Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is a relationship style wherein the two people involved are not exclusive to each other and can consensually date other people outside of the relationship. For some, it can be a confusing concept to get behind as monogamy is often the most common relationship dynamic seen in many cultures. However, when done mindfully and ethically, ENM can be a fulfilling for those who prefer a more open relationship lifestyle.
A common misconception about EMN is that it’s a way people can “cheat” with impunity. It’s important to keep in mind that ENM can be a perfectly healthy relationship style. That being said, it’s not uncommon for people with narcissistic traits to seek out ENM in bad faith. Narcissistic relationship dynamics usually involve power imbalances, lack of empathy, and manipulation tactics, all of which are not tenants of healthy ENM relationships.
Narcissistic Relationship Patterns & Ethical Non-Monogamy
Narcissist is a label that tends to get thrown around loosely these days. Most people display mild traits of narcissism from time to time and it doesn’t mean they meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or are narcissistically abusive towards the people in their life.
Those with severe narcissistic traits tend to present in relationships with excessive entitlement over their partner which can become very imbalanced in ENM dynamics. Within ENM relationships, no one person is supposed to hold more power or say than the other. One partner’s needs or wants are not more important than the others. This is where entering an EMN relationship with a narcissistic person can become risky for your emotional wellbeing.
Before any ENM dynamic begins, it’s often beneficial for couples to talk extensively about their boundaries, safety needs, desires, and expectations. If a partner is not willing to engage in thorough discussions about those factors, it may be a red flag that they are going into ENM with nefarious motivations.
Signs of Narcissistic Relationship Patterns in EMN Relationships
There are some signs you can look out for if you’re wondering if your partner is displaying traits of narcissism, before agreeing to an ENM dynamic.
They are resistant towards boundaries
In every ENM relationship, being able to set boundaries that meet each person’s needs is an important factor. Those with high traits of narcissism tend to react unfavorably to boundaries as they often see boundaries as a threat or personal jab against them. A narcissistic partner will likely downplay the need for boundaries and prefer a more flexible dynamic or special treatment for themselves, but still want to control their partner’s actions.
They don’t want to talk openly or honestly
It benefits ENM relationships to have consistent honest and open discussions about the relationship. Openness creates space for partners to air out their concerns, feelings, needs, and anything else they need to feel safe and secure within the relationship. A person with high levels of narcissism might put off or avoid talking about the relationship as they might not want to change their behaviors or hear feedback from their partner. As long as they are happy and getting their needs met, they likely want to keep things as they are.
They display passive aggressive behaviors
As previously mentioned, communication around ENM and relationship satisfaction in general should be direct and honest. A narcissistic partner might lean on confusing communication tactics and behaviors such as passive aggression when they want to avoid feedback or accountability for wrongdoings.
For example, if you are unhappy with the lack of boundaries and you ask to talk about it, they might say something like, “I guess nothing is ever going to please you. You’ll always be upset about something.” Even though you are just trying to clarify and speak your needs, they are making you feel you shouldn’t.
You notice a relationship cycle that is crazymaking
Narcissistic relationship patterns have a distinct cycle that they tend to follow. This is called the cycle of abuse and consists of four stages including tension, incident of abuse, reconciliation, and calm. A narcissistically abusive relationship will most likely follow this course where tension builds up, an abusive situation ensues, reconciliation occurs, likely via love bombing, and then a period of calm before the storm starts up again.
If this is happening and you constantly experience the relationship feeling like you are walking on eggshells or don’t know what version of your partner you’ll get each day, you might be dealing with a narcissistic partner.
Leaving a Narcissistically Abusive Relationship
There is much to consider in terms of safety if you decide you want to leave the relationship with a narcissistic partner. Due to the high levels of emotional dysregulation people with narcissism can experience when a partner is leaving them, they can become highly reactionary. It’s unfortunately not uncommon for narcissistic partners to make it incredibly difficult to leave them and often employ emotional, physical, financial, and sometimes sexual abuse tactics.
Your safety is of utmost importance during this time. It might help to make sure you are highly supported by loved ones and working with a therapist who specializes in helping folks safely leave abusive relationships.
Kate Loree, LMFT, is a sex-positive licensed marriage and family therapist with a specialty in non-monogamous, kink, LGBTQ, and sex worker communities and the author of Open Deeply: A Guide to Building Conscious, Compassionate Open Relationships.
In addition to her master’s in marriage and family therapy, she also has an MBA and is a registered art therapist (ATR). She is an EDSE-certified sex educator and an EMDR-certified therapist with additional training in the Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM) for the treatment of trauma. She has been practicing psychotherapy since 2003.
She cohosts her own sex-positive podcast, Open Deeply, with Sunny Megatron, has been featured in Buzzfeed videos, and has been a guest on Playboy Radio and many podcasts, including Sex with Dr. Jess, American Sex, Sluts and Scholars, and Multiamory. She has written for Authority Magazine and Good Vibrations, been featured in Vice and Ms. Magazine, and is a frequent public speaker.
Dr. Kate and Kate talk about how entering into the world of non-monogamy also brings you into contact with overtakers/narcissists. They often garner more joy from overtaking than sharing. Kate Loree has followed the path of consensual non-monogamy and talks about the positive side plus some things you may run into and want to avoid.
For more information, please visit her on the web at KateLoree.com.
Open Deeply: A Guide to Building Conscious, Compassionate Open Relationships