when it takes a village to maintain a relationship

People in polyamorous relationships often say it's unfair to expect to have all their needs met by one person. According to psychologists, they might have a good point.

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Ask someone in a polyamorous, or any other non-monogamous arrangement why they decided against having just one partner in a relationship and they’ll often mention how it seems taxing and unfair to a single partner to meet all their emotional and sexual needs. In their minds, as long as all partners consent to the relationship and what it entails, they’re making it easier on each other and themselves to get advice, vent, help a loved one, and yes, satisfy their libidos. Forget arguments about who’ll watch the kids, or about the frequency of sex, or why you didn’t have time to talk about each other’s day because one of you is busy or not in the mood. You can just call on another partner, then debrief at a better time for everyone involved.

Or, at least, that’s the theory. How do actual polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships function, and are those involved truly happier? Well, a team of psychologists decided to see whether the argument for multiple partners works by asking a group of 2,183 monogamous and 1,168 polyamorous subjects about how close they felt to their partners and why in detail. At this point, it’s important to note that non-monogamy and polyamory are not the same thing. Non-monogamy can refer to casual encounters outside of a relationship, i.e. swinging and its many forms, while polyamory generally implies some sort of mutually defined and committed relationship involving more than two partners and constant communication between them.

This distinction matters because the researchers wanted to focus specifically on relationship dynamics, they chose to study polyamory instead of non-monogamy in general. What did they find? It turns out that polyamorous relationships really do distribute the needs of each partner across all those involved with an interesting catch. Since new relationships tend to be sexually intense and long-term relationships tend to be more emotionally close and comforting, sexual needs are more often met by newer partners to the relationship while emotional ones are handled by those who have been present longer, or in the parlance of the study, their primary partners offer more nurturance while secondary partners offer more eroticism.

But since nurturance is what’s necessary to feel close to partners rather than eroticism and sex, secondary partners, those in polyamorous relationships report feeling closer to high nurturance partners than they do to high eroticism ones. Conversely, when their primary partners can also offer high levels of eroticism, the subjects felt even less close to their secondaries. The intuitive takeaway could be that the fewer needs you have, the fewer partners you need and the less you get out of each addition to the relationship, but the researchers warn that it would be too simplistic of an assumption. After all, satisfaction is a complicated thing and some people could be thrilled with high eroticism and need little nurture while others require the reverse.

Ultimately, they want to find out how to make a happy relationship work, and how well we can diversify our need fulfillment. Thanks to this survey, they can now design follow up studies to evaluate satisfaction among those in polyamorous arrangements, then take that information to investigate the full array of support systems that could help partners make sure their needs are met without overloading each other. This way, therapists could offer evidence-based ideas to those whose relationships hit a rough patch or are in serious trouble, and this advice could be especially beneficial if it’s based on more than one kind of relationship and covers everything from open marriage to hobbies.

See: Balzarini R., et. al., (2019) Eroticism versus nurturance: How eroticism and nurturance differs in polyamorous and monogamous relationships, Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000378

# sex // psychology / relationships / scientific papers


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