- About one in five Americans have engaged in some sort of consensual non-monogamy, or CNM, in their lifetimes — it’s about as common as owning a cat, researchers say.
- The ways that CNM emphasizes communication can be instructive for singles as well as people in other kinds of relationships.
- The process of differentiation — or knowing who you are and how you’re different from your partner — is another big factor in CNM that can help just about everyone.
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February is the season for celebrating romance. But amid all the chocolates, candlelit dinners, and diamond rings, here’s one image of idealized love you’re unlikely to see: an adoring husband kissing his wife goodbye as she heads out for a romantic date with her boyfriend.
According to a growing body of preliminary but compelling science, that’s a shame. Not only is consensual non-monogamy, or CNM, more common and less dysfunctional than stereotypes suggest, but the particular necessities of the arrangement — like staggeringly candid communication — can teach a thing or two to monogamous mates.
CNM: About as common (and weird) as owning a cat
The umbrella term of “consensual non-monogamy” covers everything from the casual sex of swingers to the loving, long-term relationships of polyamorists. If it involves more than two people, sex or love, and everyone has consented, then it’s CNM.
These relationships are more common than you likely think. Research shows something like 5% of Americans are involved in this type of arrangement at any given time and about one in five has engaged in some form of consensual non-monogamy in their lifetime.
“My colleagues and I joke around that this is equivalent to the number of people who own a cat,” said Heath Schechinger, a UC Berkeley psychologist and co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s task force on CNM. “You likely have friends and colleagues who are doing this, but you just don’t know about it.”
These relationships are also more normal than you probably imagine. Unflattering stereotypes of polyamorists as damaged, dysfunctional, or secretly coerced by pushy partners are all belied by research.
“Comparison studies looking at all of the gold standards for measuring relationship quality — relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, duration of the relationship, communication, etc. — show that consensually non-monogamous relationships perform equal or better than monogamous relationships,” Schechinger said.
Monogamy and non-monogamy may be similar in terms of outcomes and the demographics of participants, but it’s still true that CNM relationships tend to have unique habits that many folks involved in traditional monogamous pairings could benefit from.
1. They favor direct communication over standard scripts
Every expert agrees that non-monogamy is a communication-heavy lifestyle. “People in polyamorous relationships spend way more time talking than having sex,” said sociologist Elizabeth Scheff, who has written several books on polyamory. But the key lesson for others isn’t the sheer volume of communication, it’s the fact that everything is on the table. Rather than blindly following traditional expectations for relationships, which experts refer to as relationship “scripts,” non-monogamous couples tend to explicitly hash out and agree on how to run all aspects of their lives.
“Non-monogamy forces you to learn how to communicate openly and honestly with your partner(s) about awkward things, because otherwise it just doesn’t work. There is no default script to fall back on. You have to define what you are doing for yourself,” said Carrie Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia, and author of “What Love Is.” “But the thing is, everyone should be defining what they’re doing for themselves.”
Digging into your own authentic needs and wants can be particularly valuable for women, who may be especially constricted by traditional relationship scripts.
“If somebody wants to follow the traditional script exactly, if they would choose that for themselves from among all the alternatives, then great,” Jenkins said. “But in order for it to be a real choice, we need to stop pressuring and policing each other to conform. All these things we have learned to bundle together as ‘romance’ should actually be presented more like a buffet than a fixed menu. We should be able to pick and choose.”
2. Fire needs oxygen to burn
Just like a fire needs oxygen to burn, so does a relationship. Constant closeness suffocates attraction, as well as your sense of individuality and freedom. Because of the variety built into their arrangements, non-monogamous couples often find it easier to “oxygenate” their relationships.
“Successful non-monogamous couples become good at having separate individual lives and interests, true to their own nature,” explained psychotherapist Wayne Scott, who is himself in an open marriage. “People need to have independent interests and passions and experiences — it gives them richer lives and can even make them more interesting to their spouses.” The term therapists use for this process is “differentiation.”
“Differentiation has two components. There is self-differentiation: ‘This is who I am and what I want,'” Couples Institute cofounder Ellyn Bader explained for The Script. “The second involves differentiation from the other. When this is successful, the members of the couple have the capacity to be separate from each other and involved at the same time.” Like the experts on CNM that I spoke with, Bader also stresses how essential it is for a successful relationship.
“I think we can all identify with how, despite how much we might love someone, there’s limitations in terms of how much time is healthy for us to spend with them,” Schechinger agreed. He and several other experts suggested the book “Mating in Captivity” by Esther Perel for couples looking to “oxygenate” their relationship within a monogamous structure.
3. It takes a village
As Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel explained in his book “The All Or Nothing Marriage,” marriage in the old days was primarily an economic arrangement. These days it’s expected to provide us with nearly everything we could psychologically desire. Non-monogamous couples often have a better perspective from which to examine how feasible that is.
“Non-monogamous relationships tend to challenge a little bit more the notion that we necessarily have to meet all of our partner’s needs,” Schechinger said. “Expecting one person to be our best friend, our lover, companion, our co-parent, can put a significant amount of pressure on the relationship. Having another partner can relieve some of that pressure.”
Whether or not you’re up for opening your relationship, this principle holds. It’s healthy to look to a broader base of friends, relatives, and community members rather than just your spouse to have your needs met.
4. Jealousy is a prompt for self-examination
It will probably come as a surprise to many, but according to a 2017 study, polyamorists actually experience less jealousy than the conventionally paired. Partly that may be because those who are less inclined to jealousy are drawn towards CNM, but the non-monogamous also tend to conceive of and process jealousy differently.
For many traditional couples jealousy is a problem out there. It stems from bad behavior on the part of one partner and, essentially, that person needs to knock it off. Those who practice non-monogamy more often speak of jealousy as an internal issue, something in here. They see jealousy as a symptom of insecurity or anxiety that should be handled by introspection to identify the cause and identify better ways to cope.
5. Thoughtful transitions beat messy breakups
With the messiness of infidelity largely off the table thanks to rules and communication, non-monogamous relationships often evolve rather than explode. The sexual spark might fizzle, for instance, but a couple will agree to move on to being co-parents and friends without recrimination or over-the-top drama.
“Having that level of flexibility to be able to change relationships themselves over time to respond to the shifts of life is crucial for polyamorous folks, and I think would help monogamous people in long-term relationships figure out how to change and grow as life changes,” said Scheff.
Likewise, Scott suggested monogamous couples consider the possibility that not every affair need be a catastrophic deal breaker. “I’m not saying affairs are good things if a couple has made a sincere vow to be faithful. But maybe when affairs happen it’s an opportunity to work on more honest communication with each other and to reevaluate what’s important and how they measure devotion,” he says.
In other words, non-monogamous couples get to end things on their own terms, which is the overarching takeaway when you talk to those involved in the CNM community. With no script to follow, they must write their own stories. And in order to do that they must get to know their own needs, desires, and insecurities deeply.
This process of self-discovery and negotiation isn’t just for polyamorists, it’s something that truly any relationship can benefit from.