Marriage today isn’t what it used to be. Throughout history, marriage has always been first and foremost an economic arrangement, with a couple entering into a lifelong relationship for the purpose of raising children and maintaining family property. All the better if the young couple just happened to be in love, but even if the new bride and groom barely knew each other, there was always the hope that love would grow between them over time.
By the nineteenth century, the dilemma of marriage for love or money was a common theme in literature. And by the twentieth century, most people would have agreed that a young couple considering marriage should love each other. Still, expectations then were lower than today. For one thing, there were clear gender roles for the future husband and wife to act out. And for another thing, people viewed spouses as life partners within a complex social network of family and friends.
Nowadays, people expect their spouses to be their soulmates—the one and only person who will fulfill all their emotional needs. While the soulmate marriage may be a noble ideal to strive for, most of us find it impossible to live up to such high expectations. When we fail to meet our spouse’s needs or don’t get ours met, we despair that our marriage isn’t as good as it’s supposed to be.
This is especially the case when it comes to discrepancies in sexual desire, which are inevitable in any intimate relationship. While other emotional needs can be met outside of marriage, society strongly condemns extramarital sex. Furthermore, many people feel uncomfortable talking about sex, making it even more difficult for couples to resolve sexual issues.
All too often, the frustrated partner seeks out sexual satisfaction in an illicit affair, causing even more damage to the marriage when they’re inevitably found out. Infidelity is a leading cause of divorce and one of the most common reasons why couples seek counseling. Surveys suggest that infidelity occurs in upwards of 20% of marriages.
Yet, as Canadian psychologist Samantha Joel and her colleagues point out, some couples resolve issues of sexual dissatisfaction by opening their marriages. That is, they allow each other to have sex with other partners. Such an arrangement is known as consensual non-monogamy (CNM) and it comes in three forms:
- Swinging, in which two or more couples swap partners on occasion, sometimes in their own homes and sometimes at swingers’ clubs.
- Open marriage, in which each spouse is free to seek out other sex partners on his or her own, often with the other spouse having some say over the conditions of the extramarital liaison.
- Polyamory, in which each spouse in the primary relationship also has long-term sexual and emotional relationships with other partners, all of whom know each other and are generally on amicable terms.
Research suggests that around 20% of married couples have experimented with consensual non-monogamy, although the percentage of those currently engaged in the practice is certainly lower.
The general consensus—among the lay public and professional marriage counselors alike—seems to be that consensus non-monogamy can only lead to more harm than good in a marriage. And yet, studies of couples actually engaged in CNM relationships find that these people report being just as happy in their marriages as strictly monogamous couples are—and they're more satisfied sexually.
Furthermore, research shows that consensually non-monogamous couples have better communication skills, higher levels of trust, and lower levels of jealousy than do those in traditional marriages. These, of course, are essential qualities for any good marriage, whether monogamous or not.
So, can opening up your marriage make it happier? The research so far can’t answer this question, because it’s always looked at people after their primary relationship had become non-monogamous. What’s needed is a longitudinal study that looks at people’s relational and sexual satisfaction both before opening their marriages and afterward. This is the gap in the literature that Joel and her colleagues tried to fill in a recently published study.
For this study, the researchers recruited 233 individuals who were thinking about shifting their relationship to a non-monogamous status. These individuals responded to questions that assessed their relational, sexual, and personal satisfaction at that time. Then two months later, they responded to the same surveys again, and in addition, they reported whether their relationship had become consensually non-monogamous. Of these, about two-thirds had made the transition, while the other third had not.
Thus, the researchers not only had before and after data on individuals considering consensual non-monogamy, they also had data to compare those who decided to go in that direction with those who’d decided against it. At the time of the first survey, both groups appeared to be identical in terms of the three variables being assessed, that is, sexual, relational, and personal satisfaction. Likewise, both groups remained similar in terms of relationship and personal satisfaction two months later.
However, those who’d made the move to consensual non-monogamy reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction than those who’d remained monogamous. Thus, it appears that shifting to a consensual non-monogamous relational style has its intended effect, namely improving the sex lives of those who engage in it. It also seems not to have any of the damaging side effects that so many people worry about, since relational and personal satisfaction remain unchanged.
The researchers rightly point out several weaknesses with this study. First, all of those engaged in CNM relationships had only started doing so within the last two months, and so the novelty of the new sexual arrangement could be what accounts for the boost in sexual satisfaction. Perhaps after a year or two that will return to baseline as the novelty wears off.
Second, the researchers only surveyed one partner in each relationship, and the way they recruited participants, these were more likely to be the ones initiating the move to CNM. Since they got what they wanted, it’s little wonder they’re happier now. This may not be true for their partners, who may have felt coerced into an open relationship that they didn’t particularly want. However, the fact that reported relationship satisfaction remained high suggests there was little marital discord on this account.
In the end, more research is needed to determine whether consensual non-monogamy can benefit couples who struggle with meeting each other’s sexual needs without sowing even greater discontent within the relationship. But what the research so far shows is that, at least for some couples, opening up their marriage is a positive change.
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Murphy, A. P., Joel, S., & Muise, A. (2020). A prospective investigation of the decision to open up a romantic relationship. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619897157