A New Monogamy? The Rising Popularity Of Open Relationships

Stigmatization of consensual non-monogamy in western society

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is growing in prevalence in western society, with this relationship orientation practised by many individuals across the world. There exists numerous motives why individuals choose CNM as a way of engaging intimately with other people, with great relationship satisfaction reported by many practising non-monogamy. Stigmatization of consensual non-monogamy is widespread in western culture, with a monogamous and heteronormative idea of relationships often resulting in prejudice to those who identify outside this relationship frame. Different ways of engaging in CNM have with them different levels of prejudice both from the monogamous and non-monogamous populations in western culture. The stigmatization extends into the health care system as well as in academic research, with prejudices around CNM affecting those individuals in these relationships in a multitude of ways.

What exactly is consensual non-monogamy and how common is this relationship style?

Monogamy is defined as a practice of being in a committed romantic and/or sexual relationship with one individual. CNM involves sexual or romantic relationships with others outside of a relationship with the consent of all in involved, the dynamics of these configurations differing with each individual. CNM can include polyamory, open relationships or swinging, with different definitions describing each of these ways of being consensually non-monogamous. Polyamory involves multiple relationships with an emotional connection, swinging describes a couple participating in sexual experiences with others with both partners present and an open relationship consists of a couple participating in sexual experiences without the other partner being present. Despite monogamy being the most common relationship dynamic in western society, CNM is growing in prevalence.

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Why are individuals choosing non-monogamy? Relationship satisfaction and sexual identity theories

Various studies comparing the relationship satisfaction of monogamous and non-monogamous individuals indicate that on average, those in consensual non-monogamous relationships report feeling equally as satisfied in their relationships as individuals in monogamous relationships. Perceptions of wild jealousy and relational disturbances in consensual non-monogamous relationships are commonly held by many in western society, with the research indicating this is not always the case. Feelings of joy and pleasure have been widely reported by individuals in consensual non-monogamous relationships when describing the reaction to partners being intimately involved with other people. Despite jealousy being positively correlated with relationship longevity (which is theorised as being a beneficial evolutionary trait) jealousy also leads to lower relationship satisfaction. Research has shown that those in consensual non-monogamous relationships reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and lower levels of jealousy. The perceptions that monogamous relationships are more satisfying are widespread however not represented in the research when comparing non-monogamous and monogamous individuals.

Research exploring the reasoning behind individuals choosing consensual non-monogamy has established several theories as to why polyamory specifically could be considered a sexual orientation. For some people who are in polyamorous relationships, it is linked to their identity whilst for others polyamory is a convenient label that describes the dynamics of their multiple relationships. Polyamory as a sexual identity is debatable, with some individuals claiming it to be an engrained defining aspect of who they are whilst others view it as a relationship orientation they have chosen. Whether one considers consensual non-monogamy as an identifying aspect of who they are or whether it simply defines their relationship style is up to the individual to decide.

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Stigmatization of consensual non-monogamy

A great deal of prejudice exists in society towards individuals who are engaging in some form of CNM, with those committed to non-monogamy reporting a great deal of discrimination because of their relationship choices. The cultural norm of monogamy has resulted in this way being the most widely acceptable in western cultures which ultimately leads to those outside of this relationship style receiving scrutiny because of the dynamics of their relationships. A study showed that individuals with certain traits such as political conservatism or religiosity were more likely to judge polyamory negatively, with individuals who had been previously exposed to polyamorous relationships having generally more positive attitudes towards these consensual non-monogamous relationships. There exist misperceptions in western culture of monogamous relationships being the ideal, with beliefs around a healthy relationship seen as existing between a man and a woman. CNM challenges the idea that a heteronormative, monogamous relationship is the only possible healthy relationship dynamic.

Different ways of being consensually non-monogamous have varying degrees of stigmatization, with swinging and open relationships being judged more negatively than polyamory. As polyamory involves relationships with a component of love and emotion, whereas swinging and open relationships involved sexual engagements with others, polyamory was seen as the most acceptable form of CNM (Certainly love and emotion can be involved in swinging and open relationships – the emphasis is not on this generally speaking). As well as stigmatization from the general public, these judgements exist amongst the consensual non-monogamous population, with research indicating that some polyamorists negatively judge those practicing swinging or open relating.

The stigmatisation of consensual non-monogamous relationships has many negative repercussions to individuals in this population.  Along with discrimination from general society, non-monogamous individuals report a lack of acceptance from family and friends. This lack of support can lead to lower levels of self-esteem and poorer self-reported health symptoms. Prejudice and stigmatisation has also been associated with chronic stress, with this negatively affecting individual’s mental and physical health. Some individuals in non-monogamous relationships will avoid disclosing the dynamics of their relationships to others for fear of discrimination which leads to a lack of transparency that those in monogamous relationships have with their relationships. Despite the negative repercussions that correlate with the discrimination of non-monogamous individuals, the benefits of this relationships style outweigh the negatives for many people.

Consensual non-monogamy and health care

Due to the lack of awareness and acceptance of CNM by much of western society, those in consensual non-monogamous relationships can encounter misunderstandings from certain health care providers. Romantic relationships and sexual encounters outside of a monogamous relationship can often be viewed as a symptom of a difficult relationship despite these being agreed upon in CNM. The notion of non-monogamy being unhealthy can be carried by some therapists resulting in difficulties accessing bias free and supportive therapeutic interventions during times of relationship instability. This can cause individuals in consensual non-monogamous relationships to be reluctant accessing therapy when needed.

Creating greater knowledge and understanding of consensual non-monogamy is necessary in western cultures in order to ensure the health and well-being of individuals living in this relationship style. Its growth in western society shows it is becoming more acceptable however there is still a great way to go to ensure less stigmatisation upon this population.

Author: Stephanie Curtis. BA Nursing; Grad Dip Sexology

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