Why Is There Still A Stigma Around Non-Monogamy?
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Consensual non-monogamy is on the rise. Research shows one in five people engage in some form of CNM (which includes polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and other relationship configurations that allow for intimacy between more than two people) at some point in their lives. Experts estimate about 4 to 5 percent of Americans are in some form of CNM relationship at any given point in time, which is about the same amount of Americans who identify as LGBT. Although there's still a long, long way to go, a huge global movement has helped lift up LGBTQ people and made the fight for their rights, social acceptance, and inclusion become central to the idea of social justice, feminism, and progressivism. But for people in CNM relationships, that wholehearted embrace still has yet to come.
Take a recent study from the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy that revealed how people tend to dehumanize those in CNM relationships. Researchers asked 455 straight people to evaluate a series of hypothetical couples, including some monogamous, some consensually non-monogamous, some straight, and some gay. CNM couples were described in less human terms—they were seen as having less love, compassion, and remorse and as having more "animalistic" emotions like lust and fear. People in CNM relationships were even more dehumanized than gay men, suggesting people might have even more prejudice against people for being consensually non-monogamous than for being gay.
"CNM relationships are perceived as an immoral departure from the ideal monogamous relationship typically conveyed by society, are often disapproved of, and are targets of negative attitudes and prejudice," the researchers wrote in the study paper. "Compared to monogamous relationships, CNM relationships are negatively appraised across different attributes (e.g., less committed, intimate, sexually satisfactory, and socially accepted), as are individuals who practice them (e.g., less satisfied with life, less caring, less kind)."
Past research has found the stigma around CNM also extends to personality traits, the researchers note, with people in CNM relationships considered less intelligent and as having fewer morals.
Of course, these prejudices are in direct contrast to the actual experiences of consensually non-monogamous people, who often have very healthy relationship practices and report being very committed to their primary partner. So where exactly is the stigma coming from?
Our puritanical roots are still affecting us.
"Many of our cultural traditions and values are still heavily shaped by our puritanical roots and religious institutions that still hold great power in our society today," says Anna Dow, a licensed marriage and family therapist who regularly works with people in CNM relationships and who herself has been in them. "The surface level answer to where the stigma stems from is mainstream media. When we dig deeper, however, it's important to acknowledge that the media we consume is largely shaped by Puritan religious roots."
Indeed, the researchers point out that a lot of the negative perceptions of CNM relationships mirror the way people continue to judge anyone who has a lot of sex with a lot of different people, all based on the old-school, faith-based notion of sex being reserved for the context of love and emotional connection. As Dow points out, a lot of movies and television still subtly nod toward this view of sexuality; our entire idea of romance is largely shaped by the love stories we see on screens big and small, many of which herald the idea of two "soul mates" coming together and choosing each other forever.
"The stigma and judgment against CNM comes from the notion that there is a hierarchy of 'goodness' in the way we conduct our lives, and a monogamous relationship is high on this hierarchy," explains Megan Jacoby, another licensed marriage and family therapist who works with people in CNM relationships. "Society is most comfortable with two individuals (preferably straight, cis individuals) coming together, falling in love, entering into a monogamous commitment, having children, and then functioning mainly as parents, focusing on the upbringing of children rather than any individual wants and needs. We find this particular road to be 'good,' whereas someone who, say, does not partner, has multiple sexual or romantic partners, or even doesn't have children, is 'bad.' These are long-held beliefs that take a very long time to challenge."
Our fear of infidelity can be blinding.
The researchers also theorize that many associate the idea of non-monogamy with cheating. Even though these stigmatized people are choosing non-monogamy consensually and with ethical, healthy communication practices behind them, outsiders look at the lifestyle and are only able to understand it through their own monogamous framework. To them, the very idea of CNM may trigger the feelings of fear, jealousy, and insecurity that they know they themselves would personally feel in that situation.
"We humans tend to view the world through lenses of our own projections," Dow explains. "My father's reaction to my CNM lifestyle was a clear example of this. After much thought he realized his struggle in acceptance was due to his desire for me to experience the same joy he has through monogamy. Once he acknowledged that we find joy in different things, his approval increased. When people have strong reactions to other people's choices, it's often due to similar projections of how making that choice would feel to them. In the case of CNM, those projections tend to inspire intense reactions because they strike our most vulnerable feelings of love—including fear, shame, and heartache."
The effects of the stigma.
Why does all this matter? It's a matter of civil rights and acceptance. Many people in CNM relationships must stay closeted about the nature of their relationships for fear of ridicule or worse. Jacoby and Dow have both worked with clients in CNM relationships who've dealt with negativity from the monogamous people around them. The effects can be incredibly psychologically damaging—and socially dangerous.
"From those in more than one relationship who have to hide all but one relationship from their families (thus leading partners to not feeling prioritized/loved/respected) to those who have lost jobs to those who have lost friendships, CNM folks are used to having to gauge how honest they can be with others," Jacoby says. "Often, CNM folks feel they need to explain themselves or downplay their sexual and romantic preferences in order to make themselves seem more 'normal.' This all can lead to isolation, putting up with problematic behaviors in relationship rather than looking externally to friends and family for help, distancing from loved ones, depression, and anxiety."
How to cope.
If you're currently in a CNM relationship and facing disrespect, discrimination, or dehumanization from the people around you, Jacoby emphasizes that it's OK to choose to remain private about your identity. Without widespread acceptance and support, making the choice to stay closeted can often be the safest and most comfortable option—and you should be compassionate toward yourself if this is what you need.
Even if you do choose to keep your identity a secret, she still recommends seeking out a support network of either other CNM people or at least a few educated, open-minded folks whom you can confide in when you need help or support. Look for people you can talk to about your relationship concerns without their immediate response being a critique about CNM itself; that will only wear you down and make you feel more isolated. Many large cities have polyamorous Meetup groups and social events, which can be found through Google searches and can be great places to connect with like-minded people.
Dow also recommends prioritizing self-care and self-development. "Make sure you make time to nurture yourself so you can stay grounded and confident amid whatever negativity may come your way," she says. "The more secure your foundation is within yourself, the less external judgments will be able to rattle you."
Lastly, Jacoby adds, "If they feel able to, I encourage CNM folks in positions of privilege to be out, because visibility is the most effective long-term way to combat stigma."
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