Consensual Non-Monogamy: A Year of Sex Research in Review

There is nothing new about the practice of Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)—an umbrella term that captures polyamory, swinging, and various other forms of ethically "open" relationships—but you wouldn't be blamed for thinking it was a new fad or trend given the surge of attention the topic has received in 2018. From polyamory being profiled in Time Magazine and Rolling Stone, to being fodder for conversation on the Today Show, more and more of us seem to be curious about relationships that go beyond the traditional monogamous structure.

And we sure seem to have a lot of questions about CNM relationships. Are polyamorous folks more hedonistic and pleasure-focused? Are CNM relationships less satisfying than monogamous ones? How do folks in CNM relationships manage potential jealousy? Do people who practice CNM feel their relationships would be accepted by their friends and family? And what role might this potential fear of judgment have on relationship quality and mental health?

While we don't yet have empirical sex research to answer all of these questions, researchers studying CNM have made some big strides this past year. Here are 5 of the biggest findings from the science of CNM relationships from 2018:

1. Consensual Non-Monogamous Relationships are Just as Healthy and Satisfying as Monogamous Ones

A common belief about CNM relationships is that people who engage in CNM are less satisfied than those in monogamous relationships. But Dr. Jessica Wood, a Research Associate at York University and the University of Guelph, has not found any support for these claims over the course of her research. In one of her more recent studies, published in the Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, Wood analyzed data from 206 monogamous couples and 142 nonmonogamous couples. She and her colleagues compared participants on scales that tapped into sexual motives, need fulfillment, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction and found there were no significant differences in sexual or relationship satisfaction between monogamous couples and those in CNM relationships.1

2. Having Our Sexual Needs Met in One Relationship Can Have a Positive Impact on an Additional Sexual Relationship

Contrary to the belief that being involved in multiple relationships would spread our energy or resources too thin, a recent study published in the Journal of Social & Personal Science suggests that the opposite might be true.2 That is, there may be a positive spillover effect in which having our needs fulfilled in a "primary" relationship can have a positive impact on another intimate relationship.

Dr. Amy Muise, an associate professor at York University, shares that across her studies, "having a primary partner who is high in sexual communal strength"—that is, having a partner who is highly motivated to meet our sexual needs—"is associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction in a secondary relationship." She cautions, however, that there are some potential individual differences to keep in mind. Specifically, Dr. Muise says that "CNM relationships might be most beneficial when the primary relationship is communal"—that is, when partners are motivated to be responsive to each other needs—"and in CNM, being communal may mean that you are comfortable with others meeting your partner's needs."

3. Why We're Having Sex Matters More Than Our Relationship Structure

Another curiosity some of us have when it comes to consensual non-monogamy is about sexual experiences and motivations for sex. For example, are folks in CNM more pleasure-focused and having sex for more hedonistic reasons? Dr. Wood indicates that in her research comparing monogamous couples to those in CNM relationships, participants in both relationship structures reported having sex for many of the same reasons.1 She notes, though, that "CNM participants were more likely (on average) to report motives related to the enjoyment of sex itself, their own values regarding sex and relationships, and to satisfy their own sex drive." Dr. Wood believes, however, that our reasons for having sex matter more than what type of relationship we are in. She states: "When people feel in control of their sexual encounters and are engaging in sex because they value sex or want to experience pleasure and closeness, they report higher need fulfillment and therefore higher satisfaction, regardless of whether they are in a monogamous or CNM partnership."

4. We Are Most Accepting of "Primary" Partners

Despite a growing acceptance of polyamorous and CNM relationships, as a society, we still prioritize and value monogamous relationships. Even when individuals participate in CNM relationships, research suggests we tend to treat "primary" relationships differently than other sexual and/or romantic partners. Dr. Rhonda Balzarini, a postdoctoral researcher at York University, suggests that this might be due to fears of judgment from friends and family and indicates that this can be burdensome for those in CNM relationships. "Research suggests that primary partners in polyamorous relationships resemble monogamous partners in many ways, though secondary partners in polyamorous relationships seem to diverge, and bear the brunt of less acceptance and commitment, though greater secrecy and proportion of time spent on sex," explains Balzarini.

5. Many Therapists Are Unprepared to Work with CNM Clients

In a study of 249 CNM-identified individuals looking for therapy, many participants indicated that their therapist was either judgmental of their choices or simply unprepared to offer appropriate services.3 Dr. Heath Schechinger, a Licensed Counseling Psychologist and co-chair of the APA Division 44 Consensual Non-Monogamy Taskforce, says: "Our participants repeatedly mentioned how harmful their therapists lack of education about CNM and judgmental attitudes were. Over half of our participants indicated that their therapist held judgmental or pathologizing views of consensual non-monogamy, and one-fifth of our participants reported that their therapist lacked the basic knowledge of consensual non-monogamy issues necessary to be effective." In response to this concern, he has started a petition to support relationship diversity issues in therapy.

What We Still Need to Learn About CNM Relationships

Despite great strides made in our understanding of CNM relationships, some of the top researchers in the field have a number of other important questions they want answered.

1. Start by Moving Away From the Black & White Approach to Studying CNM

Dr. Wood notes that CNM relationships are too often discussed in a dichotomous way that leaves little room for exploring the nuances of these relationship structures. Her belief is that this is doing a disservice to the more complex nature inherent to all relationships. "The literature has been criticized for presenting either celebratory representations of CNM (as amazing radical, perfect alternatives to monogamy) or as “dangerous” alternatives that will ruin relationships," Wood states. She argues that "relationships, whether they are CNM or monogamous, are complex and people need space to be able to discuss these complexities without fear of further stigmatization."

2. Explore How People Navigate Challenges in Their CNM Relationships

Given that our society continues to hold monogamy as the gold standard and social norm, many folks who want to enter into a polyamorous relationship, or some other form of CNM, are navigating their relationships with less information than those of us in monogamous relationships. Dr. Wood suggests there is a value in learning more about the obstacles these individuals might face and what strategies they use to overcome those challenges in order to have successful and satisfying CNM relationships. "I'd love to see research that examines people's transitions to a CNM relationship and follows them over time. What strategies do people use to that help them navigate opening up a previously monogamous relationship," Wood says.

3. Improve on How CNM Research Data is Being Collected

Dr. Balzarini agrees in the value of studying CNM relationships over time. Balzarini indicates that it's not only what questions we are asking in CNM research that needs to be addressed, but how we are asking those questions. Specifically, she states that a shortcoming of the current research on CNM is that it has been mostly focused on individuals who report on their experiences at one point in time. She notes that what is often missing from the literature is the perspective of the other partner (or partners) and what we might learn from collecting data over time to see how relationships evolve and take shape. Within this context, Balzarini is particularly interested in exploring "how acceptance, secrecy, commitment, and time spent on sex impacts partners and how these processes are shaped by partners."

4. Understand The Potential Mental Health Challenges Unique to CNM Identified Individuals

Dr. Schechinger indicates that we also have a long way to go in terms of understanding the mental health of folks that participate in CNM relationships. "We know very little about the impact of CNM stigma on mental health. The process in which stigma and discrimination create a hostile environment that leads to increased mental health problems is known as minority stress. We also know that CNM relationships are stigmatized and that other sexual minorities who are disproportionately exposed to rejection, discrimination, and victimization tend to experience more mental health burdens and as a result, utilize mental health services more frequently than heterosexual individuals. We don’t, however, know how this applies to the CNM population," says Dr. Schechinger.

5. Examine How Sexual Needs Are Being Fulfilled

Finally, Dr. Muise continues to be curious about the nuances of how sexual and other needs are met when people engage in CNM relationships. "Personally, I am interested in how having needs fulfilled in one relationship are associated with satisfaction and fulfillment in another concurrent relationship [and whether] CNM relationships help people meet more of their needs." She is also interested in understanding whether there might possibly be "unique processes leading to fulfillment given that people in CNM relationships may be diversifying their need fulfillment across multiple relationships and are negotiating multiple partnerships."

Sarah Hunter Murray