People seem to be more interested than ever in polyamorous relationships: Google searches for the subject are on the rise, there are headlines about it on a regular basis, and it's all over television, from reality shows like Polyamory: Married & Dating to the scripted series You Me Her.
But while polyamory has clearly captivated the American public, it has yet to capture the attention of scientists. Virtually no studies on it have been published in major journals, and those that do exist tend to be based on very small samples, thereby limiting our ability to draw firm conclusions.
The result is that, scientifically speaking, we don't actually know all that much about polyamory, including the degree to which all of these media depictions are accurate. It's for this reason that a few of my colleagues and I got together recently and conducted what is—to our knowledge—the largest scientific investigation of polyamorous relationships to date.
We surveyed over 3,500 adults online who identified as polyamorous. For the purpose of our study, we defined polyamory as "the practice or acceptance of having multiple simultaneous romantic relationships where everyone involved consents." Participants took a massive survey about their relationship experiences that, on average, took about an hour to complete. We just published the first set of results from this study in the journal PLOS ONE , and here are some of the key takeaways.
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Stigma is still very much alive.
Polyamory's moment in the media spotlight might give the impression that the stigma associated with it has faded; however, that's not the case. Recent studies have found that there's a pervasive belief that monogamy is superior in almost all ways to consensual nonmonogamy—and our data bear this out as well.
We asked our participants about the degree to which they felt their relationships were accepted by their families and friends, as well as the extent to which they tried to hide the fact that they had multiple relationships. What we found was that polyamorists didn't necessarily feel as though all of their relationships were equally accepted and, further, the relationships that were less accepted tended to be kept secret.
Most of our participants had one partner they had been with longer than others. People tended to be "out" about these relationships and, for the most part, felt that they were pretty well accepted. By contrast, relationships with newer partners were more likely to be kept secret and a lot less likely to be accepted, especially by family.
The relationships vary more than people think.
Media depictions of polyamory often give the impression that we're talking about just one thing. For instance, viewers of You Me Her might walk away thinking that all poly relationships are "thruples" or triads in which three people are romantically involved at the same time.
While there are certainly a lot of triads in the polyamorous community, that's not necessarily the most common arrangement. In our sample, it turned out that the most commonly reported relationship structure was a "vee," which is different from a triad in that one person has relationships with two people who aren't involved with each other. Furthermore, most of our participants indicated that one of these partners was a "primary" partner in the sense that they tended to share more of their life—like their home and finances—with this person, but not the other.
Though most of our participants made a primary/secondary distinction, not all polyamorists believe in relationship hierarchies. Moreover, vees and triads are just a couple of the many forms poly relationships can take. For instance, sometimes these relationships extend well beyond three people total. In short, there are a ton of different ways to "do" polyamory.
They resist being easily categorized.
People who are polyamorous don't just shun traditional relationship labels and practices—they also have a tendency to shun binary notions of gender and sexuality, meaning they don't divide the world into just male/female and gay/straight. In fact, compared to all other studies of sex and relationships I've ever conducted, our poly sample yielded the highest rates of both non-binary gender identities (like genderqueer) and alternative sexualities (like pansexual).
This raises the question of whether people with diverse gender and sexual identities are more drawn to polyamory, or if polyamory might lead people to think differently about gender and sexuality, or perhaps to acknowledge aspects of the self that they might not otherwise feel comfortable doing if they were completely monogamous. We don't yet know the answer to this, but we plan to explore it in future research.
Each relationship carries unique benefits.
One other point worth mentioning from our study is that each relationship our participants described seemed to have its own unique pros and cons. For example, while people reported having stronger communication with primary partners, they reported spending more time on sexual activities with secondary partners. This suggests that polyamorists might actively seek out partners who can fulfill different needs, with some relationships focusing more on intimacy and others on sex.
And rather than these relationships undermining each other—as some people might expect—they seem to work very well together. In our study, we found that people were highly satisfied with all of their relationships, but even more interesting was the fact that the more satisfied people were with their secondary partners, the more committed they were to their primary partners. Put another way, our results suggest that secondary relationships appear to have the potential to make primary relationships even stronger. The fact that polyamorists don't put pressure on a single partner to meet all of their needs might make everyone happier in the end.
Though we still have a lot to learn, this research offers some valuable insight into polyamorists and their relationships. It also challenges a lot of assumptions and beliefs that people hold about consensually nonmonogamous relationships more broadly—and this is why it's so important for polyamory's cultural moment to be accompanied by a scientific moment.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the Social Psychology Program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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