Sharing the Love: Research Shatters Myths About Non-monogamy

New psychological research shatters myths about consensual non-monogamy.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

This is the latest installment of interviews with speakers from the 2nd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 28, 2017, in a midtown NYC theater. 

Dylan Selterman is a social psychologist by training, with a background in developmental psychology. He runs the DREAM Lab at Maryland, with research interests including romantic attraction/dating, emotions (e.g., jealousy), attachment in interpersonal relationships, patterns of dreaming, sexual behavior, and morality/ethics. Dr. Selterman has published original research in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Attachment and Human Development, Motivation and Emotion, and Dreaming.

Dylan Selterman, used with permission
Source: Dylan Selterman, used with permission

Q: In your presentation, you discussed research on the role of attachment style in attitudes towards monogamy and consensual nonmonogamy. What were some of the findings?

A: In general, the findings seem to suggest that people who are more insecure in their relationships (either more anxious or more avoidant) seem to have more difficulty managing a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship. They are also less likely to be in one. In terms of why that is, we don’t have direct evidence for an explanatory model but I think based on other research, secure folks are more emotionally intelligent and are better at handling complex social emotions. Avoidant and anxious folks tend to have higher amounts of jealousy in their relationships and also more conflicted, which may preclude having more than one successful relationship simultaneously.

Q: Another aspect of personality is the Big 5 Model. Can you explain what that is, and does this model provide any insight in understanding the differences in personality between monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) individuals?

A: Sure. The Big 5 model deals with general tendencies across a variety of life domains. For example, conscientious people tend to be neat, organized, diligent, and careful. They are likely to be exhibit these tendencies not only at school/work but also in terms of their social groups, spirituality, etc. Because these traits are so broad and encompassing they tend to correlate with many different types of behaviors but the associations tend to be small. So the Big 5 traits probably do tell us something about non-monogamy in terms of preferences and engagement. Extroversion seems to have the strongest link to CNM outcomes, but there haven’t been many studies on this, so we should be cautious before adopting Big 5 traits as uniquely insightful compared to other traits like attachment style or sociosexuality. 

Three Lovers by Theodore Gericault, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Three Lovers by Theodore Gericault, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons

Q: You did some research comparing monogamous and CNM couples on measures of satisfaction and commitment. What were some of your key findings?

A: I think you’re referring to the paper I co-authored with Jon Mohr. Essentially, we found that people who scored higher in attachment-related anxiety also reported less satisfaction and less commitment to their partner if they were non-monogamous (compared to monogamous counterparts). However, for people who scored low in attachment anxiety, they were equally satisfied/committed regardless of whether they were monogamous or not.

Q: In your presentation, you shift from a personality approach to a socio-cultural theory known as the Moral Foundations Theory in order to understand preferences around monogamy and CNM. Can you briefly explain what the Moral Foundations Theory is and how is it relevant to understanding sexual behavior?

A: For a good accessible introduction to MFT I suggest checking out Haidt’s talk and his book, The Righteous Mind. Briefly, MFT suggests that socio-cultural norms influence people’s perceptions of what’s right and wrong, but there are some common themes that cut across cultures. The themes are harm/care, fairness/injustice, loyalty/betrayal, authority/disrespect, and purity/disgust. Depending on upbringing, some folks are more concerned with some moral concerns (like purity/disgust) compared to others. My argument is that moral concerns about purity and loyalty are strongly predictive of attitudes toward sexual norms. In some of my research, I’ve found that people judge CNM as “less moral” than monogamy because they perceive CNM as less pure and less loyal, but not necessarily more harmful.

Postcard "This is the Life", labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Postcard "This is the Life", labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons

Q: You place a lot of emphasis on purity and loyalty as moral dimensions that play an important part in understanding attitudes towards monogamy. You believe these are even more important than personality traits and moral concerns about harm reduction and equality. Can you explain more about the role of these two categories in determining sexual mores and attitudes?

A: I don’t have direct evidence for this link, but I suspect the reason why purity and loyalty are more predictive of sexual attitudes and moral judgments (compared to concerns about harm) is that purity and loyalty are really about concerns about one’s group and culture. Some people have negative attitudes toward sexual minorities because they are concerned that their sexual practices will have a corrupting influence on the group. Concerns about harm or fairness are more about individuals rather than groups. Typically, people care less about what an individual or couple does in their bedroom. But they do care that their culture or society will be affected negatively if there’s too much “deviant” behavior. So, to sum it up, I believe there’s evidence to support the strong link between harsh moral judgments toward CNM with purity and loyalty, but not as much with harm, because the former involve groups whereas the latter involves individuals.

Q: In conclusion, what are some of the most common misconceptions about CNM that readers should be aware of?

A: People can have great relationships without necessarily being sexually exclusive, as studies have shown levels of satisfaction, intimacy, commitment etc. that are comparable across CNM and monogamous couples. People who practice CNM often have less jealousy and more excitement. The main challenge CNM couples face involves stigma from others.

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