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When Three (or More) is NOT a Crowd

What do you know about polyamory? Can polyamory or open relationships really work?

This is a timely question, as there has been a surge of interest lately on this topic. In fact, according to a recent study, between 4-5% of Americans report being in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship—this is when both partners agree that they and/or their intimate partner(s) can have other sexual or romantic partners as well.1 Consensual non-monogamy describes many types of relationships, such as swinging (recreational sex with others) and polyamorous relationships, where the partners consent to each other having intimate, loving relationships with others (more intimate than just an “open” relationship). Researchers (including me) are starting to explore how theories we have about intimate relationships extend to our understanding of relationships that include more than two people. There is not a lot of work yet on non-monogamy, but we can look to a paper that Dr. Terri Conley and colleagues recently wrote challenging assumptions about the benefits of monogamy.2

Here are a few relevant assumptions to your question:

1) One assumption that many people have is that monogamy protects intimate partners from sexually transmitted diseases. While true monogamy can protect partners if both were disease-free prior to the initiation of sexual intercourse, many couples do not wait to get tested for diseases before they have sex the first time. Rates of infidelity in “monogamous” relationships are also alarmingly high, hovering between 20-55%, depending on what time frame you ask people about (e.g., having ever cheated versus cheated in the last 5 years).3 Sadly, when cheaters cheat, they typically do not take protective measures to reduce sexually transmitted infections 100% of the time.1 Then, when they have sex with their primary partner, they rarely use barrier protection (e.g., condoms); this puts all partners at risk for diseases such as syphilis and HIV. In contrast, compared to monogamous individuals, people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships are more likely to use condoms and other protective measures (e.g., dental dams) with all of their sexual partners.1

2) People also assume that individuals in monogamous relationships experience less jealousy than those in non-monogamous relationships. A considerable amount of research has shown that many people experience jealousy in their monogamous relationships. So is it true that there is more jealousy in non-monogamous relationships? Research to date says “no.” In fact, many polyamorous individuals have coined new terms for jealousy, such as feeling “shaky” about their partner’s sexual activities with other partners, but the levels of this feeling are not reported as being as great as jealousy experienced by monogamous individuals. Why? The sexual activity or romantic relationship does not necessarily pose a threat to the relationship…only to one’s ego, perhaps (e.g., am I as good in bed as that person?). Compersion is a word created in the polyamorous community to describe feelings of pleasure related to one’s partner being with other people.5 So compersion, a term unique to those in consensual, non-monogamous relationships, is sort of like the opposite of jealousy. You would not feel threatened by your partner’s other romantic partners; rather, you would feel happy for your partner if they had them.

3) Many assume that people have other romantic and sexual partners because their primary relationships are not completely satisfying. Although there has not been a lot of research examining this idea yet, some work shows that individuals in consensual, non-monogamous relationships report having more of their intimacy and sexual needs met.4 In other words, the assumption that one person can meet every single need of another is just that – an assumption. While having all your needs met by one romantic partner may work for some people and some relationships, it does not for others; monogamy does not suit everyone.

There are a number of other assumptions about non-monogamy, but I think you can see here that much of what we assume are just that: assumptions – assumptions based on a perhaps misguided tendency to compare everything to monogamy. Can polyamory work? It does for many. How can it work? Research cannot tell us much about that (yet), but there are plenty of useful resources available if you are curious. From what I have learned so far, polyamory requires a lot of open communication with your partner(s), as well as honesty about your own and your partners’ needs.

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1Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2012). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non-monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1530-2415. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2012.01286.x

2Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Valentine, B. (in press). A critical examination of popular assumptions about the benefits and outcomes of monogamous relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review.

3Buss, D. M. (2000). The dangerous passion: Why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex: Free Press.

4Wagner, G. J., Remien, R. H., & Dieguez, A. C. (2000). Prevalence of extradyadic sex in male couples of mixed HIV status and its relationship to psychological distress and relationship quality. Journal of Homosexuality, 39(2), 31-46.

5Ritchie, A., & Barker, M. (2006). ‘There aren’t words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make them up’: Constructing polyamorous languages in a culture of compulsory monogamy. Sexualities, 9(5), 584.

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (2)

I identify as Polyamorous and currently have three partners, all with additional partners. I have read this blog for a while and always enjoyed the clinical and logical way you present your information and advice. I was again reminded why I like this site after reading this post. Thank you for giving Polyamory fair consideration. A lot of scientists and psychologists ignore or dismiss this lifestyle as something that could never work and should not be modeled.

June 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I just want to point out that "compersion" is not the opposite of jealous, it's more like the opposite of schadenfreude (which is "happiness at the misfortune of others"). Or at least, that's my preferred definition.

June 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmpress
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