The popular media is saturated with messages regarding love, intimacy, and romantic relationships. In fact, as you read this, I am sure you can think of countless example of odes written by love-struck poets, romantic ballads, romance novels, romantic comedies, and relationship television shows (i.e., the Bachelor/Bachelorette). Clearly, our society is obsessed with romantic relationships. However, do the messages expelled by the popular media influence our thoughts and feelings regarding romantic relationships and, if so, how?
Well, according to researchers Bachen and Illouz (1996), approximately 90-94% of young people look to movies and television for information about romantic relationships, whereas only 33% turn to their mother and 17% to their father. In fact, they argue that this process starts at an incredibly early age in which children as early as eight have well-formed beliefs, feelings, and expectations regarding romantic relationships. I mean c’mon, I am sure we can all recall an experience chanting the popular nursery rhyme “Bobby and Susie sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
It turns out, that the information disseminated by the popular media certainly does play an integral role in shaping our thoughts and feelings regarding romantic relationships and this is accomplished through a process called socialization. Furthermore, the messages we receive with respect to romantic relationships are called relationship scripts (defined as cognitive structures that contain information regarding the key events that take place in romantic relationships and the order in which they occur). These scripts are argued to share three common themes. First, they are gendered, in which men are expected to adopt different roles in a romantic relationships than are women. Second, relationship scripts are heteronormative, meaning they should include two members of the opposite sex. Finally, relationships scripts are mononormative and prescribe that romantic relationships should involve two (and only two) people. This last relationship script theme (i.e., mononormativity) is the focus of this post and will be used to understand the societal stigma that plagues those in nonmonogamous relationships.
Stigma Resulting from Relationship Script Violations
Stigma in romantic relationships often stems from violations to what is considered the “normative relationship script.” For example, women who violate traditional gender roles (i.e., those who adopt an active role and initiate a first date) are often viewed less favorably than those who abide by the traditional relationship script. The same is true for those violating the mononormative-nature of relationship scripts, or those adopting a relationship structure other than monogamy. In fact, studies assessing attitudes toward adults participating in consensual nonmonogamy (CNM; defined as “romantic relationships that are negotiated between two or more people and are therefore nonexclusive, either sexually, emotionally, or in combination”) have traditionally demonstrated a considerable amount of stigma facing these individuals.
The Stigma Associated with Individuals Participating in Consensually Nonmonogamous Relationships
For example, in Conley and colleagues work (2013), a random sample of U.S. adults reported assuming that people in monogamous relationships were happier and more sexually satisfied than were those in CNM relationships. The stigma facing those in CNM relationships even extended to perceptions of the person’s overall character. In fact, individuals in monogamous relationships were perceived as better citizens (i.e., “law-abiding,” “well-educated,” “likely to volunteer in communities,” “charismatic”) than were those in CNM relationships.
Despite the well-documented evidence that has demonstrated a considerable amount of stigma surrounding CNM, recent research on attitudes towards CNM has produced some inconsistent findings. First, studies have uncovered that not all CNM stigma is created equal. In particular, in a recent study assessing attitudes toward initiators of CNM, those initiating open and polyamorous relationships were perceived less favorably than those initiating swinging and group sex relationships (Thompson, Hart, Stefaniak, & Harvey, 2017). These discrepant attitudes can likely be explained by the level of exclusivity characterizing each type of relationship. Because the mononormative component of relationship scripts depicts relationships as both emotionally and sexually exclusive, it is likely that people involved in relationships that preserve these exclusivity expectations are judged more favorably than those involved in relationships that violate these expectations. In particular, because swinging and group sex only violate the expectation of sexual exclusivity while preserving the expectation of emotional exclusivity, people favor these relationships over polyamory and open relationships (which violate both emotional and sexual exclusivity).
The second inconsistency relates to the extent to which those in CNM relationships are stigmatized. Although research has traditionally documented negative attitudes toward those in CNM relationships, recent research indicates that these attitudes are becoming more positive. For instance, in a study by Grunt-Mejer and Campbell (2016), attitudes related to the perceived relationship satisfaction, morality, and cognitive abilities of CNM couples (using a 6-point scale, in which 1 meant that the couple did not possess the trait at all and 6 meant that they possessed the trait to a large extent), were fairly neutral, as evidenced by means for all forms of CNM ranging from 3.47 to 4.58. Using the same scale, these results were replicated by Thompson and colleagues (2017), in which adults initiating CNM relationships were perceived neutrally-to-positively (reflected by ratings ranging from 4.02 to 5.15).
Based on these inconsistencies, is it safe to say that society is really becoming more accepting? Are we actually starting to embrace diversity, particularly among those choosing to adopt non-traditional relationship structures (i.e., CNM)? Or, perhaps, are people afraid to admit their biases? In other words, do people distort their responses on surveys to reflect neutral-to-positive attitudes, when in reality they harbor negative feelings and opinions towards those in CNM relationships?
Implicit Attitudes toward Consensual Nonmonogamy
Well, to answer this question, Thompson and her colleagues (2018) sought to determine whether stigma facing those in CNM relationships really is decreasing or if it is due biased responding. To accomplish this, a novel measure of attitudes was administered, one that assessed implicit attitudes rather than explicit. Because explicit measures assess self-reported attitudes, they are highly susceptible to biased responding and likely do not accurately reflect one’s true attitudes. Implicit measures, on the other hand, bypass these concerns by assessing implicit associations, which are automatic and involuntary responses to stimuli that occur outside of conscious awareness. Thus, because implicit associations exist just below conscious awareness, people are unable to fake or distort these associations/attitudes.
The way Thompson and her colleagues captured these implicit attitudes was through the use of a computer-based test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in which participants were asked to associate monogamy and CNM stimuli (i.e., words/images) with positive/negative stimuli. The data obtained from the IAT revealed that young adults were able to pair the monogamy stimuli with the positive stimuli more quickly than they were able to pair the CNM stimuli with the positive stimuli. In other words, young adults demonstrated a strong automatic preference for monogamy as compared to CNM, indicating that people are not necessarily becoming more accepting but that they are distorting their responses. **After reading this, I suggest you visit Project Implicit to sample some IATs for yourself.**
The Impact of Stigma on Individuals in CNM Relationships
Despite some of the inconsistencies reported in the research, there is no doubt that adults involved in CNM relationships face considerable stigma (whether it is implicit or explicit). This stigma is problematic because it can often lead to discrimination and victimization, resulting in a variety of mental health concerns. Although the byproducts of stigma have never been directly assessed using a sample of individuals in CNM relationships, concerns are expected to be consistent with those reported by other stigmatized groups (i.e., those identifying as a sexual minority). In fact, anecdotally speaking, those in CNM relationships experience concerns related to “coming-out,” workplace discrimination, being hyper-sexualized/having a negative impact on children, etc.
The negative outcomes associated with the stigma facing individuals in CNM relationships are even more concerning when you consider that that about 4-5% percent of Americans are currently involved in some form of CNM relationship and that about one-third report interest in engaging in a CNM relationship at some point (YouGov Survey). We are talking about millions and millions of people!
So, in an effort to promote inclusivity and equity for all, I challenge you. Help change the dialogue. Get people talking. After all, the best way to reduce stigma is to normalize the behavior. Educate and encourage others to refrain from making assumptions about one’s relationship structure. Motivate people to see the benefits of all forms of relationships and to stop making judgments about a person’s character based on their relationship structure.
After all “it doesn’t matter who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love, or how you love, it only matters that you love!” –John Lennon
Bachen, C. M., & Illouz, E. (1996). Imagining romance: Young people’s cultural models of romance and love. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 13, 279-308. doi:10.1080/15295039609366983
Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non‐monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13, 1-30. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2012.01286.x
Grunt-Mejer, K., & Campbell, C. (2016). Around consensual nonmonogamies: Assessing attitudes toward nonexclusive relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 45-53. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1010193
Thompson, A. E, Bagley, A., & Moore, E. A. (2018). Young Men and Women’s Implicit Attitudes toward Consensually Nonmonogamous Relationships. Psychology and Sexuality. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/19419899.2018.1435560
Thompson, A. E., Hart, J., Stefaniak, S., & Harvey, C. A. (2017). Exploring Heterosexual Adults’ Endorsement of the Sexual Double Standard among Initiators of Consensually Nonmonogamous Relationship Behaviors. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0866-4
Ashley Thompson is the director of the Sexuality and Relationship Science Lab and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Dr. Thompson’s research interests include attitudes and judgments relating to romantic and sexual interpersonal relationships, the onset and maintenance of these relationships, and the role of gender in romantic and sexual relationship experiences.
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