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Are People in Open Relationships Happier?

What consensually nonmonogamous partners have to say about their lifestyle.

As I’ve written before, there’s a widespread belief that people in open relationships are less healthy and happy than people in monogamous relationships. With intensified empirical research into alternative relationships over the past few years, though, such beliefs are starting to look more and more like empty myths. A new study just published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy adds to this conclusion: Older adults in open relationships reported being happier, healthier, and more sexually active than the general population of similar age and relationship status[1].

University of Oklahoma anthropologists James Fleckenstein and Derrell Cox II collected online survey responses from more than 4,000 U.S. adults who were either in some sort of a consensually nonmonogamous relationship or open to one (referred from now on as the CNM sample). This impressive sample was recruited in 2012 through listservs of polyamorous groups as well as organizations that provide counseling to, or advocate on behalf of people who practice CNM. To be able to compare this sample to the general U.S. population, the survey contained the same questions asked in the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative study of U.S. residents conducted every two years.

For this particular paper, the researchers were interested in older adults, so they restricted their analyses to the 502 people (66% male) from the CNM sample and the 723 people (45% male) from the GSS who were age 55 or older.

So how did health, happiness, and sexuality compare across the two samples?

As you can see in the graph below, the CNM sample reported being significantly happier than the general population—the question asked was, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days?”—and physically healthier as well (“Would you say your own health, in general, is…”).

A few additional comparisons are not shown in the graph: Over the previous 12 months, CNM participants had more sexual partners than GSS participants (average of 3.2 vs. 0.6), as well as more frequent sex (average of once a week vs. twice a month). Perhaps not surprising given their greater sexual activity, a full 78 percent of the CNM sample had been tested for HIV, compared to only 25 percent of the general population.

The only thing that didn’t differ between the two samples was marital happiness among the married people in both samples: Both CNM and GSS participants rated their marriages as quite happy, over 2.50 on a scale of 1 (not too happy) to 3 (very happy).

One stereotype of open relationships is that such arrangements primarily benefit men. However, virtually all of the differences in health, happiness, sexual behavior, and HIV testing between the CNM and GSS samples remained intact when researchers compared men and women separately. If anything, some of the "benefits" of open relationships were more pronounced among women.

Another frequent finding is that married people have better health and happiness outcomes than unmarried people. This indeed replicated in the GSS sample, in which married adults were significantly happier, healthier, and more sexually active than unmarried adults. But this was not true of the CNM sample, in which married and unmarried adults showed very similar levels of happiness, health, numbers of sexual partners, and frequency of sex.

These findings have their limitations, of course: The CNM sample wasn’t representative of the general U.S. population (for obvious reasons), it was somewhat younger (mean age of 62 vs. 67), and it was more educated (mean level of college degree vs. halfway between high school diploma and associate's degree) than the GSS sample. The authors didn’t conduct analyses controlling for age and education, so it could be that those factors are responsible for differences in happiness, health, or sexual frequency. Further, the recruitment strategy seemed to be more heavily oriented toward polyamorists (as opposed to swingers or other alternative lifestyles), but there may be differences in quality of life among various consensually nonmonogamous communities. Finally, this is a correlational study, so we can’t say whether it’s CNM that makes older adults happier and healthier, or if happier and healthier older adults chose such relationships to begin with.

Despite these limitations, however, the results are telling, especially given their robustness across outcomes, gender, and relationship status. Moreover, they replicate two earlier studies on swingers: One found that, compared to the general population, swingers were much more likely to rate their romantic relationships as very happy, and their lives as happy and exciting[2]. The other found that only 1% of male, and 5% of female swingers never had an orgasm while swinging[3]; in the general population, 25% of women and 10% of men had not had a single orgasm in the past year[4].

Taking all these data together, it does seem like a myth busted: Not only are consensually nonmonogamous people not less happy, healthy, and sexually satisfied than the general population; they actually seem to enjoy better health, happiness, and sexual vitality.

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[1] Fleckenstein, J. R., & Cox II, D. W. (2014). The association of an open relationship orientation with health and happiness in a sample of older US adults. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, online ahead of print. doi:10.1080/14681994.2014.976997

[2] Bergstrand, C., & Willliams, J. B. (2000). Today’s alternative marriage styles: The case of swingers. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 3.

[3] Fernandes, E. M. (2009). The swinging paradigm: An evaluation of the marital and sexual satisfaction of swingers. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 12.

[4] Laumann, E., Gagnon, J.H., Michael, R.T., and Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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