Consensual non-monogamy: Table for more than two, please

Admit it:  We have crushes, we have sexual fantasies, and sometimes we want to act on them—even when those crushes and fantasies aren’t about our current romantic partner.  Most of the time, we ignore these crushes and our fantasies go unfulfilled.  For some, cheating seems like an option.  However, for others, it is totally okay to pursue these crushes and fantasies outside a relationship.  Welcome to the emerging movement to rewrite the rules of romance: consensual non-monogamy.

Consensual Non-monogawhhhaattt?

Most of us desire (and have) a “one and only”—that one person who “completes” us in every way.  Humans tend to be serial monogamists, entering one sexually and romantically exclusive relationship after another (Pinkerton & Abramson, 1993).  However, in consensual non-monogamous relationships, people can have several “one and onlys,” or at least more than one sexual partner—and it is not considered cheating.  In fact, according to survey research conducted at the University of Michigan, approximately 4-5% of North American adults, when given the option to describe their relationship, indicate that they are engaged in consensual non-monogamy (CNM; e.g., swinging, open relationship, polyamory; Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2013; Rubin, Moors, Matsick, Ziegler, & Conley, in press).  Unlike people in monogamous relationships, those who engage in CNM agree on their relationship rules ahead of time, and they allow each other to have romantic and/or sexual relationships with others.  Thus, CNM differs from monogamy, such that all partners involved agree to have some form of extradyadic romantic and/or sexual relationships.

But, you may be thinking, isn’t that cheating?  Well, not exactly.  People differ in what kinds of behavior they consider cheating (Kruger et al., 2013).  Most people consider sexual intercourse with someone outside of the relationship to be cheating, but some people also consider more benign and ambiguous activities with others (e.g., holding hands, long hugs, telling jokes) cheating.  However, CNM offers a completely different spin on extradyadic behavior.  By actively negotiating which behaviors are acceptable to engage in outside of a dyadic relationship (or negotiating to opt out of a dyadic relationship), individuals engaged in CNM may be less likely to worry about whether or not an act is considered cheating—provided that all partners agree that the behavior is acceptable.  In fact, individuals in CNM relationships don’t feel the pangs of jealousy as strongly as monogamous individuals (Jenks, 1985) and often feel happy about their partner engaging in relationships with others (Ritchie & Barker, 2006).

Who is Open to CNM?

You might be thinking, is there a certain “type” of person who desires CNM?  Personality traits predict behavior in relationships in a variety of ways.  For instance, if you have a tendency to believe that other people can’t be trusted, you’re likely to experience jealousy in relationships.  In terms of preference for CNM, do people who avoid commitment and prefer casual relationships (known as avoidantly attached) prefer CNM?  And, do people who experience extreme jealousy and constantly worry about their partner leaving them for someone else (known as anxiously attached) cringe at the thought of engaging in CNM?  

To answer these questions, we (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopik, 2014) asked 1,281 heterosexual people, who had never engaged in CNM, to report their anxiety and avoidance in relationships, attitudes toward CNM (e.g., “If my partner wanted to be non-monogamous, I would be open to that”), and willingness to engage in CNM (e.g., “You and your partner”:  “go together to swinger parties where partners are exchanged for the night”; “take on a third partner to join you in your relationship on equal terms”).  Like you might be thinking, we found that highly avoidant individuals endorsed more positive attitudes toward CNM and were more willing to (hypothetically) engage in these types of relationships.  Moreover, highly anxious people had more negative attitudes towards CNM; however, anxiety was not related to desire to engage in these types of relationships, perhaps reflecting anxious people’s generally ambivalent approach to intimacy (Allen & Baucom, 2004).  Thus, it seems like people who are avoidant are open to CNM (that is, both swinging and polyamory) but anxious people are not. 

Although avoidant people feel positively about CNM relationships, are they more likely to actually be in CNM relationships than monogamous relationships?  In another study, we found that people in CNM relationships reported lower levels of avoidance compared to people in monogamous relationships (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, et al., 2014).  However, anxiety did not differ between people in CNM and monogamous relationships.  That is, avoidant people report a greater willingness to engage in CNM relationships, but ultimately, people in CNM relationships are lower in avoidance.  These findings suggest that people can exhibit aspects of attachment security (i.e., low levels of avoidance) without being sexually exclusive. 

How are other personality characteristics related to openness to CNM?  Among sexual minorities, those who tend to have active imaginations, a preference for variety, and a proclivity to engage in new experiences (i.e., high in openness, a “Big Five” personality factor) held more positive attitudes toward CNM and greater willingness to engage in these relationships (Moors, Conley, & Selterman, 2014).  On the other hand, individuals who tend to be very organized, careful, and success-driven (i.e., high in conscientiousness) perceive CNM negatively and have less desire to engage in CNM.  So, personality is related in ways you might expect:  People who seek out adventure and are drawn to experiences report that they would like to engage in CNM relationships.  Conscientious people tend to hold more conventional attitudes, which might explain why they are less willing to engage in CNM.  

In addition to personality traits, other factors are related to people’s openness toward CNM.  For instance, some research suggests that gay men more frequently engage in CNM compared to other sociodemographic groups; however, estimates of gay males’ involvement in CNM ranges from 30% to 70%, so the exact prevalence is unclear (Bryant & Demian, 1994; Campbell, 2000; LaSala, 2005).  In a recent study, we found that female sexual minorities desire CNM as much as male sexual minorities and desire to engage in CNM  (Moors, Rubin, Matsick, Ziegler, & Conley, in press)—illustrating that it is not just gay men who have interest in these types of relationships. In sum, CNM relationships appeal to several groups of people. Having a general awareness or insight into one’s own and one’s partner’s personality and preferences can help individuals make decisions regarding CNM.

But, Is CNM Satisfying?  What about Jealousy?

People often believe that having one partner and being monogamous can protect them from feelings of jealousy and insecurity in ways that CNM cannot (Conley, Moors, Matsick, et al., 2013).  It seems like people who are in CNM relationships might experience extreme jealousy, given that they are navigating multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships.  Wouldn’t you feel spurned if your partner chose to spend the night with someone else?  However, people in CNM relationships actually report relatively high levels of trust, honesty, intimacy, and satisfaction, as well as relatively low levels of jealousy in their relationships (Barker, 2005; Bonello & Cross, 2010; Cole & Spaniard, 1974; de Visser & McDonald, 2007; Jenks, 1985; Kurdek, 1988; Ritchie & Barker, 2006).  Thus, people in CNM relationships may be less likely to “keep score” of time spent together versus apart, and they actually enjoy the thought of their partner spending time with other people.  In light of this, it seems that the assumed advantages of having one partner are, actually, not advantages at all when viewed in a broader range of relationship types.  

But, What About the Family?

To many, the most basic benefit of monogamy lies in its conduciveness to raising a family.  Specifically, some argue that children are best cared for by one father and one mother (see Clarke, 2000).  However, parents in CNM relationships appear to benefit from the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.”  Some people engaged in CNM involve all or some of their partners in their children’s lives, either through shared or co-parenting roles (Pallotta-Chiarolli, Haydon, & Hunter, 2013).  Moreover, Sheff’s (2010, 2011) research has found that children of polyamorous parents experience similar levels of emotional intimacy with their parents compared to children with monogamous parents.  The children of polyamorous parents also mentioned that they enjoy receiving attention from a variety of adults and sharing a diverse range of interests and activities with adults in their lives.  Additionally, parents in polyamorous relationships reported that their children could spend less time in day care.  However, polyamorous parents did mention some drawbacks; for example, their children missed the adults (e.g., co-parents) when they disappeared after breakups.  This can be likened to the fairly commonplace feelings of loss that children of monogamous children experience when faced with divorce and separations.  

But, What about Sexual Health?

Many aspire to monogamy yet find it challenging to implement; that is, many find it hard to stay faithful and in love with one person for the majority of their life.  Indeed, couples commonly seek therapy because of sexual infidelity (Whisman, Dixon, & Johnson, 1997). Infidelity in monogamous relationships increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections because outside sexual encounters are kept secret and cheaters are less likely to use protective measures during sex (Conley, Moors, Ziegler, & Karathanasis, 2012).  Yet, people overwhelmingly view monogamous relationships as disease-free and people perceive individuals engaged in CNM as more likely to spread sexual diseases (Conley, Moors, Matsick, et al., 2013). 

Monogamy can be a fool-proof plan for halting the spread of sexually transmitted infections.  However, monogamy is only effective insofar as both partners test negative for infections at the start of the relationship and remain sexually faithful throughout the duration of the relationship.  Given that sexual infidelity is common, and the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection increases when individuals have more than one sexual partner, we examined safe sex behaviors among two groups of people who have multiple sexual partners: sexually unfaithful individuals (those in monogamous relationships who admit they have cheated on their partner) and individuals engaged in CNM.  We found that sexually unfaithful individuals were less likely than individuals engaged in CNM to use condoms and other barriers during their extradyadic encounter, tell their “monogamous” partner about the encounter, and get tested for sexually transmitted infections (Conley, et al., 2012).  Sexually unfaithful individuals were also more likely to make condom use mistakes (e.g., putting the condom on the wrong way) than individuals in CNM relationships during their most recent extradyadic sexual encounter (Conley, Moors, Ziegler, Matsick, & Rubin, 2013).  Additionally, sexually unfaithful individuals were less likely to implement safer sex strategies with their “monogamous” partner than individuals in CNM relationships (thereby placing their ostensibly monogamous partner at risk).  

So, the assumption that monogamy is safe and disease-free may be tenuous:  People who identify themselves as monogamous but end up cheating use protection less often and less appropriately.  However, people in CNM relationships often have an open dialogue about who they have sex with and are more likely to use protection effectively.  These findings suggest that among people who engage in extradyadic sex, CNM may provide a safer avenue for sexual expression than sexual infidelity.  

The More the Merrier? 

Taken together, CNM relationships can be viable and successful alternatives to more traditional conceptions of monogamy.  CNM relationships are characterized by an open dialogue and communication about including multiple romantic and/or sexual partners in one’s life.  There’s great variety in relationship practices throughout the world (Schmitt, 2005), and what people consider “normal” (monogamy) in their social group may not be necessarily the best practice for everyone.  CNM appears to carry unique benefits that are less common in monogamy, including sexual variety, large social networks, feelings of compersion (an emotion described as the opposite of jealousy), and personal growth (Schechinger & Moors, 2014).  Moreover, individuals in CNM relationships report that they are happy, satisfied, committed, and in love (de Visser & McDonald, 2007; Jenks, 1985; Ritchie & Barker, 2006).  However, CNM is certainly not without challenges, especially given the fear of stigmatization based one’s non-normative relationship (Moors, Matsick, Ziegler, Rubin, & Conley, 2013).  Thus, potential “costs” and “benefits” to CNM should be considered on an individual and couple basis.

Given that the scientific study of CNM is an emerging body of scholarship, there is limited empirical evidence on how to best “open up” a monogamous relationship.  For those who are considering some type of CNM arrangement, there are popular press “DIY” books to consider, including The Ethical Slut (Easton & Hardy, 2009), Rewriting the Rules (Barker, 2013), and Opening Up (Taormino, 2008).  We encourage researchers to examine communication strategies, scheduling, and other relational aspects associated with making a transition from monogamous to consensual non-monogamous relationships.  And, we encourage everyone, if you meet (or know) someone who is in a CNM relationship, don’t assume that person is a cheater, a player, or in an unhealthy relationship—just because they’re openly non-monogamous with their partner(s).

Granted, CNM isn’t for everyone.  We are not advocating that everyone should abandon the monogamous relationships that have worked well for a very long time.  At the very least, we suggest that even if people do not want to open up their romantic relationship to others, they should thoughtfully examine their own goals, desires, and boundaries regarding monogamy.  For instance, scientists have recently argued that people are expecting more from their romantic partners, yet investing less time in their relationships—which may ultimately explain high divorce rates (Finkel, Hui, Carswell, & Larson, 2014).  Accordingly, we think it’s important for those in monogamous relationships to periodically discuss monogamy agreements (e.g., what is considered emotional or physical infidelity); these conversations could thwart conflict associated with perceived infidelity.  In a recent piece of ours, Conley and Moors (2014) suggest different ways that even people in monogamous relationships can apply some principles of CNM to their relationships with productive effects. 

In light of this evidence, we, as basic and applied psychologists, have the potential to reduce the stigma of CNM relationships and spark constructive conversations about alternative relationship styles.  As it is today, preference and choice may have taken a back seat to tradition.  Open dialog about relationship choices offers hope for a future where monogamy is not the default status; instead, relationship arrangements can be chosen based on personal inclination and planning.  Currently, there is no research that examines whether engagement in CNM is an orientation (identity) or a set of relationship behaviors and choices; thus, we encourage researchers to pursue this ripe area for future studies.  In the end, it is important that we understand that monogamy may not be for everyone or the safe haven that previous research implies.


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