Monogamy has long been a hallmark of American social norms and viewed as the pinnacle of relationships. However, over the past decade in particular, attention has been gathering on alternative forms of romantic and sexual relationships. Television entertainment featuring polygamy and wife-swapping and celebrities revealing their alternative domestic arrangements in high-profile media stories have piqued America’s interest in all kinds of non-traditional relationship types, including polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy.
What are polyamory and consensual non-monogamy [CNM]?
Consensual non-monogamy (or CNM for short) is used to describe any kind of relationship where all partners agree that each may have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with other people. These agreements can take different forms decided by the preferences of the partners involved in them. Some popular types of CNM relationships are polyamory (romantic, loving, and often long-term), open relationships (expanding a primary relationship with others that are primarily sexual, but can also be romantic), and swinging (sexual activity).
How common is it to be or want to be polyamorous?
Sex researcher Dr. Amy Moors – Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University and Research Fellow with the Kinsey Institute – would answer that question with another: Do you have a cat, or do you know someone who has a cat? Odds are good that you do. Dr. Moors is the inaugural recipient of the Kenneth R. Haslam, MD, Relationship Diversity Research Award and the lead author of a 2021 study with Kinsey Institute researchers on polyamory in America. She and her colleagues found that the number of people in the United States who would like to engage in polyamorous relationships is 1 in 6 – just about the same as the number of Americans who have a cat.
And the number of people in America who have already been involved in a polyamorous relationship is 1 in 9. That’s as common as earning a graduate degree in the United States. This follows a previous 2016 study led by Kinsey Institute researchers and Moors, that found approximately 1 in 5 respondents had been involved in some form of consensual non-monogamous relationship in their lifetime, including polyamory, swinging, and open relationships.
Who is more likely to engage in polyamory or other forms of CNM?
Contrary to popular belief and media stereotypes, both these studies found that there isn’t a particular ‘type’ of person who has engaged in consensual non-monogamy. Both studies found consistency across categories of religion, race-ethnicity, political affiliation, geographic location, and income. Polyamorists were as likely to be Republican or Democrat, poor or wealthy, white or Black, on the coasts or in the middle of the country.
The only significant differences researchers found in the 2016 study were that among all respondents, men were more likely to have been involved in CNM than women, and sexual minorities (LGB) were more likely than heterosexual respondents. In the 2021 study, age and education also were factors affecting likelihood to be involved in polyamory or interested in engaging in it.
Negative attitudes toward consensual non-monogamy
One significant finding of the 2021 study was that of people who were not personally interested in polyamory, only 1 in 7 indicated they respected people who engage in polyamory. That is, the majority of people who are not in these types of relationships, or aren’t interested in them, disrespect or have negative perceptions about those who are.
This is not a new finding – previous research has documented erroneous views of polyamory as immoral, harmful to children, low in relationship quality, and a source of the spread of sexually-transmitted infections, and other negative associations.
In reality, individuals in polyamorous and other types of CNM relationships tend to be like those in monogamous relationships – they show similar levels of psychological wellbeing, passionate love and attachment, and give similar judgements about their relationship quality, including commitment and satisfaction. And although those engaged in polyamory may have more sexual partners, research shows they practice safer sex strategies and report similar rates of contracting STIs as those engaged in monogamy.
Social and research Implications
Most cultural depictions of family life and romantic relationships depict monogamous couples and present them as “natural” and the standard of intimate connection. This presumption of monogamy as the best relationship structure is also implied by many social science theories of intimacy, including attachment theory and the investment model of intimacy. This poses problems for researchers in understanding what characterizes healthy consensual non-monogamous relationships that lie outside these models.
For individuals in non-monogamous relationships, the emphasis on monogamy can compromise their ability to seek emotional or relationship support from family or therapeutic professionals when such people prioritize monogamy and may view intimacy outside of monogamy as pathological or unhealthy. In practice, many polyamorists and others in CNM relationships choose to hide their relationships because of the social stigma and negative repercussions they face, including being rejected by their families, losing employment, or even custody of their children.
Across America, healthy relationships are foundational to a happy and meaningful life. Growing research is showing that for many, they are flourishing within non-traditional relationship types including polyamory and other forms of CNM. And as non-traditional relationship types become more visible and myths and misconceptions about them are refuted, social attitudes toward them may transform as well.
Moors, A.C., Gesselman, A.N., and Garcia, J.R. 2021. Desire, Familiarity, and Engagement in Polyamory: Results From a National Sample of Single Adults in the United States. Frontiers in Psychology, vol 12. Doi 10.3389/fpsyg.221.619640
Moors, A. C., Schechinger, H. A., Balzarini, R., & Flicker, S. 2021. Internalized consensual non-monogamy negativity and relationship quality among people engaged in polyamory, swinging, and open relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1389-1400.
Haupert, M.L., Gesselman, A.N., Moors, A.C., Fisher, H.E., and Garcia, J.R. 2016. Prevalence of Experiences with Consensual Nonmonogamous Relationships: Findings From Two National Samples of Single Americans. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, vol. 0: 1-17. Doi 10.1080/0092623X.2016.1178675