Americans’ interest in consensual non-monogamy is on the rise. We see this in Google searches for polyamory and open relationships, which are higher than ever, but also in growing media coverage and portrayals of sexually non-exclusive relationships, from shows like You Me Her to Polyamory: Married and Dating.

As interest in sexually open relationships continues to surge, people have begun to wonder: How many of us are willing to consider opening up our relationships anyway? And what are the most common reasons for or against doing so? A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sheds some light on these questions.

In this study, researchers at the University of Tennessee surveyed 549 college-age adults about their willingness to practice consensual non-monogamy (CNM), defined as being in a relationship in which “individuals agree that it is OK to go on dates with, have sex with and pursue romantic attractions with other partners.” Participants were asked to explain in their own words how willing they would be to have a relationship like this and their reasons why. Researchers then coded the responses and looked for broader themes.

It turned out that most participants (79 percent) weren’t willing to explore CNM at all. The remaining 21 percent were split between those who said they were on board with the idea (13 percent) and those who were open-minded but weren’t convinced they would actually do it (8 percent). Interestingly, the 21-percent figure reflects the findings of a different study of CNM that came out earlier this year: In that study, which included a representative sample of American adults, 21 percent said they had been in a sexually open relationship at least once before.

There are a whole host of factors that can motivate people to approach or avoid these relationships—and it’s definitely not just about religion or morality.

Another finding consistent with previous research is that men and sexual minorities (gay, lesbian and bisexual adults) expressed significantly more willingness to have a non-monogamous relationship compared to women and heterosexuals.

So what kind of reasons did people give for wanting or not wanting to engage in CNM? Let’s look first at the reasons given for not wanting to have an open relationship. Four primary themes emerged:

  1. I believe that monogamy is normal and natural. All relationships should be monogamous. A majority of people in the unwilling group said things along these lines. For instance, in the words of one participant, “you are meant for one person, not one person plus a few on the side that satisfy your needs with good sex.”

  2. I am jealous, needy, possessive, and/or insecure. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of the characteristics that go along with what psychologists refer to as an *anxious attachment style *seem to create a negative predisposition to CNM. As one participant stated, “I don’t like getting jealous and I know I would.”

  3. I see consensual non-monogamy as offensive and disrespectful. Some think that the desire for a sexually open relationship is inherently selfish. In the words of one participant, “it is very disrespectful, you should only want me to yourself and vice versa!” Most of the people who fell in this group said they would immediately break up with a partner who asked for an open relationship.

  4. Consensual non-monogamy goes against my religious beliefs. Some folks in the unwilling group said they would never consider any kind of open relationship because they think it would be morally wrong.

Now, let’s look at those who said they’d be OK with being in some kind of sexually non-exclusive relationship. Here are the three most common reasons given for desiring such an arrangement:

  1. I don’t believe in the concept of monogamy. Nearly half of the folks in the willing group simply said they just don’t believe in monogamous ideals, either because they want to have different kinds of relationship experiences, they don’t want or aren’t ready for a monogamous relationship at this point in their lives, or they aren’t the jealous and possessive type to begin with.

  2. I am willing to try non-monogamy as long as certain conditions are met. Most of the people who were willing to try CNM were only willing to do so under certain circumstances. For example, willingness was often contingent upon taking physical and/or emotional safety precautions, such as this participant stated: “As long as I have important details and I know that my partner is being safe… and I can trust the person they’re with, then it’s OK.”

  3. It’s not exactly what I want, but if my partner wants it or it would make my relationship better, I’m willing to give it a try. The third major theme to emerge here was CNM as a sacrifice—a willingness to put the needs of a partner or relationship ahead of one’s own. As one participant said: “I would be willing to try it. I wouldn’t be completely for it, but if it brought our relationship closer together I would be willing to experiment with it.”

These results are interesting because they tell us that despite growing interest in open relationships and polyamory, the vast majority of people don’t seem willing to give CNM a whirl. Certainly, the fact that one in five young adults said they’re at least open to the idea is significant. However, given that most participants weren’t willing to try it under any circumstances and that so many negative views of CNM emerged (e.g., labeling it as “disrespectful” and “immoral”), it seems clear that most young adults still tend to view monogamy as the “gold standard” for relationships, despite what popular media portrayals might otherwise suggest.

These findings also tell us that people who are and aren’t willing to explore a consensually non-monogamous relationship can be broken down into several distinct subgroups based on their reasoning. In other words, there are a whole host of factors that can motivate people to approach or avoid these relationships—and it’s definitely not just about religion or morality.

Though attitudes toward CNM appear to be quite complex, it’s worth noting that many of the motivations cited—such as being high or low in jealousy and possessiveness—offer additional support for the idea that open relationships probably aren’t right for everyone, at least in part, due to differences in personality.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.