The so-called “standard” type of relationship in which both partners in a couple are monogamous doesn’t work for everyone. In some of these alternative relationships, one partner may engage in sexual activities outside of the couple, but not let the other partner know. Another, the “monogamish” relationship, occurs when both partners agree that they can have extramarital sex, but only as a threesome. In open relationships, both partners are free to engage with other partners, but be in love with only one, and in polyamory, both partners can have multiple relationships of a romantic or sexual nature, with all parties aware of and consenting to the relationship. The question of whether “all in love is fair” becomes one of determining whether people can be equally satisfied in any of these relationships, as long as they agree to whatever the arrangement is that they work out with each other.
University of Quebec in Montreal researcher Léa J. Séguin and colleagues (2017) investigated the satisfaction of couples living according to differing types of “relationship agreements.” They noted that although some previous studies suggested that non-monogamy is healthiest for relationship quality, other researchers found no differences in such factors as jealousy, trust, and overall satisfaction. The Montreal team believes that the discrepancies in the literature can be accounted for by various unique aspects of sample characteristics and the particular measures of satisfaction they used. Most importantly, perhaps, the previous studies included samples only of gay men, among whom polyamory has tended to be more prevalent. To resolve these issues, Séguin and her collaborators compared relationship types among sexually diverse samples of men and women focusing on the monogamous, open, and polyamorous arrangements.
Using a sample of 3,463 adults living across all Canadian provinces and territories recruited via social media, Séguin et al. were able to obtain sufficient numbers across the three relationship types to allow comparisons to be made on several key measures of relationship health. The sample was large enough, in addition, to permit control for such important factors as age, sex, length of relationship, cohabitation status, and sexual orientation, as well as the combined factors of sex and sexual orientation. Thus, this was the largest investigation to date in which it was possible to rule out many of the important qualities that could bias the results of relationship type comparisons.
The tricky feature of a study examining the multiple relationships of any one partner is that the participant needs to pick one of several possible individuals to use as the basis for rating. Therefore, the researchers instructed the survey responders to pick the most significant of their possible relationship partners. A 17-item questionnaire measured satisfaction with 5 aspects of this relationship: sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, closeness, trust, and commitment. Additionally, participants answered a set of questions concerning whether they felt they were getting as much as they were giving in the relationship. Participants also described their relationships as monogamous (only one romantic partner and monogamous sexual agreement), open (explicit agreement that sex with multiple partners was permissible), and polyamorous (more than one romantic partner and agreement on the relationship rules).
One advantage of this study was that the online format of the questionnaires would allow participants to express their honest views about the relationship without worrying that they needed to look good to the researchers. Participants did complete a consent form, and were informed that their responses from the 20 to 45-minute survey would be recorded anonymously. Imagining yourself completing such a survey, you can perhaps therefore appreciate that there was no reason for participants to try to hide the details of their sex lives. If you didn’t want to complete the survey, your participation was entirely voluntary anyhow. Another advantage of the study’s methods is that respondents were solicited through multiple sources rather than support groups for polyamorous couples (as has been true in other studies).
Now, onto the findings: The large majority (nearly 80 percent) of participants were monogamous, a small percentage were in open relationships (14 percent), and the remainder were in polyamorous relationships (7 percent). Most of the participants were women, a large percentage (62 percent) were students, and the average age was about 29 years old. With enough of a spread among the sample of other factors, such as relationship duration and sexual orientation, the findings showed clearly that there was no downside to being in an open or polyamorous relationship compared to the monogamous variety. Monogamous individuals were most likely to be heterosexual, open-relationship individuals to be homosexual, and those in polyamorous to be bisexual. Nevertheless, there were large percentages of heterosexual individuals in these two non-monogamous relationship types.
Overall, participants in each of the three relationship types reported being very satisfied with their relationships. It’s possible that the study contained an inadvertent bias, then, and that people unhappy with their partners would have preferred not to participate in the first place. Even with this limitation in mind, the number of controls instituted in the analyses provide at least some assurance of the validity of the results. Of course, the study authors provide the usual caution that further studies on even more representative samples are needed.
Given that all three relationship types yielded equally satisfied partners, and that these relationships didn’t differ on the trust factor, the findings do support this idea that people can live in almost any romantic and sexual type of relationship as long as the rules are clearly agreed upon by all involved. Thus, as noted by the researchers, the findings reinforce the idea that partners in any relationship type do need to be honest— in their words, “romantic secrecy is related to lower relationship quality.” Furthermore, “factors such as gender roles and norms, and the sexual objectification of women’s bodies in patriarchal culture, may impact heterosexual and homosexual relationship dynamics differently” (p. 99). In other words, relationships are affected by the same social forces that affect individuals, and that might limit women's ability to be relate on an even par with their male partners, whether part of an open or closed arrangement.
Being satisfied in your romantic relationship seems to entail, above all, agreeing on what the rules of your relationship are to be. All may or may not be fair in love, but true fulfillment seems to require playing as fairly as you can
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Séguin, L. J., Blais, M., Goyer, M., Adam, B. D., Lavoie, F., Rodrigue, C., & Magontier, C. (2017). Examining relationship quality across three types of relationship agreements. Sexualities, 20(1-2), 86-104. doi:10.1177/1363460716649337