- Consensual non-monogamy is more common than most people think, and it occurs in all walks of life.
- Practitioners of consensual non-monogamy need to have strong relational and communication skills.
- Consensual non-monogamy can provide emotional benefits for both the partners involved and their families.
Despite changing attitudes about sex in Western culture, monogamy remains the norm for romantic relationships. We may no longer expect couples to wait until they’re married to become sexually active, and we’re much more forgiving of divorce than we were even 50 years ago. But this rule, to many people, remains fast: You’re only allowed to have one sex partner at a time.
Those who challenge the “monogamy rule” generally take great pains to keep their activities hidden, and they often suffer consequences if they’re found out. This is especially true for those in committed relationships who have secret sex partners on the side. Infidelity, after all, is one of the greatest stressors on a relationship, causing great harm to all involved.
However, not all extramarital sex involves infidelity. Some people in committed relationships have sex outside the relationship with their partner’s permission. This is known as consensual non-monogamy. Even though the partners have given each other permission to have sex with other people, the general public still sometimes sees this as a form of cheating. If it’s not cheating against the consenting partner, so the reasoning goes, it’s still cheating against the monogamy rule.
According to Chapman University (California) psychologist Amy Moors, people have a number of misconceptions about consensual non-monogamy. In an article she recently published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, she provides facts to counter the fictions many people believe about open relationships and those who have them.
Not That Uncommon
The first misconception is that consensual non-monogamy is rare. In fact, it’s so common that chances are you know someone who is, or has been, in such a relationship. But because of the stigma involved, they may not have shared that information with you.
Studies find that about one in five persons has had an open relationship, the same proportion of the population that owns cats, according to Moors. Think about the number of people you know who have a feline for a pet. A similar number of those in your social circle have probably engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their life.
The second misconception is that only a certain type of person would engage in consensual non-monogamy. However, research has found few demographic or personality characteristics that reliably differentiate those in monogamous versus consensual non-monogamous relationships.
People of all ages, races, religions, and educational levels engage in consensual non-monogamy at similar rates. However, the practice is slightly more common among sexual minorities and those who are high in the personality trait known as “openness to new experiences.”
Not a “Fix” for a Troubled Relationship
The third misconception is that people try consensual non-monogamy to fix problems in their erstwhile monogamous relationship. Some couples may open their troubled relationship in a last-ditch effort to save it. However, if you have little insight into the causes of discord in your primary relationship, it’s quite likely that your secondary relationships will be troubled as well.
When people are asked the reason why they opened their relationship, they rarely respond that it was to fix it. In fact, it takes strong communication skills to make consensual non-monogamy work, something clearly lacking in troubled relationships. Rather, the most common reasons have to do with building community and exploring one’s sexuality.
The fourth misconception is that consensually non-monogamous relationships must be of poor quality. Again, research contradicts the received wisdom.
In fact, people in open relationships report high levels of relational satisfaction. In part, this is because they have the necessary skills to make their relationships successful, and in part, this is because they can get their needs met by various partners rather than relying on a single “soulmate.”
Not Detrimental to Partners or Families
The fifth misconception is that people who practice consensual non-monogamy engage in unsafe sex. After all, these people seem to have more sex partners than those in strictly monogamous relationships, so you might think diseases would spread quickly among them.
However, this is not the case, as people in open relationships tend to be more conscientious about practicing safer sex. Rather, Moors points out, it’s those in supposedly monogamous relationships who cheat on their partners that are more likely to engage in unsafe sex.
The last misconception is that people who engage in consensual non-monogamy make poor parents. The assumption is that open relationships lead to unstable homelives, but evidence tells the opposite story.
We’ve already seen that people need strong relationship skills to make consensual non-monogamy work, and this extends to parent-child relationships as well. And in cases where multiple adult partners live together or visit often, the children report that they enjoy the care and attention that they get from multiple adults.
The only downside for these children is that they may suffer social stigma because of their parents’ lifestyle. In other words, it’s not consensual monogamy per se, but rather society’s attitude toward it, that harms children.
Not Harmful, Except for Social Stigma
Consensual non-monogamy is not for everyone. But it does work well for some people, especially those with strong communication and relationship skills.
Society tells us that we should find a “soulmate” who will meet all our emotional and sexual needs, and this expectation alone can put a heavy strain on a relationship. In contrast, those who practice consensual non-monogamy strengthen their relationships by enabling them to get their needs met through multiple partners rather than relying on a single person for emotional and sexual intimacy.
The greatest harm comes from social stigma. Practitioners of consensual non-monogamy, and their families, can be shunned, and they can even lose their jobs or suffer from discrimination.
The sooner we come to an understanding that people who practice consensual non-monogamy are just like everyone else, the easier it will be for us to let go of any negative feelings we might have about them.
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Moors, A. C. (2023). Five misconceptions about consensually non-monogamous relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214231166853