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Episode 22: The Evolution of (Non)Monogamy (1/2)

In the first episode of our two-part interview with Dr. Heath Schechinger, we talk about terminology and learn the nuances between different types of non-traditional relationships. We touch on jealousy and how much there is to be learned — regardless of what type of relationship you’re in — from the important communication required to navigate such a complex emotion. We talk a lot about how much there is to be learned from all of the open communication required for non-traditionally structured relationships, and lastly, we discuss the evolution and the expectations of monogamy. Dr. Heath is a researcher, psychologist at The University of California Berkeley, and co-chair of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force. Visit BBXX.WORLD for more information, links, or to give us your feedback, etc :)
The transcript wasn’t added for this episode.

This is the first episode of our two-part interview with Dr. Heath Schechinger, a researcher and psychologist at the University of California Berkeley who specializes in consensual non-monogamy (CNM). Dr. Heath is the founder and co-chair of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force, an organization that promotes awareness and inclusivity of CNM and non-traditional relationships.

Dr. Heath first walks us through his initial foray into the study of gender, sex, and relationships through the lens of CNM, before diving into the historical progression of the CNM movement and the nuances that differentiate non-traditional relationships.

Terminology: Defining Non-Traditional Relationships

CNM is an umbrella term to capture all forms of consensual relationships where there is unanimous consent that it is permissible to have multiple concurrent sexual and/or romantic relationships. 

Polyamory would then fall under this CNM umbrella, as it’s defined as the state or practice of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously. It’s important to note that polyamory places an emphasis on permitting multiple romantic and/or love-based connections within a relationship, as opposed to permitting a purely physical connection with other people. 

By contrast, an open relationship and swinging typically focus more on the permission to experience physical connections with other people, while restricting romantic connections. As a result, it’s possible for “emotional cheating” to occur within an open relationship or a swinging partnership.

Polygamy by definition is the act of being married to more than one person. Dr. Heath notes two important historical and social nuances between polygamy and polyamory. The first being the role of gender — in polyamory, gender is never prescribed, creating a more queer-affirming and queer-focused relationship, while polygamy has historically been attached to heterosexuality. Secondly, polyamory finds its roots in feminism, while polygamy has historical foundations in religious fundamentalism and is often tied to misogyny

Finally, monogamish (a recently coined term made famous by relationship and sex columnist celebrity Dan Savage) describes a couple that predominantly views themselves as monogamous, while occasionally allowing sexual encounters with other individuals. 

Breaking Myths of Non-Monogamy

Myth #1:People who are drawn to non-monogamous relationships belong to a specific, limited demographic. 

The types of people who pursue non-monogamous relationships cross all spectrums. Dr. Heath mentions The Polyamorists Next Door by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a book that studies the upsurge of CNM nationally across a variety of demographics.

Myth #2: CNM doesn’t work and negatively impacts relationships.

A number of studies suggest that CNM is an equally viable alternative to monogamy. There is no evidence to suggest that non-monogamy will harm a relationship, or that those in CNM relationships are less happy or less satisfied.

Myth #3: People in CNM relationships experience more jealousy.

Research has indicated that those in CNM relationships report lower levels of jealousy than those in monogamous relationships.

Myth #4: CNM relationships have higher rates of STIs.

While people in CNM relationships have more partners on average than their monogamous peers, studies have shown that CNM partners are more likely to be open about their sexual health and are thus more likely to practice safe sex.

Myth #5: CNM relationships have a negative impact on children.

Recent studies have suggested that children raised by parents who practice CNM are not faring any better or worse than children raised by monogamous parents.

Wait, does this mean everyone should be non-monogamous? 

Not necessarily. Keep in mind that there are different types of people with different types of emotional wiring and companionship preferences. Think of it like this: Just because you’re a dog person, doesn’t mean you should try buying a cat. But, maybe there is something a dog-person could learn from their cat-loving neighbor! We’ll ditch the analogy and summarize it this way: examining your own thoughts, feelings, curiosities, and doubts surrounding non-monogamy is a great way to examine your own belief system in order to deepen your self-knowledge and self-awareness.

Conflicting Cravings: Security vs. Novelty

Dr. Heath mentions the importance of communication when navigating the instinctual, yet paradoxical, desire for both security and novelty in a relationship. He references Mating in Captivity, a book written by Esther Perel that studies this common conundrum.

If people had more space in a relationship to talk about their attraction to other people, would that prompt people to cheat less?

In order to create the space for this communication to take place, we need to eliminate the shame attached to experiencing attraction outside of a relationship. But how? By normalizing these feelings and creating greater visibility of non-traditional relationship structures in mainstream media and culture. Dr. Heath briefly mentions Wanderlust, a new Netflix series that spotlights this topic. 

What can people in monogamous relationships learn from non-monogamy?  

  1. Your partner shouldn’t be responsible for fulfilling all of your needs. 
  2. Communication is essential. The process of naming our feelings out loud prevents us (and our partners) from misinterpreting and creating false narratives.

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About the Expert

Heath Schechinger - profile

Heath Schechinger

Dr. Schechinger offers therapy and consultation for individuals, couples, and multi-partner relationships from a feminist, sex-positive lens. As founder and co-chair of the APA Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Taskforce, he has considerable experience supporting the non-monogamous, kink/BSDM, TGNC/NB, and LGBQIA communities. He also offers support for individuals & partners processing infidelity or experiencing sexuality concerns. In addition to his private practice, he's also on staff at the University of California, Berkeley.