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Who's Really Interested in Alternate Relationships?

A new study on adults' willingness gets surprising results.

In my last post, I wrote about people’s interest in threesomes. The piece generated a lot of curiosity—and made it painfully obvious how little we know about the psychology of alternative sexuality and relationships.

Then, as if on cue, a new paper on consensual nonmonogamy just came out, adding another piece to the puzzle that is our sexual desire.

Consensually (or openly) non-monogamous relationships are long-term committed relationships where the partners have an explicit agreement to have outside sexual partners and/or romantic relationships. Some, like swingers, are more focused on multiple sexual partners; others, like polyamorists, are more focused on multiple loving relationships, but they all share a commitment to honesty about their nonexclusivity—as opposed to the typical approach of cheating.

Previous research has found that, among the general heterosexual population, about 4 to 5 percent are engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy. But is the desire for such an arrangement limited to these 4 to 5 percent—or are there many more out there who desire it but don’t dare seek it out or don’t believe they could ever find it?

In a study just posted online ahead of publication in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Amy Moors and her colleagues at the University of Michigan explored attitudes toward, and willingness to engage in, consensual nonmonogamy among 1,280 heterosexuals.* Unlike many similar studies, participants were not college students: They were recruited via social networking sites and were 18 to 67 years old. The mean age was 23. None had any first-hand experience with consensual nonmonogamy; they were either single or in a monogamous relationship.

How Many Approve?

Openly nonmonogamous relationships are highly stigmatized in our culture. So one important question was: Do people think it’s acceptable for others to have such a relationship if they so choose? Two questions in the study asked about such general attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy. Participants rated the following statements on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):

  • Every couple should be monogamous.
  • If people want to be in openly/consensually nonmonogamous relationship, they have every right to do so.

The ratings were averaged together such that the higher the score, the more positive the attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy. Results are illustrated in the left portion of the graph below.

Overall, attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy for both sexes were slightly above the neutral midpoint of the scale, indicating they found it fairly OK for others to engage in open relationships if they so chose. In fact, more than 80 percent of participants chose at least a 4 on that 7-point scale for the second statement.

How Many Are Interested?

Just because people were comfortable with others to determining the relationship arrangement that worked best for them doesn’t mean they are themselves interested in having an open arrangement. To assess the latter, participants rated the following four statements on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):

  • I would like to be in a non-monogamous relationship.
  • I would consider being in an openly/consensually non-monogamous relationship.
  • Monogamy is very important to me.
  • If my partner wanted to be non-monogamous, I would be open to that.

As you can see from the right portion of the graph above, participants’ own interest in an open relationship was much lower than their approval of it for others. Men (mean = 2.64) scored significantly higher than women (mean = 1.99), but neither sex even approached the neutral midpoint of the scale.

Such low means are not at all surprising: We are all socialized to view monogamy as the norm (with cheating as a dishonorable, but not entirely unexpected option). Consensual non-monogamy, on the other hand, is not only stigmatized, it is also quite rare, and very few people have had the opportunity to see, hear, or learn about this relationship arrangement as a possibility.

Given this, what is perhaps more surprising is the number of people in this sample who showed some interest, however slight, in a non-monogamous relationship: Across the four statements, between 23 and 40 percent of men, and between 11 and 22 percent of women, chose a 4 or higher on the 7-point scale. That is much more than the 4 to 5 percent of adults who are actually currently engaged in consensual nonmonogamy.

How Many Are Willing to Try?

There are many different ways of being "open," with each couple deciding on the specific rules that work and don’t work for them. In this study, participants were asked about their willingness to engage in six different types of non-monogamous arrangements, on a scale of 1 (very unwilling) to 7 (very willing).

You and your partner:

  • … may have sex with whomever they want, using condoms, no strings attached, no questions asked.
  • … go together to swinger parties where partners are exchanged for the night.
  • … may form outside romantic relationships, but they must always be less important than the relationship between the two of you.
  • … may have sex with others, but never the same person more than once.
  • … may have sex and romantic relationships with whomever they want, but there must be no secrets between you.
  • … take on a third partner to join you in your relationship on equal terms.

Similar to interest in consensual nonmonogamy in general, the willingness to engage in these specific non-monogamous behaviors was quite low for both men (mean = 2.33) and women (mean = 1.63). The gender difference was significant and moderate in size (for the stats geeks out there, Cohen’s d was 0.63), but didn’t approach the midpoint of the scale for either sex.

However, here again there was a substantial minority of people who were ambivalent or in some cases, very willing, to give these arrangements a try. As the graph below illustrates, across the six behaviors, up to 16 percent of women, and up to 31 percent of men chose 4 or higher on the 7-point willingness scale.

Of course, this was not a representative study of the U.S. population, and we cannot generalize too much beyond this fairly young, fairly liberal, internet-drawn sample. However, these data tell a story of significantly more openness to, and curiosity about, consensual nonmonogamy than perhaps ever before in recent Western history—however slight or tentative it may be.

* Some of these data are presented in the study; others are additional analyses that the study authors were kind enough to provide for this post.

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Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier: Assessing stigma surrounding non-normative romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13, 1–30. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2012.01286.x

Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopik, W. J. (2014). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (online ahead of print). doi: 10.1177/0265407514529065

Teaser image: Shutterstock

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