Relationships

New Year, New Relationship Style?

How to tell if polyamory is a good choice for you.

Posted Jan 13, 2021

While interest in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) has been skyrocketing for the last 20 years, having an open or otherwise nonmonogamous relationship is really not a good choice for everyone.

Recent research shows that one in five people — fully 20% of the population in the US — has tried consensual nonmonogamy, and 5% have ongoing CNM relationships. If, however, you have never tried CNM before, then how do you know if it is a good fit for you or not?

This post explains the factors that social scientists have identified as important influences on satisfaction or dissatisfaction in CNM relationships and introduces a new relationship test that can help people consider if CNM might work for them or not.

Who is satisfied in CNM relationships?

Scholars identify a few indicators of satisfaction for people who are interested in or attempting consensually nonmonogamous relationships. People who become polyamorous often have a “faster life history,” earlier puberty, more social and ethical risk-taking, less aversion to germs, and greater interest in short-term mating[1].

Polyamorous folks also tend to be fairly extroverted, with higher levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness and lower levels of neuroticism [2]. Numerous studies have shown that polyamorous and other CNM folks tend towards low levels of jealousy and high levels of trust, honesty, intimacy, and relationship satisfaction [3].

Unsurprisingly, people who are drawn towards polyamory are often more sexually uninhibited, and report having sex more often than monogamous people [4].

Pixabay/Sammie
Image: Three Black people standing arms around each other
Source: Pixabay/Sammie

In terms of creating a lasting polyamorous relationship, folks who sustain satisfaction in CNM generally have extensive conflict resolution strategies that foster trust, communication, and relationship satisfaction [5]. Polyamorists who construct relationship agreements that work for everyone involved and then abide by these agreements are more satisfied with each other than are those who break agreements [6]. People whose relationship structure matches their personality [4] and whose mate has the ideal attributes that they seek in a partner [7] are also more satisfied in CNM relationships. 

For people who are in more than one relationship, all of those relationships tend to be most satisfying when they are all fulfilling participants’ needs, rather than one bad relationship standing out in negative contrast to the others [8]. Furthermore, people with a primary partner see that person as a more desirable long-term mate than their secondary partner, and report higher relationship satisfaction overall with their primary partners than their secondary partners[5].

Some evidence indicates that people in primary relationships are more satisfied with each other when compared with secondary relationships. Balzarini [9] and her colleagues looked at polyamorous people’s satisfaction in primary and secondary relationships and found that primary partners reported less stigma, greater levels of investment, better communication, more frequent sex, and lasted longer than secondary relationships. Secondary partners, in comparison, spent more of their time together having sex, communicated less smoothly, and had less interdependence.

Cumulatively, these researchers’ findings indicate that people who might be inclined towards CNM are freedom-loving risk-takers who are independent, conscientious, agreeable, enjoy novelty, and perhaps a bit horny. CNM-leaning folks also tend to have high levels of trust and low levels of jealousy, and are a bit more extroverted than the general population (though some introverts do really well in polycules). Willingness to put effort into relationships is also a hallmark of people drawn to CNM, and these folks generally concentrate on communication, conflict resolution, and attention to creating and following relationship agreements.

The most satisfied polycules are those in which all partners are able to match their mutual expectations about their degree of outness, type and quantity of time with each other, distribution of resources, and degree and type of sexual interactions.

Who is dissatisfied with CNM relationships?

Obviously, the biggest source of dissatisfaction in CNM relationships is a desire to be monogamous. There are deeply monogamous people for whom any form of CNM would be not only dissatisfying but actively intolerable.

Additionally, people who prefer very clear and consistent boundaries, have high levels of jealousy or anxiety, and are averse to risk-taking or germaphobes will probably have lower interest and satisfaction in CNM relationships.

CNM is an especially bad choice for people who have difficulty keeping agreements and a low desire or capacity to work on conflict resolution, and could be especially uncomfortable for people with a strong interest in long-term mating.

This is not to say that people in CNM relationships are not interested in long-term mating, but that those who prefer one-to-one bonding are more likely than CNM folks to desire only relationships with the potential to become serious and exclusive, and do not care for casual relationships that might not ever become something more committed. 

Pixabay/nile
Image: Hourglass with red sand against newsprint
Source: Pixabay/nile

People who are already in CNM relationships also encounter things that create dissatisfaction. Polyamorous and other CNM folks are more likely to be dissatisfied in their relationships if they must remain closeted, and it can be especially difficult when they experience a relationship mismatch.

This mismatch usually takes one of three forms:

  1. The format of the relationship (ie. if one person wants swinging, another relationship anarchy, and a third polyfidelity)
  2. The degree of intimacy (ie. a secondary partner wants more emotional and/or sexual intimacy, or a primary shifts allegiance to a new primary)
  3. The allocation of resources (i.e., one person wants more time, another wants the polycule to spend less money on dating, or there is friction over who takes care of the kids to allow someone else free time).

If a polyamorous person is in one fantastic relationship and another crappy relationship, their satisfaction in the dreadful relationship will plummet as they contrast it with the terrific relationship. Finally, when people feel like the benefits of a CNM relationship are unevenly distributed and favor one person at the expense of someone else, then they are likely to become dissatisfied [9].

The Bonding Project relationship test 

Some people are certain that monogamy is the best form of relationship for them and have no question about what style of emotional, romantic, sexual, and intimate bonding might work best in their lives.

For many others, however, things are not so clear cut, and the maze of relationship possibilities could seem overwhelming for people who are not sure what might work best for them. They might be wondering where to even begin their exploration of new relationship styles.

Enter the Bonding Project, a new relationship test that helps people to consider how they might want to approach their intimate relationships. 

Through many discussions, the Bonding Project team identified the ways people might bond with each other: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, or solo. Because the test measures each person's results by their degree of comfort, curiosity, caution, or challenge with each bonding style, it provides a detailed assessment of each person's bonding style. 

In terms of relationship satisfaction, the Bonding Project test helps people consider their desires and boundaries in relationships in order to find out what kind of bonding style might work best for them. People scoring high on one-to-many and many-to-many are more likely to find satisfaction in a CNM relationship, whereas people who score highest on one-to-one and low on all others might find it difficult to feel satisfied in a CNM relationship.

If the people in relationships have similar or compatible bonding styles, they are more likely to find satisfaction with each other. Partners whose bonding styles differ significantly may face greater challenges in establishing a mutually satisfactory relationship. Taking the test can be the first step in a conversation with yourself and/or other people about what kinds of relationships you want to create in the coming year. 

Just so you know, I am part of the team that developed the Bonding Project. As their social scientist, I reviewed the literature on relationship satisfaction, identified elements that would contribute to satisfaction in each of the different relationship formats, and designed questions to measure those things that contribute to satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

The test is free, so no one on our team is making any money from it. We are just really curious about how people prefer to bond and want to help inform research on monogamy, CNM, and solo folks by providing data (anonymously aggregated, group level) for researchers who study relationships. 

References

[9]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.

[7]Buyukcan-Tetik, A., Campbell, L., Finkenauer, C., Karremans, J. C., & Kappen, G. (2017). Ideal standards, acceptance, and relationship satisfaction: Latitudes of differential effects. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1691.

Cohen, M. T. (2016). The perceived satisfaction derived from various relationship configurations. Journal of Relationships Research, 7.

[9]Hosking, W. Satisfaction with Open Sexual Agreements in Australian Gay Men’s Relationships: The Role of Perceived Discrepancies in Benefit. Arch Sex Behav 42, 1309–1317 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0005-9

[8]Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. J. (2014). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(3), 329-339.

[5]Mogilski, J. K., Memering, S. L., Welling, L. L., & Shackelford, T. K. (2017). Monogamy versus consensual non-monogamy: Alternative approaches to pursuing a strategically pluralistic mating strategy. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 407-417.

[1]Mogilski, J. K., Mitchell, V. E., Reeve, S. D., Donaldson, S. H., Nicolas, S. C., & Welling, L. L. (2020). Life History and Multi-Partner Mating: A Novel Explanation for Moral Stigma Against Consensual Non-monogamy. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3033.

Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopik, W. J. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(2), 222-240.

[3]Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Schechinger, H. A. (2017). Unique and shared relationship benefits of consensually non-monogamous and monogamous relationships. European Psychologist.

[4]Rodrigues, D., Lopes, D., & Pereira, M. (2016). “We agree and now everything goes my way”: Consensual sexual nonmonogamy, extradyadic sex, and relationship satisfaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(6), 373-379.

[6]Rubel, A. N., & Bogaert, A. F. (2015). Consensual nonmonogamy: Psychological well-being and relationship quality correlates. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(9), 961-982.

[2]Shaw, J. L. (2018). Comparisons between Consensually Non-monogamous and Monogamous Sexual Relationships on Relationship Characteristics (Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University-Commerce).