Swingers often face social stigmas that lead to worse mental health

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Swingers — or people who regularly swap sexual partners or engage in group sex — are ironically all alone when it comes to the rest of society. A new study finds these individuals are often snubbed by others — to the detriment of their health.

Researchers from the University of Florida discovered that people in open relationships often face negative attitudes regarding their lifestyle from others and that this impacts their mental health and well-being. Despite the seemingly increasing interest in polyamory, the study reveals that people in consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships generally encounter growing social stigma.

Previous studies have found that the general public views CNM relationships more negatively than monogamy. However, the new study suggests that public opinion leads to real-world health problem for those on the receiving end of that criticism.

“People in consensually non-monogamous relationships do indeed report experiencing stigma in a variety of ways,” says lead author Elizabeth Mahar of the University of British Columbia and the University of Florida in a media release. “Furthermore, this experienced stigma is associated with psychological distress.”

Researchers surveyed 372 people in CNM relationships, asking if and how they have experienced societal stigma. Roughly four in 10 say they’ve experienced a negative stigma. Of those who reported experiencing no stigma, 70 percent kept their lifestyle a secret from most of the people they knew.

Some stigmas come from within

Dr. Mahar says four themes emerged among those experiencing CNM-related stigmas. These include expressions of discomfort or disapproval of their CNM relationship, loss of resources or threatening behavior from critics, others devaluing or diminishing their character, and devaluation or diminishing of their relationship.

“Previous research has found that people with marginalized identities (e.g., LGBTQ individuals) experience stigma in a variety of unique ways,” says Dr. Mahar. “We found a similar pattern for people in consensually non-monogamous relationships.”

In a second study, the team examined the effects of how experiencing a stigma impacts the well-being of people in CNM relationships. A survey of 383 participants found that experiencing societal stigmas led to increased psychology distress. The team also notes that the association also displays a connection to anticipating being on the receiving end of a stigma. This refers to the extent to which people expect to be treated after someone finds out about their lifestyle. Study authors also found that participants dealt with internalized stigmas, meaning they feel guilty about their CNM relationship.

More than one in five people say they’ve been in a CNM relationship at some point in their life, and research suggests that four to five percent of relationships are non-monogamous. Dr. Mahar says it’s important to be “mindful” of how people may be engaging in behavior that negatively affects the well-being of people in CNM relationships.

“Gaining a better understanding of stigma and how it is linked to well-being will make it possible to develop and implement interventions to effectively mitigate the harmful effects of minority stress for consensually non-monogamous people,” Dr. Mahar concludes.

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

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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