Consensual non-monogamy: Table for more than two, please

Admit it:  We have crushes, we have sexual fantasies, and sometimes we want to act on them—even when those crushes and fantasies aren’t about our current romantic partner.  Most of the time, we ignore these crushes and our fantasies go unfulfilled.  For some, cheating seems like an option.  However, for others, it is totally okay to pursue these crushes and fantasies outside a relationship.  Welcome to the emerging movement to rewrite the rules of romance: consensual non-monogamy.

Consensual Non-monogawhhhaattt?

Most of us desire (and have) a “one and only”—that one person who “completes” us in every way.  Humans tend to be serial monogamists, entering one sexually and romantically exclusive relationship after another (Pinkerton & Abramson, 1993).  However, in consensual non-monogamous relationships, people can have several “one and onlys,” or at least more than one sexual partner—and it is not considered cheating.  In fact, according to survey research conducted at the University of Michigan, approximately 4-5% of North American adults, when given the option to describe their relationship, indicate that they are engaged in consensual non-monogamy (CNM; e.g., swinging, open relationship, polyamory; Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2013; Rubin, Moors, Matsick, Ziegler, & Conley, in press).  Unlike people in monogamous relationships, those who engage in CNM agree on their relationship rules ahead of time, and they allow each other to have romantic and/or sexual relationships with others.  Thus, CNM differs from monogamy, such that all partners involved agree to have some form of extradyadic romantic and/or sexual relationships.

But, you may be thinking, isn’t that cheating?  Well, not exactly.  People differ in what kinds of behavior they consider cheating (Kruger et al., 2013).  Most people consider sexual intercourse with someone outside of the relationship to be cheating, but some people also consider more benign and ambiguous activities with others (e.g., holding hands, long hugs, telling jokes) cheating.  However, CNM offers a completely different spin on extradyadic behavior.  By actively negotiating which behaviors are acceptable to engage in outside of a dyadic relationship (or negotiating to opt out of a dyadic relationship), individuals engaged in CNM may be less likely to worry about whether or not an act is considered cheating—provided that all partners agree that the behavior is acceptable.  In fact, individuals in CNM relationships don’t feel the pangs of jealousy as strongly as monogamous individuals (Jenks, 1985) and often feel happy about their partner engaging in relationships with others (Ritchie & Barker, 2006).

Who is Open to CNM?

You might be thinking, is there a certain “type” of person who desires CNM?  Personality traits predict behavior in relationships in a variety of ways.  For instance, if you have a tendency to believe that other people can’t be trusted, you’re likely to experience jealousy in relationships.  In terms of preference for CNM, do people who avoid commitment and prefer casual relationships (known as avoidantly attached) prefer CNM?  And, do people who experience extreme jealousy and constantly worry about their partner leaving them for someone else (known as anxiously attached) cringe at the thought of engaging in CNM?  

To answer these questions, we (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopik, 2014) asked 1,281 heterosexual people, who had never engaged in CNM, to report their anxiety and avoidance in relationships, attitudes toward CNM (e.g., “If my partner wanted to be non-monogamous, I would be open to that”), and willingness to engage in CNM (e.g., “You and your partner”:  “go together to swinger parties where partners are exchanged for the night”; “take on a third partner to join you in your relationship on equal terms”).  Like you might be thinking, we found that highly avoidant individuals endorsed more positive attitudes toward CNM and were more willing to (hypothetically) engage in these types of relationships.  Moreover, highly anxious people had more negative attitudes towards CNM; however, anxiety was not related to desire to engage in these types of relationships, perhaps reflecting anxious people’s generally ambivalent approach to intimacy (Allen & Baucom, 2004).  Thus, it seems like people who are avoidant are open to CNM (that is, both swinging and polyamory) but anxious people are not. 

Although avoidant people feel positively about CNM relationships, are they more likely to actually be in CNM relationships than monogamous relationships?  In another study, we found that people in CNM relationships reported lower levels of avoidance compared to people in monogamous relationships (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, et al., 2014).  However, anxiety did not differ between people in CNM and monogamous relationships.  That is, avoidant people report a greater willingness to engage in CNM relationships, but ultimately, people in CNM relationships are lower in avoidance.  These findings suggest that people can exhibit aspects of attachment security (i.e., low levels of avoidance) without being sexually exclusive. 

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