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Nonmonogamy by the Numbers
May 6, 2024

Nonmonogamy by the Numbers

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Is Polyamory Less Satisfying? Is It Only for Rich People? Let’s Look at the Data., Does having multiple partners make for less-satisfying relationships? We don’t have to judge—we can look at the data., Research: Polyamory isn’t just for wealthy people. And

Consensual nonmonogamy is now officially mainstream. Take this January alone: NBC’s Peacock launched a new dating show (Couple to Throuple—exactly what it sounds like); an affluent Park Sloper debuted a memoir in which she recounts, in punishing detail, her open marriage; and New York magazine devoted an entire issue to the subject, complete with a cozy profile of a polycule, a practical guide for couples seeking to open their relationship, and a bizarre cat-festooned cover.

Predictably, the sneering has arrived too. ‘Polyamory, the ruling class’s latest fad,’ asserts Tyler Austin Harper, a Marxist humanities professor and a contributing writer at the Atlantic. ‘A glance at some actual human relationships should raise some doubts about how well this model really works,’ contends conservative commentator Ross Douthat in the New York Times, dismissing the open-marriage memoir as a ‘testament to marital suffering.’ One need take only a cursory glance around social media to find a welter of opinions promoting, decrying, or mocking a set of social arrangements that is currently taking up considerable space in the public imagination.

But is polyamory more common among wealthier people? Are open marriages less satisfying for those involved? Should your neighbor/friend/cousin’s ex’s sister whom you’ve heard has a wife and a boyfriend just … break up/cheat/get over their little experiment?

We need not speculate so wildly. There is, in fact, a fairly rigorous body of research that offers insight into the ways people live and love outside monogamy, research that can help ground the cultural conversation in empirical reality rather than leave it to freewheeling expressions of preference or moralizing opinion. The scientific understanding of consensual nonmonogamy actually paints a nuanced and interesting picture.

Consensual nonmonogamy is rather common—and has been for at least a decade. One of the most comprehensive sources of data in the U.S. is sponsored by, which, since 2010, has annually commissioned an independent survey company to query thousands of unmarried Americans across all demographics about their intimate relationships. (The surveys are focused not just on Match users; the company just has a vested interest in keeping tabs on the broader dating landscape.) Since 2013, these surveys have included questions about consensual nonmonogamy, such as whether respondents have ever participated in ‘an agreed-upon, sexually non-exclusive relationship.’ When independent academics reviewed responses from approximately 9,000 demographically representative Americans in 2013 and 2014, their analysis revealed that 1 in 5 people had engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy. A 2019 Canadian study using a comparable approach (but including married Canadians as well) found the same rate of having ever been in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship: 1 in 5.

‘That’s how many Americans have pets or speak another language other than English at home,’ says Amy Moors, one of the authors of the study with the survey and a professor at Chapman University. ‘You’re more likely to have been in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship than to be left-handed or redheaded.’

How many people are actively practicing nonmonogamy at any given time, though? A pair of nationally representative studies (from 2012 and 2015, respectively) found that between 2.5 and 4 percent of those in romantic relationships were currently engaged in consensual nonmonogamy. Assuming that about 70 percent of American adults are in a relationship, this indicates that 2 or 3 percent of all American adults are, by agreement, not strictly monogamous. This rate may seem low, but it works out to millions of people—similar to the prevalence of peanut allergies.

And that number may be growing. ‘There is something happening in society at large, where we’re seeing more people openly talk about nonmonogamy,’ says Moors. ‘It’s part of the zeitgeist.’ Though we don’t have academic data to confirm an uptick in nonmonogamy, a smattering of numbers indicates that it’s not just chatter and magazine stories.

The CEO of Feeld—a dating app for ‘those open to experiencing people and relationships in new ways’—reported to Axios earlier this year that the company has over the past three years seen a 500 percent increase in the number of users including the terms ethically nonmonogamous and polyamorous in their profiles. Between 2021 and 2023, the dating app OkCupid saw a 45 percent increase in profile mentions of terms relating to nonmonogamy, also according to the Axios article.

The spike in the broader population isn’t as big. In December 2020, 5 percent of adults reported being in open relationships and 3 percent reported being in polyamorous relationships, according to data from the polling firm YouGov. By December 2023, those numbers had ticked up to 6 percent and 4 percent, respectively. An important caveat on that YouGov data: Because YouGov didn’t provide information on the statistical significance of the change, that rise could be a random fluctuation, rather than a real trend. But generally, the data point to some kind of shift. According to a January press release about the latest survey, the prevalence of people who have ever been in a nonmonogamous relationship has gone up from that 1-in-5 number reported 10 years ago. Today nearly 1 in 3 unmarried Americans reports that they have at some point been in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship. And although the data can’t rule out a recent polyamory ‘fad’ among the ‘ruling class,’ the obsession with upper-class dalliances obscures a key fact: Most nonmonogamists aren’t rich and white. 

There’s a reason polyamorous relationships seem like a luxury for the well-to-do. Until about 2010, most studies of such arrangements had been qualitative in nature—think in-depth interviews and such.

‘The people who were participating in research were very highly educated, white, middle and upper middle class—those who were strongly buffered by social privilege,’ says Elisabeth ‘Eli’ Sheff, a sociologist who did some of that work. ‘I wouldn’t say that’s everyone who was having nonmonogamous relationships, but those were the people who felt safe to participate in research.’

Those may also be, not coincidentally, the people who feel most comfortable being the subjects of a profile in a major media outlet. This early research and media coverage inadvertently fostered a perception that consensual nonmonogamy, and polyamory in particular, was practiced largely within affluent white communities.

Findings from more recent empirical studies, totaling some 15,000 participants, have failed to link consensual nonmonogamy—broadly defined, including all kinds of setups—with income, education level, or being white. And although the details vary from study to study, no consistent correlation has been noted with regard to age, religion, geographic location, or political leanings. The only connections that tend to persist are that men and individuals identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are more likely to be involved in nonmonogamous relationships (or, at least, are more likely to report such involvement). These findings collectively debunk the notion of a stereotypical ‘type,’ in terms of race or class, that engages in consensual nonmonogamy.

That seems to be the case, too, when it comes to polyamory specifically (i.e., having multiple simultaneous romantic partnerships). The first truly demographically representative study of polyamory was published in 2021 (using survey data sponsored by in 2016). This study of about 3,500 Americans—run by Moors, who also did the work with the earlier survey data—found that 1 in 9 people reported having ever been in a ‘committed, sexual, and romantic relationship with multiple people at the same time,’ regardless of income, race, political affiliation, age, or geographic location.

Interestingly, the data show a slight negative correlation with education: Less educated people were more likely to engage in polyamory, though the effect was small. As with consensual nonmonogamy more broadly, men were more likely to report having been in polyamorous relationships. But the correlation with sexual identity was absent. In another study, researchers found that, compared with those in monogamous relationships, people in polyamorous relationships were less likely to be Christian or Republican, more likely to identify as multiethnic or multiracial, and more likely to earn less than $40,000 a year. Other studies have also failed to find a telltale demographic that engages in polyamory.

The simplest explanation for the cultural association between polyamory and elites is that white, wealthy people in Brooklyn brownstones are the most visible nonmonogamists in the media. Anytime someone looks at data, it’s clear that nonmonogamy is practiced by a broad swath of America.

Sheff notes that although boomers and Gen Xers have typically dated within clearly defined couples, millennials and Gen Z have leaned toward more fluid social dynamics; people might hook up but aren’t necessarily coupled off. Or they might start having multiple relationships and ‘retroactively define themselves as ‘OK, I guess we are polyamorous,’ ‘ says Sheff. ‘But they’re not finding the identity and shaping themselves to it. They’re living their lives and applying whatever identity works.’

But Sheff is clear that it’s not just millennials and Gen Z that are engaging in this behavior. She described polyamory in elderly women who have previously been monogamous but are now facing a life after a divorce or the death of a partner. ‘And they want some sex and affection and attention, and they don’t want to have to manage anyone else’s laundry or medication or doctor bills. So they have some dude who is segregated to Tuesday afternoon, and you get laid Tuesday afternoon but you don’t want anything else from him. Or maybe: There’s only one old dude here in this small town, and I don’t really want to be responsible for his maintenance. So I’ll share him with everybody else.

Many believe that, as Douthat suggests, the ‘share him’ setup is perhaps a little sad. No surprise there. Stigma against those in consensual nonmonogamous relationships has been documented in multiple studies. Monogamy is the dominant relationship structure in our society, and as such, people tend to believe that anything else is a sign of dysfunction.

Some polyamorous or open relationships are deeply dysfunctional. But so are many monogamous ones. The question isn’t can consensually nonmonogamous relationships be dysfunctional—of course they can. (Dysfunctional relationships also make for better gossip, juicier Reddit posts, and convenient tsk-tsking.) The important question, as we consider nonmonogamy’s place in society, is: Are they always dysfunctional? Or, at the very least, are they much more likely to be dysfunctional?

As it turns out, Moors has been involved in this kind of research as well. In a study published in 2017, she and colleagues surveyed more than 2,100 individuals using established relationship metrics to compare monogamous with consensually nonmonogamous relationships. Contrary to conventional belief, they found no significant differences in the levels of love, commitment, and general satisfaction between the two groups. In fact, those in consensually nonmonogamous relationships reported higher trust and sexual satisfaction and experienced less jealousy compared with their monogamous counterparts.

Other studies are consistent with these findings, revealing that participants in nonmonogamous relationships tend to have better communication, more investment in their relationships, and less likelihood of showing anxious or avoidant attachment behaviors. Whether consensual nonmonogamous relationships encourage these traits or whether people more likely to exhibit these traits tend to be in nonmonogamous relationships isn’t clear.

Although these studies suggest that consensually nonmonogamous relationships can be just as healthy and satisfying as monogamous ones—and maybe even better—more rigorous comparisons paint a slightly less rosy picture. One nationally representative study from 2012 found that people in open relationships were a little less happy and sexually satisfied with their primary partners than were those in monogamous relationships, though the differences were small. What’s more, this study asked only about satisfaction with primary partners, not overall happiness, a metric that may be more relevant for nonmonogamous folks. (When it comes to sexual health, consensual nonmonogamy is clearly better than cheating: This same study found that people in open relationships were more likely to use condoms with their primary partners compared with those sneaking around behind their partners’ backs.) The only other nationally representative study, this time of Canadians, found that people in open relationships reported slightly lower relationship satisfaction than did those in monogamous relationships, but this difference didn’t reach statistical significance, so it’s tough to say if it’s real. There’s less data on more nuanced dynamics, such as how couples fare when they transition from monogamy to nonmonogamy, or how satisfied people are in different kinds of consensually nonmonogamous relationships—which seems to be a major gap, given how many people are nonmonogamous.

Intriguingly, a few informal but large surveys from the rationalist community suggest that both complete monogamy and complete polyamory tend to be more satisfying than the ‘monogamish’ middle ground. Although these dynamics might reflect the specific social circles surveyed, they are consistent with other hints in the literature that open relationships are slightly less satisfying than complete monogamy. It’s worth noting that, according to’s latest survey, of the 1 in 3 people who tried a nonmonogamous relationship, only 16 percent would opt for another; of the 1 in 9 that were in a polyamorous relationship, only 29 percent would opt for another. Ultimately, while there’s some interesting evidence for slight differences, the jury is still out on whether, all else being equal, monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous relationships differ significantly in satisfaction. What is clear is that nonmonogamy isn’t necessarily a recipe for relationship disaster, as popular stereotypes might have us believe.

But the Canadian study suggests an important point: If you’re stuck in a relationship style that doesn’t match your preferences—whether that’s monogamy or nonmonogamy—your satisfaction takes a serious hit. Monogamy is still the inclination of most Americans, a group that, overall, seems to be basically happy with the arrangement. Given the data, it makes sense that people in one relationship style might look at those in another and think, No thanks! But it’s dicey to generalize from one’s own relationship experiences, or even the relationship experiences of one’s friends. That’s, in fact, exactly what data is for. And it’s pretty clear that although nonmonogamy might not work for many—including the Douthats of the world—it can work for others.

My read of these studies is this: The current media portrayals of polyamory capture only a fraction of the complex, widespread, and diverse social arrangements that exist beyond monogamy. When you look at the data, a bigger, richer, more robust picture comes into view of how sex and love actually unfold in our culture. Society’s view of monogamy as the ultimate romantic ideal has overshadowed other relationship structures, which have existed and will continue to exist regardless of monogamy’s dominance in social norms. In fact, if we want to talk about fads, it’s worth noting that the sexual exclusivity expected in modern American monogamy may itself be a relatively recent norm in human history.

At the same time, the media’s intense focus on polyamory among a tiny sliver of the populace also obscures what’s really happening on the ground. The way the academic surveys define nonmonogamy is quite broad. When a survey asks if you’ve ever been in a ‘consensually nonmonogamous’ relationship, that could cover a lot of situations. A few months of casual dating? A one-time threesome? Nonmonogamy and even polyamory may be quite common, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s building a 20-person polycule in the suburbs. At the risk of sounding like an academic myself, this is where the need for more data comes in. As social arrangements continue to evolve—as they always have—it’s worth approaching these changes with empirical curiosity, rather than jumping to conclusions based on a few cherry-picked examples or our own biases. It strikes me as a missed opportunity to continue to rely on stereotypes and assumptions, when we have data that can help illuminate love and sex in all its messy, complicated glory.


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