On Valentine's Day, images of couples are everywhere. They're buying each other diamond rings, making eyes over expensive restaurant meals and canoodling over chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne. But two-by-two isn't the only way to go through life. In fact, an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans are looking outside their relationship for love and sex — with their partner's full permission.
These consensually nonmonogamous relationships, as they're called, don't conform to the cultural norm of a handholding couple in love for life. They come in a dizzying array of forms, from occasional "swinging" and open relationships to long-term commitments among multiple people. Now, social scientists embarking on brand-new research into these types of relationships are finding that they may challenge the ways we think of jealousy, commitment and love. They may even change monogamy for the better.
"People in these relationships really communicate. They communicate to death," said Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont. All of that negotiation may hold a lesson for the monogamously inclined, Holmes told LiveScience.
"They are potentially doing quite a lot of things that could turn out to be things that if people who are practicing monogamy did more of, their relationships would actually be better off," Holmes said. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
The study of consensual nonmonogamy is a relatively new field. In the 1970s, partner-swapping and swinging (recreational sex outside of a relationship) came into the public eye, and psychologists conducted a few studies. But that research was limited to mostly white, heterosexual couples who engaged in swinging for fun, according to Elisabeth Sheff, a legal consultant and former Georgia State University professor, writing in 2011 in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.
That means little is yet known about who participates in consensual nonmonogamy and why. Research is largely limited to self-report and surveys, in which people can be tempted to present themselves in a positive light. There are, however, some key definitions to understand. Consensual nonmonogamy contains multitudes. It includes sex-only arrangements, such as two committed partners agreeing that they're allowed to seek no-strings-attached sex with other people. It also includes polyamory, which involves multiple committed relationships at once with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved.
Consensual nonmonogamy does not include cheating, in which one partner steps out without the permission of the other.
While there are no national statistics on consensual nonmonogamy, University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley has estimated that about 5 percent of Americans are in one of these types of relationships at any given time. From the little data collected, scientists know lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are slightly more likely than heterosexuals to enter nonmonogamous relationships, said Amy Moors, a graduate student in Conley's lab. So, it seems, are people high in the personality trait of openness, which indicates high interest in new experiences.
So far, studies suggest that polyamorous individuals are well-educated, holding more master's and doctoral degrees than the general population, said Champlain's Holmes, who is conducting ongoing research of an online sample of more than 5,000 polyamorous individuals. Despite their smarts, they're not particularly wealthy. [5 Myths About Polyamory]