Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

January 6, 2013

Study: No evidence that monogamous couples are more happy than open couples

Personality and Social Psychology Review

Relationship researcher Terri D. Conley and four colleagues at the University of Michigan have published an overview of available research and conclude that, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that ostensibly monogamous relationships are happier or more satisfying that sexually open ones.

Their paper is noteworthy because actual research on this is hard to find, though anecdotes on both sides abound. Note that much of the information comes only from gay couples.

I first learned about this from an article in Salon (later picked up by Alternet), which was given a title that stretches what the paper actually says:

Study: Non-monogamous couples are as happy as other couples

When it comes to consensual non-monogamy, one study suggests we shouldn't knock it until we've tried it.

By Katie McDonough

...Researchers looked at consensual non-monogamy — relationships in which both adults agree to have multiple sexual or romantic partners — among gay couples and found nearly identical levels of satisfaction as those in monogamous partnerships.

Men reported that their open relationships accommodated their intimacy needs as well as their desires for sexual diversity. Moreover, the men in these partnerships often felt more intimate with their partner when they agreed to be non-monogamous. Just as monogamy can provide a sense of support and protection, consensual non-monogamy can provide the emotional support of a primary partnership while also allowing exploration of other sexual relationships.

Surprisingly, jealousy was also less prevalent in non-monogamous relationships because it is “more manageable … and is experienced less noxiously.” Because both partners established the boundaries of their partnership in advance, there was less reason to feel threatened by other men.

There are very few studies on consensual non-monogamy out there, perhaps because it appears to be so rare. Currently, between 4.5 to 10 percent of all relationships fall into this category, but the number could be higher....

Read the whole article (Jan. 4, 2012).

The original paper appears in Personality and Social Psychology Review with the title A Critical Examination of Popular Assumptions About the Benefits and Outcomes of Monogamous Relationships (first published online Nov. 21, 2012). The abstract is free, but the bulk of the paper is behind a $25 paywall unless you connect through an academic library account. UPDATE: Here's the whole paper free.

At the Psychology Today blogs, Bella DePaulo quotes the paper's findings in two posts: Are Non-Monogamous Relationships Really Better? (Dec. 20, 2012) and Satisfied? Jealous? On Deciding Not to Be Monogamous (Jan. 3, 2012). Key parts:

Terri Conley and her colleagues have been studying stereotypes of people who have what they call “consensually non-mongamous” (CNM) relationships.

...There is not all that much research on CNM. As Conley points out, scientists seem so sure that monogamy is best that they have not bothered to do all that much research on the matter. Conley and her colleagues now have an ongoing program of research, and they have also reviewed research from other labs....

...As for how safe the sex is in monogamous vs. CNM relationships, the assumption is that monogamous sex is safer. The research disagrees. What seems to happen is that people assume there is more safety in their supposedly monogamous relationships than there is in fact. As Conley put it, “couples put condoms away, typically within the first couple months of dating, and switch to other forms of birth control when they feel comfortable with one another, rather than after objective testing for STIs.” (STIs are sexually transmitted infections.) In long-term relationships, including many marriages, partners often do not take into account the very real possibility of infidelity.

Here are more specifics of the research findings....

● “Sexually unfaithful individuals were less likely to use barriers during their extradyadic encounter, less likely to tell their partner about the encounter, and less likely to be tested for STIs than individuals in CNM relationships.” [This and some other findings are from research by Conley and others published online March 29, 2012, that received some media attention at the time.]

● “Sexually unfaithful individuals were less likely to use barrier methods in their primary relationship than CNM individuals.”

● “People in ostensibly monogamous relationships were also more likely to make condom use mistakes.”

● “Individuals often use condoms or other barrier methods more frequently with casual partners than with ‘regular’ partners.”

From DePaulo's second post:

● “…gay men in CNM relationships are quite comparable with gay men in monogamous partnerships in their level of satisfaction.”

● “Men reported that their open relationships accommodated their intimacy needs as well as their desires for sexual diversity. Moreover, the men in these partnerships often felt more intimate with their partner when they agreed to be non-monogamous....

● “…levels of jealousy were actually lower for those in CNM relationships than in a monogamous sample.”

● “…jealousy is more manageable in these relationships than in monogamous relationships and is experienced less noxiously.”

Conley and her colleagues add, “To the extent that other relationships are explicitly allowed, experiences of jealousy should almost by definition be lower in CNM relationships. Still, the fact that jealousy was managed by individuals in CNM relationships, rather than overwhelming them, is inconsistent with presumptions about monogamy conveyed by participants in our research.”

DePaulo promises a third post about the paper, on "What About the Children?"

1. Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Valentine, B. (2012). A critical examination of popular assumptions about the benefits and outcomes of monogamous relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review. doi: 10.1177/1088868312467087




Blogger Samantha said...

Wow, there was a phrase there that really resonated with me. That in non-mongamous relationships jealousy is experienced "less noxiously". This is going to inform my explanations to monogamous friends from now on!

January 09, 2013 1:24 AM  
Anonymous Tori McDougal said...

The "study" is actually a literature review which provides only a discussion of the authors' research finding (reported elsewhere) on the perceived benefits of monogamy and non-monogamy and the stigma attached to consensual non-monogamies. In other words, the actual studies being described by these articles do not provide evidence of similar happiness or intimacy. Perceptions reported by research participants, especially in marginalized groups, tend to paint a rosier picture than what is found in most other measures of functioning. In general, perceived relationship functioning is not reliable "proof" of relational functioning.

After reading the "studies" being discussed here, I found there to be two important points:

1. Despite significant stigma that still exists in the West against consensual non-monogamy, people perceive that there are benefits and drawbacks for both monogamy and consensual non-monogamy. Thus, there is no reason to assume worse relationship functioning.

2. Something not discussed in the Salon/Psych Today articles is that current non-observational measures for relationship functioning (i.e. questionnaires) are not validated for consensually non-monogamous relationships and these measures assume monogamy. This makes quantitative research that's comparable to other kinds of research challenging, and it also means that mental health professionals who like using scales to track progress do not have validated scales for non-monogamous clients.

I think that what I take away from Conley et al.'s papers is that the development of new measures for relationship functioning which are reliable and validated for non-monogamies is important. As a relational therapist I rarely use scales, and when I do it is usually as a guide for discussion rather than so I can interpret my clients based on the score of the measure. This is similar to gathering the perceptions of relationship functioning from research participants, which is particularly common in qualitative research. However, as a mixed-methods researcher I see there being value in being able to have reliable measures - not just for research on non-monogamy but for research on relationships in general.

January 11, 2013 2:04 PM  

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