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New Developments in Consensual Non-Monogamy Research

An up-and-coming area of relationships research examines “consensual non-monogamy”—the phenomenon in relationships where partners engage (sexually and emotionally) with other people, and that this is a mutually-accepted norm. This symposium featured our own Jennifer Harman and Bjarne Holmes (both ScienceOfRelationships.com contributors).

Jennifer Harman discussed “multiple congruent partners” in Tanzania, where polygamy is legal and normative. She found that men and women were labeled by others very differently when they engaged with multiple sexual partners. Men were labeled with powerful and virile words (e.g., “razor blade,” “firecracker”) while women who engaged with multiple partners were labeled with derogatory and offensive words (e.g., “prostitute,” “silly,” “scatter-brained”). Sadly, this suggests a sexual double-standard; women were evaluated more harshly than men whether they were monogamous or not.

Bjarne Holmes discussed data showing that people in polyamorous relationships experience jealousy differently than those in monogamous relationships. Previous research suggests that in monogamous relationships, men are somewhat more susceptible to sexual jealousy but women are more susceptible to emotional jealousy—but this difference vanishes for polyamorous relationships. It seems that jealousy is much less painful in a polyamorous context, because there is more open communication and control. In addition, more closeness between participants and their partners’ other partners is associated with less sexual jealousy. Dr. Holmes concluded his talk by reminding us that many of the behaviors/emotions we think are universal in relationships are not when you consider consensual non-monogamous contexts.

Amy Moors discussed her research on safe-sex practices in monogamous vs. “consensual non-monogamous” (CNM) relationships. People often assume that monogamous relationships are “safer”—that monogamous individuals are less at risk for disease than those who have sex with multiple partners. This assumption is likely incorrect, considering that a large percentage of people in “monogamous” relationships are cheating on their partners (upwards of 40% in young adults), and when they do, they’re engaging in much riskier sex than people in CNM relationships. “Monogamous” cheaters use protection (e.g., condoms) less frequently (and sometimes incorrectly), they’re more likely to be intoxicated, less likely to discuss sexually transmitted infections with their affair partners, and much less likely to tell their primary partners after an affair. In contrast, CNM relationships are safer in that partners are significantly more likely to practice safe sex and open communication.

Finally, Melissa Mitchell discussed need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. Previous research suggests that being highly satisfied with someone else is associated with not having your needs fulfilled and lower satisfaction with your primary partner.  But another perspective suggests that people place too much burden on one partner to satisfy all their needs, and might do better with multiple partners. The data support that prediction—having needs fulfilled with multiple partners actually increased satisfaction with primary partners (although the effect was small). People weren’t trying to replace their partners with others—they were more highly satisfied with both partners when they felt their needs were being fulfilled.

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Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory

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Reader Comments (2)

Could you provide some references to the needs fulfillment work by Melissa Mitchell that you cite? That sounds fascinating.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

The paper is currently "in press"; here's the citation:
Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. J. (in press). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. The Journal of Sex Research.

She has made a summary of her results available here:

Melissa Mitchell can be reached by email: melmitch@uga.edu

January 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterScience of Relationships
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