Why Is Consensual Nonmonogamy Viewed in a Bad Light?
- Different relationship arrangements work for different people and societal norms often lead to negative labeling.
- Research shows that stigma is perceived by a significant portion of people in CNM relationships.
- People should ask questions, show genuine interest and withhold judgment when learning about different relationship arrangements.
Different relationships require different arrangements for success, as what works for some may not work for others. However, this is not always the most popular method of thinking, and this kind of fluidity can face negative labeling.
How your relationship is seen by society can actually play a role in the well-being of your relationships and your mental health.
"To secure comfort in the great unknown of relationshipping, people are hungry for quick, clear, simplified templates for what 'good' relationships are," said Thomas Wood Ph.D., L.C.S.W., a certified sex therapist based in Philadelphia.
In consensual nonmonogamous (CNM) or ethically nonmonogamous (ENM) relationships, the agreements are often more open and honest than traditional partnerships. However, as they differ from relationship styles favored by a majority of people, they can be perceived in a negative way.
The dehumanization of consensual nonmonogamists
Based on judgment and fear of being treated differently, a person in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship may be less willing to disclose it to family, friends, co-workers and their community, said Genesis Games, a licensed mental health counselor and relationship therapist in Miami.
The vision of what is considered correct may lead to dehumanizing and labeling as immoral, harmful or of low quality, which falls outside accepted standards, according to a 2021 study.
However, these relationships are not inherently dysfunctional.
"People involved in CNM often have so much love to give to others and they do a lot of work on communicating in a clear, compassionate way with their partners, which is something to be incredibly proud of," said Jenn DiBartolomeo, Psy.D,, a relationship and sexuality therapist in Philadelphia.
Social stigma according to research
The mental health of people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships can certainly be affected by social stigma, according to a 2022 study.
Stigma had been perceived by about 40 percent of the people in the CNM relationships who participated in the survey. Yet, 70 percent of people who didn't experience stigma kept their relationship details private, as a secret from the majority of people in their community.
The same 2022 report suggested people who reported experiencing stigma faced disapproval, expressions of discomfort, threatening behaviors, devaluation of their character, loss of resources and diminishing of their relationships.
The result of this stigma was seen to lead to mental health problems, psychological distress, anticipation of judgment and internalized stigma.
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The effects of social stigma
"All relationships require a great deal of outside resourcing to do well," Wood said. "However, many people in ENM relationships are dehumanized by not being monogamous—and then are blocked from the support any relationship needs to succeed."
This social stigma can have a significant impact on a person's mental health. They can feel isolated or hopeless. They can even experience mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, DiBartolomeo said.
"If a person feels judged or isolated due to their relationship style, they may be more likely to turn to internal or negative coping mechanisms rather than reaching out to their support network," she added.
Monogamy and nonmonogamy
Unlike monogamy, where people commit to a single partner, in CNM relationships the explicit arrangements are related to having more than one person to fulfill romantic, intimate or sexual needs.
Monogamous relationships have a fundamental level of support from the community, media and institutions, so talking about them doesn't raise eyebrows, while on the other side, nonmonogamous methods are relegated to the margins, Wood noted.
"This isolation and lack of support is not seen as the main problem by society," Wood said. "Instead, it's thought that these relationships struggle or fail because they are not monogamous. It's easier to condemn ENM than to examine what ENM can teach us all about relationshipping, even if we are monogamously oriented."
Don't judge, ask questions
Consensual nonmonogamy is an umbrella term that includes various forms, such as polyamory, swinging and open relationships. These generally involve different boundaries and rules, established at some point in the relationship.
To support a loved one, it's important to ask questions and show genuine interest in their decision, accepting they are adults capable of making decisions about their lives, Games explained.
"Remember you don't have to agree or fully understand it," she said. "You just need to listen while withholding judgment, just from a place of curiosity."
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"It is understandable and valid to have fears about coming out as consensually nonmonogamous because it is not well understood by society at large," DiBartolomeo said. "However, try not to let this fear hold you back from being your true authentic self."
When faced with criticism, she noted you should have a brief explanation, such as, "I choose to foster love in my life wherever it arises, with open and honest communication about it to everyone involved." Make it something you can feel comfortable and confident with.
"Reminding people that your goal is simply to love and respect the people in your life, can often show people that CNM is not immoral or bad—even if it isn't for them," DiBartolomeo said.
The problems of disclosing the details of your relationship
"It's difficult to remain unaffected by what others think about us," Wood said. "Beyond social rejection—which is hard enough—disclosing details about nonmonogamy to others may have dramatic repercussions in terms of legal outcomes, child custody status, access to or quality of healthcare, and employment and professional opportunities."
Remaining silent can be a way to stay safe, but choosing silence can come at a great cost. For anyone who struggles to understand how these types of decisions can be problematic, Wood suggested imagining having a conversation with a friend about weekend plans without mentioning most of the important aspects of your life.
"To folks in ENM relationships, I recommend taking calculated risks for the expressed purpose of obtaining support for the most important part of our lives," Wood said.
Internalized stigma and guilt
"This dehumanization process can metastasize into internalized polyphobia—hating oneself for the inability to be monogamous," Wood said.
A person in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship may feel certain about the relational dynamic they desire. However, they might feel torn by a number of factors such as religious beliefs, cultural values and the possible negative impact of disclosing, Games said.
"Stigma held by family and friends and their own internalized stigma can create emotional distress," she said. "Internalized stigma can then lead to guilt and shame."
Emotions are messengers that provide information both personally and from the outside world, she said. In many cases, guilt often means that your actions are not in line with the values you hold.
"If we want to stop feeling guilty, we need to make one of two choices," Games said. "Either change our actions so that they better align with our values or change our values."
Excessive guilt can stem from coercion or pressure from a partner to open up the relationship, too, she noted. However, yielding out of fear of losing the couple will be detrimental to the relationship and the person's mental health.
"For CNM to work, partners have to be enthusiastically onboard," Games said.