Busting Myths of Non-monogamy

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM), also known as ethical non-monogamy (ENM), includes many different relationship formations, often called polycules. There is no single template for what a polycule looks like, or how a polycule operates, since there are many possible combinations of people, personalities, and relationship styles. 

Even the language may differ, as some use terms like primary and secondary partner, while others prefer more descriptive language like nesting partner, anchor partner, and play partner. For more on this, check out What is Ethical Non-Monogamy? Power, Prioritization, and Fidelity.

When it comes to CNM, there’s a lot to consider, and many myths to debunk. Unfortunately, when counselors are uninformed or inexperienced with CNM, they may bring their unchecked bias into session. When asked, non-monogamous clients were more likely to terminate therapy when their counselor presented the client as the source of their own problems; lacked info or refused to learn about CNM; negatively judged CNM; idealized monogamy; or pressured clients to come out as non-monogamous and/or end their relationships completely. 

On the flipside, non-monogamous clients were more likely to continue therapy when their counselor supported their relationship dynamics; prioritized their needs, values, and relationship goals; normalized CNM; were open and nonjudgmental about diverse relationship styles; and provided helpful questions.

Many of the misconceptions about CNM originate from the monogamous social majority projecting their own hopes and fears of fidelity and love. These messages are integrated into nearly every social narrative, from television to movies to relationship norms and developmental milestones. So much so, that non-monogamous people can internalize these messages and misconceptions, contributing to a deep-felt sense of shame and self-doubt. 

So what are some of these myths, and how quickly do they fall apart?


Wagging their fingers, some believe non-monogamy is just an excuse for cheating. Simultaneously, some people fetishize the risqué idea of polyamorous promiscuity, viewing CNM as a hypersexual hedonistic lifestyle.

By definition, promiscuity just means having more than one sexual partner, but the term is loaded with negative connotations. It’s worth noting how the sex-positive movement has pushed back against slut-shaming, while advocating for healthy boundaries and communication. In fact, there are sex-positive people open to new sexual partners in both the monogamous and non-monogamous community. 

As such, spontaneously jumping into bed has far more to do with someone’s libido, discernment, impulsivity, and personal boundaries. Just visit Cancun on Spring break.

A lot of CNM memes chuckle about the irony of this myth, since the more public one is about being non-monogamous the smaller the dating pool gets. While around 21.1 percent of Americans have tried CNM at some point in their life, the number of people who are currently engaged in CNM hovers around 3 to 7 percent. 

Additionally, while the myth of non-monogamous promiscuity turns some off, others are turned off by the safe-sex protocols many non-monogamous people keep to protect themselves and their partners. Seriously. Monogamous media celebrates spontaneous passion, to such an extent that the idea of having an intentional safe-sex conversation before intercourse may feel foreign and uncomfortable.  

It’s also worth noting how diverse the CNM community is. There are, for example, many asexual and platonic polycules where no one has sex with anyone. There are also consenting mono-poly relationships, where one partner is sexually and romantically monogamous while the other is not.

Risks of STI

Behind the accusation of promiscuity is the fear that more sexual partners equates to a higher risk of STIs. A 2018 study found that monogamous people were rated as the least likely to be promiscuous and therefore the least likely to have STIs, increasing in promiscuity and perceived risk to those in open relationships, polyamorous relationships, and swingers—though the swingers themselves didn’t agree with this assessment! This study was not, however, measuring reality, just the halo around monogamous people, and the shadow cast on those outside the norm.

A comparison of sexual health history and practices among monogamous and CNM sexual partners found that the rates of STI diagnoses were about the same, between 18 and 20 percent, but monogamous people engaged in far more unsafe sex.

CNM partners reported using condoms during intercourse with their primary partner (63 percent), and their extradyadic partner (66 percent), and were more likely to discuss STI testing history with their new partners (81 percent). Whereas monogamous partners tended to stop using condoms when they decided to commit to one another, not because they were actually tested for STI.

On top of this, a 2020 article reviewing 30 years of data found that the rate of extramarital affairs has increased from 14.63 percent in 1991 to 16.48 in 2018, which is a significant issue since  unfaithful individuals are less likely to practice safe sex than openly non-monogamous individuals. 

Is this to say that non-monogamous people don’t also cheat on their partners? Of course not. Polycules must navigate questions of fidelity, just like any relationship. More to the point, the myth that non-monogamy has a higher risk of STIs doesn’t pan out in real-world settings.

Fear of Commitment

There is another pervasive myth that stipulates that non-monogamous people are afraid of commitment. The reality is that both monogamous and non-monogamous people may seek out counseling to help them navigate their attachment issues and avoidance tactics.

For most non-monogamous people, however, this myth couldn’t be further from the truth. More relationships mean more commitment, communication, and relationship maintenance, not less. The ongoing joke is that you can tell if someone’s poly by one glance at their Google Calendar. If anything, the time management required to maintain a healthy polycule requires an added level of attentiveness, commitment, awareness, and intention—dispelling the fantasy that CNM is just a carefree romp in the garden of desire.

The crux of the conversation centers on what people mean by commitment.

Monogamous culture treats commitment like a monolith of romantic and sexual exclusivity, yet there are so many more layers to consider. How a partner spends their time, expresses their affection, bonds with others, or plays with their imagination can pluck cords of insecurity in any relationship. Consider the small arguments that arise when a spouse spends “too much time with their friends,” the balance of honesty and secrecy between what’s shared in a therapy session versus what’s shared in the bedroom, or the feelings that arise when a spouse finds out their partner watches pornography. From this exclusive perspective, commitment is outlined by the boundary of betrayal, yet it’s not the only view.  

For others, commitment is the willingness to celebrate growth and navigate growing pains, even when they’re uncomfortable. It is a mutual understanding and agreement of what makes and breaks the relationship, which is why the foundation of commitment differs from relationship to relationship. Some dynamics may be very lax and permissive, whereas others may be very strict, even if they’re non-monogamous. A lot may depend on context, and require navigation in the moment, whereas others may have definitive lines in the sand that cannot be crossed.

Disloyal, Loveless, and Shallow

Observably, there is a gray zone where monogamous people engage in sexually open behavior by either cheating on their partners, having the occasional threesome, or taking on multiple lovers when they’re single. 

However, cheating is not an example of consensual non-monogamy because it’s not consensual. In turn, while threesomes can be fun, the third is often objectified as a disposable fantasy, so as not to threaten the integrity of the couple. And while it’s perfectly natural to date around or have fun with a one-night stand, hook-up culture is not known for transparency or clear communication. 

Unfortunately, it’s these clumsy, anecdotal experiences that many monogamous people walk away with, contributing to the myth that non-monogamous relationships must be disloyal, loveless, and shallow.

Monogamous people often feel very passionately about love, as they’re looking for a soul mate, or their “better half,” framing love as both a union, and a form of completion. Together, forever, ‘til death do us part. Unfortunately, some people try to validate their fidelity by denigrating others. This psychological bypass is just old-fashioned in-group vs. out-group behavior, applied to matrimony. Of course, neither monogamy nor non-monogamy is inherently superior, which is why counselors must attune themselves to the relationship orientation of each respective client.   

To compare, those who fall in love with more than one person learn a few things about themselves, their partners, and the world quickly. The first is that there is more than one kind of love, as different people evoke different passions in different ways. The second is that one love does not compete with the other. The heart expands to adore both. This does not evaporate jealousy or insecurity, but it creates new relationship dynamics to explore.

In the end, the depth of a person’s love or loyalty has nothing to do with their relationship orientation, as both monogamous and non-monogamous people can be heartfelt romantics emblazoned by passion, or not, as the case may be.

Relationship Satisfaction

There is an assumption that the quality of relationships takes a turn for the worst in CNM, yet if satisfaction depended on monogamy the divorce rate wouldn’t be so high.

In practice, some surveys have found that non-monogamous people are happier and healthier in their relationships. One potential explanation for this bump in satisfaction, intimacy, passion, and love is the observation that non-monogamous relationships favor problem-solving tactics with their partners, whereas monogamous relationships favor withdrawal tactics. 

However, another survey found no discernable differences in love, commitment, or satisfaction between monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, noting how bias clouds the data in both directions. Arguably, there are too many variables to make broad, conclusive statements about monogamy or non-monogamy being more or less satisfying. Once again, it all comes down to the people involved in the relationship, and their motivations for being in it.

As you can imagine, many myths surround people’s motives. Some claim an open marriage is doomed to fail, while others claim you can save a failing marriage by opening it up. Either way, a person may agree to a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship for their partner’s benefit, not because they want to. What follows? Dissatisfaction and resentment.

When asked why they engage in CNM, a survey of 540 people cited all kinds of reasons, roughly falling into six categories: autonomy, beliefs and values, relationality, sexuality, growth and expansion, and pragmatism. Some philosophically disagreed with traditional monogamy. Others did so for practical reasons like meeting their physical and intimate needs with one partner to help with being in a long-distance relationship with another. Others did so to deepen the sense of love and community in their life. But none engaged in CNM to try and “fix” a failing relationship.


Personifying the stereotype, there is a myth that one has to be queer, kinky, liberal, secular, progressive, or alternative to be non-monogamous, yet this is not the case. While lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three times more likely to engage in CNM than heterosexuals, a survey of 8,700 people in the US found that those who engaged in CNM were not drastically different from those who engaged in monogamy. Age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, education level, income level, and geographic location did not appear to yield any correlations with CNM. This lack of correlation was also echoed in a Canadian study.

So what sets monogamous and non-monogamous people apart? Mostly, an internal compass pointing to their respective values. For some, relationships are special because they’re supportive and exclusive, dotted with traditional milestones. For others, relationships are special because they’re supportive, inclusive, and open to new experiences.

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Alex Stitt is a nonbinary author, queer theorist, and licensed mental health counselor living in Hawaii. As a proud Queer Counselor, they work to educate professionals in the mental health field interested in working with LGBTQ+ populations. Their textbook, ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide, demonstrates how to apply Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to gender self-actualization.