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Relationships

Two or More Lovers

More research on polygamous relationships is needed.

Key points

  • We omit polyamorous relationships when we ask about relationships, as if they do not exist.
  • In polyamorous relationships, there is usually a primary and a secondary partner(s), with sex more likely with the secondary person.
  • Many exciting research questions need to be addressed.
EBS DOCUPRIME, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: EBS DOCUPRIME, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What we know about polyamory and polyamorous individuals is limited by our ability to recruit representative samples of either polygamous individuals or their relationships.

Few, if any, national surveys help us determine how many individuals are in polyamorous relationships or their characteristics. This is because they fail to assess such relationships when the only options they provide are: “Are you married, partnered, divorced, single, widowed, don’t know, refuse to answer, or none of your business." As social psychologist Rhonda Balzarini and colleagues noted, the option seldom included is, “Are you involved in mutually agreed-upon multiple romantic relationships?” This is critical because when statements are made by scientists, clinicians, or laypeople about polyamory, one should approach such information or advice with caution knowing that such conclusions are likely speculative at best (if not biased).

The best alternative may be to collect information from social media sites that cater to self-identified polyamorous individuals. These “convenience” samples are limited in what can be gleaned from the information they provide—but it is far better than no information. Facing this roadblock, Rhonda Balzarini and colleagues recruited self-identified polyamorous individuals from Internet forums, dating sites, and Facebook group pages—likely not a representative sample, but at least a large one. Polyamory was defined as “the practice or acceptance of having multiple simultaneous romantic relationships where everyone involved consents.”

Their goal was to investigate how individuals (N=1,308) who have both a primary and a secondary partner describe and evaluate their two relationships in terms of acceptance, secrecy, investment size, satisfaction level, commitment level, relationship communication, and sexual frequency. The majority was born female (59 percent) and labeled themselves bisexual or pansexual (51 percent). Compared to the secondary relationship, the primary relationship was characterized as more rewarding with greater acceptance, less secrecy, higher investment, more commitment, and better communication. By contrast, a greater proportion of time was devoted to sexual activity within the secondary relationship than with the primary one. Also, given cultural stigma and stereotypes about nonmonogamy, the secondary romantic relationship was more likely to be secretive, especially hidden from other members of the individual’s family.

Polyamorous relationships have existed in many cultures across time and yet we know so little about them in the contemporary world (Klesse, 2014). I raise questions below not to confuse you but to excite you to the possibility of doing research with this nontraditional means of establishing and maintaining romantic relationships.

  1. What are the costs of coming out as poly—including predictors and inhibitors of public disclosure?
  2. If resources are limited, will the secondary relationship be the one that suffers?
  3. What happens if either the primary or the secondary relationship ends, and does the secondary “move up” to primary?
  4. If the secondary falters, does the primary individual invest in a new secondary?
  5. Given that Balzarini’s research did not expand beyond one secondary relationship, what changes occur in all relationships, especially the primary one, when multiple secondary relationships are taken on?
  6. What are the characteristics of those who are in polyamorous relationships, such as social class, ethnicity, age, personality, and personal history of those with one and those with multiple secondary relationships?
  7. Why is more time spent in sex with the secondary than the primary relationship, and does this cause unique problems?
  8. Does the secondary relationship also have its own secondary relationship(s), and what kind of dynamics does this cause?
  9. Are the two or more relationships with the same sex? That is, if the primary is male, is the secondary female or vice versa?
  10. What is the range of configurations, and which ones work best?
  11. The researchers hypothesize that the secondary relationship(s) meets needs and desires not provided by the primary person—are there patterns to these unmet needs/desires?
  12. Do polyamorous relationships have just as many jealous conflicts as monogamous relationships?

Polyamory is a viable alternative to monogamy, and, yet, we ignore its existence. They are likely to be far more common than what the general public might assume to be the case. This is most unfortunate because my guess—based in large part from my interviews with young adults of both sexes—is that, if given the choice, many would pursue such relationships. Polyamorous relationships may be more “threatening” to the establishment than monogamous relationships.

Two Polygamous Examples

One pansexual (“straight-leaning bisexual”) young man I interviewed has had limited sex with males, multiple male crushes, and many female sex and romantic partners. His concern is the anticipated difficulty he’ll face in his future given his ideal of being in a long-term, sexually open polyamorous arrangement. He fears that it’ll be impractical in our culture. For him, society should “learn the difference between infidelity and polyamory and drop the stigma from the latter.” Women might be receptive to his proposal, but he doubts guys will be comfortable sharing female sex partners.

I interviewed a young woman who also identified pansexual, who described herself as “a ballerina with bows in my hair, long dresses, a know-it-all, had fluffy, curly hair. I’m a classic femme.” She liked boys as a young teen but was then intrigued by a picture of a naked woman. Several years later she fell in love and had sex with her best female friend. With her consent, she also dated Billy, a friend of both, and they had sex. She couldn’t understand why she could not continue having a relationship with both.

A Reader’s Recommendation

Troy, a reader, recommended several links that are public and readily available from search engines by and for polyamorous individuals (see footnote). They sponsor events, conferences, discussion groups, education, and media outreach. Whether polyamorous individuals could be recruited from these groups is a good alternative to the silence of typical large-scale questionnaires that avoid the topic altogether. From these sites, it might be possible to recruit a diverse group of individuals to participate in research.

References

Balzarini, R.N., Campbell, L., Kohut, T., Holmes, B.M., Lehmiller, J.J., Harman, J.J., & Atkins, N. (2017) Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177841

Klesse, C. (2014). Polyamory: Intimate practice, identity or sexual orientation? Sexualities, 17, 81–99.

https://polyevents.blogspot.com/

https://www.lovingmorenonprofit.org/

https://www.facebook.com/search/groups/?q=polyamory

https://www.meetup.com/topics/polyamory/

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