Open vs. Closed Relationships, with Science as Referee.

This blog entry is based on the findings of Investigation of Consensually Nonmonogamous Relationships: Theories, Methods, and New Directions by Conley, Matsick, Moors & Ziegler (2017).

It is sprinkled with some of my own creative fruition and related meanderings, although I’ll admit from the very start that most of it will be unabashed regurgitation of the authors’ own great and paradigm shifting ideas. I hope I will succeed in presenting them in clear and catchy ways.

Get ready for a long one, but I invite you to stick through with it. I have a feeling that you will walk away from this window feeling refreshed with new views. 


Hi.

Are you monogamous?

Then I bet you scrunched your eyebrows when you read the title to this blog post. I bet you are also reading this very sentence with rancor building up inside of you, ready to be skeptical about anything that follows. 

I don’t say this to play with you – I’ll say it from the get-go that I have no commitments either to non-monogamy or monogamy. The overall conclusion to which of the two is better really depends on what you as an individual need and want, including what you want to want. Personally, I’ve tried both routes and I’m still figuring it out.

Instead, I say the above only because I know that had I been you right now just a few years ago, I would’ve reacted in the same way (if that is, in fact, how you reacted).

I’d therefore like to make it clear that I write this post not to convince you of anything, nor to make any incontestable truth statement regarding monogamous relationships. I will compare them to non-monogamous relationships, yes, but without resolving which is objectively and globally better. If I use the word ‘better’, it will only be in reference to the scientific data of this study and the studies they reference. Apart from that, I will at most present only suggestive considerations with the intention of stretching your worldview. 

Much of what you will read below, however, might actually turn out to be more beneficial to your monogamous relationship than you thought it would, if that is the type of relationship you are in. 

It never hurts to read. But I’ll say it again, I’m not here to judge you, nor to change your mind or rock your world. Whatever you make of this post will be up to you. You can choose to ride it like a rollercoaster or rather like a mechanical pony if you prefer, or not to ride it at all.

So let’s get into it.

Consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationships are functional.

This is a fact. They’re all around you and they might even be for you (emphasis on “might”), even if you intuitively think “Okayyy, but I would never be able to…”. Imagine how many CNM people who didn’t at first believe in CNM thought the very same.

Some kinds of CNM, in fact, are on average more functioning than monogamous relationships, according to the data of this study (emphasis on “on average”).

Caveats aside though, it is important to consider this fact and the rest of what comes below without clinging, without stigma. Keep in mind also that nothing about the above statement means that monogamous relationships can’t work or that they can’t themselves be very functioning and fulfilling. 

But monogamy is not stigmatized. CNM is. The stigma against CNM relationships is detrimental for science at large because it biases and limits research (see Conley et al., 2017, p. 207–208) that could overall better our understanding of close relationships, monogamous ones included. This, in turn, is a disservice to society and back around again in a destructive and negligent loop.

Love is key. I am a strong believer that we must strive to understand it.

Thus, I invite you to read this post knowing that you can live life – and live it happily – without necessarily having to follow the scripts and norms dictated by our society, just as you can live it happily without necessarily having to give them up.

Give it a chance. Believe in science. Believe in love. Let your mind be populated with ideas that make you uncomfortable. In life, you either do or you don’t. And if you really don’t like them, then you can always just let them go the same way you let them in.

Monogamy can be a choice. That is true. But monogamy is also a choice made in the context of a certain social order. There is nothing controversial about this statement. Free will is debated precisely because of this and more. If it were as simple as choosing between equally plausible and available options, CNM would not be so stigmatized.

Instead, it is.

As you’ll read below, polyamory, a form of CNM, is all about spreading your gifts of love to more than one person and yet, just think about it: aren’t affairs often justified by saying “it was only sex”? (Conley et al., 2017, p. 219). 

Compared to CNM, monogamy is seen as “considerably more trusting, committed, passionate, and more sexually satisfying but less likely to involve jealousy than other relational arrangements” (Conley et al., 2017, p. 2016). 

But is this really the case? Try to consider it for yourself. How many monogamous couples do you know who fit the above statement and are unequivocally happy? How does that number fare against those monogamous couples you know who seem rather unhappy instead? And if they are happy, what is their happiness founded on? Is jealousy really overcome in monogamous relationships or is it heightened? I don’t mean to ask these as rhetorical questions that underscore a certain unspoken truth, but rather as questions that can help bring under scrutiny what we know and how we know it.

More importantly, these questions are not intended to devalue monogamy. Asking them is only meant to take monogamy down from its immediate pedestal for a second. I think it only deserves to be up there if science backs it up, and it doesn’t according to this study. And if you don’t think science has any foothold in claims about love, then keep in mind that I’m talking about social science, i.e. that which is based on the actual experience of people. This study presented here by Conley et al. (2017), for example, focused on self reports. Self reports aren’t always the most reliable (due to the issue of implicit vs. explicit biases, etc.), but if you have a big sample and the numbers are such that there is a statistical significance between the scores reported by the two groups you’re comparing, then you know there is probably some truth lurking around in your findings. 

It is important to note that a lot of this bias against CNM likely stems less from our conviction that we know what is right or wrong about relationships (or even about our own needs), and more because of the threat that CNM poses to our social order, as the study argues.

That is not to say that you might have chosen against CNM because of this, but there is a reason why CNM is a lot more popular in the gay community. It is probably because people in the gay community do not have the same constraint (in the social and biological sense) of reproduction as people in the heterosexual community (Conley et al., 2017). If you disagree with this, then what else could explain that difference better? It would be very unacceptable to think that gay people have misconstrued love…. 

And maybe most heterosexual men in relationships can test this hypothesis that monogamy originated even partly from a need or desire to control female reproduction by conducting the following thought experiment:

Imagine your girlfriend sleeping with a man. Now imagine her sleeping with a woman. What would bother you the most? And if you don’t think it has to do strictly with reproduction – which is fair – then let me play the philosopher’s favorite trump card: in impasses like these, ask yourselves, “then what else?” And could that new reason nonetheless eventually be reduced to a consideration of reproduction? I’m not claiming this definitely. I’m curious about other possible explanations, and I agree that it’s a multifaceted phenomenon.

Ok, but I mentioned kinds of CNM relationships. What kinds are there and what’s the difference between them?

The truth of the matter is that it’s really more of a spectrum (just like monogamy is a spectrum), but the study focuses on three types: open, swinging and polyamorous.

Open: partners are emotionally/romantically exclusive to each other but are allowed to have sex with other people. 

Swinging: partners are emotionally/romantically exclusive to each other but are allowed to have sex with other people at parties or specific events organized for this purpose. 

Polyamorous: partners are allowed to have sexually AND equally emotional/romantic relationships with multiple people.

{The ‘C’ in CNM is not redundant. Consensual excludes cases of cheating or cases in which the discussion of being (non)monogamous has not been properly had. The conversation is very important and requires a strong conviction by all parties, not a hesitant concession}

So which of these kinds is purportedly ‘better’ than monogamy? Which is worse? 

Well:

The study found that polyamorous relationships prosper better than monogamous ones while open relationships prosper worse.

(“prosper worse” might sound like an oxymoron but all CNM relationships fared above the midpoint of the relational adjustment measures).

This is an interesting finding. Let’s look at these comparisons in more detail.

Compared to monogamous couples, polyamorous couples reported being higher in all the tested measures to a statistically significant degree. These measures were:

  • satisfaction,
  • commitment,
  • passionate love,
  • jealousy (in terms of mental attitudes),
  • jealousy (in terms of behaviors) and
  • trust.

On the other hand, compared to monogamous couples, open partners reported worse satisfaction, commitment and passionate love to a statistically significant degree. Differences in trust between the two groups were not significant. On the other hand, open couples reported doing significantly better with regards to jealous attitudes and slightly (but not significantly) better on jealous behaviors. 

Swingers scored more or less the same as monogamous couples, and were only significantly less attitudinally jealous. Due to the very little difference, swingers will no longer be considered in this post and will be left to their own devices, living the ‘lifestyle’ 😉

Now…let’s take a breather. I know I need one.

Deep inhale. Strong exhale.

How do you feel about these data? 

If perhaps you think that polyamorous people are likelier to have less affection for their primary partner (with “primary” indicating the partner that they are most committed too), that was found to be untrue. Even after controlling for the length of time of the primary and secondary relationships of polyamorous people, they “reported more satisfaction, trust, commitment and passionate love in their primary than in their secondary relationship,” (Conley et al., 2017, p. 213). This goes to show that spreading your gift of love does not have to mean that the love you give (and receiver) will diminish in strength. “They also had more jealous cognitions in their primary relationship than in their secondary relationship,” (p. 213). More jealousy probably implies higher stakes and greater investment. Even polyamorous couples get jealous, albeit to a lower degree. Jealousy is thus a pervasive and natural phenomenon. What matters is how we come to understand and deal with the sources of that jealousy. 

Also, if you think that men are likelier to opt for CNM (which I have often heard people argue), the study found that, although there were significantly more males in the CNM group (the study focused on heterosexual couples but it might be that more males signed up for the study itself), there was no effect of gender on whether the person was in a monogamous relationship or not. 

And how do I feel about these findings?

Personally, I didn’t think there was going to be such a stark difference between polyamorous couples and open couples.

Why could this be? Let’s see what the study has to say:

My original assumption was that being emotionally involved with only one person would be easier. Instead, the paper suggests that trying to suppress emotions for somebody with whom you are sexual with is difficult. I’m assuming this can subsequently lead to resentment and tension towards one’s primary partner quite easily. In addition, it could be that open couples don’t have the same communication skills as polyamorous couples (Conley et al., 2017).

But the study noted something even more interesting:

Some subjects who self-identified as being open mentioned that they were open for practical reasons, for example because they were long-distance with their partner or because they couldn’t have the type of sex they desired.

Now the picture is quite different. It seems, then, that the category of open is less one that you choose to be in because you truly want to, but instead because you feel like you have to. More in-depth research is needed to understand the connection between the circumstances of an open relationship and its quality, but this suggestion might nonetheless resonate with some people, or it might not.

The study proceeded to challenge my assumptions even further.

Initially, I thought that open couples would be the most prominent group. Even an article by Psychology Today assumes the same. It would then follow that they would also have more established support networks. Well, both are actually false. Out of the 617 individuals in CNM relationships studied, 51% were polyamorous! 0 or 100, I guess! (CNM was also more common in participants that were 25> years old, and it would be interesting to look into the details of why this could be).

I guess I considered the category of being open as closer in nature to the status quo of monogamy. As such, I expected it to be a more desirable choice than polyamory. Time to check my own biases in favor of monogamy! Funny enough, the paper mentions another study by the same authors showing that even CNM couples are biased towards monogamy…well, the mysteries abound. How great it is to write a post that just keeps prompting more future posts!

But if polyamory turns out to be so positive, what then?

Is monogamy doomed? Not necessarily.

First of all, this isn’t a battle. It is important not to force your views on anyone and it is equally important to ask yourself whether that person is really trying to manipulate you or whether they are simply asking questions and bringing up ideas that you don’t like. Also, you don’t have to be strictly on one side of the barricade or the other. There is a tendency to think that you can’t properly defend CNM unless you are biased in favor of it. In fact, the paper discusses a second study in which they tested this bias and found that yes, if you are a researcher who conducts work supporting CNM relationships, you are deemed to be significantly more biased in favor of CNM (and also less accurate, more offensive, a worse scientists, etc.). This is not the case if your research presents positive conclusions regarding monogamy instead. 

What could motivate that bias? Fear? A threat to strongly held beliefs and identities?

Either way, none of that has to be the case!

You can defend CNM relationships, and still prefer monogamy for yourself, or vice versa

The fact of the matter is that you don’t have to be in CNM relationships to be successful in love. In fact, a lot of the communication skills that allow CNM relationships to flourish are the same that keep monogamous couples blooming! (Conley & Moors, 2014). They are just more necessary in CNM relationships, especially polyamorous ones, because you cannot resort to scripts (Conley et al., 2017). In this sense, the papers suggests how polyamory could be seen as ironically more restricted in terms of accommodating preferences: in monogamy, you can enjoy constant and careful communication but you can also fare well if you don’t; in polyamory, on the other hand, you must be okay with profound communication, including all of its nuances and frustrations. And yet, this level of profound communication is, I think, important for relationships in general, specifically romantic ones, especially if it helps you turn the implicit assumptions you have about the standards of your relationship into explicit ones.

This realization is definitely one to let sink in. It is something that I predicted would be true in a previous (even longer) post. It suggests that what propels love is not who or why or when…but how. HOW you love. 

CNM can therefore give us answers about how to live better monogamous relationships! You don’t have to completely change your lifestyle if that isn’t for you. “In a sense, recognizing alternatives to monogamy could make monogamous people more understanding of the sacrifices (joyful though those sacrifices may be) that their partners make to be with them,” (p. 224).

It is thus time that I turn a new leaf in this enquiry:

What can CNM teach us about having more loving and successful dyadic relationships?

Let me begin with a punchy quote from the paper:

“The language of failure seems notably absent from discussions within polyamorous communities,” (p. 220). 

You see, in monogamy, the goal is to stay together. If you break up, it follows that you’ve failed. It is not a big leap from there and the impression that you yourself (or your partner) are a failure…which is not a happy road to follow. In polygamy, on the other hand, “relationships should exist only as long as they are satisfying and useful to the individuals,” (p. 220).

This might taste of selfishness and oppose how you like to view love, but is it really? And even if it is selfish, so what? Selfishness doesn’t necessarily imply that you are being harmful to anybody else. Also, is there ever such a thing as complete selflessness?

The other way to see it is that for polyamory, success is not defined by longevity. Commitment and happiness are not the same thing. In polyamory there is no end or breaking-point you can identify and mull over. There are only continual developments and changes, with the overarching point being to achieve (ideally mutual) satisfaction. If staying together isn’t conducive of that, then no sweat. You’re allowed to loosen your grip on each other and focus on the domains in which you vibe the best, without having to worry about whether you’re together or not. In poly, there is not the same pressure to stay together, but neither the same pressure to break up.

Plus, even if monogamy may be more selfless in the sense that it is less about individual needs, this can easily lead to indignation towards your partner (Conley et al., 2017). Cheating is tragic, as are other pitfalls in monogamous relationships, but there is often a reason why they happen, as much as those reasons might be irrational or painful to consider. Could this be one of them?

There is, however, one contestation I can think of in this regard: If polyamorous couples favor a concern for the self and individual needs, why engage in more than one relationship? Doesn’t all that time dedicated to relationship maintenance take away from their own ‘me-time’? I’m curious to know more. The paper is definitely transparent in pointing out that even CNM relationships have their burdens. What matters is how you weigh those cons against the pros. Polyamorous couples are very aware of the challenges to communication and the much greater chances (and amounts) of conflict that their chosen relationship configuration portends. I mean, consider all those interrelated dyads. At any node and link in the “polycule”, something might go wrong which will inevitably proliferate across the rest of the chain, with each node being a unique individual with their own (potentially clashing) beliefs about what is right or wrong in terms of equitable communication (Conley et al., 2017).

Yet, polyamorous people tolerate that instability for the sake of the greater novelty they experience in return, as well as the purported depths of intimacy they achieve by constantly renegotiating their boundaries and working on compassionate communication (Conley et al., 2017). 

If you still think that the polyamorous way is not a proper approach to love, consider this: in monogamy, “a generally approved method of protecting the existing relationship is to restrict access to alternative relationship possibilities” (p. 222). I can attest to that. I have been there. And yet…doesn’t this seem so counterintuitive to how we usually envision love and what it should depend on? Restricting in order to love? Isn’t that intuitively conducive to detrimental chains of jealousy?

I’m not saying this to imply that going poly is better. It is simply to suggest that maybe neither monogamy has got it right, at least not as much as our society likes to defend. At least in polyamory, other relationships, friendships included, are less threatening and this lack of controlling demeanors promises to protect against atrocities like abuse, for example (Conley et al., 2017). In addition, jealousy is bound to decrease over time as poly couples realize that love can nonetheless thrive with (potentially ever-increasing) vigor in the presence of extra-dyadic relationships (Conley et al., 2017).

But you might wonder, isn’t the restrictive imperative necessary for relationship security? Scripts aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they are useful! Scripts can reassure, promote stability, reduce conflict and help us navigate the world (Conley et al., 2017). But here’s another un-intuitive way in which polyamorous couples might reach stability without being restrictive or accepting similar norms:

By allowing you to go with other people, you increase your potential of staying together. Controversial, I know, but let me unpack this idea.

In the short term, yes, polyamorous relationships are more ‘dangerous’ because they have close experiences with potential alternatives, which could lead to a dethroning of one’s primary partner (Conley et al., 2017). Mono couples don’t have these problems. However, it is also known that satisfaction in the long run decreases in monogamous relationships, meaning that alternative partners become more alluring (Conley et al., 2017). This is not the case for polyamorous couples. In fact, long-term poly relationships are, in a sense, the safest you could find! This is because, although your connection was much more volatile at the start, if you’ve lasted this long while still ‘testing other waters’, then you are the closest to perfect that you could get with respect to each other. That’s quite neat. At the end of the day, a polyamorous person A knows that B really chose them.

Polyamorous people are thus likelier to be or become “satisficers”, i.e. people who look for acceptable results instead of the best results, like “maximizers” do (Conley et al., 2017). In this sense, CNM couples may be much less affected by the need to find the ‘perfect one’, which could explain why, although having more choices has been correlated to more dissatisfaction, the study did not find this to be true for CNM people (Conley et al. 2017). In fact, monogamous couples may be worse off because of the pressuring need to reject so many choices when really, nobody should be held up against perfection. This makes CNM people less likely to break up if their partner doesn’t meet this preposterous requirement as much as we’d like them to (Conley et al., 2017). 

Therefore, even if you don’t get closer to each other over time, then at least you check your expectations. You confront the fact that ‘forever’ is unlikely and also not necessarily tantamount to happiness. You no longer immerse your day-to-day with that time-bomb-ticking anxiety that the person dearest to you might be unsatisfied or even cheating one you, which I think is a lot more detrimental than actually knowing what they’re up to.

A polyamorous couple seems so much likelier to understand a crucial life lesson very soon: that everyone has their pros and cons…meaning that no matter how many times you swap your partner, you’ll always be “swapping one set of joys and sorrows for another,” (p. 222). Knowing this would ideally make you less likely to leave each other. The study mentions what is called “comparison level (CL)”.  This is “the general sense that people have concerning what they deserve or what they can get in relationships,” (p. 215). The authors then argue how polyamorous people might have more accurate CLs or, if it is instead a function of how many relationships someone’s had, then at least polyamorous people promise to reach accuracy much faster than monogamous ones.

In poly, then, it seems like the greater issue is if you are happy with your primary partner but they instead have doubts about you…then again, being in a monogamous relationship while the other person involved is not fully convinced is not that great either….in poly, you can try other alternatives without having to give anything (or anyone) up, while for mono couples, you don’t have that same assurance and might end up sticking through out of fear instead of desire.

But I’d like to share a personal hypothesis here. The paper mentions that “Interdependence Theory”, which states that we stay in relationships based on the ratio of costs and benefits as well as how mutually involved we are towards each other, implies that polyamorous couples have less resources and time to dedicate to any one person, making them less involved overall. It follows, the authors continue, that less involvement suggest less enduring relationships (but also less painful dissolution).

Thus, my proposition is that it might be a worthwhile tip to always begin a relationship monogamously in order to focus as much as possible on each other. In this manner, it seems logical to think you’d have greater opportunities to learn the ‘Big Truth’ about each other. Then, after careful scrutiny and the deserved attention, you can discuss whether CNM might be an improvement to your lives or not. It becomes more problematic if, like some people in open relationships, you are compelled to skip straight to CNM for reasons that are out of your control. Nevertheless, I still feel like there are many things about a person that you can only learn in CNM situations, just like there are many things you learn about a person only when you break up with them.

The paper also mentions another theory, that of “Self Expansion” which is that couples are more satisfied when they see their partner as part of their own self.

First of all, WOAH.

I didn’t know there was a theory that said that. This is quite contrary to the contemporary view that you should not conflate your own self with that of your partner, which is the antiquated and romantic perspective. In this modern view, independence is admired while dependence is scorned at. A bit of a digress, but I’ve heard Alain de Botton suggest a similar thing: that what makes love difficult is our fear of declaring, “I need you”. Now, whether it is fear as opposed to simply not having that need, or whether we shouldn’t have that need, well those are important consideration to make and they are beyond the scope of this post. My 2-cents is that the right answer lies, as I think with everything, at the equilibrium point, in this case between independence and dependence.

But back to the theory and what it implies for CNM. 

Firstly, it implies that since one’s relationships are a factor in his or her self-identity, polyamorous couples have more chances for self-expansion.

Also, one of the tenets of the theory is that the more novel activities you engage in, the greater your passionate love, regardless of whether those activities are positive or negative. Opening your relationship to include experiences with other people would exponentially add to this excitement and thus increase satisfaction. It also doesn’t have to be permanent. A quick dip in CNM might be all that a couple needs to boost their happiness without having to stick to CNM forever, and it seems like many more monogamous couples than you might think are doing precisely this (I re-link the same Psychology Today article as before. It talks about “The New Monogamy”. And no, I have no commitments to that magazine). 

Done.

I hope that with all this, I’ve managed to shine a spotlight on CNM relationships for a change (specifically, polyamory) without, however, diminishing that of monogamy to an unfair degree. Overall, the study found that if you compare monogamy to all CNM types taken together, the two groups score mostly the same in terms of relational adjustment measures. The only cases in which CNM in general came up significantly better are jealousy (both attitude-wise and behavior-wise) and trust, with the effect size being large only for attitudinal jealousy. Satisfaction, commitment and passionate love, although CNM relationships scored higher on average, were not significantly different.

If you’ve taken away anything from this post, I hope it’s that what relationship type is right for you really depends on the type person you are. If that hasn’t come across (but even if it has), I invite you to read the original paper, which is a wonderfully thorough read with many great comparisons and insights. Here is a wonderful quote summing up what the two extremes – CNM and monogomous – can learn from each other:

“polyamorous individuals might allow their partners freedom from constant vigilance about perceived inequities or slights in any of the dyads that exist within the relationship structure. More traditional monogamous couples might allow their partners freedom to explore more (nonsexual) interests outside the relationship—be those career commitments, hobbies, or flirtations (just flirtations) with others,” (p. 224).

There are still many research topics to pursue comparing CNM to monogamy and the various types of CNM with each other. Nevertheless, the question of whether trusting, non-jealous people are likelier to adopt CNM lifestyles or whether CNM actually makes you more trusting and non-jealous (and ultimately more satisfied) is one that I invite monogamous people not to overlook.

You might disagree with a lot of what I say or suggest in this post but there is one thing that I believe we can all agree on, and that is that CNM relationships have a lot to teach the world regarding the nature of love, even if you don’t participate in them yourselves. The lessons we can derive from them can only help us all to love better, so why would we turn that learning opportunity down? Or, if you agree that, as Lysander declares in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and never will, then at least the lessons we derive from CNM promise to help us ‘fail better’ in love. 

Updated 06.08.20, 15:15 GMT+2: On pg. 218, the paper also mentions that people in polyamorous relationships might fare better in times of stress because of their greater support network, adding one more item to the long list of testable hypotheses in this blossoming field of research comparing CNM to monogamy. 


Conley, T. D., Mastick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of

consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories,

methods, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological

Science12(2), 205–232. 

https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616667925

Conley, T. D., & Moors, A. C. (2014). More oxygen please! How polyamorous

relationship strategies might oxygenate marriage.

Psychological Inquiry, 25(1), 56–63.

https://doi.org/10.1080/1047840X.2014.876908 

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