog, June 11th, 2016. It has been modified and updated for this site.
You don’t have to go far on the internet to find articles exploring the ethics of Ethical Non Monogamy. It’s all over social media, blogs, podcasts, and there are whole books dedicated to it.
And, this makes sense. When life-long monogamous matrimony has for so long been held up as The Moral Standard in the globally dominant white-settler-centric culture, the number one fear that many hold around challenging that structure is that it might mean losing one’s sense of morals and ethics. The implication, especially from more conservative elements, is that being non monogamous is synonymous with being an immoral and unethical person. When there can be fear of judgement and internalised shame around being non-monogamous, it is no wonder that so much bandwidth is given over to the discussion of an ethical code within non-monogamy.
But I have a confession to make. I’ve a problem with “Ethical Non Monogamy”.
Ethics are defined as morals, as the right/wrong, good/bad code of conduct adopted by a group of people, often determined by their cultural or religious teachings. That means that ethics are variable across the world. Ethics are subjective guidelines, whose application can vary situationally and contextually. And, they can often come into conflict.
I will admit my bias here: I’m not White, and I’m not North American. I have a complex diasporic identity as a 2nd generation “3rd culture kid” and I’m of mixed ancestry and culture that knows too well of the trauma involved in having another’s cultural values and ethics superimposed onto you. My ancestors survived genocides and ethnic cleansings and civil wars based on “ethics”. I attended an English school in the Middle East and watched how colonialism was alive and well, in the prohibition of students from speaking their own languages to one another, and the imposition of British celebrations alongside chosen ignorance of the rich multicutural tapestry of the school’s population. After growing up watching my darker skinned mother be repeatedly profiled for questioning at borders, I’ve spent much of my adult life mindful to present more white and less ‘ethnic’ to avoid similar harassment (with mixed results). As an adult immigrant to Canada and a cultural outsider, who experienced pressure to let go of things that represent my identity (from clothing, to hair style, to food, spirituality, and practices) in order to fit in with the White majority that I have been assumed and expected to be part of, I feel averse to someone else creating unilateral Ethical Codes that everyone must follow, and am much more a fan of evidence based social structures that support a trauma-informed perspective.
In short: the assumption that one person’s or cultures ethics need to apply to everyone is something that I’ve experienced as oppressive, violent, and can even traumatising.
Many cultures and religions have widely differing views on what is right and ethical in relationships between humans. To avoid cultural ambiguity about ethics, modern professional associations have their own code of ethics that members are expected to follow, with clear consequences if they do not. Having this clarity is great, and there can still be debate about the interpretation of such Ethical Codes. And the Western exploration of Ethics and Moral Philosophy as an ongoing questioning has undoubtedly enriched the cultural tapestry of Western nations. But in Non-Monogamy we don’t have a board of governance that determines what is and isn’t ethically acceptable — and inevitably it’s been folks with heaps of social privileges (cis, white, affluent) who have attempted to put themselves into the role of people with answers about Ethics and deciding what The One True Way to Polyamory is.
Consider the differing moral codes of Islam and Modern Western Colonial Culture, and all the many conflicts that arise from that. Someone raised Muslim, of Muslim faith, may have no qualms with a man having multiple wives, something that many in Western Christianity would find abhorrent. The modern western embrace of gay marriage as a human right is, similarly, seen as abhorrent to many who follow Islam, and even many Christians. This isn’t true of all Muslims, nor is it true of all Westeners, or of all Christians: there’s a lot of variety and inevitably laws will reflect what the majority of an enfranchised population (ie those who can vote or have a say in governance) tolerate within their own personal ethics. On an individual basis, many will naturally challenge the cultural mores they are raised in, just as much as others may use their personal Ethical Codes to control others within their communities.
In the non-monogamous world, definitions get policed, often based on individual projections of one person’s own personal ethics onto others. When Non Monogamous communities find itself in the position where individuals are taking on the job of drafting the moral code which we are all expected to follow — or be shunned for not following — I think we begin to tread dangerously into the territory of dogma, cults, and religion.
Ethical implies a golden standard for interpersonal ethics upon which the practice of non-monogamy is based. However, given that a) ethics are culturally subjective, b) what is considered an ethical way to do non-monogamy in one culture might be shunned in another, and c) historically the ‘right thing to do’ has been determined by religions, leading to the othering of those with differing beliefs and d) the desire to impose one culture’s ethics onto another has been part of Colonization — if you define your non-monogamy as “Ethical”, are you (unintentionally) playing into colonialism? Might you be holding on to internalised white supremacy (regardless of what your own ethnic or cultural background is)?
So, the term ethical non-monogamy comes with a heaping spoonful of ambiguity. Whose ethics are you using? If you’re assuming everyone knows what ethics you’re following, have you checked yourself on how White Supremacy might have informed them?
Instead of using a generalized term, it might be more useful to specify what values you practice non-monogamy with.
I do like the term Consensual Non Monogamy. Granted, these terms could seem to be used interchangeably when talking about non-monogamy. However they carry slightly different meanings and invite us to consider different dynamics about the way non-monogamy is being practiced. I personally relate to Consent as ‘collaboration’, and for me, Consensual is a term that helps to get more specific about the values of relating. True consent is freely arrived at, not coerced, and is done from a space of being as fully informed as possible.
Non-monogamy that is consensual implies everyone has full knowledge of all the variables and that they continue to willingly participate. But, some folks find that it’s hard to fully inform all partners as there are always aspects of relationships that can (and should) remain private. So there can be sticky areas even with this definition of Non Monogamy.
I’m a firm believer that it’s the people involved in the relationship that get to mutually decide between them how that relationship is explored, defined, and evolves, but I often ask the question: if something happens in a non-monogamous dynamic that one person wasn’t informed about, or didn’t consent to, does that mean the dynamic is a violation of their consent? How do we account for the inherent unpredictability of human emotions, or the increasing complexity of dynamics as more people are involved?
In ANY kind of relationship structure — be it monogamous or not, hierarchical, egalitarian, anarchic or otherwise — you can either be kind, or you can be unkind.
I’m an anarchist, a celebrator of individuality and personal autonomy. I don’t want to do the thing that I’m critiquing others of, and tell you now what you should be doing, or not doing. I think everyone has the right to choose, define, and articulate what works for them, without imposing it (by force or by implication) on others. What I’d like to do is invite you to consider what the kindest way to treat others would be. And at the same time, let’s recognise that unkind behaviours are often a consequence of pain, trauma, and relational hurt that may be unaddressed or unhealed.
Some Unkind Behaviours In Relationships:
- Gaslighting: making others doubt their experiences, eg telling someone to be responsible for something you did, ignoring your own responsibility.
- Minimizing: dismissing a partner’s feelings because you either don’t understand them or feel overwhelmed by them.
- Isolate someone, eg prohibit them from accessing outside support, information, or community.
- Ignore your partners’ wants, desires, and nos.
- Ignore the needs, desires and nos of others involved in your relational landscape.
- Stone-wall/ghost (ie give the silent treatment).
- Redirect when challenged, for example ignoring a partner’s request to talk about something and trying to change the subject instead.
- Ignoring one’s own privileges and/or levels of positional power within the relationship.
- Blame others for how you are feeling without giving space for dialogue and resolution.
- Weaponising your emotional and/or mental state to control what a partner does.
- Expecting other people to “just know” you (telepathy).
- Force, coerce, or guilt trip someone into doing something for you, eg “We’re supposed to have more sex, we’re married.” or “If you really loved me you’d break up with them.”
- Sharing screenshots or photos from one relationship with another person or partner without prior permission.
Some Kind Behaviours In Relationships:
- Listen to what your partner’s needs, wants, desires, and nos are.
- Express your own needs, wants, desires and nos.
- Be compassionate and considerate of the needs, desires, and nos of all people involved in your relational landscape.
- Respect each individual’s personal autonomy and individual right to make informed choices.
- Validate your partners’ experiences, even if what they experienced was different from your experience.
- Communicate expectations clearly.
- When someone says what you’re doing is hurting them, stop doing it. Pause, listen to them, see if there’s a way forward that doesn’t cause pain.
- Support your partners to access multiple resources on relationships, be it written material, podcasts, community forums, therapy, coaching, or other forms of interpersonal support. Be prepared to not always like the support they get!
- Be honest when something is overwhelming for you.
- Tend to your own well being: don’t expect your partner to rescue or fix you, and don’t try to rescue or fix your partners unless this has been explicitly agreed upon in the relationship.
- Get to know your own Trauma and work on addressing how it impacts your relationships.
- Have courageous conversations, even if the outcome might not be what you want.
- Acknowledge your privileges and/or levels of positional power within each relationship, and have conversations about it when there’s an imbalance, even if you think that imbalance might not be a big deal. Get to know how positional power is defined, based on your gender, education, racial and/or cultural background, ability, and more.
- Take responsibility for the impacts of your actions and do accountability and trust repair work whenever possible.
My invitation to you is this: as you continue to sift through the many volumes of literature and material devoted to non-monogamy, whenever you notice the content dives into Ethics, consider: whose Ethics are these? Very often, they are the ones of the writers, ones that are invariably coming from the cultural context and personal experience of the writers. This doesn’t make them wrong or invalid. It’s just good to keep in mind that if you don’t share the same cultural context or experiences of the writers, what will be most helpful for your journey of non-monogamy may be different. You may have values, ethics, and personal morals that differ from others- and that is okay.
I encourage you to read the writings of non-white people on polyamory — writers like The Critical Polyamorist and Antimononormative on Instagram — and read the writings of asexual, non-coupled, and queer polyamorists. Take the time to imbibe contrasting ideas and thoughts! Let’s get outside the box of projecting one cultural subset of ethics onto the whole spectrum of non-monogamy, and let’s start defining things in a way that one doesn’t need a course in ethics to understand them.
I prefer the term Honest Non Monogamy, and I invite you to use that term too.
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