Are Open Relationships and Non-Monogamous Relationships Really That Common?

Non-traditional relationships such as open and polyamorous relationships seem to be growing in popularity. But is there any truth to it? And what does it say about modern marriage?

by Carrie Weisman

Open relationships — a broad term that can include everything from polyamory to various non-monogamous and non-traditional arrangements — is on the rise. Or, at the very least, curiosity about open marriage and non-monogamy are on the rise. A study from the Journal of Sex Research found that Google searches for terms related to open relationships have been rising steadily for a decade. In a follow-up study, the same group of researchers discovered that more than one in five Americans have engaged in a non-monogamous relationship at one point in their lifetime. So, it would seem that at least 20 percent of the American public is open to an open relationship.

But what these studies don’t necessarily illuminate is who actually ventures out into this new relationship territory, and how often. As far as demographic data goes, research suggests to the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are slightly more likely to fall into the non-monogamous crowd than their heterosexual counterparts. Then comes the educated elite. A 2011 report found that, out of 36 different studies on polyamorists, 76.8 percent were of middle-class status or higher. Seventy-eight percent had at least some college education under their belt. That lends itself to another problematic measure associated with the polyamorous crowd. A 2013 survey of polyamorous people from online groups, mailing lists, and forums found that almost 90 percent of participants identified as white.

And then there are the millennials.

According to research conducting by YouGov, an internet-based market research firm, just about half of all millennials are open to non-monogamy. That’s a significant lead over members of older generations. Of course, that isn’t the only area where they differ. Marriage rates among millennial individuals are dropping. And they aren’t having a lot of babies, either. Deviating from traditional domestic life, it would seem, creates more opportunity to entertain unconventional romantic dynamics.

OkCupid has more than 2.5 million monthly users. The average age of a registered member hovers somewhere around 32. In 2014, the online-dating giant decided to extend its list of relationship options to include those in non-monogamous arrangements. Two years later, they added a feature that allows individuals in open relationships to link their profiles. The idea was to make it easier for them to search for new potential partners together. According to company data, 24 percent of users are “seriously interested” in group sex. Forty-two percent said they would consider dating someone already involved in an open or polyamorous relationship. Today, the majority of registered users fall into America’s non-monogamous minority.

But still, the statistics may leave something to be desired.

“There’s no real way to know how common non-monogamy is,” says sex educator Charlie Glickman. “Part of that is that there isn’t a good definition of the term that enough people recognize, so the research is tricky. It’s also difficult to get people to be honest about their sex lives, even when it isn’t outside the norm. Plus, when people try to research these things, they often have to work with a convenience sample, such as people who go to swinger parties or who are part of an online group for those in non-monogamous relationships. So there’s no way to know if the same numbers apply in a more general sense.”

Non-monogamous is an umbrella term and it covers a whole lot of territory. It could mean an occasional threesome. It could suggest a single trip to a swing club. It could refer to an ongoing arrangement whereby both members of a couple are allowed to engage in sexual interactions outside of their relationship. It could suggest a polyamorous dynamic, where members of a couple are permitted to pursue both romantic and sexual encounters outside of their dyadic relationship. Though there is one fundamental element attached to each one of these varying scenarios, and it revolves around consent.

Consensual non-monogamy is the only way to do non-monogamy,” says Andy Duran, head of educational outreach at Good Vibrations. “It means everyone involved is aware and on board with you not being monogamous with them. Anything else sounds a lot like cheating.”

A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that people who cheat were significantly less likely to engage in safe sex than those involved in consensually non-monogamous relationships. A follow-up found that when cheaters did use condoms, they often used them incorrectly, at least compared to their non-monogamous counterparts. There’s also the concept of “compersion,” or the feeling of joy when a partner discovers love outside of the relationship. It’s kind of like the opposite of jealousy. Poly life largely revolves around this notion.

That doesn’t make it a casual practice, however. Non-monogamy takes a lot of work. “If you aren’t great at setting boundaries and sticking to the rules then it isn’t going to work for you,” says Dirty Lola, founder of Sex Ed A Go Go. “It’s not a free-for-all or an excuse to do what you want without consequences.”

“If anything, non-monogamy requires an even stronger commitment to communication and transparency because there are more relationships at play,” says Glickman. Not everyone has the time and patience to devote to multiple relationships or even multiple relations. Research suggests that young adults are working upward 45 hours a week. With that, it’s no wonder that non-monogamy remains a minority activity.

Still, curiosity typically precedes action. Information-sharing platforms have created a space where people can ask questions and share insights about their non-monogamous endeavors. Nonexclusive hook-up culture has primed us for conversations concerning intent and expectations. These developments may not necessarily bring us closer to a non-monogamous mindset, but they don’t seem to push us any farther away from one, either.