People in consensually non-monogamous relationships tend be more willing to take risks, have less aversion to germs, and exhibit a greater interest in short-term mating compared to those in monogamous relationships, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. The findings may help explain why consensual non-monogamy is often the target of moral condemnation.
“Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an increasingly popular romantic relationship practice in societies historically predominated by monogamy. CNM refers to any romantic relationship where people form consensually non-exclusive romantic or sexual partnerships,” said lead researcher Justin K. Mogilski of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie.
“Research documents that those who pursue CNM are the target of significantly greater moral condemnation than those in monogamous relationships. However, people’s perceptions of CNM tend to be discordant with its actual practices and outcomes. For example, CNM individuals are presumed to have worse sexual health than monogamous individuals yet report similar or better sexual health practices compared to those in monogamous relationships.”
“They also report unique benefits from forming multiple intimate relationships such as diversified need fulfillment, more frequent social opportunities, and more fluid sexual expression. And these benefits are associated with relatively greater relationship satisfaction, particularly when an individual’s personality is matched to their relationship structure (e.g., when someone with greater interest in casual sex pursues CNM),” Mogilski told PsyPost.
“We became interested in this topic to address why these negative beliefs about CNM exist despite evidence to the contrary. In our study, my colleagues and I tested a novel explanation for why moral stigma against CNM exists: individuals who habitually form multiple romantic or sexual partnerships may be predisposed to engage in riskier, more competitive behaviors that strain social cooperation.”
“People may therefore condemn these relationships because they think doing so prevents personal and public health risks. That is, if people are discouraged from forming multiple concurrent romantic relationships, this may prevent violent competition for romantic partners, domestic abuse due to infidelity, partner abandonment, child neglect, and disease transmission,” Mogilski said.
The researchers surveyed 783 individuals who were currently in a romantic relationship of some type. Most of the participants were in a monogamous relationship, but 149 were in a multi-partner relationship and 96 were in an open relationship. After filling out a demographic questionnaire, the participants completed assessments of life history, pubertal development, attitudes towards uncommitted sex, perceived vulnerability to disease, and risk-taking.
“In our study, we collected data that showed that people within CNM relationships tend to be willing to take more social and ethical risks, are less averse to germs, and are more interested in short-term romantic relationships (and less interested in long-term, committed relationships) than those in monogamous relationships,” Mogilski told PsyPost.
These predispositions are known as a fast life history strategy. According to life history theory, early life experiences can shape an individual’s behavior toward relationships and life in general. Those faced with unpredictable childhoods develop a fast life strategy that emphasizes insecure attachments, immediate gratification, and risky behaviors. Those with a more stable childhood, on the other hand, develop a slow life strategy that emphasizes long-term goals, greater investments, and reduced aggression.
“This presents a paradox: those who seek out CNM relationships appear to be predisposed to take risks, pursue short-lived romantic relationships, and disregard disease. Yet, in practice, they avoid this,” Mogilski explained.
“To resolve this paradox, we propose a model in our paper explaining how modern CNM communities regulate negative outcomes within multi-partner relationships. Most modern CNM communities have well-developed guidelines for pursuing non-exclusive relationships safely and ethically. These guidelines, including effective birth control, open communication and honesty, and consent-seeking, may help manage and diminish the risks common to competitive, promiscuous mating environments.”
“In other words – CNM’s culture of compassionate sexual ethics may help risk-prone people pursue multi-partner mating in a manner that doesn’t endanger other people’s physical or mental health,” Mogilski said.
The researchers emphasized that the findings should not be mistaken as a justification of the condemnation of consensual non-monogamy. In fact, they hope the research will help to reduce the moral stigma surrounding the topic.
“Our data highlight how those with a proclivity toward CNM may possess personality traits that predispose them to take risks, pursue multi-partner mating, and disregard pathogens. CNM practices may therefore not foster these traits, but rather provide an environment where people can ethically express them,” Mogilski said.
“If this is true, CNM may improve, rather than threaten, cooperation and well-being within certain communities – a feature that should be valued by those who fear how public acceptance of CNM might affect social order or the stability of romantic relationships.”
But it can also be practiced in a way that produces social disharmony. The researchers hope that future research will uncover the strategies that CNM practitioners use to manage multi-partner relationships, and how those strategies are related to personal and relationship outcomes.
“Though there are plenty of popular resources for people who wish to ethically practice multi-partner mating, there is currently no comprehensive, scientific study of these practices. It would strengthen our hypothesis to show that those who pursue multi-partner mating in a relatively more ethical way tend to experience more positive relationship outcomes from doing so. Stay tuned – this research is currently underway,” Mogilski said.
The study, “Life History and Multi-Partner Mating: A Novel Explanation for Moral Stigma Against Consensual Non-monogamy“, was authored by Justin K. Mogilski, Virginia E. Mitchell, Simon D. Reeve, Sarah H. Donaldson, Sylis C. A. Nicolas and Lisa L. M. Welling.