Can Non-Monogamy Make You More Committed To Your Relationship?
A common myth about consensual non-monogamy (or CNM, which includes open relationships, polyamory, and other such arrangements) is that the people involved are less attached to each other and perhaps that their relationship is less serious and strong than a monogamous couple who are romantically and sexually involved with only each other. But in reality, CNM requires extremely open communication, total honesty, immense empathy and care for one another, and many other marks of a very healthy relationship.
Further proving the benefits of CNM, a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests the mutual agreement to have sex with other people might actually lead to a more committed, satisfying relationship. In the context of CNM, more non-monogamous people might actually be more committed to their primary relationship.
The tendency to desire and enjoy having a lot of casual sex with many different partners is known in scientific terms as sociosexuality. Past research has found sociosexuality to be associated with lower relationship satisfaction and stability, but most of this research has been done in the context of monogamous relationships. It somewhat makes sense that those who crave intimacy with lots of people would feel less satisfied in an exclusive, two-person relationship structure that doesn't allow for that exploration, and it also follows that such relationships involving a highly sociosexual person might be more turbulent because of this inherent tension. But how does sociosexuality affect relationship quality and satisfaction in the context of a CNM relationship, in which both partners agree that sleeping with others is totally cool?
To answer this question, researchers surveyed 373 romantically involved straight people between ages 18 and 71 who are paying users of Second Love, a website that helps connect romantically involved people with new partners. The surveyed folks were in relationships that were 12 years long on average. Researchers asked questions to determine each participant's level of sociosexuality, their experiences having sex with people other than their primary partner, whether their relationship was consensually non-monogamous (i.e., did both partners agree that it was OK to sleep with other people, or was one partner cheating behind the other's back?), and how they felt about their overall quality of life.
In addition, researchers also asked questions about what they called attraction forces and constraining forces within the primary relationship. Attraction forces are the factors that make people want to stay in their relationship—things like feeling dedicated to the other person, having a sense of couple identity, having long-term willingness to maintain the relationship (in other words, feeling committed), and simply feeling satisfied by the relationship. Constraining forces, on the other hand, are factors that make people feel like they have to stay in their relationship out of obligation or fear—for example, feeling like you or your partner are so invested in the relationship that one or both of your lives will totally fall apart if you broke up.
Both types of forces are related to relationship stability, the researchers explain in the paper. Attraction forces are particularly associated with pro-relationship behaviors (e.g., viewing your partner as better than all the other people in the dating pool), and constraining forces can usually improve the relationship as long as they're also paired with attraction forces. Feeling pressure to stay together can be a serious issue if you're not already super into your partner, but otherwise, both forces work in tandem to making you both more committed to each other.
"Relationship quality and stability can be broadly defined as a composite of attraction forces and constraining forces," the researchers explain in the paper. "However, the experience of constraining forces (e.g., pressure to stay together) in the absence of attraction forces (e.g., commitment) can lead individuals to feel trapped in the relationship and to experience greater psychological distress. For instance, making major relationship decisions based on constraining forces (e.g., deciding to get married based on moral conventions), instead of attraction forces (e.g., deciding to get married based on love), is associated with lower life satisfaction."
So what did the researchers find when they asked those Second Love users about all this?
Predictably, people in non-consensually non-monogamous relationships (i.e., people who were cheating on their partner) who were more sociosexual reported feeling less of those attraction forces, less constraining forces, and lower quality of life. That makes sense: If you feel the need to constantly cheat on your partner, you're probably not very committed to them and not very happy with your relationship and thus your life.
For people in consensually non-monogamous relationships, sociosexuality was actually associated with stronger attraction forces in the primary relationship, less constraining forces, and higher quality of life. In other words, in CNM relationships, enjoying sex with lots of people actually made partners more committed to each other—and it was because they wanted to be together, not because they felt like they had to be.
"When both partners have unrestricted sociosexuality and agree on which extradyadic behaviors are accepted in their relationship, they allow themselves and their partner to explore sexuality, which in turn promotes relational growth and greater [quality of life]," the researchers write. "Presumably, by having established clear boundaries regarding their extradyadic interactions, individuals who decide to move forward with this new relationship agreement are also motivated to stay together because of their dedication and dependence (i.e., attraction forces) and not because they feel constrained by external or internal barriers (e.g., psychological contract or obligation to stay with the partner) that prevents relationship ending."
These findings present a strong case for how consensual non-monogamy can actually improve relationship quality and commitment in some cases. Enjoying sexual diversity and exploration doesn't mean you can't also be a truly dedicated, loving partner who's excited to be in their relationship. Sociosexuality and commitment are not mutually exclusive, nor is monogamy a necessary component of commitment.
None of this is to say that non-monogamy is better than monogamy. The point is simply that each person has different sexual, romantic, and emotional needs, and seeking a relationship structure that aligns with those needs is key to having a strong, successful, and satisfying relationship.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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