Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Are People's Perceptions of Open Relationships?

Challenging myths about consensual non-monogamy

What do sex columnist Dan Savage and politician Newt Gingrich have in common? Probably not a lot, but they have both been in the media recently in regards to open relationships.

In a recent article in the New York Times, sex columnist Dan Savage discussed the benefits of a monogamish relationship—one where partners are committed to each other but free to occasionally pursue sex partners outside of the primary relationship. He believes that opening up a relationship in this way can promote honest communication and prevent actual “infidelity.” Around the same time that this article came out, Newt Gingrich was being vilified in the media after his ex-wife revealed that he had asked for an open relationship (after he had already engaged in actual infidelity).

Recently researchers at the University of Michigan began exploring consensual non-monogamy (also known as “open relationships,” “swinging,” or “polyamory”), which are relationships in which partners agree to have other sexual or romantic partners. Despite an estimated prevalence of between 4.3-10.5% of relationships being non-monogamous,1 a series of studies revealed that people hold negative stereotypes of consensual non-monogamy and those who engage in these relationships.1 For example, in one study, “Sarah and Dan,” a happy monogamous couple were compared to Sarah and Dan, a happy consensually non-monogamous couple. Despite the fact that both couples were represented as being happy with their agreed upon relationship, participants had a much more negative perception of non-monogamous Sarah and Dan than monogamous Sarah and Dan. As a non-monogamous couple, others perceived Sarah and Dan as more sexually risky, less morally acceptable, and as having a less trusting and less meaningful relationship. The non-monogamous couple was even rated less positively on many arbitrary traits, such as paying taxes on time and daily flossing!1 I am not sure what non-monogamy has to do with oral hygiene, but apparently participants thought there was some connection!

Based on this series of studies, there clearly is a stigma against non-monogamous relationships. But is this perception accurate? Are couples who engage in non-monogamy more risky and less trusting? In subsequent research, this team set out to examine whether there was truth to the stigmas that people held about non-monogamous relationships.

In the University of Michigan study, one of the strongest findings was that people believed non-monogamous couples to be more sexually risky.1 A subsequent online survey revealed, however, that people who are unfaithful in a monogamous relationship are more sexually risky than those who practice consensual non-monogamy. People in consensual non-monogamous relationships were more likely to use condoms and discuss STI testing with their other sex partners and were less likely to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during these encounters than unfaithful monogamous people.2 In her recent presentation at IARR, Amy Moors suggested that people can engage in relationships without sexual or romantic exclusivity and still be securely attached—a finding that challenges the notions that consensual non-monogamous relationships are inherently untrusting or unmeaningful.3

In short, this research challenges important misconceptions about consensual non-monogamy and suggests that relationships can take on many different forms and be just as safe, satisfying and healthy.

1Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2012). The fewer the merrier? Assessing stigma surrounding consensual non-monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1-29.

2Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Ziegler, A. & Karathanasis, C. (2012). Unfaithful individuals are less likely to practice safe sex than openly nonmonogamous individuals. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9, 1559-1565.

3Moors, A. C., Edelstein, R. S. & Conley, T. D., Attached to monogamy? Attachment, love, sex and consensual non-monogamy. Paper presented at the International Association of Relationship Research (IARR) in Chicago, IL.

This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships…