Open Relationships Are More Popular Than You Might Think

Consensual non-monogamy participation is growing, especially among young adults. Guess how many North American couples grant each other permission to:

  • Occasionally step out and play sexually with others (hall passes, sex clubs).
  • Engage in partner swapping (threesomes, swinging, group sex).
  • Enter into emotional commitments with more than one partner (polyamory).

The best evidence suggests around 4 percent of adults. That may not sound like many, but it means one couple in 25. If you know two dozen couples, chances are one participates in consensual non-monogamy (CNM), also known as “open” relationships. Put another way, 4 percent means some 2.8 million U.S. couples.

The most recent study, an online survey of a representative sample of 2,003 Canadians, found 4 percent participation in CNM. Other studies agree—or come up with higher estimates:

  1. Temple University researchers surveyed 2,270 U.S. adults and found that 4 percent reported CNM.
  2. An Indiana University study of 2,021 U.S. adults showed that 10 percent of the women and 18 percent of the men reported having at least one threesome.
  3. And based on Census samples of 8,718 single American adults, another group of Indiana researchers found that 21 percent—one in five—reported at least one experience of CNM.

In the Canadian study, the age group most into CNM was young adults. Monogamous and CNM Canadians registered the same degree of relationship satisfaction. But compared with the monogamous couples, those with partners equally into CNM reported significantly greater couple satisfaction.

The Canadian researchers concluded: “Only a small proportion of the population is involved in open relationships, but interest has increased. ‘Open’ appears to be a viable and important relationship type.”

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery?

Our culture places tremendous value on monogamy. Even a single breach may destroy relationships. He cheated. It’s over. But infidelity is as old as civilization. If it weren’t, there would have been no need for the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of adultery.

Some couples don’t fight the urge to dally. They mutually embrace CNM, everything from one visit to a swing club to ongoing polyamory.

Non-monogamy has been so prevalent for so long, some scientists argue it may be hard-wired into our genetics and confer species survival advantages. During the millennia before DNA testing, children’s fathers were impossible to identify for certain. CNM may have provided more men with more resources to help women raise offspring they might have fathered.

Mentally Healthy? Or Ill?

Many people believe that CNMers must be at least emotionally troubled if not deranged. But several studies show that swingers are the people next door—with a few intriguing differences. Compared with monogamous couples, swingers typically:

  • Report happier marriages
  • Express more non-sexual affection
  • Consider their sex more satisfying
  • Enjoy more marital communication
  • Praise their primary partners more
  • Express less jealousy
  • Are about as likely to say that swinging strengthened their marriages (27 percent) as that it contributed to their divorces (24 percent)
  • Are no more likely than the general population to suffer anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems

The consensus among researchers is that non-monogamists are a snapshot of mainstream America—and psychologically healthy.

Do Men Coerce Women Into Non-Monogamy?

Some men may pressure women into non-monogamy, but quite often, the women are the prime movers. There’s no definitive research on this, but the most comprehensive book on the subject, The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers by Terry Gould, quotes many CNM women insisting that the spouse in the driver’s seat of swinging is usually the woman. In addition, women are prominent in the management of many U.S. swing clubs.

How to Explore CNM Happily

  • The first issue is mutual consent. Both partners should be equally into it. If not, couples typically try it once or twice, then the less interested spouse says, “Never again.”
  • Attention more eager partners: Don’t badger your spouse. No one should ever feel pressured to be sexual in ways that cause discomfort.
  • Attention less interested partners: If you don’t say absolutely not, it’s usually best to start experimenting at a sex or swing club. They’re located in every major metropolitan area and many rural locales. At clubs, there’s never any pressure to play. You’re free to just watch or be sexual with only your partner.
  • Assuming mutual interest, ground rules are key. What exactly would you like to do? What can you tolerate your spouse doing? And how would you feel if your lover has hotter sex with strangers than with you?
  • Before experimenting, couples happiest with CNM discuss their “what-ifs.” Sex with strangers accounts for only part of CNM’s allure. Equally compelling are the what-if discussions that deepen couples’ emotional intimacy. Be specific. “I’m okay with you kissing strangers, getting naked, touching, and handjobs. But not oral or intercourse.” Or “I don’t mind you playing with others at clubs, but you come home with me—no sleep-overs.”
  • Many CNMers insist on same-room play to keep an eye on each other. Others feel comfortable with separate rooms or dates or overnights.
  • Despite extensive negotiations, freak-outs are always possible. Most non-monogamous couples use “safe words” to signal discomfort, for example, “yellow light” and “red light.” The former means, “I need a brief break to make sure we’re both okay with what’s happening.” The latter means, “I need everything to stop now.” When one utters a safe word, both immediately stop playing and the couple spends as much time as necessary discussing what to do next—continue playing, change the play, or go home. Couples should abide by their safe words absolutely.
  • Most clubs work hard to make newcomers feel comfortable. You won’t face pressure to play. Rules are clearly posted, typically: Always be polite. “No” means no. Except with spouses, condoms are required.
  • If watching works for your relationship, you might subsequently become more adventurous. Or not. A slow, step-by-step approach usually works best—with plenty of what-if discussions along the way.
  • At clubs, new connections may develop quickly. But many non-monogamists prefer getting to know prospective partners before anyone undresses. Meeting beforehand allows all parties to state their hopes, concerns, limits, and safe words. Describe the play you most enjoy. Ask what your new friends like. The Web abounds with sites ready to introduce prospective CNMers.
  • Before, during, shortly after, and the morning after, check in with your spouse. “Are you okay? Second thoughts? Want to play again? Anything you’d do differently?” Remember, CNM has twin goals—playing with others and deepening your primary relationship.
  • Some aspiring non-monogamists hesitate to enter clubs near their homes for fear of running into people they know. Your friends probably feel similarly, meaning you’re more likely to bump into acquaintances at clubs far from home. If you see people you know, why feel embarrassed? You’ve both opted to experiment with CNM. You have something new in common. Who knows? Chance encounters might turn into deeper friendships.
  • Beginning non-monogamists often gravitate toward threesomes believing it’s easier to deal with one stranger than more. But threesomes have disadvantages. When two of the three play, the third might feel ignored. It’s also much easier to find single men than women. Foursomes are often preferable. While it’s more challenging to get along with two others, there’s someone for everyone. No one feels abandoned. And it’s much easier to find women.
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