Welsh wedding. Wikimedia Commons
Non-monogamy seems to be coming out of the closet. A study published in the prestigious Journal of Marriage and Family claims that contemporary marriage is undergoing a process of detraditionalization, which includes an openness to nonmonogamy. The study, which was co-authored by three Canadian sociologists, Adam Isiah Green, Jenna Valleriani, and Barry Adam,1 may capture media attention, but a closer look reveals that the evidence is shaky and their conclusions are premature, especially when we look at a broader set of studies. This leads me to conclude that the rumors of monogamy’s death are greatly exaggerated.
In their study, the Canadian researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 90 heterosexual and same-sex married Canadians. They found considerable openness to nonmonogamy, but this openness was evident mostly in abstract ideas of tolerance rather than in real life. In other words, most people supported nonmonogamy in theory, but not in practice. Gay married men were more open to nonmonogamy in both ideal and personal practice. Lesbian spouses mostly decided to be monogamous, but they often had conversations about this issue and based their decisions to be sexually exclusive on pragmatic reasons. But for heterosexual couples, personal monogamy held strong in the study, even when attitudes about others’ choices were more lenient. Despite these variations, the Canadian researchers interpret their findings to mean that another pillar of institutional marriage—the marital norm of monogamy— is showing serious cracks.
Certainly, there are social science scholars these days who are questioning the accepted superiority of monogamy. For instance, one group of researchers led by Dr. Terri Conley at the University of Michigan reviewed research on the potential benefits of monogamy to family life and society, and boldly concluded that “there is no definitive evidence to suggest that monogamy is the superior relational state for humans” in contemporary societies.2 They called for empirical research to “reexamine cultural assumptions about monogamy.”
Questionable sampling and reporting
More recently, this same team of scholars claimed to have found that there are few differences in relationship quality—satisfaction, commitment, love, and trust—between traditional monogamous relationships and most types of consensual nonmonogamous relationships.3 Although this recent study (which was critiqued in a recent IFS blog4) has had widespread media attention,5 it contains serious weaknesses that limit confidence in its findings. For one, the sample is questionable: Nearly 90 percent of survey participants were recruited from Internet sites such as Craigslist.org; the remaining participants were recruited by undergraduate students who posted information on their social media sites. This sampling procedure would not yield a representative sample of all individuals in romantic relationships or even those in CNM relationships. Moreover, even though the average length of relationships in the sample was 10 years, the researchers do not inform the reader what proportion of the sample were married or in a committed relationship. Nor do they break down their findings by marital status. It’s reasonable to wonder whether among married participants, there were significant differences between monogamous and CNM individuals in terms of relationship quality. Even with these shortcomings, the authors boldly assert that further research on the quality of CNM relationships is “not imperative.”6 (I confess that in more than 30 years of reading empirical studies I have never seen a researcher write that a research question has been studied sufficiently, even in areas of research with hundreds of published studies!)
Of course, we know from pretty good data that some people do hold more open attitudes about monogamy, and that infidelity exists in nontrivial numbers. For example, a recent national poll of Americans’ attitudes and practices regarding nonmonogamy could be interpreted by some as a shift in our attitudes.7 It found that, overall, about 10 percent reported engaging in sexual activity with someone else with the consent of their main romantic partner (as opposed to old-fashioned cheating). This fairly weak showing is qualified by the finding that a little more than one-third of American adults under age 45 described their current romantic relationship as not completely monogamous. Among these younger Americans, 17 percent reported engaging in consensual nonmonogamy. What’s more, only about half of that age group reported that their ideal relationship situation would be completely monogamous.
However, the polling data are not broken down by marital status, and I strongly suspect openness to nonmonogamy would be closer to zero among the married. As evidence for this assertion, I refer to an excellent national study of young adults (ages 24-32, using the Add Health data set) by three Penn State sociologists. That poll found that only 9 percent of married young women and 12 percent of married young men reported they had ever been unfaithful in their current relationship.8 In addition, 7 percent of married women and 5 percent of married men reported that their spouse had been unfaithful, though the researchers believe that those figures likely underreport spousal infidelity (because most infidelity is not discovered or disclosed). Moreover, 6 percent of married women and men reported that both spouses had been unfaithful.
Despite big changes to the meaning of marriage, monogamy is alive and well
Given studies like these, I understand how it might be tempting for some to conclude that normative cracks in the pillar of marital monogamy are beginning to show. So why do I resist that interpretive temptation? Because the fuller body of research in this area still doesn’t jibe with greater openness to nonmonogamy.
As for the Canadian study exploring marital nonmonogamy mentioned at the outset of this article, there are obvious limitations to it. The study employed a small, convenience sample of white, well-educated, urban Canadians whose views won’t generalize easily to American society. The researchers claim that this kind of sample would be at the “forefront of detraditionalization.”9 If they are correct, this suggests that there would be an even less enthusiastic embrace of nonmonogamy in the general population than what they found in their small study.
But another reason that I remain skeptical about the imminent crumbling of the traditional ideal and practice of marital monogamy comes directly from the Penn State study using Add Health data (the same one described above). In this study, young men and women reported how important they thought fidelity was to a successful marriage or committed relationship. The average of the responses was 9.8 out of 10 (SD = .86) for women and 9.7 (SD=1.15) for men. So, both young men and women still believe monogamy is extremely important—not just as a wistful ideal, but as a key part of a successful marriage. This study also seems to be in line with recent national polling data that shows that more than 90 percent of American adults say that a marital affair is morally wrong.10 Another recent poll found that 64 percent of American adults say that monogamy is “fundamental” in romantic relationships,11 and I believe this figure would be even higher if the question asked specifically about marital relationships.
In addition, the Penn State researchers found that reports of spousal infidelity were strongly associated with the dissolution of the relationship: wives and husbands who reported that their spouse was unfaithful were twice as likely to experience a break-up in the early years of marriage. That study also found that reports of one’s own infidelity were substantially higher than reports of spousal infidelity, and they believe this is because spouses are unlikely to disclose infidelity to their spouse. This reticence suggests that there remains a large stigma on unfaithful behavior.
And such stigma even remains attached to consensual nonmonogamy. In a set of three clever studies with samples of young college students conducted by the Conley team of researchers mentioned above, they found consistent evidence of significant stigma surrounding consensual nonmonogamous relationships and a “halo effect” surrounding monogamous relationships.12 They found this for both sexes and within exactly the population group—young people—who might be expected to be the most open to the idea of consensual nonmonogamy.
So, for now anyway, I’m not buying the “marital-monogamy-ideal-is-crumbling” story line. Sure, it bears monitoring, but the pillar of marital monogamy appears to be made of solid stuff, given how strongly people still hold to this ideal. Despite the big changes to the meaning of modern marriage, monogamy is alive and well. In fact, if romantic love has become the core meaning of contemporary marriage, as the detraditionalization thesis suggests, then the monogamy ideal might even grow stronger because it may function as an essential practice of sustaining romantic love in a society devoid of other structural and institutional supports.
Dr. Alan J. Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Reproduced with permission from the Institute for Family Studies.