By: Meghan Rossi

One of the main research programs in the Couples and Sexual Health Laboratory is exploring how new parents manage changes to their romantic and sexual relationship when they first become parents. We know that this period is full of both excitement and challenges for couples (see blog posts 1, 2, 3, 4). However, we know much less about the benefits and difficulties that individuals who are in multiple partnerships experience during this transition.

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) refers to relationship compositions where individuals mutually agree to engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships with more than one partner. These relationships can vary a lot, with differences in the number of partners, level of commitment, presence of a “primary” relationship, and extent of exclusivity across partners1.

Recently, Manley and colleagues (2018)2 examined the perceptions and experiences of plurisexual (i.e. attraction to more than one gender) women who had some experience with CNM and were either pregnant or who had recently had a child. Women were interviewed at multiple points across the pregnancy and postpartum period. In general, women stated that engaging in CNM made them feel like a better parent, for example by expanding their identity of the “mother role” and being able to take time to themselves. One woman also noted that an added benefit of having an additional partner to assist with child rearing, allowed the primary couple to have time to themselves. In addition to the common experiences that most parents experience during this transition (e.g., exhaustion, reduced time for intimacy)3,4, there were unique challenges that CNM women faced. For example, women endorsed fears of the stigma that their children may experience for having more than two parents or a non-traditional family structure.

Researchers at McMaster University—who I had the pleasure of seeing their presentation at the most recent Canadian Sex Research Forum conference in Toronto—interviewed parents in consensual non-monogamous relationships. They reported that CNM parents identified a number of benefits that they experience within their relationships, including receiving more support with child bearing and rearing. However, the participants also noted unique challenges within the health care system, such as structures that reinforce invisibility of multiple relationship configurations (e.g., being told that a computer system would not allow more than two parents to be added to their child’s chart and that the additional partner could be added as an aunt). Unfortunately, these experiences are not uncommon and often prevent individuals from disclosing their relationship type to prevent judgement and discrimination5. These researchers maintain a website — including a helpful glossary —for their program of research (www.polybabes.ca) where you can learn more information.

Unfortunately, individuals in CNM relationships experience substantial stigma surrounding their relationship composition1. This stigma may be amplified during the transition to parenthood when a new baby joins their family. More research on CNM is essential to improve visibility of the benefits and difficulties that individuals in multiple partnerships navigate, especially when they become parents.

References

[1] Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348.

[2] Manley, M. H., Legge, M. M., Flanders, C. E., Goldberg, A. E., & Ross, L. E. (2018). Consensual nonmonogamy in pregnancy and parenthood: Experiences of bisexual and plurisexual women with different-gender partners. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 1-16.

[3] Woolhouse, H., McDonald, E., & Brown, S. (2012). Women’s experiences of sex and intimacy after childbirth: making the adjustment to motherhood. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 33(4), 185-190.

[4] Ahlborg, T., Dahlöf, L. G., & Hallberg, L. R. M. (2005). Quality of the intimate and sexual relationship in first‐time parents six months after delivery. Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 167-174.

[5] Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non‐monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 1-30.

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