In a culture that favors monogamy, is it possible for couples to have open relationships that work? Recent research that used a novel framework to explore types of monogamy and nonmonogamy suggests that open, consensual nonmonogamous relationships can be healthy and satisfying.
The new study does not draw sweeping conclusions about successful open relationships. Instead, the findings identify the conditions that can promote healthy consensual nonmonogamous relationships and those that can put them under strain.
These conditions relate to the extent to which there is mutual consent, comfort, and — perhaps most importantly — communication about sex with other people.
A recent paper in The Journal of Sex Research gives a full account of the study and its findings.
"We know that communication is helpful to all couples," says senior study author Ronald D. Rogge, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.
"However," he continues, "[communication] is critical for couples in nonmonogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a nontraditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture."
Three dimensions of commitment
A 2016 study suggests that about 1 in 5 individuals in the United States engage in open relationships at some stage of their lives.
Despite this relatively high statistic, a culture that favors monogamy can present a challenge to nonmonogamous couples looking to introduce new sexual partners into the relationship.
Such couples would need, for example, to protect each other from potential feelings of jealousy and judgment from others, note the study authors.
Previous studies in this area have yielded mixed findings. The reason for this could be that the frameworks that they have used to understand nontraditional relationships have tended to focus only on one or two dimensions, for example, monogamous or nonmonogamous.
To probe these inconsistencies and gain fresh insights into the nature of nonmonogamous vs. monogamous relationships, the researchers behind the new study devised a model of commitment that embraces three dimensions: mutual consent, communication, and comfort.
Consent, communication, and comfort
In their study paper, the authors explain why they consider these three conditions — which they refer to as the Triple C model — to be fundamental building blocks of healthy relationships.
Citing other studies, they argue that the conditions describe an "adaptive process that would help to buffer relationships from the adverse effects of enduring vulnerabilities and stressful events across time."
They define mutual consent as a condition in which both partners agree explicitly the nature of their relationship. For example, is there to be sexual exclusivity? Would this decision also apply to emotional exclusivity? And what types of other sexual partners would be allowable?
The communication dimension covers the ongoing discussion about the relationship and its boundaries. While it is an important cornerstone of any relationship, the researchers argue that communication specifically about sex with other people has a central role in open relationships.
Communication allows, for instance, couples to negotiate rules about sex outside the relationship "while maintaining high levels of respect and consideration toward the feelings of each other," write the authors.
Comfort, for instance, includes whether partners feel that they have to agree to an open relationship even though they really want it to be monogamous.
A question in connection with comfort would ask how upset the individual would be if they knew that their partner was having sex with other people or how upset their partner might be if it were the other way around. Both partners not being very upset would signify high levels of mutual comfort.
Five types of relationship
For the study, the team analyzed responses from 1,658 people in relationships who completed an online questionnaire that included items within the Triple C Model.
Nearly four out of five of the respondents were white, and about two-thirds were in their 20s and 30s. Nearly 70% described themselves as female, and most said that they were in long term relationships — on average, these had been going for almost 4.5 years.
The researchers arranged the participants into five groups according to the type of relationship that they described. The relationship type of each group is as follows:
- Monogamous relationship: In the early stage.
- Monogamous relationship: In the later stage.
- Consensual nonmonogamous relationship: Neither partner is interested in staying monogamous, and there are high levels of mutual consent, comfort, and communication about sex with other people.
- Partially open relationship: Mixed views on monogamy and lower levels of mutual consent, comfort, and communication.
- One-sided relationship: One partner wants monogamy, while the other engages in sex with other people. There is low mutual consent and comfort and hardly any communication about sex outside the relationship.
The findings revealed that monogamous and consensual nonmonogamous groups appeared to have high functioning both in their relationships and as individuals.
In contrast, the partially open and one-sided relationship groups demonstrated lower levels of functioning.
Secrecy about sex with others can be 'toxic'
There were reports of healthy relationships from both monogamous groups. These groups also featured some of the lowest levels of distress and loneliness.
Both monogamous groups and the consensual nonmonogamous group reported levels of distress and loneliness that were similarly low. In addition, these groups reported high levels of satisfaction relating to their needs, relationship, and sex.
Sexual sensation seeking was lowest in the monogamous groups and highest in the three nonmonogamous groups. Individuals in the nonmonogamous groups were also the most likely to report having a sexually transmitted infection.
Overall, the one-sided group had the highest proportion of people dissatisfied with their relationships. These individuals comprised 60% of the group — nearly three times as high as the proportions in the monogamous and consensual nonmonogamous groups.
The researchers caution that a limitation of their study was that they looked at a snapshot in time. Another study that used the same model but followed people over some time could come to different conclusions.
The bottom line of the findings appears to be that, regardless of the type of open relationship, without mutual consent, comfort, and communication, sex outside the relationship can be felt as betrayal and can put an enormous strain on the couple.
"Secrecy surrounding sexual activity with others can all too easily become toxic and lead to feelings of neglect, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, and betrayal, even in nonmonogamous relationships."
Ronald D. Rogge, Ph.D.