This paper is the first of much research into polyamory that I intend to complete over the course of my education. This is unfortunately limited in scope and I look forward to future publications in which I can explore the many nuances of polyamorous lifestyles through an academic lense.
Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term for any type of relationship that involves extra-dyadic connections which can be sexual and/or romantic in nature. Under the umbrella of CNM there are several subcategories that are addressed in academic literature, primarily swinging (couple has sexual relationships with others, typically together), open relationships (couple has sexual relationships outside of the dyad), and polyamory (people engaging in multiple loving, intimate, and sexual relationships) (Balzarini, Campbell, Kohut, Holmes, Lehmiller, Harman, & Atkins, 2017; Conley, Matsick, Moors, & Ziegler, 2017; Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Zeigler, 2013; Johnson, Giuliano, Herselman, & Hutzler, 2015; Weitzman, Phillips, & Morotti-Meeker, 2010; Matsick, Conley, Ziegler, Moors, & Rubin, 2014; McCoy, Stinson, Ross, & Hjelmstad, 2015; Mitchell, Bartholomew, & Cobb, 2014; Moors, Rubin, Matsick, Zeigler, & Conley, 2014). This literature review focuses primarily on polyamory; however, since this is a relatively new field of study, much of the literature that exists covers polyamory as a part of larger studies about CNM.
Polyamorists and other practitioners of CNM may face similar challenges as other sexual minorities around legal recognition, stigma, and discrimination. Several studies have explored the stigma that alternative relationship practitioners face from employers, family, friends, governments, and even therapists (Johnson et al., 2015; Moors, Matsick, Ziegler, Rubin, & Conley, 2014; Weitzman et al., 2010). As a growing identity, practitioners of CNM are gaining greater social recognition and coming together to lobby for legal recognition and to fight stigma . n order to fight the stigmatic attitudes towards CNM a greater understanding of the nature of these relationship’s stability, validity, and success are needed to confront the cultural idea that monogamy is the only morally acceptable relationship style (Conley et al., 2013; Johnson et al., 2015; Matsick et al., 2014).
In order for polyamory to become socially accepted, individuals and institutions need to better understand the biases towards non-monogamy and the halo effect around monogamy (Conley et al., 2013; Matsick et al., 2014; Moors et al., 2013; Moors et al., 2014). The collected body of research provides evidence that consensually non-monogamous relationships are not pathological and provide many benefits to those who self select the relationship style (Conley et al., 2017, Weitzman et al., 2010; Berry & Barker, 2014; van Tol, 2017). This literature review covers prevalence and demographics, mononormativity, stigma and discrimination, problems with research, and considerations for psychology professionals who are working with ethically non-monogamous clients.
Prevalence and Demographics
Studies report that 4-5% of the American population practices some form of CNM (Balzarini et al., 2017; Conley et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015; Matsick et al., 2014; Moors et al., 2014), but due to being a stigmatized practice the actual number is likely higher (Johnson et al., 2015). Another study done with a nationally representative sample showed that 20% of single people surveyed had explored some form of CNM at one point in their life (Balzarini et al., 2017; Conley et al., 2017). A study of 3574 married couples revealed that 15-28% had agreements allowing for non-monogamy under certain conditions (Graham, 2014; McCoy et al., 2015). Rates of CNM in gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships are higher than in the general population, with studies reporting up to 28% of lesbian, 65% of gay male, and 33% of bisexual relationships (Graham, 2014; McCoy et al., 2015).
Most of the available research on this topic has been done in the USA, but a study done by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and The Family surveyed 547 polyamorous Canadians giving a snapshot of what Canadian polyamory looks like. A majority of respondents were between the ages of 25-44; 30% identified as male, 59.7% female, and 10.2% genderqueer, gender fluid, transgender, or other; 39.1% were heterosexual, 31% bisexual, and 29.9% identifying as homosexual, pansexual, or asexual. Their sample had significantly higher rates of post secondary education than the general population, 16.3% with college diplomas, 26.3% with undergraduate degrees, and 19.2% with a graduate degree or higher. Respondents were predominantly affluent, with 62.3% reporting an income between $80,000-$150,000 a year (Boyd, 2016).
In order to understand the stigmatic attitudes towards CNM, one must understand mononormativity, as this societal construct greatly influences attitudes towards alternative relationship styles. Mononormativity is the collection of assumptions and beliefs about monogamy that are generally accepted and unquestioned by a majority of the population (Berry & Barker, 2014; Johnson et al., 2015; McCoy et al., 2015; van Tol, 2017). There is an understanding that since everyone knows about monogamy and it is the normal and natural way of being in relationship it does not need to be assessed, questioned, or talked about (Johnson et al., 2015; van Tol, 2017). Mononormativity considers the couple over all else, normalizes jealousy, views alternatives as invalid or threatening, excludes non-monogamists from legal rights and protections, and promotes polyphobia (van Tol, 2017).
Many core aspects of traditional monogamous marriage have changed drastically in our modern culture, shifting from the idea of one and only forever, to a culture of compulsory serial monogamy in which individuals move from one monogamous relationship to another (van Tol, 2017). Although monogamous marriage is conceptualized as the ideal form of relationship, 43-46% of marriages end in divorce, and approximately 50% of married individuals engage in infidelity (Johnson et al., 2015). These statistics challenge the social construction of monogamy as the ultimate relationship format (van Tol, 2017).
Stigma and Discrimination
People who practice polyamory and other forms of CNM face a large amount of stigma for practicing a relationship style that goes against the mononormative standards of society. In a study done on need fulfilment in polyamorous relationships, 43% of participants reported experiencing discrimination for their relationship choices (Mitchell et al., 2014), and two other studies reported 25.8% facing discrimination in the last decade (Balzarini et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015). There are no legal protections for polyamorous relationships, so individuals can have their employment legally terminated due to their relationship (Conley et al., 2013, Weitzman et al., 2010). Stigmatic attitudes are increased when children are involved, and there are cases of children being removed from polyamorous households (Johnson et al., 2015, Weitzman et al., 2010).
Common stigmatic beliefs towards CNM relationships are that they are at high risk of sexually transmitted infections, low quality, lonely, less sexually satisfying, socially unacceptable, dysfunctional, immoral, and harmful to children (Conley et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015; Moors et al., 2014,). In right wing American political discourse, homosexuality and CNM have been equated to bestiality and incest (Conley et al., 2013; van Tol, 2017). People who favour monogamy rate polyamorous people as worse arbitrary tasks such as taking a daily multivitamin, recycling, and walking a dog (Conley et al., 2013, Matsick et al., 2014). Therapists are more likely to pathologize CNM clients than clients who are committing infidelity, perceiving them as more neurotic and likely to have personality disorders, and 20% said they would encourage their clients to return to monogamy (McCoy et al., 2015, Weitzman et al., 2010).
A study done at South Western University by Johnson et al. made a major contribution to future research into the stigma that is faced by polyamorous individuals. This study designed and validated the Attitudes Towards Polyamory scale which measures stigma. Their results were aligned with their hypotheses that stated that people who hold authoritarian, conservative beliefs, traditional values, and positive attitudes towards monogamy have negative attitudes towards polyamory, and that people who are more liberal, thrill seeking, sex positive, open minded, with higher sexual desires have positive attitudes towards polyamory (Johnson et al., 2015). This scale can be used in the future to assess the impact of stigma on polyamorous individuals, their children, and/or their relationships (Johnson et al., 2015). Negative outcomes in polyamorous relationships could be due to the stress of being closeted, not being able to include their partners in various aspects of their life such as family gatherings which can result in the secret partner feeling devalued (Balzarini et al., 2017, van Tol, 2017; Weitzman et al., 2010). Much research has been done into the negative physiological and psychological effects of stigma on sexual minorities (Johnson et al., 2015, Conley et al., 2013). One study showed that sexual minorities living in an area with high levels of stigma have a life expectancy 12 years shorter than those who do not (Johnson et al., 2015).
Although a majority of research into perceptions of CNM relationships have focused on CNM in general, it should be noted that a study done in 2013 by Mastsick et al. specifically focused on perceptions of polyamory versus other types of CNM and found that polyamory was generally perceived more favourably than swinging or open relationships, suggesting that individuals are more likely to stigmatize a relationship that is based on sex without love (2014).
Benefits of Polyamory
Despite widespread stigma, the research done on CNM provides evidence that many of these negative beliefs are unfounded (Graham, 2014; Johnson et al., 2015). Some of the benefits cited in the available literature are increased autonomy, freedom, deeper social connections, and high levels of self awareness (Balzarini et al., 2017, Conley et al., 2017; Graham, 2014; Johnson et al., 2015). Polyamory can help members of long term, loving, companionate marriages to get their romantic or sexual needs met outside of the relationship, which can help to prevent divorce (Weitzman et al., 2010). One major study done by Conley et al. compared different forms of CNM with monogamy and found that practitioners in her sample reported high levels of honesty, intimacy, closeness, happiness, communication, and low levels of jealous behaviours and cognitions. In contrast, the monogamous participants scored significantly higher on anticipated jealousy (2017).
Because of the high levels of expected openness and honesty with clearly negotiated boundaries and agreements, people who engage in CNM are more likely to effectively practice safer sex techniques compared to individuals who engage in secret non-monogamy, and recent studies have challenged the assumption that monogamy is an effective strategy for preventing STI transmission (Conley et al., 2013; Moors et al., 2014).
Polyamory seems to have wide reaching social benefits, with many polyamorous individuals connecting to a wider social network that share similar identities and values, and networks of polyamorous relationships form a type of extended family (Graham, 2014; Weitzman et al., 2010). In cohabiting polyamorous relationships there are more time and financial resources shared between the group which can help with the cost of living and in providing childcare (McCoy et al., 2015, Weitzman et al., 2010). In order to maintain complex intimate relationship networks individuals must be highly skilled in communicating and negotiating needs and boundaries and as such the communication that is expected in polyamory is “demonstrably the most effective method of communication for maintaining dyadic relationships (Conley, 2017 p. 212).”
Limitations and Considerations
Most research into polyamory and other forms of CNM is conducted via online surveys using convenience sampling methods drawing from online communities (Balzarini et al., 2017; Conley et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015; Matsick et al., 2014; Mitchell et al., 2014). Sexual minorities surveyed in this way may be motivated to provide more positive or socially acceptable answers to questions in order to validate their relationship style (Conley et al., 2017s). Using this method of data collection means that most research is limited in its generalizability (Conley et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015;Matsick et al., 2014; Mitchell et al., 2014).
Surveyed populations in CNM research are predominantly well educated, affluent, white, North Americans (Boyd, 2016; Conley et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2015; Matsick et al., 2014; Mitchell et al., 2014, van Tol, 2017). Cultural groups, racial minorities, individuals of lower socioeconomic classes, and individuals who practice more radical forms of polyamory are underrepresented in the literature (Balzarini et al., 2017; Conley et al., 2017; Mitchell et al., 2014).
A large amount of research is focused on CNM in general instead of specifically on polyamory (Johnson et al., 2015), and most of the research into polyamory focuses specifically on polyamorous individuals who have a relationship with only two people, which could create a moral hierarchy that favours a more mononormative style of polyamory if research is not done into other variations (Moors et al., 2014). One study excluded 2428 of their 3530 participants due to them practicing non-hierarchical polyamory (Balzarini et al., 2017) and another lost a third of their sample because they reported more than two partners (Mitchell et al., 2014).
Due to being a highly stigmatized form of relationship and monogamy being viewed as the ideal form of relationship research into relationship functioning has a heavy bias towards monogamy (Conley et al., 2017s). Researchers who present information on CNM are perceived as more biased than researchers who present research on monogamy, even though no significant empirical research into the superiority of monogamy has been done (Conley et al., 2017s).
Considerations for Psychology Professionals
There is a lack of training for working with CNM in institutionalized education for psychology students, as most current relationship theories about centralize a monogamous dyad and most research in relationship theory is done from a western, mononormative perspective (Conley et al., 2013; Conley et al., 2017; Weitzman et al., 2010). Considering that most traditional therapists tend to uphold the dominant values of a society, it is important to consider the potential for psychology professionals to pathologize their clients (Balzarini et al., 2017; Conley et al, 2013; Graham, 2014). It is advised that when working with non-monogamous clients that therapists be aware of their own internal biases and work to familiarize themselves with the available literature so as to avoid perpetuating stigma in their therapeutic relationships (Berry & Barker 2014; Graham, 2014; McCoy et al., 2015; van Tol, 2017; Weitzman et al., 2010).
Of the collected articles used in this literature review, the following articles made the most impactful contributions, though each article highlighted important aspects of a large and varied topic. The article “Development of a brief measure of attitudes towards polyamory” by Johnson Et al. provides a measurement to test the level of stigma that individuals hold, which can be used in further research to assess the level of stigma held by therapists, government agents, families, and employers (2014). This scale can be used to help understand and combat stigmatic beliefs as polyamory gains traction as a socio-political movement.
Conley et al.’s paper “Investigation of consensually non-monogamous relationships: theories, methods, and new directions” is a two part study that examines the bias towards monogamy and how that impacts conducting effective research about CNM, as well as determining that researchers who present positive research on CNM are perceived as more biased than if they promoted monogamy with their work (2017). This demonstrates that the stigma against polyamory and other forms of CNM are ingrained in the academic institutions in which research is being conducted, which further suggests a cultural bias towards monogamy.
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom published a handbook in 2010 titled What Psychology Professional Should Know About Polyamory that provides psychology professionals with a foundational knowledge to prepare them for working with consensually non-monogamous clients (Weitzman et al., 2010). Practicing therapists are not immune to perpetuating stigma through conscious or unconscious biases and many polyamorous individuals have been pathologized by psychology professionals (Conley et al., 2017; Moors et al., 2014; Weitzman et al., 2010).
There are many areas in this field that warrant further study with larger population samples to gain a greater understanding of this social phenomenon. Possible areas of research could be the effect on children of growing up in a polyamorous family; different styles of polyamory and CNM; effective therapeutic interventions for polyamorous relationships; and longitudinal research on the quality of polyamorous relationships. As a culture we are moving away from the binary expressions of sexuality, gender, and monogamy and towards a broader spectrum of human expression and connection, because of this many individuals will seek new ways of being in the world. It is important that the field of psychology recognizes mononormative biases and bases its understanding in high quality empirical research.
Balzarini, R. N., Campbell, L., Kohut, T., Holmes, B. M., Lehmiller, J. J., Harman, J. J., & Atkins, N. (2017). Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory. Plos ONE, 12(5), 1-20. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177841
Berry, M. D., & Barker, M. (2014). Extraordinary interventions for extraordinary clients: Existential sex therapy and open non-monogamy. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 29(1), 21-30. doi:10.1080/14681994.2013.866642
Boyd, J.P. (2016). Polyamorous families in Canada: Early research from CRILF. Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. AB Law.
Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories, methods, and new directions. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 12(2), 205-232. doi:10.1177/1745691616667925
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 & Public Policy, 13(1), 1-30. doi:10.1111/j. 1530-2415.2012.01286.x
Graham, N. (2014). Polyamory: A call for increased mental health professional awareness. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 43(6), 1031-1034. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0321-3
Johnson, S. M., Giuliano, T. A., Herselman, J. R., & Hutzler, K. T. (2015). Development of a brief measure of attitudes towards polyamory. Psychology & Sexuality, 6(4), 325-339. doi:10.1080/19419899.2014.1001774
Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348. doi: 10.1080/19419899.2013.832934
McCoy, M. A., Stinson, M. A., Ross, D. B., & Hjelmstad, L. R. (2015). Who’s in our clients’ bed? A case illustration of sex therapy with a polyamorous couple. Journal Of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(2), 134-144. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2013.864366
Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. J. (2014). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. Journal Of Sex Research, 51(3), 329-339. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.742998
Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., Rubin, J. D., & Conley, T. D. (2013). Stigma Toward Individuals Engaged in Consensual Nonmonogamy: Robust and Worthy of Additional Research. Analyses Of Social Issues & Public Policy, 13(1), 52-69. doi:10.1111/asap. 12020
Moors, A. C., Rubin, J. D., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Conley, T. D. (2014). It’s not just a gay male thing: sexual minority women and men are equally attracted to consensual non- monogamy. Journal Fur Psychologie, 22(1), 1-13
van Tol, R. (2017). I love you, and you, and you too: Challenges of consensual nonmonogamy in relationship therapy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 47(4), 276-293.
Weitzman, G., J. D., Phillips, R. A., Jr., & Morotti-Meeker, C. (2010). What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory (J. R. Fleckenstein, Ed.). National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
*Image credit to https://www.facebook.com/polyteenagers/