TIME with Carrie Jenkins 27 August 2018
Polyamory — having more than one consensual sexual or emotional relationship at once — has in recent years emerged on television, mainstream dating sites like OkCupid and even in research. And experts who have studied these kinds of consensual non-monogomous relationships, say they have unique strengths that anyone can learn from.
Consensual non-monogamy can include polyamory, swinging and other forms of open relationships, according to Terri Conley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied consensual non-monogamy. While there aren’t comprehensive statistics about how many people in America have polyamorous relationships, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that one in five people in the U.S. engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy throughout their lives.
But these relationships can still be shrouded in stigma. And people in polyamorous relationships often keep them a secret from friends and family.
“Often they’re scared of losing their jobs, not getting a job, losing family or friends who won’t respect them anymore or scared that their children will be taken away,” says Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and the author of What Love Is: And What It Could Be.
But Jenkins, who participates in polyamorous relationships herself, cautions that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to relationships. “One impression that I don’t want to give is that I think polyamorous relationships are better for everyone,” she says. “We’re all very different from one another.”
Still, experts who study relationships say polyamorous relationships can provide useful lessons for monogamous couples. Here are a few areas where, researchers say, polyamorous couples are particularly successful:
Successful monogamous relationships require communication about desires, needs and problems, says Joanne Davila, a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University who studies monogamous relationships. And this is one area where polyamorous couples excel.
A May 2017 study published in PLOS One noted that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships communicate to “negotiate agreements, schedules, and boundaries, and to work through the kinds of problems that emerge when negotiating polyamory, amongst the typical relational problems that can emerge in any relationship.” The study found that polyamorous individuals tend to communicate better with their primary partner than secondary partners — because “greater communication may be necessary for primary relationships to endure while other relationships are pursued.”
This is one area particularly relevant to monogamous couples, according to Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA who researches monogamous relationships. “I don’t see studying non-monogamous couples as studying a totally separate country with no relevance to monogamy at all,” he says. “Consensually non-monogamous couples might have a lot to teach everybody about negotiating desire and competing interests.”
Defining the relationship
Polyamorous partners often define boundaries and form agreements about what each relationship should look like, and Conley says these agreements can be beneficial to monogamous relationships, where partners might assume they’re on the same page about what monogamy means.
When deciding to enter a relationship, “there might be a conversation beyond that about what that means: does it mean we’re monogamous? What does it mean to be monogamous?” Conley says. “For some people, even mere thoughts of attraction to someone else can be defined as cheating. For other people, anything but intercourse is OK.”
Polyamorous relationships can take many different forms. Sometimes, partners will know each other and form a family-like network sometimes called “kitchen table polyamory“, according to Kate Kincaid, a psychologist at Tucson Counseling Associates who works with polyamorous couples. Another style, known as “parallel polyamory,” means that all of the partners are aware of each other, but have little to no contact, Kincaid explains.
Kincaid says that she works with couples to figure out which model is best for them — though she often recommends kitchen table polyamory because it’s often more efficient for all parties to communicate directly. She says that one of the biggest challenges she encounters with polyamorous couples is time management.
“Everyone jokes that love is not a finite resource, but time is,” Kincaid says. “You can have multiple partners you want to see a lot — you have to negotiate time and space to do that.”
Practicing safe sex
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that individuals in polyamorous relationships were more likely to practice safe sex than those who cheat in monogamous relationships. The study showed that monogamous individuals often consider monogamy a safe sex practice in and of itself, so “sexually unfaithful individuals may reject safer sex strategies because of the presence of a stable relationship.”
Kincaid says that she works with clients to fill out a questionnaire about what sexual acts they’d be comfortable with them doing with other partners to make sure they’re on the same page. Amy Moors, an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University who conducted the 2012 study with Conley, says consensually non-monogamous couples often make explicit agreements with partners to use condoms and get information about STI history with each new partner.
“They have to navigate the sexual health of a bunch of people,” Moors says. “Implicit in that is that there’s very clear conversations about sexual health that are happening in consensual non-monogamous relationships that may not be happening in monogamous relationships.”
But in monogamous relationships, couples often “stop using condoms as a covert message of intimacy: now, we’re really dating,” Moors says. But if a monogamous individual decides to cheat on their partner, there’s no guarantee he or she will practice safe sex.
You might think that having multiple romantic partners would elicit more jealousy than being in a monogamous relationship. But according to a a 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, that’s not necessarily the case.
The study, which surveyed 1,507 people in monogamous relationships and 617 people in consensual non-monogamous relationships, found that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships, including those who engaged in polyamory and swinging, scored lower on jealousy and higher on trust than those in monogamous relationships.
“People in monogamous relationships were really off the charts high on jealousy. They were more likely to check their partners’ phones, go through their emails, their handbags,” Moors says. “But people in consensual non-monogamous relationships were really low on this.”
Davila, who also works as a couples therapist, says that she’s observed monogamous couples avoid addressing jealousy altogether, whereas consensual non-monogamous couples might be more vocal with their feelings. “In consensual non-monogamous relationships, jealousy is expected,” Davila says. “But they see what feelings arise and actively work to navigate them in a proactive way.”
Maintaining a sense of independence
Another area where polyamorous couples tend to excel, according to Kincaid, is allowing their partners to maintain a sense of independence outside of their relationship. Conley and Moors found in their 2017 study that monogamous couples are more likely to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their relationship, while polyamorous couples put their own personal fulfillment first.
“The biggest thing that I appreciate about poly people is that they focus on knowing what their needs are and get their needs met in creative ways — relying more on friends or multiple partners instead of putting it all on one person,” Kincaid says. “Once [monogamists] get into a relationship, they tend to value their romantic partner above everyone else.”
She suggests that doing the former allows your relationships to be deeper and can enable you to get a lot more support from your loved ones.
Karney says that he could also see how having your needs met by others might strengthen consensual non-monogamous relationships.
“If we’re a married monogamous couple, we have to figure out what to do about our problems. We’re either going to avoid them, resolve them or break up,” Karney says. “But if I’m in a non-monogamous relationship and I have the same problem, I might not have to resolve it if I’m not getting all my needs met from you.”