Even though roughly 1 in 5 Americans has been involved in an “open” relationship at some point in their lives, new research cautions that many end up bearing the brunt of stigmatizing and stressful disapproval.

The finding stems from a pair of fresh investigations: The first found that roughly 40% of men and women who participate in “consensually non-monogamous” relations report being judged negatively or even threatened by others. And 70% of those who say they don’t experience stigma admit taking pains to keep the less traditional nature of their relationships under wraps.

In turn, a follow-up study found that being on the receiving end of such stigma exacts a significant emotional toll, causing anxiety not only when disapproval is actually expressed but also in anticipation of future negative encounters.

“Prior research has found that people tend to view consensually non-monogamous relationships more negatively than monogamous relationships,” noted study author Elizabeth Mahar. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of obstetrics & gynecology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

And in the latest study, “we found that people in consensually non-monogamous relationships do indeed report experiencing stigma in a variety of ways,” Mahar said.

That stigma can take many forms, she added, ranging from disgust to social exclusion to worse service when out in public. And those experiences sting, undermining quality of life and a sense of well-being among those who choose to engage in an open lifestyle, the study team noted.

Twenty percent of Americans — and Canadians — have at least tried an open relationship, Mahar said.

In 2019, she and her team decided to dig deeper by conducting a stigma exposure survey among 372 men and women involved in an open relationship. About 70% of the participants were white, with an average age of just over 33 years.

Roughly 40% said that they had been treated unfairly, discriminated against, devalued, diminished and/or threatened because of their relationship choice.

On the upside, most of those surveyed (nearly 58%) said they had not experienced stigma, and about 8% said they had even had positive or curious reactions from others.

But among those who said they had no history of stigmatization, 7 in 10 pointed out that they made an effort to ensure that pretty much no one was aware of their open lifestyle.

A follow-up survey was then conducted among the same group (with an additional 11 participants), to gauge the precise impact of stigmatization.

In the end, the team concluded that being exposed to stigma due to an open lifestyle was linked to increased distress. In addition, the investigators found that such stigma also drove up the risk for developing “internalized” stigma, in which those in open relationships start to feel uncomfortable and guilty about their choice.

As to why people feel the need to stigmatize others in the first place, Mahar pointed to other research suggesting there is a perception that people in open relationships are more interested in short-term relationships, rather than long-term commitments. And that perception may make those in monogamous relationships feel nervous or threatened.

In addition, prior investigations have also indicated that people tend to perceive those in open relationships as being unnecessary risk-takers and generally less healthy.

The findings were published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Amy Moors is an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and a research fellow with the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. She is also co-chair of an American Psychological Association committee that focuses on consensual non-monogamy.

Moors pointed out that “there are now as many people who have engaged in open relationships as there are Americans who own a cat. And that includes everyone of all stripes: white, Black, liberal, conservative, Southerners, Northerners, Republicans, Democrats, religious and non-religious.”

Yet at the same time, Moors said that her own research a decade back revealed that — all things being equal — people who are engaged in an open lifestyle are nonetheless typically thought of more poorly than monogamous couples.

“And that’s by any measure you look at, even when the measure has nothing to do with being in a relationship,” she added.

For example, open couples are not only viewed by others as being involved in less trusting and less satisfying relationships and more likely to spread sexually transmitted diseases, but also less likely to pay their taxes, less likely to tip well, and less likely to take a daily vitamin, Moors said.

So, the latest study “adds some nuance to what we already know — that this stigma is alive and well,” she explained.

“And there are a lot of reasons why,” said Moors, including religious beliefs, a general lack of exposure to the concept, and the fear that if one accepts others’ openness, their own monogamous partner may become interested.

“But whatever the reason, when you’re getting messages from everyone and everywhere that what you’re doing is wrong, that has a real cost,” Moors added. “It leads to lower self-esteem, a lower sense of well-being, and sometimes very real economic costs, like not getting hired for a job or being discriminated against.”

More information

There’s more on consensual non-monogamous relationships at the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: Elizabeth Mahar, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, department of obstetrics & gynecology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; Amy C. Moors, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Chapman University, Orange, Calif., and research fellow, The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, and co-chair, American Psychological Association’s division 44 committee on consensual non-monogamy; Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dec. 3, 2022