While attending this year’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting, I chaired a data blitz session. The session fell on February 14. Valentine’s Day. Hundreds of people attended, all eager to hear exciting talks that lasted no more than 5 minutes. All of the talks delivered on expectations. One of them caused all heads to perk up and pay attention.
The talk, given by Amy Moors of the University of Michigan (and co-authored by Terri Conley, Robin Edelstein, and William Chopik), dealt with consensual non-monogamy. This is a psychological term researchers use to describe people who engage in more than one romantic relationships simultaneously, and whose relationship partners know and approve. The talk had two main points.
- Consensual non-monogamy is more common than you might think. Moors reported she and her colleagues consistently find that approximately 4-5% of people report being consensually non-monogamous. To put that in perspective, consider a university of 20,000 students. According to these estimates, roughly 800 to 1000 of these students identify as consensually non-monogamous.
- Who are these students? The authors argue that people who engage in consensual non-monogamy might not feel comfortable getting emotionally close to others and may instead prefer to keep their sense of autonomy. As a result, they might keep others at a distance. People with this relationship style have what is called avoidant attachment.
The more people identified as avoidantly attached, the more positively they evaluated consensually non-monogamous relationships. Avoidantly attached people were also more likely to report being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship.
When I spoke to others about the talk, they were most surprised about the higher-than-expected rates of consensual non-monogamy. This reaction begs the question of why people assume what they do about romantic relationships. Just as Tom Gilovich has shown many ways that people think they “know what isn't so,” what we think we know about relationships doesn't always match reality.