Popular Polyamory: A Berkeley Psychologist Seeks to Bring the Non-Monogamous Into the Fold

Popular Polyamory: A Berkeley Psychologist Seeks to Bring the Non-Monogamous Into the Fold

By Tom Kertscher

The Citizen, a not-so-well-known publication from South Africa, tells us that 2018 might be the time for us to rethink monogamy. An accompanying photograph shows marchers in Toronto promoting consensual non-monogamy, or CNM.

A lifestyle on the fringe?

Well, CNM—the practice of intimate relationships involving more than two people, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved—is getting mainstream attention. And UC Berkeley behavioral health psychologist Heath Schechinger is pushing for even more.

Polyamory (a form of CNM) was featured in the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. NPR tells us it’s part of the “buzziest” shows on television, including one of Netflix’s most popular shows, House of Cards. And then there’s the research: One study found that Google searches for words related to polyamory and open relationships have increased dramatically. And another estimates that one in five Americans has engaged in CNM.

Now, Schechinger is leading an effort to get the American Psychological Association to create a task force on CNM relationships as part of the APA’s Division 44 (also known as the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues). Division 44’s mission is to study “sexual minorities and individuals” so their particular psychological needs can be addressed.

Such a task force, Schechinger says, could eventually lead to people who practice CNM getting the same class protections as LGBT people, as well as just more understanding of what that relationship choice is. He points out that nearly 5 percent of Americans are currently in a CNM relationship—almost the same percentage as people who identify as LGBTQ.

So, besides getting sex from more than one person, what’s the attraction?

 Plenty, says Schechinger, who calls himself a proponent not of practicing CNM, but of making it an acceptable option.

“We can’t push away that the sexual side of [CNM] certainly does seem to be what draws people to it, but I think that certainly gets played up much more than what it actually is in reality,” Schechinger says. “Many people talk about it being just something that is more honest, or feels more aligned with who they are and how they think about themselves. They also talk about it being something that really facilitates personal growth. They see it as being aligned with their spiritual practices. They also see it, when you think of a long-term relationship that lasts 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years, as being more sustainable or more in line with their philosophical ideal.”

A March 2017 research review article that Schechinger co-authored in the European Psychologistsaid that three relationship benefits are uniquely mentioned by people engaged in CNM. First is “diversified need fulfillment”: They perceive their relationship arrangement as affording them the ability to have a variety of their needs met. Second is “variety of nonsexual activities”: They see CNM as providing ample opportunities for social interactions, new experiences, fun and engagement in a wide variety of activities. And finally, “individual growth and development”: The privacy, honest communication, equality of power, trust, and separate identities in CNM relationships promote both personal and interpersonal growth more than is possible in monogamous relationships.

The review also found, based on prior research by others, that compared to people engaged in monogamy, people engaged in CNM experience greater trust and lower jealousy, as well as similar levels of satisfaction, commitment, and passionate love.

Really? You’re sharing your partner, but you’re less jealous?

“For many people who are in non-monogamous relationships, they see jealousy as being an emotion that is something that can be worked with,” Schechinger says. “It’s maybe comparable to anxiety, where it’s something that everyone experiences to different degrees and it’s something that can be navigated and something that, with time, people may experience it less noxiously or not as intensely.

“Instead of the assumption being that there’s something wrong with a partner for experiencing attraction to others within the context of the relationship, the attraction is ‘normalized’ in CNM relationships,” he says. “And instead of the assumption being that the person is wrong for feeling that, there’s this expectation that we can talk about that in the relationship. And there’s an expectation, as well, for the person experiencing jealousy to also explore that. So, instead of assuming that my partner’s wrong for being attracted to someone else, or that I’m wrong for feeling jealousy, there is an expectation that we work through that together.”

Schechinger says a Division 44 task force could start an effort to include CNM individuals in mainstream psychological research and create guidelines for psychological practices similar to those created for LGB clients.

In a Division 44 publication, Schechinger wrote that he believes it’s “time to make asking about relationship structure a standard practice” among psychologists, and for Division 44 to consider adopting a CNM task force “to increase CNM representation in research and education, and improve the quality of mental healthcare by creating comprehensive CNM treatment guidelines.”

“These steps, in turn, will help to foster greater liberty for individuals to adequately consider all their romantic relationship options, while effectively confronting anti-CNM biases that persist in society and our field.”