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An Inside Look at Open Marriages

New research offers a clearer picture of the pros and cons.

The traditional view of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is increasingly coming under public scrutiny. The Defense of Marriage Act failed to withstand legal tests by the U.S. Supreme Court, paving the way for (and reflecting) greater acceptance of same-sex marriage.

However, more generally, the sexual revolution of the 1960s brought to public attention the desire of many same- and other-sex couples to view their emotional and sexual partnerships in a less constraining manner.

Most recently, the USA Network show Satisfaction illustrated the many complexities of contemporary relationships among midlife adults as they explore alternatives to conventional marriage. Although the lead characters, married to each other for 18 years, clearly love each other and wish to remain together, they’re also looking for ways to expand themselves emotionally—as they become sexually involved with other partners.

What We Know

As you might imagine, conducting research on sex in general is a difficult undertaking. The people most willing to talk about their sex lives are not necessarily representative of the general population. Add to this the taboos surrounding extramarital sex (at least as defined by conventional standards) and you have an almost lethal combination for researchers. The many popular notions in the media regarding sexual relationships outside traditional marriage only confuse the issue.

Fortunately, we have a better idea today about the many types of nontraditional marital and sexual arrangements, based on surveys conducted by so-called “polyresearchers,” or people who study non-monogamous relationships. In a comprehensive review of the state of the art, Open University researchers Meg Barker and Darren Landridge (2010) proposed a set of “critical reflections” about where the field is today, and where it’s heading.

Some definitions are helpful at the outset to understand their work: Swingers are heterosexual couples who have consensual extramarital (or partnered) sex; those in gay non-monogamous relationships are similar to swingers except that they engage in same-sex relationships only; and those who are polyamorous may have more than one long-standing sexual and/or emotional relationship.

Barker and Landridge begin by asserting that “there is still no consideration of the possibility of consensual non-monogamy within mainstream psychology” (p. 750). They go on to point out the many social factors that keep monogamy high on society’s agenda, ranging from the profitability of the wedding industry (which has now expanded its target market to include same-sex couples) to male-dominated politics that for so many centuries relegated women to lower status in marriage and elsewhere. According to this latter view, monogamy keeps women dependent on men for their economic livelihood and isolates them from joining with other women to challenge their second-class status.

It’s against this emotionally and politically charged backdrop that Barker and Landridge attempt to tease out the research:

The first theme they identify is the tendency of researchers to compare monogamy with consensually non-monogamous relationships and/or infidelity. Some findings support the idea that consensual non-monogamy may be preferable to the “destructiveness of secret infidelities” (p. 758). Others, however, suggest that there’s not much of a difference between monogamy and non-monogamous alternatives, as both involve fun, friendship, sex, and family.

The second theme Barker and Landridge discovered concerns the many subtypes of non-monogamous relationships. Swinging and gay non-monogamy tend to be centered around an emotionally exclusive couple who have various sexual relationships with other singles, couples, or both. In polyamorous groups, there can be one primary relationship consisting of two people, or several primary relationships based on two, three, or four people as the main unit, or other structures in which one partner has several additional partners, and so on. These relationships can last for decades, with one third of the participants in one study having remained together for 10 years.

The third theme in this research concerns the rules and boundaries that couples establish within non-monogamous relationships. Many of the partners in swinging and gay non-monogamous relationships distinguish between love and sex, setting up rules that prevent either partner from becoming attached emotionally to any of their sexual liaisons (such as having sex in the home, or not seeing people more than once). Some agree never to talk about the sex they’re having outside the relationship and others make it part of the consensual agreement that they do.

Polyamorous couples may set up similar rules, or consider their relationship to be non-monogamous only until children are born. Some of the rules they set up include keeping certain forms of sex exclusive to the couple or family activities restricted to family subunits. In general, though, polyamorous arrangements tend to be less rule-bound and instead emphasize such relationship themes as trust, open communication, and self-awareness.

Although all of this may seem confusing and potentially harmful to children, studies in Australia and the United States of polyamorous families show that many in these families believe there are emotional and practical benefits to children having “multiple parents and role-models who emphasize open communication.” The problems they run into occur when, for example, there’s a breakup and the adults must decide which children remain with which parents. Furthermore, the children in these families can experience stigma and discrimination. Such families may have to “pass” as monogamous to avoid these negative social consequences when their children are at school or playing with friends.

Another way to look at this research, according to Barker and Landridge, is to question how distinct the differentiation should be between monogamy and non-monogamy. When do you decide that a monogamous relationship is heading toward non-monogamy as, for example, when one or both partners fantasize about other people, engage in online porn or cybersex, or have a one-night stand while traveling away for business? What about the “workplace spouse” or a best friend of the opposite sex to whom you are closer than to your own partner?

Barker and Landridge believe that, ultimately, research on polyamory might lead to less restrictive views of relationships than those studies that focus on monogamous couples only. It’s possible, they argue, for people to have multiple levels of involvement in a variety of relationships—emotional, sexual, and functional. Because researchers and theorists tend not to adopt this perspective, they may be losing out on important information about the way that adults actually live their lives. Therapists too may wish to adopt a broader perspective when they work with troubled couples and families to recognize that the “standard” of a monogamous relationship may not fit everyone equally.

If you’re someone who wishes to have, or is in, a non-monogamous relationship, the Barker and Landridge article suggests several ways you can put the findings to use. If you’re in an open relationship, you can benefit from making sure your lines of communication with all of your partners are clear. Trust is the number one element involved in successful relationships of any kind, but particularly non-monogamous ones in which there are potentially many areas of misunderstanding. Similarly, communication is an essential factor in making sure that all involved are aware of how each person in the relationship is feeling.

If you’re contemplating an open relationship, you may find it challenging to approach your primary partner, but as with any difficult conversation, it’s all about the preparation. Focus on the positive feelings you have toward your partner and make that the starting point for your discussion. You can derive strength from knowing that your honesty can result in a far better outcome than keeping your feelings secret from your partner.

Monogamy and non-monogamy may be more of a continuum than a discrete distinction. There may be benefits to accepting the fact that each person in a partnership can have a variety of “relationships”–sexual, emotional or otherwise. Explicit non-monogamy may not be for everyone, but for some couples, it provides the key to their long-term fulfillment, both as individuals and as partners.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Barker, M., & Langdridge, D. (2010). Whatever happened to non-monogamies? Critical reflections on recent research and theory. Sexualities, 13(6), 748-772. doi:10.1177/1363460710384645

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