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Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity – GSRD
Non-monogamy, whether it is consensual or not
Since 1990, The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) have undertaken a large study of sexual behaviour in British adults, the latest survey, NATSAL 4 started in September 2022. NATSAL 1 & 2 asked informants to identify their ‘ideal relationship’ from the choices below, 58% of men and 68% of women stated their ideal relationship was married or living together with no other sexual partners, when asked their future ideal relationship this increased to 83 / 78%. Unfortunately, this part of the survey was not repeated in the NATSAL 3, but the figures correspond with Sheff (2019) who estimates in the USA approximately 80% of people are monogamous and 20% of people practice consensual non-monogamy.
Barker (2019) describes the societal assumption that ‘people pair-bond’ forming a couple romantic relationship that will be sexual and monogamous; their romantic and sexual needs will be met within this relationship, and it takes priority over other relationships. For those who chose to be in a relationship often the standard pattern follows the ‘relationship escalator’ – meet someone, start dating, live together / get married, have children, and live happily ever after with that one person at the exclusion of others.
In reality, most people are not living the ‘ideal relationship’ discussed above, many adults live alone and are not in a partnership, or partners live apart through choice or circumstance; many marriages end in divorce and people practice serial monogamous relationships (moving from one monogamous relationship to another).
We know that one size does not fit all, there are lots of ways to do relationships sometimes through our own choice and sometimes through circumstances. Being single can be a relationship style of choice (solo/singledom) or not for those who find themselves single due to relationship breakup or death of a partner. Some have sexual relationships that don’t involve love / romance such as ‘friends with benefits’ or focus on romantic relationships rather than sexual.
Non-consensual or secret non-monogamy
About a quarter to half of monogamous relationships are secretly non-monogamous (Barker, 2019), one or both partners cheat or have affairs without the knowledge or consent of the other partner; sometimes a partner may know about the cheating and chooses to overlook it.
With technology and social media, it is easier to make contact with others and sometimes boundaries are blurred, and couples may or may not have rules in place of what is acceptable or not in relation to contact with others. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start or focus conversations on relationship styles, a good tool to aid this and explore your own feelings around relationship boundaries is using a yes/no/maybe tool that includes relationship models and choices. An example of this can be found here – Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist | Scarleteen – this tool also covers other areas around sexuality and sexual practices.
Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)
CNM has been practiced globally within many religious and cultural groups both historically and currently. In some countries polygamy (usually multiple married partners) is accepted and practiced. In fact, a quick google search shows of 1231 societies only 186 were listed as monogamous the rest had occasional or frequent polygyny (male with multiple female partners) and 4 societies practice polyandry (female with multiple male partners) (Wikipedia). In fact harems are often portrayed in the movies.
There are several different types of CNM that are relationship choices rather that cultural expectations, these relationship styles may fall under the GSRD umbrella. GSRD stands for Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity. It is a term used to be inclusive of people of all genders, sexualities, sexual and relationship practices, especially those from marginalised groups. As already identified, those that practice CNM are in the minority, they may be at risk of being judged or their choices not being accepted by others adding external challenges to daily life.
With open relationships there is normally a primary couple relationship, a committed couple if you like (romantic and/or sexual), the partners agree or are open to sexual contact with others – this contact is usually sexual rather than romantic. They can engage in sexual relationships with other people together or alone, however the primary couple relationship takes priority over relationships with others.
Swinging / sex parties, also a type of open relationship with the primary couple taking priority, they engage in sex together or alone with other couples or attend sex parties / clubs.
Polyamory focuses on romantic and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners at the same time. Polyamory can be practiced in many ways – multiple partners co-habiting (family, triad/quads), differing relationships taking priority (hierarchical), all partners connected, or they only interact with one of the partners. Some polyamorous relationships do not extend out of the nucleus group, and they practice polyfidelity.
Solo polyamory the individual is their own primary partner they have connections to others but have no expectation of relationships developing beyond that connection.
There are many other relationship styles that we haven’t covered here, including those that don’t have a sexual focus but an intimate / emotional relationship focus. It is important to remember that your relationship choices can change and be fluid depending on where you are in your life. Like any relationship CNM takes work, open communication and discussions about boundaries, developing informed / true consent – exploring literature and community support can be helpful.
Monogamy and CNM can be seen as a spectrum, at one end monogamy with the exclusion of anyone outside of the couple relationship, to polyamorous with multiple relationships. Sheff (2020) cautions that CNM is not for everyone and that opening a relationship will not fix a broken relationship, she highlights that some people are monogamous by orientation and for some CNM would not be negotiable.
Relationships can be difficult to navigate and at times you may need help, here at the Leone Centre we have therapists who are trained in relationship therapy and are GSRD/LGBTQ+ affirmative, offering a supportive, non-judgemental space to help you. Therapy can be with you as an individual or if you are in a relationship with your partner(s) depending on your needs.
Barker, M.-J. (2019, April). BACP. Retrieved from Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity (GSRD) – Good Practice.: https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/5877/bacp-gender-sexual-relationship-diversity-gpacp001-april19.pdf
NATSAL. (2022). Retrieved from National surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles: https://www.natsal.ac.uk/
Sheff, E. (2019, May 27). Updated Estimate of Number of Non-Monogamous People in U.S. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201905/updated-estimate-number-non-monogamous-people-in-us
Sheff, E. (2020, February 11). When Consensual Non-Monogamy Won’t Work for Monogamous Folks. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/202002/when-consensual-non-monogamy-wont-work-monogamous-folks
Wikipedia. (2022). Polygamy. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy