On a recent afternoon, while idly swiping on Tinder, I came across the profile of a man, we’ll call him Bobby, who described himself as being in an “ethically nonmonogamous” relationship. While my primary goal of being on dating apps is masochism—JK, it’s a desire to maybe find a boyfriend or at least someone to date for a while—as a writer (especially one interested in the mating habits of New Yorkers), it’s hard not to seize on details like this. So I swiped right, and we were a match.
I immediately emailed Bobby to explain that I am a writer who was not looking to date him but would be interested in talking to him about this ethical nonmonogamy thing. Would he? He said sure, on the condition of anonymity. Then something odd happened: The next two guys who came up in my feed also referenced ethical nonmonogamy. Those exact words. They did not say they were poly, they did not say they were in open relationships—they said they were ethically nonmonogamous. And you know what they say about threes: That right there is a trend.
Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen a lot of things on Tinder. There’s the guy with the kid in the Baby Björn who, sending up the “not my kid” trend of men who pimp out their neflings to seem nurturing (stop doing that, please) proclaimed, “That is my kid, and I’m in an open relationship.” There’s this dude, who I can only presume wants me to walk him? Like a dog? (I politely decline, sir!)
There’s the man whose entire missive to me involved pasta: “Please unmatch me if you don’t like pasta. My pasta is the best.” So ethical nonmonogamy wasn’t particularly shocking or confounding (is there an anti-spaghetti movement I’m unaware of?), but it did seem to suddenly be blowing up my app.
I swiped right on those next two guys, Brett and Michael, and they were also both matches. (I won’t try to draw any conclusions about my matching with so many ethical nonmonogamists because who the hell knows why anyone matches with anyone these days.) I sent them the same email I’d sent Bobby, and both were equally open to talking, though Michael disappeared without a trace after that. (So, y’know, pretty much like my regular Tinder experience.)
My first question for Bobby and Brett was whether an ethically nonmonogamous relationship is the same as an open one. “I think that depends on who's defining it,” Bobby said. “For me the terms can be interchangeable.” Brett agrees: “It seems like it's essentially the same thing. The only divide I find is between people who are simply non-monogamous and those who are polyamorous. People who identify as poly seem to be less casual with their relationships. They might have multiple people that they consider significant others. For my girlfriend and me, we are always each other's primary partner, and no one else can ever come before each other.”
Relationships have gotten increasingly nontraditional and free in recent years—or at least, people are more open about how nontraditional and free they can be. But this “ethical nonmonogamy” thing was new to me. Weirdly, in my head I keep flipping it to “nonethical monogamy,” which sounds like entirely less fun, or sometimes I accidentally type “ethical monogamy,” which probably seems either redundant or oxymoronic, depending on how you feel about, well, monogamy. But that word ethical…it’s something I’m used to hearing in reference to how the chicken I just ordered at some farm-to-table joint in Cobble Hill was raised, not in reference to relationships.
I asked Brett to explain it to me. A little background: He and his girlfriend have been together for over eight years, open for just over two. You’ll note the math there and realize they went NM (nonmonogamous) a little before the seven-year mark (think of them as early bloomers). Brett himself references that notorious need to scratch as the impetus for their arrangement: “Call it the seven-year itch, if you will, but I started to feel like I was missing out on something.” When I asked him what, exactly, he said it wasn’t as simple as sex—which is what I assumed. For Brett, it was the thrill of the chase, the idea of meeting new people, which is kind of adorably innocent-sounding, actually. "I came to the conclusion that I wanted to end things with my girlfriend,” he says, “but when I did, that didn't feel right, either. After a rather long week apart, where we both did and said some things we regretted, we sat down and had a very long discussion about us and our relationship. I expressed my feelings about ‘missing out’ in a more direct way, and she asked if an open relationship was something that I might want to try. I wasn't sure yet if she was serious, or just trying to salvage the relationship, but she was actually the first person to go on a date after we made the agreement. After that, I kind of felt relieved, because I knew she was on board.”
For Bobby, it was his wife, a sex worker who lived in another city, who suggested the arrangement. “Up until we met I was a serial monogamist, and for the seven years before we met she had been already doing more open dating.”
Both scenarios sent up red flags for me, or rather, the same red flag, twice: Both Bobby and Brett’s girlfriend seemed to have entered into situations that were unnatural to them but entered into them for the purpose of having a relationship with someone they cared about. Both seemed to have handed over power in some way. (Maybe relationships aren’t about power, and the fact that I think they are is why I’m single. Who knows. That’ll have to wait for another essay.)
When I first mentioned to my co-workers that I wanted to do a story on this apparent trend, a few scoffed. “I don’t buy it,” one said, and what she meant, of course, was that she didn’t believe that people could simultaneously have healthy, happy relationships with each other while also being sexually or emotionally intimate with other people. And I get that—I’m not sure I could do it. (In fact, a boyfriend once suggested we have a threesome, and even though I found the idea of it thrilling, not only was I sure that our going through with it would be the end of us, his mere suggestion of it threatened to undo me.)
But here’s the thing: The older I’ve gotten, the less judgmental I’ve become about the choices people make in their relationships. Know why? They’re their relationships. What goes on between two (or three or twelve) consenting adults doesn’t actually need to make sense to anyone else. It’s why I find the “love is love” movement both beautiful and infuriating. Because love is love, but people shouldn’t have to be in love to do whatever they want with their lives or their bodies. People should be allowed to be together for whatever fucking reason they want, in whatever way they want. “Love is love’ is an appeasement to people who can’t shake themselves free of traditional heteronormative paradigms, and the same thing goes for “I don’t buy it.” A person who doesn’t buy it—whether “it” is ethical nonmonogamy or bisexuality or anything else they don’t understand—is really saying that because they lack the imagination to comprehend something, it can’t possibly exist. But one person’s lack of comprehension about something doesn’t automatically make that something not so.
Whoops, got ranty. (Sorry.) But fine, the doubts. I get it. I have them, too. In fact, maybe that entire paragraph right there is me speaking to myself, because how, exactly, does this ethical nonmonogamy business even work?
For Bobby, “it means that we set up rules to help each other feel loved and secure and safe. And those rules can and do shift over time so we check in with each other to see how the other is doing and make changes if need be. Maybe that means we tell each other everything, or maybe it means don't ask don't tell.”
“I've heard of some open couples having a ‘don't ask; don't tell policy,’ Brett says, “but we're the opposite. Even if we sleep with another person, we always fill each other in. We don't have to get into gory details, so to speak, but if I have sex with someone, I absolutely have to let her know, and vice versa. It's all about communication. The part that some people have trouble wrapping their minds around is that this has actually brought us closer in ways, and I think that's due to our very open communication.”
It’s something I’ve heard before, from a friend I know who’s in an open marriage, and I’ll admit that every time he says it I mentally call bullshit. Because it feels defensive. A protesting too much, if you will, about something that seems antithetical to everything we’ve been taught about relationships. (Or maybe that’s just him, and the angry undercurrent I hear in his voice any time he talks about it.) But the thing I think I’m realizing is that everyone is different. Maybe if you’ve found the right person for you—and both of you find other things in other people, and you’re ethical with one another, whatever that means for you—then who knows. Who am I (or you or anyone) to say it can't bring two people closer?
“Basically the way it works for us,” Brett says, “is we just set a few ground rules. Not much is off the table. The hard and fast rules are we can't bring anyone to our apartment, we have to use protection, and we can't ever let another person get in the way of our relationship. We're not looking to find other significant others. If we get along, we can certainly continue to see someone, but it always remains pretty casual.”
For Bobby—whose wife lives in Philly—his goal of being on Tinder is a relationship with a woman in NYC while maintaining his marriage. (His wife has been dating a woman for the past few months.)
What’s become clear is that ethical nonmonogamy is, like everything else in this world, not a one-size-fits-all proposition: Bobby and his wife have had a positive sexual experience with another couple. Brett and his girlfriend are both straight and have never dated the same person. (Michael, I can only assume, has never actually dated anyone because he ghosts on all of them. Just joshin’ ya, Michael.) Brett and his girlfriend and are open with their friends and family about being ethically nonmonogamous. Bobby and his wife sometimes are, sometimes aren’t—but, he tells me, “part of the reason I am doing this interview is to give indirect support for someone who might read this and may be dipping their toes in open waters. Love, sex, jealousy... These can be pretty intense things and I just want to send some good vibes out if someone needs it."
Which leads to an interesting (and sad) addendum to this whole thing: As I was in the process of writing, Bobby emailed me to say that his wife had cheated on him outside the bounds of their agreement, and so he was leaving her. (I followed up to ask exactly what she’d done but didn’t hear back. Understandable—it’s not fun hashing out the details of a breakup while you’re going through it.) And while it may sound incomprehensible—how the hell do you cheat in an open relationship?!?—it makes perfect sense to me. Every relationship has rules, whether tacit or explicit, open ones included. If you have certain boundaries—always say when you’re going out with someone else, never bring someone to your place—then transgressing is transgressing. Where that boundary lies is just what’s different for people.
So there you have it, peeps. Ethical nonmonogamy. Coming (no doubt) to a Tinder near you soon. Maybe I’ll try it out and follow this up with a blog about what it’s like to be the third in one of these increasingly common triangles. (JK.) (OR AM I?)