'Situationships', 'throuples', 'ethical non-monogamy': The shift in modern relationships

Carly Gibbs

Weekend writer

Five years ago, ethical non-monogamy was a blip on the sexual radar in New Zealand. Now, thanks to the growth of social media and taboos around sex dropping, there’s increased ‘permission’ to be sexually curious.

If you’ve recently been online dating, you may feel like *Anna - puzzled as you “swipe left”.

“So many people are into ethical non-monogamy,” she says, which she finds “weird”.

The Bay of Plenty singleton encounters the usual male dating profile. Then, in the ‘more about me’ section, he’ll be upfront about his marital status and that his partner knows he’s seeking another woman’s companionship.

“Some of them, it’s not just sex for fun; they’re looking for genuine second partnerships with other women and still have their first partners,” she says.

It left her with a lot of questions.

According to our local Married at First Sight NZ sex therapist Jo Robertson, who will appear alongside Australian expert John Aiken on Three’s MAFS NZ from May 26, and Tauranga somatic sex therapist Terri Ewart, Anna has discovered a shift in modern relationships.

Both women counsel couples worldwide, and say five years ago, ethical non-monogamy was a blip on the sexual radar in New Zealand. And while it still isn’t mainstream, it isn’t completely fringe either.

Thanks to the growth of social media and taboos around sex dropping, a movement has occurred within our culture and relationship structures, increasing “permission” to be sexually curious.

Married at First Sight NZ sex therapist Jo Robertson. While monogamy still reigns supreme and people want the fairytale, other ways of relating are gaining momentum. Photo / Supplied
Married at First Sight NZ sex therapist Jo Robertson. While monogamy still reigns supreme and people want the fairytale, other ways of relating are gaining momentum. Photo / Supplied

Robertson says exploration is largely healthy, but she sees some clients who feel prudish if they aren’t permissive.

“There is this subtle theme of needing to be open and exploratory all the time and some negative connotations with doing the mainstream. I spend a lot of time with clients establishing that it’s okay to say ‘no’ to things.”

Ethical non-monogamy, opening up or adding others to “play” to reignite or keep erotic excitement between a couple, is a “high-risk” relationship practice for feelings of betrayal or pressure, Robertson says.

This is particularly the case if a couple enters ethical non-monogamy when their relationship is in a season of stress, such as a woman’s postpartum year or menopause.

Many couples don’t know how to seek help, she says. “They go to the edge rather than saying, ‘I’m struggling’.”

Ewart agrees, saying the mistake too many couples make is adding in a third to save their relationship.

“That is just the absolute worst way to go into it. It always ends in tears.”

The therapists say it would make more sense if a couple got their relationship stronger first, and they advise participating in sex therapy beforehand.

Ewart is online counselling an Australian couple who “blazed on through” seeing others as a duo, which resulted in damage to the relationship and caused hurt to each of the people involved.

“The main thing that goes wrong is someone will unintentionally walk over an unexpressed boundary and get hurt. Feelings often get hurt, and relationships find themselves in precarious situations.”

Ethical non-monogamy has different arrangement structures, and some forms include polyamory. Here’s the most common.

Open Relationship: You and your partner can have sexual, but not romantic, relationships with other people.

Swinging: A couple who have sex or dates with other people as a pair.

Hierarchical polyamory: When you and your partner can have relationships - emotional or sexual - with other people but have agreed to remain each other’s primary partner, protecting your financial and emotional stability. You might pursue these relationships separately or as a couple (“throuples”).

Non-hierarchical: This scenario has no primary partners — everyone is on equal footing.

Solo-poly or ‘situationships’: A single person pursuing multiple intimate or sexual relationships.

Ewart says it may seem confusing, but ethical non-monogamy isn’t new (The Ethical Slut, the polyamorous bible, came out in 1997).

Sexual exclusivity or conventional marriage was born out of a patriarchal system that came from being able to hand down your wealth from one generation to the next, so monogamy became important at a certain time. But as a comparison, ethical non-monogamy shouldn’t be viewed as unhealthy, Ewart says.

“As long as there’s consent, honesty, transparency and excellent communication and everybody in the dynamic is aware of what is going on, I don’t think ‘is it healthy?’ is a question we need to ask,” Ewart says.

Ethical non-monogamy does, however, get a bad rap because some see it as a reflection of loose morals or lack of commitment. However, a new way of relating may be the answer for some.

Alternative relationship configurations can work, but Ewart says it often depends on robust conversations beforehand and a person’s attachment style (secure, anxious, disorganised, or avoidant).

“You’ll find that most people who go into this space generally live in the most securely attached portion of our population. For them, their self-worth isn’t created by an attachment to someone else.”

Regardless, couples must be prepared for various outcomes, including asking, ‘What happens if emotions get involved and a real relationship starts to develop?’ Robertson says.

“People like to think having sex can be void of emotion, but actually, we bring our whole self to that encounter and quite quickly can get attached.”

Tauranga somatic sex therapist Terri Ewart. Photo / Supplied
Tauranga somatic sex therapist Terri Ewart. Photo / Supplied

Sophie’s story

Aged in her late 30s, *Sophie was 19 when an older, unconventional partner introduced her to ethical non-monogamy, which lasted four years until mini-betrayals got in the way.

Philosophically, ethical non-monogamy made sense for her.

“If there was a desire disparity or differences in sexual needs, there was a dependence on the other to fulfil those needs and only so much room for negotiation. Ethical non-monogamy offered an alternative possibility of radical love and sexual fulfilment,” she says.

Initially, it was refreshing not to feel burdened by having to meet all of her partner’s needs and in the “absence of obligation”, she was able to explore her sexuality.

“As a woman, we are often socialised to be preoccupied with our partner’s sexual needs – and here I was given full consent to explore my desires.”

The couple agreed to a hierarchical set-up where they were each other’s primary partners, and they each had permission - with limits - to engage in sexual activities with others. They negotiated their needs, expectations and boundaries from the outset.

She says their desires differed, so it wasn’t an entirely symmetrical arrangement.

Sophie had long-term sexual partners she would catch up with for the occasional night away. In contrast, he would pursue casual connections and indulge in fetishes she wasn’t into. Some of their play was together, and some apart.

Agreements included consistent, safe sex practices (protection and testing), no mutual friends as lovers, and no outside play if they weren’t in a good space together, which she admits became tricky.

A few years into it, she started to feel that sexual gratification was taking up too much space in their relationship. She struggled to enforce her boundaries, renegotiate limits and maintain a secure attachment with her partner.

“For those curious, please don’t just wing it,” she says. “Educate yourself.”

Her advice is to develop care, communication, consent skills, and good time management skills to navigate the complexity of multiple dynamics.

Nowadays, she is in a long-term monogamous relationship with someone of “traditional orientation”.

“Continuing to stay curious about what’s possible within the parameters of our relationship, things are interesting enough for us both.

“Also, if I am honest, I don’t want to deal with the level of emotional vigilance that ethical non-monogamy requires of me anymore.”

Rachel’s story

*Rachel, in her 40s, has been on an ethical non-monogamy journey for several years. She has recently separated from her husband. Initially, they were polyamorous together, each dating others separately, but then he left to be monogamous with his girlfriend.

These days, she has a partner she sees once or twice a week, classing herself as a solo poly. She relishes her life free of expectations and enjoys the company of those who complement her world. Netflix shows Sense8 and Wild Country “oddly” planted the idea of ethical non-monogamy in her and her ex-husband. They joined a few polyamory pages, learnt a bit more, and then jumped in “boots and all”.

She was never jealous of the other woman her ex started seeing. However, polyamory requires balancing efforts, she says.

Ultimately, she feels polyamory wasn’t what led to their relationship’s downfall, but it highlighted how far they’d drifted apart before it. Still, the pair are amicable, and she feels polyamory fits well with modern life, especially for those who are “post-big relationships” like herself.

“I don’t want to cohabitate, I don’t want anyone to be a stepdad to my kids, but I do want adult relationships that are mutual, deep and satisfying, and not just sex,” she says.

“So long as everyone is honest and everyone’s there consensually, why is it anyone’s business?”

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.