- Consensual non-monogamy is an arrangement in which it is acceptable to have more than one sexual or romantic relationship simultaneously.
- Over 20 percent of U.S. adults in a study reported having been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point in their lifetime.
- Consensually non-monogamous relationships are sometimes stigmatized, but more so when they are just about sex.
- People in consensually non-monogamous relationships report benefits such as having more people to meet their needs.
If you have started to hear more people talking about polyamory or open relationships, you are not alone. Google searches for these terms have increased in the United States.
So what exactly does it mean to be polyamorous or have an open relationship?
Polyamory and open relationships are both types of consensual non-monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy is a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual or romantic relationship at the same time. Consensual is key here. All partners should agree that it is not infidelity or cheating to have relationships with other people.
Consensual non-monogamy can take many forms. It may be that both members of a primary couple agree it is okay for them to have sex with other people. It may be a relationship in which there are three (triad) or four (quad) people all involved with each other in a long-term relationship. Sometimes people have a primary partner and secondary partners who may or may not be involved with the primary partner.
Partners in these polyamorous relationships may be open to additional relationships with other people or practice polyfidelity. Couples may also practice swinging, in which they exchange partners or have group sex, often at swinging social events. Although long-term friendships or romantic relationships between couples may arise out of swinging, swinging tends to be mainly about sexual relationships, not romantic ones.
A few facts about consensual non-monogamy:
Consensual monogamy is more common than you might think. In 2016, using representative data from over 8,000 U.S. adults, researchers found that 1 in 5 people surveyed (over 20 percent) had been involved in a consensually non-monogamous relationship in their lifetime. In a 2021 study focused on polyamory, researchers found that 1 in 9 people (over 10 percent) had engaged in polyamory at some point in their life. More than that, 1 in 6 (over 16 percent) people reported wanting to engage in polyamory. Apparently, this is similar to the number of Americans who have cats.
Although consensually non-monogamous relationships are receiving more attention both from the general public and from relationship scientists, people still tend to view consensually non-monogamous relationships less positively than monogamous relationships. People are even likely to view studies about consensual non-monogamy as more biased than studies about monogamy. It seems that the type of non-monogamous relationship matters.
When asked to imagine different types of consensually non-monogamous relationships, participants in one study tended to perceive polyamory more favorably than swinging or open relationships. The researchers concluded that when consensually non-monogamous relationships are characterized by emotional intimacy and love, they are viewed more positively than when they are based only on sex.
Given the stigma associated with having more than one relationship partner, why do people pursue consensual non-monogamy? Many of the benefits people say they get in a consensually non-monogamous relationship are similar to those that people report getting from monogamous relationships (support, trust, love), but a few unique benefits emerge as well.
People in consensually non-monogamous relationships report having more people who are able to meet their needs and less pressure for one person to meet all their needs. They also report having more partners to do activities with, greater personal growth, and freedom from restrictions.
Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories, methods, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 205-232.
Jes L. Matsick, Terri D. Conley, Ali Ziegler, Amy C. Moors & Jennifer D. Rubin (2014) Love and sex: polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships, Psychology & Sexuality, 5:4, 339-348, DOI: 10.1080/19419899.2013.832934
Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Schechinger, H. A. (2017). Unique and shared relationship benefits of consensually non-monogamous and monogamous relationships: A review and insights for moving forward. European Psychologist, 22(1), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000278
Moors, A. C., Gesselman, A. N., & 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, 12, 619640.