- Consensual non-monogamy refers to intimate relationships with multiple partners.
- Consensually nonmonogamous relationships are often misunderstood and stigmatized.
- Research challenges those misconceptions.
In Current Directions in Psychological Science, a recent paper by A. C. Moors of Chapman University points to five misconceptions about consensual non-monogamy. Non-monogamy refers to having intimate relationships with more than one partner (e.g., polyamory, swinging, or open relationships, as opposed to marriage between two people only).
1. The “type” of person
The first assumption is that only a certain “type” of person engages in consensual non-monogamous relationships.
This is incorrect. For instance, research involving over 8,700 people in the United States found that, when compared to those who had no experience with consensual nonmonogamy, individuals who had engaged in these behaviors did not differ in terms of many of the demographic characteristics evaluated. Some examples were age, race, geographical region, education, income, political affiliation, and religious beliefs.
So, even though nonmonogamous sexual practices are often characterized as fringe, they are practiced by nearly all types of people—young/old, Caucasians/people of color, liberals/conservatives, Christians/atheists, rich/poor, etc.
That said, those who engage in consensual nonmonogamy tend to differ from the average person in three ways: They are more likely to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual; are more willing to challenge social norms and mainstream beliefs about sex; and have a greater interest in having new and varied experiences.
The second assumption is that the motivation behind having more than one partner is often to “fix” one’s monogamous relationship.
What does the research show? Here is an example: A 2021 paper by Wood and colleagues concluded that six themes represent the motivations for engaging in nonmonogamy:
- Autonomy: To make one’s own sexual decisions.
- Belief/values: To be free from the constraints of monogamy.
- Relationality: To belong to a community of people with similar views.
- Sexuality: To experience sexual fulfillment.
- Growth: To explore one’s sexuality.
- Pragmatism: To do what works (e.g., for a person with a long-distance primary partner).
As can be seen, none of these themes involve saving or fixing a broken relationship. In fact, many people who successfully transition to consensual nonmonogamy appear to have a solid, not fragile, relationship foundation.
3. Relationship quality
The third misunderstanding is that consensually non-monogamous relationships are of low quality: They lack intimacy, love, trust, and commitment, therefore, they are not satisfying.
However, a study of 2,100 people did not find major differences in relationship quality between the two types.
In fact, those in consensually nonmonogamous relationships report greater trust, lower jealousy, and higher sexual satisfaction.
4. Sexual health and spread of STDs
What about the presumption that consensual non-monogamy spreads sexually transmitted infections? This view may appear rational enough. After all, individuals in nonmonogamous relationships tend to have more lifetime partners, which is associated with a greater likelihood of spreading and catching a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Yet, a 2015 investigation found that despite differences in the typical number of partners, both relationship types have very similar rates of lifetime diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (roughly one in five). Why?
Perhaps because about one in four monogamous partners in the study reported “being sexually unfaithful to their current partner.” Given the secretive nature of infidelity, people who cheat and have affairs have a lower probability of practicing safe sex—be it using barrier contraceptives (e.g., condoms) correctly, using contraceptives consistently, getting regular STD testing, etc.
5. Effects on children
Finally, another common belief is that consensual non-monogamy harms children. That people in consensual non-monogamous relationships are bad parents and put their own needs before those of their children.
Specifically, having a parent in a consensual relationship with multiple partners does not seem to be uniquely harmful to children. In her long-term study of polyamorous families, E. A. Sheff found that sometimes such family arrangements may even have benefits for children (e.g., greater financial assistance, more attention and personal time, access to additional resources).
Data from North America shows that approximately one in five people is or has been in an open (i.e. consensually nonmonogamous) relationship. However, it is likely that a much smaller percentage would admit to this publicly. Why? Due to stigma and fear of discrimination.
The aim of this piece has been, in part, to reduce stigma. To show that just because someone has an open relationship does not mean they are “worse” than the average person in important ways, uses this arrangement only to fix their monogamous partnership, has unsatisfying relationships, engages in unsafe sex, or is an irresponsible and unfit parent.
Needless to say, additional research is needed to draw more definitive conclusions about open relationships. But viewing certain types of consensual adult relationships as disgusting, unnatural, or immoral can even impede the scientific study of these partnerships. For example, researchers in these areas may be perceived as “having an agenda” and untrustworthy.
By adopting a less judgmental attitude, we can help empower people to find ways to express their relationship and sexual needs in consensual partnerships, even if these expressions differ from the norm. And to help them find love, happiness, and satisfaction. Isn’t that what we all want?
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