Amy C. Moors, and Jes L. Matsick
If you were to guess how many Americans, at some point in their life, have engaged in an open sexual and/or romantic relationship, what would be your estimate? 1 out of 10,000? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 10? We’re not talking about sexual infidelity or cheating here. We’re referring to consensual non-monogamy: relationships in which all partners involved explicitly agree to engage in sexual and/or romantic relationships with more than one person.
If you guessed that close to 20-25% of people have engaged in consensual non-monogamy, you’re correct. If your guess was much lower, you might be surprised to learn how common these relationships are. Across two national samples of Americans (nearly 9,000 people), researchers at The Kinsey Institute found that approximately 1 out of 5 Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point during their life.
To help put this into perspective: previous engagement in a consensually non-monogamous relationship is as common as having a pet cat. How mundane. An analysis of Google searches also indicates that people’s interest in seeking more information about consensual non-monogamy has markedly increased over the last 10 years. Yet, these relationships are highly stigmatized and considered a salacious act among the general public.
Many people in consensually non-monogamous relationships face fears related to social ostracism, discrimination, and legal ramifications for their unconventional relationships. Although stigma looms large for consensual departures from non-monogamy, what are some of the relationship and personal benefits that people in these relationships experience? What if, instead of focusing only on the stigma surrounding these relationships, we considered strengths of these relationships and the ways in which consensually non-monogamous relationships thrive?
Tell Us About Your Relationship Benefits
In our recent study, we explored the idea that there may be unique aspects to consensual non-monogamy. Specifically, we asked 175 people engaged in polyamorous, open, and swinging relationships: What are the benefits of consensual non-monogamy? We then looked for overarching patterns in people’s responses and compared these patterns to the benefits that people believe monogamy affords relationship partners.
On the surface level, this may seem like an excessively simple question—what are the benefits of your specific relationship?—to ask. However, the overwhelming majority of research conducted about love and intimacy in the fields of psychology and marital/family counseling have focused on people in monogamous relationships. Little is known about the benefits to being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Although people engaged in consensual non-monogamy may experience some of the same benefits as people engaged in monogamy, it seems plausible that people engaged in consensual non-monogamy are afforded some unique relationship and personal benefits—and vice versa with monogamy. For example, dog owners and cat owners may experience similar joys of companionship and comfort that accompany being a pet owner. However, most dog and cat owners would tell you that there are different perks to different animals. We can apply the same logic to thinking about people’s relationship choices: all relationships may afford similar benefits to some extent, but the defining characteristics of each relationship type likely provides a unique set of benefits to those involved.
Benefits Unique to Consensual Non-Monogamy
When we asked people to describe the benefits of consensual non-monogamy, sure enough, some benefits were similar to what we have found about monogamous relationships. However, three unique benefits described by people in consensually non-monogamous relationships emerged: 1) diversified need fulfillment, 2) variety of nonsexual activities, and 3) personal growth and development. It’s not to say that these benefits are only experienced by people in consensually non-monogamous relationships. But, these benefits were spontaneously mentioned and common among people engaged in consensual non-monogamy, and not among people engaged in monogamy.
Of the 175 people who took part in our study, nearly half (42%) mentioned diversified need fulfillment as a benefit of consensual non-monogamy. People described their relationships as “getting different mental/emotional/physical needs met” or “not expecting one partner to be ‘everything’ to me.” Some people even noted relief that they felt less pressure to fulfill all of their partners’ needs. Thus, people engaged in consensual non-monogamy perceived their open and honest engagement with multiple partners as affording them the ability to have a range of needs met.
Getting one’s needs fulfilled from relationships is central to many psychological theories—attachment theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and self-determination theory to name a few. It’s interesting that this benefit was particularly salient among people in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Feelings of self-worth, belonging, security, autonomy, and intimacy are some of the many needs that are linked with well-being and relationship satisfaction. Diversified need fulfillment was not only a unique benefit described by people in consensual non-monogamous relationships, it was also very common.
Another unique benefit of consensual non-monogamy described by 40% of the people in our study was a variety of non-sexual activities. Given that a central component of many consensually non-monogamous relationships is sexual intimacy with multiple people, these relationships are often stereotyped as sexually promiscuous or hedonistic. However, these hypersexual stereotypes run contrary to the frequency at which people were mentioning the benefit of non-sexual activities. In fact, sex and sexual intimacy was described as a benefit by both people engaged in consensual non-monogamy and monogamy at similar rates.
In terms of how people described the benefits of non-sexual activity variety, they perceived that their relationship allowed for a wide range of everyday (going to the movies) or adventurous activities (backpacking across Thailand)—because of their multiple partners. Some people went into great detail about how much they loved a certain activity (like going to the Opera), but their long-term partner was ambivalent or, sometimes, disliked that activity. However, as a function of consensual non-monogamy they often had another partner who enjoyed the activity. Other people simply said things like, “always something fun to do with partners, like date nights and movies” or “more everyday fun.”
The third benefit mentioned by one-third (32%) of people engaged in consensual non-monogamy and not by those engaged in monogamy was personal growth and development. Many people described this benefit as a journey of introspection where they expanded their horizons and grew as an individual. Some noted feelings of “freedom from restrictions” and that they can express their “full range of sexuality” which was not possible when they were monogamous.
This notion of personal growth is interesting to consider within our broader society that prioritizes monogamy and traditional marriages. People engaged in consensual non-monogamy often describe how it takes a great deal of processing to reconcile their newly adopted beliefs about ethical non-monogamy with beliefs about monogamy. For instance, one study found that members of a polyamory living community had regular support meetings to discuss overcoming possessiveness and jealousy, which they termed the “dominant culture hangover”.
Our research speaks to what relational and personal benefits that people get out of being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Regardless of how anyone wants to engage (or not) in romantic and/or sexual relationships, we all can learn from each other. Each relationship structure has some lesson to learn and garner different benefits.
It’s illuminating to find that people are thriving in their highly stigmatized relationships, or at the very least, experience unique strengths to their relationship arrangements. We encourage people, including scientists and therapists, to consider that consensually engaging in sex or intimacy with multiple people is not controversial. Instead, it is merely another ways of having a relationship. For some, consensual non-monogamy mirrors their ideals and desires. For others, monogamy aligns with their ideals and desires.
 Haupert, M. L., Gesselman, A. N., Moors, A. C., Fisher, H. E., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 43(5), 424-440.
 Moors, A. C. (2017). Has the American public’s interest in information related to relationships beyond “the couple” increased over time? Journal of Sex Research, 54(6), 677-684.
 Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier: Assessing stigma surrounding non-normative romantic relationships Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 1-30.
 Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Schechinger, H. (2017). Unique and shared relationship benefits of consensually non-monogamous and monogamous relationships: A review and insights for moving forward. European Psychologist, 22(1), 55-71.
 La Guardia, J. G., Ryan, R. M., Couchman, C. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Within-person variation in security of attachment: a self-determination theory perspective on attachment, need fulfillment, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(3), 367.
 Aguilar, J. (2013). Situational sexual behaviors: The ideological work of moving toward polyamory in communal living groups. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(1), 104-129.
Amy C. Moors is an incoming Assistant Professor of Psychology at Chapman University and a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. Her research spans the domains of gender, sexuality, relationships, and equity in higher education. Jes L. Matsick is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality, with a focus on LGBTQ issues and prejudice. Amy and Jes are feminist psychologists, long-time collaborators, and friends. Their collaborative peer-reviewed publications span sixteen journal articles and book chapters on the topics of consensual non-monogamy, gender, stigma, sexuality, and sexual health (e.g., as featured in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Preventive Medicine, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Current Directions in Psychological Science).