Move on over monogamy, because open relationships are on the rise. An estimated 4% to 5% of people in the U.S. are now in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship. And a survey of 9,000 respondents conducted in 2017 found that every fifth person has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at least once in their life. A study of Google trends found that non-monogamy is certainly piquing our interest with the number of searches for “polyamory” and “open relationships” having steadily increased between 2006 and 2015.
When a relationship is open, it means that both partners agree to have sex with others, which no doubt sounds like heaven to some and hell to others. According to new research by the University of Rochester, relationships in which partners are romantically involved with others can work under certain conditions.
Ronald Rogge, associate professor of psychology at the Rogge Lab at the University of Rochester, and his team surveyed over 1,600 people in all kinds of relationships.
This review marks the first time that nuances within different types of monogamous and non-monogamous relationships have been accounted for. These subtleties include open relationships where partners either communicate honestly or do not speak about their additional sexual encounters. The grouping ‘non-monogamous’ includes partially open, one-sided non-monogamous relationships (in which one person prefers monogamy), as well as fully monogamous relationships.
If you’ve been meaning to try more open loving, here’s the good news: Rogge’s team found that consensual non-monogamous relationships can function well. These partnerships were “healthy, robust and long-lived” and also had some of the highest percentages of couples living together. That’s not to say they’re better than monogamous relationships. It appears that good old loyal twosomes win out when it comes to partners feeling low levels of distress and loneliness. Yes, monogamous partners were comfortable and satisfied with their relationship status.
Although those who identify as non-monogamous were highly interested in chasing sexual gratification and new erotic experiences, that’s not to say people who enjoy sex outside their partnerships aren’t into bonding for the long-run. On the contrary, consensual non-monogamous partners seek alliances that are made to last (along with stranger sex on the side).
But the measure of success in an open relationship isn’t how long couples stay together. It’s mutual consent, communication and comfort that matter most. “Although the partners in [consensual non-monogamous] relationships have low interest in monogamy, are highly embracing of casual sex, are actively seeking new sexual partners […] and are actively engaging in [sexual activity with other partners], the results suggest that they are doing this in a manner that maintains the quality and integrity of their primary relationships,” the authors write.
For Rogge, communication is one of the most important factors in an open partnership. “[Communication] is critical for couples in non-monogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a non-traditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture. Secrecy surrounding sexual activity with others can all too easily become toxic and lead to feelings of neglect, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, and betrayal.”
And the study findings underscore his point. In partially open or one-sided, non-monogamous relationships, respondents reported less dedication to their partners. A whopping 60% of partners in the one-sided group were dissatisfied with their relationships.
“Sexual activity with someone else besides the primary partner, without mutual consent, comfort, or communication, can easily be understood as a form of betrayal or cheating,” says Forrest Hangen, a PhD at Northeastern University and a co-author of the study. “And that, understandably, can seriously undermine or jeopardize the relationship.”
So have open relationships merely been misunderstood until now? According to Jessica Wood, who co-authored a paper that compared relationship satisfaction between monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, polygamy has received a bad rep, yet much of the criticism is based on misconceptions. “We are at a point in social history where we are expecting a lot from our partners. We want to have sexual fulfillment and excitement, but also emotional and financial support. Trying to fulfill all these needs can put pressure on relationships. To deal with this pressure, we are seeing some people look to consensually non-monogamous relationships.”
Non-monogamy may be a means to take off the pressure and meet our sexual needs, but could it be part of human nature? For Janet Hardy, author of The Ethical Slut, the 1997 book that popularized non-monogamy through the then-radical message that people should enjoy sex in and outside of the traditional monogamous relationship, polygamy runs in our genes. “I don’t think humans are biologically inclined toward monogamy. […] No other primate is monogamous and monogamy is very rare in nature,” she said.
David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, agrees to a certain extent. According to his studies, monogamy may have developed because it is a “good deal” for both women and men socially — but not necessarily biologically. In the course of human evolution, monogamy offered added security for women looking after children. “In the absence of monogamy, the likelihood is that most men are reproductively excluded. And so one possibility is that the historical-cultural tradition favoring monogamy was in part a deal that powerful men made, whereby they said, ‘OK, I will forego my overt opportunity to be a big-time harem master in return for a degree of social peace’,” Barash said. But perhaps, in our time, whether we are monogamous or not is no longer a question of nature versus society, but what an individual wishes to explore.
Whether you’re into poly or mono, the happiest relationships are those that fulfill a partner’s psychological and sexual needs. Making things work in the long run requires great effort. As the honeymoon phase wears off, couples are either willing to grow together or hold on to a belief of “sexual destiny,” as Jessica Maxwell, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, puts it.
“People who believe in sexual destiny are using their sex life as a barometer for how well their relationship is doing, and they believe problems in the bedroom equal problems in the relationship as a whole,” she says. “Whereas people who believe in sexual growth not only believe they can work on their sexual problems, but they are not letting it affect their relationship satisfaction.”
Ultimately, the characteristics that appear to make an open relationship work are mutual consent, communication and commitment to fulfill each other’s sexual needs. So, whatever you’re into, if you want it to last, speak your piece.
Anne is the author of “Science of Breakup”. Available now https://scienceofbreakup.com/buy.html