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Unconventional Sex & Love Relationships: Increasing Numbers?

Why the growing acceptance of polyamory, open relationships, and others today?

A recent Pew poll found that millennials have a steadily declining rate of marriage. There are several possible reasons for this, but I think it highlights a broader, changing reality: We're in the midst of a social and cultural evolution regarding the kinds of romantic, sexual and intimate relationships men and women seek; and what they experience as fulfilling.

Some forms this shift that I describe below trigger knee-jerk, negative reactions from those who see their own moral standards and beliefs as being threatened or under attack. However, I think it's important to understand these emerging forms of relationship with an open mind; to understand how and why some people may find them fulfilling and positive. Keep in mind that much of our thinking in psychology and mental health has evolved. For example, women's menstrual "blues" and homosexuality were once defined as forms of mental illness, but no longer are.

Today, interracial relationships are no longer outlawed, as they were for most of the previous century. Acceptance of LGBT relationships has moved past the threshold of acceptance by a majority of the population. And currently, we see emerging shifts towards what some define as desirable and healthy intimate partnerships, for themselves. For example:

Polyamory - The subject of an annual conference, polyamory relationships are those in which people have multiple partnerships at once with the full knowledge of all involved. A comprehensive report in LiveScience describes how jealousy works in polyamorous relationships, how children in polyamorous families experience them. It also explores several other new findings, including that some polyamorous people report feeling energized by their multiple relationships and say that good feelings in one translate to good feelings in others.

Open relationships -- A variant of polyamory, this trend received some attention in the 1970s among young baby boomers (e.g. the 1969 movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice") and looks like it's re-emerging in new form -- now called consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships. In them, committed partners mutually agree not to be sexually and/or romantically exclusive to one another. Some recent research finds, for example, that up to 40% of men and up to 25% of women in a monogamous relationship said they would switch to a CNM if they lived in a world where everyone had open relationships. Currently, the research finds a continuum: some people are completely monogamous, others are completely nonmonogamous, and many more are somewhere in between.

Polygamy -- Stretching the boundary even further, some suggest that polygamy will become increasingly accepted as a form of relationship in our society. For example, John Witte Jr, a religion and law professor at Emory University, believes that polygamy is the next frontier in marriage and family law. If states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, he argues, then why should they not go further and sanction, or at least decriminalize, marriages between one man and several women? According to Witte, "American states today already offer several models of state-sanctioned domestic life for their citizens: straight and gay marriage, contract and covenant marriage, civil union and domestic partnership... why not add a further option -- that of polygamous marriage?"

Permanent cohabitation rather than marriage -- Many continue their relationships in this way, even referring to each other as one's "husband" or "wife," despite no formal marriage. And they are comfortable maintaining this form of relationship while raising children in this context. As Koa Beck described in Salon, some view marriage as not so much a path to happiness but simply a legal contract that doesn't innately legitimize a commitment - and which one doesn't need.

Affairs -- These are almost commonplace today, and no longer shocking to most people. I've previously written about the psychology of six different kinds of affairs, in an effort to describe and understand how and why people enter them; and what the consequences may be, without judging them. In a follow-up article, I described examples of how an affair may prove to be psychologically healthy and liberating for some people. These are realities, despite the difficulty many people experience viewing those choices through anything but their own lens of moral or religious beliefs.

Redefining the family -- A New York Times special section by Natalie Angier focused on the changing notions of "family." I think the articles in that section portray the family implications of the shifts we're seeing in how people conduct their intimate relationships. That is, the variations of people's sexual and romantic lives affect family life, including what "family" really means. Angier writes, “Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago -- than even half a year ago. Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts' predictions of just a few journal articles ago.”

So - returning to the Pew survey data about how millennials perceive the relevance of marriage - the findings aren't hard to fathom, given the shifts throughout society towards more open diversity of relationships. The Pew poll asked people how they think about marriage and having children, and whether society is better off if people give priority to marriage. The percent saying "yes" declined from 61 percent among those over 65 to only 29 percent among millennials. And 69 percent of millennials said society is just as well off if people have "other priorities."

The fact is, as our society, culture and world become increasingly co-mingled and diverse we're witnessing a corresponding evolution in what men and women -- straight, gay; younger and older -- look for in the kinds relationship that they want to enter and build with a partner. This shift includes an increasing variety of ways that people conceive of their intimate partnerships and families. It's important to understand and learn from the psychological and social experiences of what people are actually doing; from what those experiences gradually reveal about what may -- or may not -- describe psychologically healthy individual lives, families and societies in this continuously evolving world.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

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