The equation starts out simply enough: 2+2+1=5. Julie and Joe are married, and so are William and Anna, but not Sayulita, all panelists appearing on a New York Times video called “Married, Dating Other People and Happy.” Giggling like teenagers over liaisons that evoke a galactic system in which lovers, less significant partners, other couples, and asteroidal hook-ups orbit a foundational marriage, the panelists describe their journeys into “ethical nonmonogamy” — ethical because it’s consensual.
Julie informed her husband, Joe, that she had become emotionally attached to another man and would stay only if they opened the marriage. Joe decided “she has that right.” And from there the math gets fuzzier and the variables harder to track. Another married couple becomes involved when Julie dates William. But then Julie and William break up, William’s wife Anna falls for Joe, and after that Anna realizes she also loves Julie. Meanwhile, William sleeps with Sayulita, who realizes she’s attracted to Anna. After which the addition and subtraction morph into multiplication as panel members, amid more nervous laughter, explain that Julie currently dates three other couples, Sayulita sleeps with three men and three women, and William and Anna have a hard time putting a numerical value on just how many they’re seeing.
Welcome to Consensual Nonmonogamy, or CNM, as it has come to be known, not just within the purview of the New York Times’ explorations of modern romance but also within mainstream scholarly circles. With roots in progressive social science and jurisprudence, CNM scholarship now proclaims that open relationships have all the same benefits that monogamous ones do. Employing weak methods, researchers shrug off the dangerous ramifications for individuals and families involved in CNM to promote a relational math so complex that few, if any, couples have the wherewithal to solve the equation.
To be sure, the sky isn’t falling yet. Nine-tenths of American adults affirm the principle of marital monogamy. Overwhelmingly, the institution of marriage evokes theological, cultural, and artistic imperatives, like cleaving together to become one flesh, forsaking all others, and uniting Elizabeths and Darcys in satisfying finales.
Academic Exploration, Empirical Weaknesses
Unlike the “compulsory monogamy” of traditional marriage, consensual nonmonogamy involves having more than one sexual partner or romantic relationship at the same time. And unlike polygamy, CNM advances a libertine sexual ethic, with its roots in the 1960s free-love movement and feminist ideology, encompassing a smorgasbord of practices from one-night stands to bounded polyamorous systems of couples to a dizzying array of primary partners and secondary lovers.
No more than 10 percent of all couples engage in CNM, with marital CNM certainly much lower, unlikely more than 1–2 percent. Sexual orientation plays into these data, with bisexuals significantly overrepresented in polyamorous relationships. Gay married men seem most open to nonmonogamy in both theory and practice, while lesbian spouses tend toward monogamy despite more theoretical openness to CNM.
The eager tone that popular media exude toward CNM represents more of prurience than prognosis.
For heterosexual couples, a dogged preference for monogamy empirically shows itself again and again. For instance, Penn State sociologists, mining a high-quality national data set, found that, on a scale from 1 to 10 rating how crucial fidelity is to a successful marriage, young women’s average score was 9.8 and young men’s average was 9.7. Recent national polling shows that more than 90 percent of Americans say that extramarital sex is morally wrong, a figure higher than that found in the prestigious General Social Survey, which currently finds that 76 percent of Americans view extramarital sex as “always wrong.” This figure barely moves for the youngest generation, confirming that 21st-century attitudes about marital fidelity lean more puritanical than progressive.
Thus the eager tone that popular media exude toward CNM represents more of prurience than prognosis. A more even-keeled investigatory tone might be expected in scholarly circles, but instead, a breathless embrace of CNM pervades even highly respected journals. Perspectives on Psychological Science recently featured an extraordinarily long treatment of heterosexual CNM. The piece’s authors, a team of CNM researchers, began by decrying “the presumed superiority of monogamy” and unsurprisingly concluded that CNM relationships display “equally positive relational outcomes” relative to monogamous ones.
The weaknesses of this team’s study mirror the deficiencies of CNM research in general, beginning with a tendency to employ small, nonrepresentative samples. Finding participants through websites that cater to CNM or other sexual-interest groups ensures that researchers end up with participants who affirm adventurous sexual lives. Nearly all studies involve only self-reported responses, blatantly risking “affirmation bias.” Moreover, the interviews usually involve just one partner, ignoring the other, who might reveal a more begrudging agreement than the term mutual implies. And despite three decades of scholarship on CNM, little research follows CNM individuals over time to observe long-term patterns and impacts, a hallmark of mature social science. Moreover, marital and non-marital CNM are seldom distinguished in this body of research, despite real differences between them. Curiously, the word children, surely an important theoretical, practical, and ethical consideration, rarely emerges in the writing.
Despite these ongoing weaknesses, the aforementioned team of enthusiastic CNM researchers declares that “no definitive evidence [exists] that tips the scale strongly in favor of monogamy [over CNM]” on a variety of outcomes. While acknowledging some weaknesses in the research, they argue that these flaws should not impede a social movement to accept CNM, in the same way that shortcomings in the research on same-sex couples became irrelevant to the cause of same-sex-marriage recognition.
Just as disturbing, prominent scholars outside the CNM vanguard find the lure of easy answers contagious. In psychology and management professor Eli Finkel’s recent magnum opus, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, he recommends CNM as one remedy to the contemporary dilemma of expecting much more of marriage than it can realistically deliver. Partners’ differences in sexual needs, he reasons, can be handled by loosening the reins of monogamy.
The influential sociologist Judith Stacey puts it most bluntly in her recent book Unhitched: “Monogamy is not natural or even possible for everyone. . . . Sexual variation, on the other hand, is natural and should be no cause for distress.” Calling efforts to strengthen marriage “a quixotic effort to plant durable domestic turf in desire’s rocky soil,” Stacey condemns humanity’s long-term obsession with monogamy as “unattainable and, in my view, uninspiring.” Yet she and other academic CNM advocates can’t completely shake off the vestigial need for some semblance of fidelity, so Stacey artistically advocates “vows of fidelity to whatever principles of intimacy and commitment [people choose] to negotiate and renegotiate among themselves.”
‘Is our culture ready for the heretic notion that a relationship could be reinforced by fluid boundaries, rather than destroyed?’
Though more nuanced than Stacey, Esther Perel, the renowned psychotherapist and bestselling author who explores the tensions between sexual freedom and relational security, also embraces CNM. In her newest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Perel maintains that “the polyamouous experiment is a natural offshoot of the societal trend toward greater personal license and self-expression” and asks, “Is our culture ready for the heretic notion that a relationship could be reinforced by fluid boundaries, rather than destroyed?”
While Perel encourages her readers “to be unafraid to challenge sexual and emotional correctness,” legal scholars set their sights beyond social acceptance of CNM, with one legal academic hypothesizing that “expanding the ways we can come together to form intimate relationships will lead to stronger family bonds, fewer divorces, and more tolerance.” After all, she continues, perhaps sensing the need to bolster this logic, full knowledge and consent might somehow result in less hurt, fewer divorces, and fewer fractured families. Echoing language in the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, other legal scholars call for recognizing multi-party marriage, arguing that it offers polyamorists protection from “mononormativity” that transmits “dignitary harm” and unjust discrimination toward a sexual minority.
Peeking Under the Sheets
Both academics and journalists portray CNM in almost uniformly bright colors. But in some venues the veneer over CNM lifts, revealing the heavy demands, psychological contortions, and thorny day-to-day challenges involved. Polyamorists’ own comments in online forums, and in some published stories, surface the unbalanced math of CNM. These relationships require much more work and skill than keeping one marriage satisfying. 1+2 (or 3 or 5 or 7) turns out to be a far more daunting function than 1+1.
CNM is supposed to be the perfect solution to a variety of problems. Sexual needs not being met? Add a couple more lovers for fulfillment. Scared of monogamous boredom? Go ahead and explore exciting new relationships. Bisexual and unwilling to select one gender for life? Choose both. Struggling to remain faithful to a spouse you love and don’t want to hurt? Redefine cheating.
What’s not to like about these creative solutions? Let us count the ways, citing the grievances of CNM participants themselves. Time management, for one, constitutes an enormous burden. Even polyamory promoter Franklin Veaux admits that relationships require “a certain amount of ‘alone time,’ and . . . having two partners can mean having less time to spend with each of them.” One husband concedes that “sometimes I find myself longing for my partner to be monogamous with me. . . . On off or down days, I really start to want for us to be together without polyamory.” Another bemoans his wife’s distractions with emails and texts from her other relationships “that can pull [her] from our moments. There is a third person in our relationship who is pervasively there and not there.”
Resource issues rear their complex heads as well. Are finances to be shared with other partners? Who pays for expensive dates or anniversary trips? Who does the household chores? These can be hard questions for a monogamous couple; they are far harder in a polyamorous relationship.
One married couple’s experience demonstrated how these issues can proliferate. The couple became involved with a vulnerable woman recovering from a divorce. But when the woman recovered thanks to the couple’s financial and emotional help, she began exploring a new relationship — much to the chagrin of the couple. They felt used, wanting to be consulted about “how quickly and to what extent any new partnerships formed.”
Additionally, regarding the “consent” that CNM advocates tout, what happens when one partner holds more power or leverage because he or she makes more money, is more attractive, is better at initiating new relationships, or just has a higher sex drive? Does an unemployed or introverted full-time homemaker, dependent on a financially successful, extroverted, and sexually adventurous spouse, truly have much leverage when her or his partner asks to open a marriage?
For hydra-like complications such as these, CNM advocates return to their core axiom: skilled, frequent, open communication — a feat important to all relationships, no doubt, but required in spades for CNM practitioners. Tristan Taormino, author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, recommends focusing constantly on the heavy-duty dialoguing of negotiated boundaries, parenting, and time management. While these areas may sound like familiar conversational territory for any couple, those with multiple partners no longer have trail markers and must create paths out of unmapped terrain. How do children fit in? Who disciplines them? How many sexual encounters is each spouse allowed with secondary partners? Now that we mention it, what are the rules about sexual hygiene? And who gets whom for Valentine’s Day? Even more important, who gets to be involved in deciding these issues, just the primary partners, or secondary ones of a certain order or duration?
CNM is about freedom, not boundaries, so any borders must be permeable, bendable, and governed by frequent renegotiations.
Again, in theory, all these conversations would lead to mutually agreed solutions — albeit with continually evolving sets of rules. CNM is about freedom, not boundaries, so any borders must be permeable, bendable, and governed by frequent renegotiations requiring inordinate amounts of time and energy. Even an effusive New York Times story acknowledges that CNM depends on its participants’ having few work and time impediments that could interfere with never-ending rapprochement. Aspirin, anyone?
Yet even enthusiasts with enough disposable time and income to deal with polyamory’s complexities might want to consider the emotional downsides. One polyamorist woman describes the continual dialoguing as “gut-wrenching and sob-inducing. I remember listening to him speak and feeling like my heart was being pulled slowly out of my chest.” While journalists extol the sense of adventure polyamorists discover in taking on new identities with different lovers, some survivors undergo a complete identity crisis. “I lost myself. . . . No, it would be more accurate to say that I demolished myself,” says a woman who dealt with intense cognitive dissonance when dating a man whose wife allowed extramarital relationships but put “a long list of limitations” on them. She told herself, “just want something else, feel something else, BE SOMEONE ELSE.” Another casualty realized that “I no longer could be the man I was. Experiencing consensual nonmonogamy was not simply changing how I viewed my sex life: it changed how I viewed humanity.”
Cultural Ramifications of the New Math
The personal suffering of individuals involved in consensual nonmonogamy constitutes reason enough to resist the normalization of open relationships, but the preservation of marital norms remains a paramount consideration as well. If proponents of legal recognitions for CNM have their way, the choice of monogamy will get harder. “Anti-discrimination protections for polyamory,” writes a legal scholar, “may have the incidental beneficial effect of encouraging those who desire to live the overtly non-monogamous lifestyle . . . but who previously did not have the courage to do so.” Monogamy, once the expectation, becomes a negotiated clause harder to ask for, let alone expect, putting old-school monogamists into a defensive crouch.
Much as those hoping to save sex for marriage became too outnumbered to expect abstinence in today’s dating world, those who expect marital fealty could find their assumptions regarded as not only passé, but selfish. In her sympathetic New York Times exploration, Susan Dominus hints at the superiority of CNM couples not just interested in more sex, but “more interested in people, more willing to tolerate the inevitable unpacking conversations, the gentle making of amends, the late-night breakdowns and emotional work of recommitting to and delighting each other.” Dominus goes on to second-guess her ick-factor instincts while watching a wife nuzzle a lover in the presence of her husband and child, lauding not only the “generosity” of the husband’s attitude in comparison with “my own limitations,” but also the brave wives willing to “risk so much on behalf of their sexual happiness.”
Accept the petition, or endure the likelihood that your spouse pursues the openness unilaterally or terminates the marriage.
And so a new paradigm emerges. Complain or act jealous and you become the bad guy in the new CNM model, which elevates a generous willingness to share a spouse with others as the ultimate marital virtue. Meanwhile, a double bind materializes for the petitioned partner: accept the petition, or endure the likelihood that your spouse pursues the openness unilaterally or terminates the marriage. One spouse trailblazing and the other tagging along thus equates to “mutual consent.”
This potential zeitgeist harms even decidedly monogamous couples, who are left behind, plodding the prosaic plains of everyday marital life, having to resist fantasizing about a similar adventure for themselves. Certainly part of what helps married couples maintain their vows of fidelity is that everyone else is supposed to abide by the same rules. When prominent voices urge tolerance of rule-breaking, affirm visionary liberation, reject the oppression of mononormativity, and enshrine bold relational explorations in law, then even stuffy traditionalists will entertain alternatives. And because mutual consent is a bit of a squishy concept in CNM, cheating becomes just a matter of degree, no longer a fixed boundary. For example, Dominus discovers that her lead couples, Daniel and Elizabeth (and Daniel’s out-of-state lover) and Joseph and Joseph’s wife, all know about each other . . . except for Joseph’s wife, and that’s why Joseph won’t be available for the interview.
Academic and pop-culture narratives gloss over the fact that CNM fundamentally alters a core element of marriage: making a choice to give up some choices, as prominent relationship scholar Scott Stanley puts it. Interestingly, some wounded CNM warriors use words like “trapped” to describe a situation they entered seeking liberation, an irony that strangely sheds light on the paradox of monogamous marital freedom. Stanley argues that the fences of marriage foster an intimacy unavailable in any less committed relationship, creating a place so secure and mutually beneficial that couples, like Adam and Eve, can experience emotional and physical nakedness and be “not ashamed.” Hence the wise wedding vow to “forsake all others.”
— Alan J. Hawkins is a professor and Lynae Barlow an undergraduate student in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life. Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City. Hawkins and VanDenBerghe are the authors of the National Marriage Project report “Facilitating Forever.”