Understanding Relationship Labels: A Content Analysis of Consensual Non-monogamous Relationship Agreements

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Academic researchers and clinicians tend to categorize consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships (agreements involving sexual, emotional, and/or romantic relationships with multiple partners) into three categories: polyamorous relationships, open relationships or marriages, and swinging or ‘in the lifestyle’ relationships. In the present study, we explored whether these three categories adequately capture the diversity of CNM configurations and labels using a qualitative approach. From a larger sample of 589 individuals in CNM relationships, nearly one-fourth (n = 146) provided written responses to expand on the nuances of their CNM relationship agreement not captured by academics’ typical definitions of polyamory, open relationships, and swinging. To further examine the CNM type diversity, we analyzed the open-ended relationship agreement descriptions of 134 of these participants. Using content analysis, we identified four relationship categories (polyamory, mixed relationship, open relationship, swinging or “in the lifestyle”) accompanied by 12 subcategories of nuanced relationship agreements within these CNM relationships. These subcategories highlight that outside of common definitions CNM relationships may (a) allow for or include various combinations of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual connections, (b) include a mix of different CNM relationship types, and/or (c) be in different stages of transition. These results suggest that current common definitions may not adequately capture the diversity of relationship structures for a substantial number of people engaged in CNM. We discuss the implications of our findings, including gaining greater precision in studying CNM.


This article was originally published in Sexuality & Culture in 2023. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-023-10141-8

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