With growing rates of other relationship structures, we should, as a society, re-adjust our negative attitudes to these new forms, in efforts to become more understanding and accepting. Moreover, with these discoveries is the opportunity to analyze whether there may be a sense to why these new forms are becoming more attractive, or emerging at all. In this paper, the term Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) will be used to refer to “intimate romantic relationships that are sexually and/or emotionally nonexclusive” (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016). It will umbrella both polyamorous relationships (sexual and/or emotional relations), as well as open relationships (sexual encounters— e.g., swinging, extra dyadic sex) (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016) (Cohen & Wilson, 2017). The most common structure of CNM relationships is the primary/secondary model (“one partnership is regarded as the main relationship and any other relationships revolve around the couple” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015)), with the second being the V-structure (“one person is equally involved with two others” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015)). In light of the following studies, pros seem to out-way the cons for CNM relationships, and thus should be regarded with a positive attitude.
Participants from various experiments tended to display negative attitudes towards CNM and positive ones towards Monogamy (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016), with females resulting in having higher negative attitudes towards CNM relationships (Kruger, et al., 2013). It was “even reported by individuals who practice non-monogamy themselves” (Cohen & Wilson, 2017). Although monogamy violates none of the norms of exclusivity belonging to the modern definition of a romantic ‘relationship’, CNM participants reported higher relationship satisfaction and even considered their primary partners as “more desirable” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015). These result show a discrepancy between relationship satisfaction and structure, where monogamous relationships are no longer superior, but are still considered more positively.
A study showed that participants with high values in social responsibility had a negative attitude towards cheating (Pulfrey & Butera, 2015). They concluded that morality “functions to maintain solidarity and engender altruism and just treatment” (Pulfrey & Butera, 2015). CNM relationships are thus considered more negatively due to their deviation from social norms; a function that is valued highly in modern society. Another study described this as the ‘devil effect’, where participants tended to attribute negative characteristics to individuals who acted immorally; “polyamory violates the norms of sexual and emotional monogamy. . . and the norm that sex should occur only in a loving relationship. By breaking one or more of these norms a devil effect is conjured” (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016). From these studies, it can be observed that the present priorities lie in morality dependent on social norms and independent of whether harm is really occurring or not.
Attachment has also been linked to preference in relationship structure. A study that analyzed this correlation demonstrated that individuals with attachment-related anxiety tended to perceive more behaviors as cheating than those with attachment-related avoidance (Kruger, et al., 2013). These findings are important for two things; (1) it demonstrates that marriage structure can be merely a reflection of individuality, as well as (2) it highlights a problem within the individuals themselves rather than the relationship structure. It is important to make the distinction between which attitudes are correctly attributed to which behaviors; in the case of CNM relationships it seems that the underlying negative attitudes are the cause of something other than the behavior of non-exclusivity itself; namely the attachment-related differences between the individuals.
The Symbolic Approach analyzes attitudes in terms of predispositions towards developing certain attitudes. The studies mentioned reflect the ideology behind the symbolic approach, suggesting that the attitude towards CNM relationships is one that is dependent on the individual’s environment and the absorption of values through learning or emotional experiences. For example, western norms dictate what is and isn’t moral in a romantic relationship in a culturally specific way (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016). Sociosexual Orientation (“construct that describes sexual attitudes and behavior (Cohen & Wilson, 2017)), has been proven to be a considerable variable in the forming of relationship structures. Those with more positive attitudes towards CNM relationships tended to have non-traditional sexual orientations (e.g., bi, gay, trans), or were in a CNM relationship (Cohen & Wilson, 2017), suggesting that attitude reflects the way we view our own relationship or sexual status. Changing the negative attitude towards CNM relationships to one that is more positive and explorative, can influence the level of openness in the society. Doing so ensures consistency between the function of the behavior on the individual and the value of the attitude. In other words, the society becoming more open can increase the chances of exploring different relationship structures in attempts to find one that is fitting for the individual, rather than one that matches societal morals. This sort of change describes a Utilitarian function where reward is obtained while avoiding punishment. Individuals can be themselves freely, involving themselves in relationship structures that are satisfactory for the individual, without being ridiculed or judged for deviating from morals (diminishing the ‘devil-effect’). The changing of the attitude also serves a Social Adjustive; being more accepting of others and of individual differences. By reducing effects of morals on individual attitude, one can be more observant of personal attributes rather than being concerned with whether or not someone else is deviating from any social norm. In cases like relationships, when reaching a point of dissatisfaction in the relationship, one should be able to analyze all possibilities, not only those that are socially acceptable. All the while, understanding other’s choices as freely theirs, without it being taken personally (ego-defense). For example, studies have shown that “both men and women in polyamorous relationships had higher levels of testosterone compared to participants in monogamous relationships, even after controlling for reported sex drive and sapiosexuality” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015) Thus, through the function of Social Adjustment, having a positive outlook on CNM relationships can lower ego-defense and increase acceptance of others individuality.
In attempts to re-adjust attitudes towards CNM relationships to one that is more realistic and representative of the true benefits of them, some benefits have been determined. Particularly, participants in CNM relationships showed to experience less jealousy (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015). Those with higher sensitivity towards relationship threats were more likely to perceive ambiguous behaviors as cheating (Kruger, et al., 2013), demonstrating that by engaging in a different mating structure may decrease the characteristic that is more sensitive to the behavior in the first place; namely that of exclusivity. Moreover, communication was another factor that seemed to increase in participants involved in CNM relationships. In-fact, participants in monogamous relationships rated having less satisfaction in their communication levels between their partners (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015). A study that analyzed the relationship of communication and mating structure defined this difference as expressed openness and communication about a partners desires for emotional and/or sexual relationships with other people may function as mate retention behaviors that are unique to CNM relationships and may help in processing jealousy” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015). When comparing modern norms to those suggested by CNM relationship structures, it seems as though sexual intercourse and evolutionary perspectives of mating and fighting for resources has a lot to do with our bias. On the contrary, it has been found that modern society prioritizes exclusivity in a relationship above “relevant mate attributes (e.g., physical attractiveness and financial stability)” (Shackelford, Welling, Memering, & Mogilski, 2015) that are relevant today. Therefore, it is imperial to consider the relevant mate attributes of today’s society, before distinguishing monogamy as a more superior mating structure than CNM relationships.
Studies show that that the mere exposure to an opposing societal representation of values, is enough to decrease negative attitude towards that same behavior (Pulfrey & Butera, 2015). This suggests that relationship structure is more dependent on predispositions exposed by the Symbolic Approach, rather than justifying the attitude on evidence. In-fact, CNM couples have shown to have greater intimacy levels compared to monogamous couple (Cohen & Wilson, 2017) further proving that the attitudes of CNM relationships don’t positively correlate to their outcome. Instead attitudes are based on moral values and whether or not the behavior is deviating from them, as well as individual differences such as attachment. In light of these discoveries, it seems as though transitioning to a positive outlook on CNM relationships may even serve a utilitarian and social adjustment function. Therefore, society should readjust their attitudes to a positive one, towards other relationship structures.
Cohen, M. T., & Wilson, K. (2017). Development of the Consensual Non-Monogamy Attitude Scale (CNAS). Sexuality & Culture.
Grunt-Mejer, K., & Campbell, C. (2016). Around Consensual Nonmonogamies: Assessing Attitudes. Journal Of Sex Research.
Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Strout, S. L. (2013). Was that Cheating? Perceptions Vary by Sex, Attachment Anxiety, and Behavior. Evolutionary Pyschology .
Pulfrey, C., & Butera, F. (2015, December 8). When and why people don’t accept cheating: self-transcendence values, social responsibility, mastery goals and attitudes towards cheating.
Shackelford, T. K., Welling, L. L., Memering, S. L., & Mogilski, J. K. (2015). Monogamy versus Consensual Non-Monogamy: Alternative Approaches to Pursuing a Strategically Pluralistic Mating Strategy. Arch Sex Behav.