By Pamela Peters, MFT Intern
Consensual Nonmonogamy and Polyamory:
What Are They? Who Are They Best For?
Although we live in a culture that prescribes monogamy and considers infidelity abnormal and immoral, a 2017 study shows that more than 21% of people surveyed have practiced some sort of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM). Another study found that up to 5% of the U.S. population currently participates in consensually nonmonogamous relationships (CNMRs). What exactly is CNM? Let’s start with a few definitions.
Consensually nonmonogamous relationship
CNMR is any set of relationships where everyone knows about everyone else and that does not conform to the standard rules of monogamy. In CNMRs people may engage in many different types of relationships at the same time including cohabitating (nesting), long distance relationships, intimate, romantic, asexual, sexual, and many other types.
In polyamorous situations, a metamour is someone’s partner’s partner. “My spouse’s girlfriend is my metamour.”
People who are interested in mostly being committed to one person, with a few well-defined exceptions are considered monogamish. For example, a couple who allows partners who travel for business to have sexual liaisons with someone outside the marriage during business trips. Or, both partners are allowed to have a once-a-year fling with one specific person outside the marriage. Or, when partners are out socially they are allowed to flirt with others outside the marriage—or make out with others during specific events. Monogamish is a wide-open category where a couple can be flexible with the idea nonmonogamy.
Polyamory is one version of CNMR. The word comes from the Greek word for many (poly) and the Latin word for love (amor). Polyamorous people have intimate and loving relationships, which sometimes include a sexual or emotionally intimate component, with many people at the same time. Of course everyone involved consents to these arrangements. There are several categories of polyamory as well, including:
Is a term used for living together—which could mean two or ten people are in a nesting situation.
This is a relationship type where three people are in an equilateral triangle of committed relationships. No one relationship has priority over any other relationship.
Following from a triad, a quad is a set of four people in a set of either hierarchical or non-hierarchical relationships.
Similar to a triad, this relationship type involves three people. However, one person has two different relationships with two people who are not in an intimate relationship—thus the pivot person is the bottom of a Vee shape.
A group of humans who are connected through various romantic and intimate relationships. For example, a polycule can be a primary couple and each partner’s various outside partners, or, a committed quad including two couples who are all nesting.
When someone has one primary relationship, with other secondary “outside” relationships, one relationship may be called “the primary” and that partner can be called someone’s “primary” partner. This relationship designation indicates a set of relationship hierarchies, unlike a nonhierarchical set up, like a triad.
Relationship Anarchy (RA)
People practicing RA reject any societal rules about how relationships operate and look in the world. The only rules and expectations RA follows are the ones agreed upon by the people in the relationships. It is based on individual autonomy, anti-normativity, and usually is non-hierarchical. RA rejects societal expectations about the trajectory and expectations of relationships as well as sexual scripts.
People who swing most likely are couples in committed relationships who have sexual relationships with other couples—sometimes engaging in group sex, sometimes in partner “swapping.” They do not become emotionally or romantically involved with these other couples.
As you may gather from these definitions, there are thousands of variations of relationship types outside of monogamy. Since there is no one set way to be in CNMRs, people are really on their own to figure out how to engage in diverse relationship styles. Although several books have been published on the topic, and truly CNM has been around for centuries, most people today interested in experimenting with CNM must find their own way.
What if you are interested in the idea of polyamory? Is it for you and your partner? Following are a few reasons that people decide to open up their relationships to more than just one person.
1. Need fulfillment
People participating in CNMRs often discuss how their various partners provide different things for them. One partner might go backpacking with you while the other is your main emotional support person, while another co-parents your children. In this way CNMRs can relieve some of the pressure on a single intimate relationship to fulfill ALL of someone’s needs.
2, Sexual variation
Of course, sex might be what most people believe is the reason for folks to engage in CNMRs. This often is one component of CNMRs—however not always the main reason. Having more than one person to engage in a variety of sexual experiences can be the singular reason for folks in the swinging community. Another common story is a couple who is interested in different sexual activities and/or frequency. One partner might feel they must participate in the BDSM/kink community and the other is more “vanilla.” They might open up which can allow both partners to embrace their chosen sexual outlets.
3. Personal growth and development
Successfully opening one’s relationship up to other people requires self-awareness as well as a desire and strong ability to communicate. Many people believe that CNMRs provide the opportunity to for more personal growth and development than strict monogamy.
Many people who enter into CNMRs express wanting to feel body autonomy, which they can find when not committed to a single person in a traditional sense. Exploring relationship diversity promotes psychological fulfillment and authenticity.
These are only a few of the top reasons that people choose CNMRs. Other reasons include creating community, promoting honesty, and so on! Of course, just like monogamy isn’t right for everyone, not everyone is made for or desires CNMRs. If you are curious about whether you might be someone who has the temperament for CNM, complete the Bonding Project questionnaire. If you are interested in exploring some of the ideas here, contact Road to Growth for a consultation.