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8 Reasons People Pursue Polyamorous Relationships

Autonomy, values, and community-seeking.

Key points

  • Polyamory refers to having romantic or sexual relationships with multiple individuals, with the consent of all involved.
  • A recent, systematic research and theoretical analysis discusses reasons why some people engage in polyamory.
  • Motivations for engaging in polyamory include, among others, those related to autonomy, sexual diversity, identity development, and belonging.

Polyamory refers to the desire for and the practice of engaging in consensual, non-monogamous romantic or sexual relationships with multiple partners.

A recent paper by Hnatkovicova and Bianchi suggests there are eight motivations for polyamory. These include psychodynamic motivations, the satisfaction of needs not met in a monogamous romantic relationship, and the fulfillment of needs related to personal growth, identity development, expression of one’s political views, belonging to a community, sexual diversity, and the exploration of minority identities (e.g., bisexuality).

The study, published in the September issue of Sexologies, is discussed after an introduction to polyamory.

What is polyamory?

As noted earlier, polyamory means having multiple romantic or sexual relationships, with all the partners being aware of the set-up and consenting to it.

Polyamory is not the only type of consensual non-monogamous relationship. Others consist of relationship anarchy and open, swinging, and monogamish relationships, as described below.

  • Open: These revolve around a sexually non-exclusive dyad.
  • Swinging: Refers to when a couple engages in sexual relations with other couples; may involve exchanging partners.
  • Monogamish: A term used for couples who are primarily monogamous but occasionally have sex with people outside the relationship (e.g., engaging in threesomes or sex parties).
  • Relationship anarchy: Believing that all of one’s relationships are equally important and the romantic or sexual ones should not be prioritized.

Polyamory is unique in that it involves people who, as the authors note, may or may not “be of different sexes and sexual orientations” or “have sexual interactions with multiple members of the network.” Some might even “have children together in different constellations,” and “care for children (which they have in previous and/or current relationships), living in one or more households.”

In terms of the prevalence of polyamory, results from a recent US national survey showed that 17% of respondents wanted to be in a polyamorous relationship and that 11% had already been in one.

Why do people desire to engage in polyamory? In other words, what are the motivations for practicing polyamorous relationships?

Motivations for consensual, non-monogamous relationships

A recent study, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, has examined the motivations for consensual, non-monogamous relationships in a sample of 540 individuals. Most were White and living in Canada or the U.S. Their average age was 35 years old. Nearly 60% were cisgender women and 25% were cisgender men. In terms of sexual orientation, 22% were bisexual, 18% heterosexual, 18% mostly heterosexual, 15% pansexual, and 15% queer.

The motivations for polyamory were organized, based on thematic analysis, into six themes.

  1. Autonomy: To be able to make one’s own relational/sexual decisions.
  2. Beliefs and value systems: For instance, the belief that monogamy is an artificial construct and a rigid system that can cause harm.
  3. Relationality: Motives involving the formation and maintenance of relationships (e.g., polyamory as a healthy way to develop a sense of belonging).
  4. Sexuality: Exploring sexual identities and satisfying one’s sexual needs.
  5. Growth and expansion: Having opportunities for personal expansion and development (e.g., “We were in a long-term marriage and interested in widening our experience.”)
  6. Pragmatism: To make things work (e.g., “Because my primary partner is long distance.”)

The above study focused on consensual, non-monogamous relationships, not just polyamory. Indeed, although a large percentage reported being in polyamorous relationships, almost as many identified as open or swinging.

Motivations for polyamory

Bianchi and Hnatkovicova, the authors of the study summarized below, attempted to examine the reasons for engaging specifically in polyamorous relationships. The authors conducted a systematic research and theoretical analysis, concluding that there are eight potential motivations for polyamory.

  1. Fulfilling needs unmet in monogamous relationships. The original function of marriage was to fulfill the needs for safety and financial security, but these days, the list is much longer—the need for love, self-expression, self-esteem, self-actualization, etc. So, some people may reason that multiple partners, instead of one, may be more likely to meet all their needs.
  2. Personal growth and autonomy. Early research on open marriages has found that the sense of freedom and autonomy experienced in these marriages occurs because “non-monogamous engagement is obtained” along with “the sense of security obtained from being in a marital union, which is a relational benefit that non-monogamous individuals gained only when transcending monogamy and consensually engaging in non-monogamy.”
  3. Identity development: Polyamory may also be considered a phase, a transitional period for some individuals who eventually leave the polyamorous community and settle down (e.g., start a monogamous relationship, have children).
  4. Expression of political values: Engaging in polyamory may be a way to rebel against sociocultural conventions, for instance, by expressing feminist ideological views. The feminist criticism of marriage and monogamous relationships often includes the institutionalization of violence against women, women being treated like property, and support for patriarchy.
  5. Exploration of minority identities (sexual fluidity and bisexuality): As the authors explain, polyamory “provides opportunities for individuals to escape polarizing dichotomous sexualities (homo vs. hetero, masculine vs. feminine) by creating a new relational structure that supports fluid (non-binary) sexual expression.”
  6. Desire for sexual diversity: Some couples drawn to polyamorous relationships are individuals who have been in the same relationship for many years and hope to rekindle the spark in their marriage.
  7. The need to belong to a community: Another motivation is to belong to a group that has similar interests, attitudes, and values. In addition, such a community is essential for “bringing together polys and other sexual minorities who are marginalized from society,” because it provides “role models, a pool of potential partners, and assistance in a world where nonconformists are often targets of stigma and disdain.”
  8. Psychodynamic reasons: These include the impact of early childhood experiences and the quality of one’s attachment relationships (secure vs. insecure). For instance, some people drawn to polyamorous relationships include individuals who are narcissistic, have a fear of loneliness, or have an avoidant attachment style.

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