Monogamy is held as the norm for romantic relationships in the United States and elsewhere. Religious organizations promote monogamy as reflecting virtues of devotion, love and commitment. It is widely assumed that monogamy, and usually marriage, are the ultimate end goals of dating in adulthood. While research suggests otherwise, many social scientists continue to argue that two-parent families are the optimum environment for raising children.
Yet for a growing number of Americans, monogamy is not the path to satisfying relationships. Data suggests that as many as 5% of the adult population in the U.S. participate in consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationships. CNM is also called ethical non-monogamy or ENM, in which “partners maintain one or more sexual and/or romantic relationships with others’ knowledge and consent.”
Other studies suggest that as many as 10% of U.S. adults have engaged in non-monogamy, and nearly 17% express an openness to doing so.
These are some of the people that Lauren Moore sees in their practice as a relationship therapist in Northern Virginia. Their clients come from all parts of the state, explains Moore. In part, because it’s hard to find a therapist who understands and works with CNM.
“Many of the most well-known relationship therapists don’t address non-monogamy,” says Moore, thereby reinforcing cultural assumptions about monogamy as the preferred relationship arrangement. Noted relationship therapist Sue Johnson goes so far as to suggest that monogamy is a biological imperative.
“Our most natural and longed-for state is a strong, nurturing monogamous pair bond, and on this bond we build our families,” says Johnson.
This perspective carries over into the therapy room, writes Heath Schechinger, a counseling psychologist at University of California Berkeley. Schechinger surveyed 249 individuals about their experiences discussing CNM with therapists. Half of the individual’s therapists indicated that non-monogamy was the source of their relationship problems. Further, a fifth indicated their therapists lacked basic knowledge of CNM.
Moving Past Expectations
Faced with the pressure to conform, non-monogamous individuals will do their best to be monogamous. The deep shame they often feel makes them hide their true nature, says Moore, until they can no longer tolerate the emotional conflict.
“They went into the relationship with the intention of being monogamous, because they believed that was the only option, and over time they became increasingly unhappy.”
“This, understandably, creates a kind of ‘emotional whiplash’ for the other partner,” says Moore. “There’s a lot of anger, confusion, and hurt that has to be processed.” Moore shares that the dynamics can be very challenging to navigate, but don’t always lead to the demise of the relationship. For some couples, the mismatch is unresolvable. Others find a way to make it work. In some cases the relationship becomes more satisfying, intimate and trusting than it was previously.
A common misconception about non-monogamy, says Moore, is that people who choose it are promiscuous and emotionally avoidant. Moore’s practice, along with those of other therapists who work with non-monogamous partners, suggests otherwise.
Psychologist Elizabeth Sheff writes that “few non-monogamous relationships can thrive without consistent and intentional communication.” She goes on to explain that clear and honest communication is a hallmark of non-monogamy. It’s a “primary vehicle used to establish emotional intimacy.”
Are you curious about non-monogamy but afraid to tell anyone? Do you feel bad about feeling an attraction to people outside your relationship? Do you love your partner and have a strong impulse to share those feelings with others?
Moore says if you’re wondering about whether non-monogamy is right for you, you may want to ask yourself: 1) Why do I have the ideas about relationships that I do?; and 2) What’s another option I’d make if I could?
If you’re seeking professional support to explore your feelings around non-monogamy, Moore suggests asking counselors about their experience with non-monogamy and their opinions on healthy relationships.
They add that non-monogamous individuals deserve therapy that’s affirming, compassionate and responsive to their needs so “they can begin to see possibilities, including the right to choose relationships on their own terms.”
Lauren Moore, MA, MEd (they/them) currently works as a Psychotherapist in a Northern Virginia private practice focusing on kinky, non-monogamous, and LGBT2QIA couples and individuals. For information on scheduling a consultation or appointment, visit tamarapincus.com/lauren-moore/
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”