Why Open Relationships Are Bad For You
…But Only If You Half-Ass It
This is research conducted for Luna, a blockchain-based dating app
If you aren’t interested in details of the study, just skim until you get to the Analysis section.
After a bad breakup, I wanted to figure out how weird I was, so I asked a bunch (n=3911) of people how they felt about their relationships. I measured a lot of things — orientation, gender, religion, relationship length — but this particular post is the interesting stuff about polyamory.
With Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman as one of the first pro-poly films in theater, and millions of Americans reporting having tried polyamory, the concept of ‘nonexclusivity’ is rising. If you’re unfamiliar, polyamory is the practice of having multiple consensual relationships at once. These can be casual, but are also often serious and long-term, with some polyamory movements pushing for the legal right to marry more than one partner.
But how do those relationships differ? Are long term polyamorous relationships feasible? Are monogamous people less jealous?
I asked people to rate themselves on a scale of 1–7, monogamous to polyamorous, and I created five metrics to test — excitement, insecurity, stability, quality, and reliance. A person’s score on a metric was determined by the average of a set of related questions.
The detailed response rates for each point are shown at the bottom of this article.
(I’ve listed all significant p-values, but keep in mind this does not capture the interestingness of the mirrored graphs, and most of the r-values are quite small.
Also remember the total Y-axis range was 30 points.)
The ‘Excitement’ score was determined by questions like ‘My relationship with my relationship is deeply intense” or “my partner brings me entertainment and novelty.” I view higher excitement scores as a positive thing.
This is a pattern we’ll see again a few times — “half poly” people reporting lower scores, and high scores on each end of the extreme. It appears that full-poly people report roughly similar levels of relationship excitement to the full-mono folk, though with men at a slight disadvantage.
(Male polyness and excitement were negatively correlated at r=-08, p=0.003.)
The ‘Insecurity’ score tested for jealousyesque worries about losing the partner, with questions like ‘I sometimes worry my partner will leave me’ or ‘I feel jealous in my relationship.” I view higher insecurity scores as a negative thing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more poly someone is, the more likely they are to report lower relationship insecurity. The causality could go either way — either polyamory makes people less insecure, or less insecure people tend to gravitate towards polyamory.
(Female polyness and insecurity were negatively correlated at r=-0.0002, p=0.004)
The ‘Stability’ score tested for how much the relationship provided practical reliability, with questions like ‘I am satisfied with the division of labor in the relationship’ or ‘I agree with my partner on major life plans.’ I view higher stability scores as a positive thing.
A common trope is that poly people are noncommittal or flighty, and this data shows weak support for this — more importantly, perhaps, is the mid-exclusivity dip.
(male stability and polyness negatively correlated at r=-0.12, p=0.001, female stability and polyness negatively correlated at r=-0.08, p=0.01)
The ‘Quality’ score tested for general relationship satisfaction, with questions like “I am in love with my partner” or “My relationship makes me happy.” I view higher quality scores as an extremely positive thing.
That dip again! You may have noticed that women generally report higher scores than men, and that this becomes more pronounced the more poly people get (with the exception of insecurity).
Another point of interest is the similarity in scores between people who report 6 or 7 on the poly scale. This suggests that adding a touch of exclusivity to a poly relationship might not have an impact on overall quality (though this is not true for other scales).
(Male polyness and quality was negatively correlated at r=-0.118, p=0.001)
The ‘Reliance’ score tested for relationship dependency, or how vital the relationship was to the person’s wellbeing. This included questions like “My partner is vital to my sense of self worth” and “It’s hard to imagine being happy without my partner.” I personally view this metric as neutral — neither positive or negative.
Full-mono people really feel dependent on the relationship, which again is pretty unsurprising. External relationships probably feel far more threatening the more your sense of identity and safety is involved.
(Female and male both for reliance and polyness were negatively correlated; male r=-0.19, female r=-0.27, both p=0.001)
Polyamory was not significantly correlated with length of relationship, indicating that polyamorous people have about the same length of relationship as monogamous people.
My theory about the dip in quality of mid-poly relationships is something like this: A couple gets together without any intention or discussion about polyamory. As time passes, one or both start to get unhappy or bored with the relationship. They think, “We need to do something to fix this” and turn to polyamory as a potential solution.
But, neither really wanting polyamory in the first place, they don’t go into the deep end and start up long-term, meaningful relationships with other people. They try swingers clubs, or allow their partner to have casual sex as long as “I don’t have to know about it.” This sort of arrangement can end up being very uncomfortable, as neither partner was prepared for dealing with the jealousy and fear that springs up, and thus the relationship suffers even further.
The mid-poly state, I suspect, tends to both attract people in suffering relationships, and exacerbate the problems in those relationships.
The takeaway from this? If you’re in a mono relationship with someone and you’re considering going poly, take a good look at why you want this, and do some research into what it takes to make a poly relationship succeed. Or, stay away from polyamory entirely. Full monogamy relationships report some pretty great states.
But ‘full poly’ and ‘full mono,’ though they might report similar levels of quality, excitement, and (to a lesser extent) stability, are very different on two levels — reliance and jealousy.
Reliance is an indication of how important the relationship is — to the person’s wellbeing, sense of value, and happiness in life. Intuitively this is complementary to greater jealousy — if the relationship is so important, then anything that potentially threatens it (an attractive person flirting with your partner!) may trigger more intense feelings of fear.
Poly people’s low scores on reliance and jealousy seem to indicate that poly people, though getting similar levels of happiness out of their relationship, view their relationship as less ‘necessary’ to their life and identity.
Perhaps this indicates that monogamists are the romantics, and are more likely to find appealing the fairytale story of the ‘one true love’, while polyamorists are more practical, preferring a dose of cynicism with their enchantment.
Another fascinating element is that for the three measures I consider ‘positive’ — excitement, stability, and quality — the more poly you go, the more the gap grows between women and men, with women reporting greater benefits.
Three theories: One — men are more visible and more drawn to polyamory communities than women are. I say polyamory communities because apparently self-identification as polyamorous is greater among women than men.
But, if men are more visible, or if they outnumber women at physical polyamory events, they might feel as though the playing ground is less ‘fair,’ as they have fewer potential mates than their partners do.
Another theory: Men feel that they have to place more effort into starting a new relationship than women do. In traditional monogamist relationships, the ‘courting ritual’ takes place only at the beginning, and then once the relationship begins, the effort is generally equal. But, perhaps, polyamorists engage in more frequent courtship rituals, and men perceive courtship rituals as more stressful than women do due to bearing most of the burden of initiation and pursuit.
Thirdly, if you want to throw some evopsych into the mix, the “certain parenthood” that women have and men do not might be a subconscious contributor to the satisfaction of ‘sharing your partner’ with others. It’s possible that a male’s increased sexual access to more female partners does less to outweigh the primitive fears of not knowing if potential children are his, whereas a female’s increased sexual access to more male partners does not outweigh her ability to feel as though her child will be provided for.
I am curious to see if this benefit would be reversed in more economically unstable areas (most of my respondents came from first-world countries). I suspect that ‘feeling stable and safe’ has a much bigger impact on women’s sexual behavior than men’s. My hypothesis is that, if economic security is removed, women would report lower enjoyment of poly relationships than men do.
A few other things to keep in mind
It’s hard to know how much our culture affects poly relationships. Poly relationships are uncommon and rarely featured in media; messages encouraging or glorifying jealousy and the ‘fairytale narrative’ are super common. It’s very possible that people entering into poly relationships suffer greater difficulty due to a lack of support network or prior instruction on how to handle such a radically new romantic dynamic.
I also measured abuse rates.
The ‘abuse score’ is the averaged number of three questions asking about emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I asked the questions without using the word ‘abuse’ (e.g., “My partner has physically and nonconsensually harmed me”).
Take these graphs with a grain of salt, as sample sizes get sorta low at each individual point (The lowest being 4/7 poly, women, at 83 responses), and the fact that the abuse/abuser responses were extremely low overall, so there may be noise.
I’m not sure how to interpret the huge gender disparity in the middle — but the male scores have statistically significant, but small increases in abuse/abuser reporting rates as polyamory increases.
(Male polyness and receiving abuse r=.048, p=.03, giving abuse r=.064, p.004)
Remember this is reported given/received abuse; cultures or education that classify a greater number of things as abuse may display increased abuse report rates, though the actual abuse remains the same.
These results seem to indicate that the transition from monogamy to polyamory is not smooth, but rather that successful relationships occur in either one of two extreme modes.
This also suggests that providing self-identification options to users as flat ‘monogamy’ or ‘polyamory’ might lack essential nuance. At Luna we’re all about nuance, and so we now intend to allow a ‘spectrum’ response on the Luna app.
I collected responses from followers on my Tumblr and Twitter. I also posted on Reddit (r/samplesize). I posted in a variety of Facebook groups in order to try to gather data from types of people who don’t typically go on Reddit or follow me online — basically groups featuring concentrations of religious, conservative, or older people (for example, a group for the appreciation of vintage cars). I also posted in polyamory groups.
I had originally over 5000 responses, but only 3911 were in relationships. Women made up 1832 of those responses, and men 1923. I had insufficient trans and other responses (99 trans, 57 other) to meaningfully analyze them.
The response counts for each point on the ‘mono-poly spectrum’ were as follows:
1: 980 women, 770 men
2: 283 women, 437 men
3: 108 women, 216 men
4: 83 women, 150 men
5: 123 women, 119 men
6: 92 women, 118 men
7: 163 women, 120 men
I asked respondents to answer for their ‘primary romantic partner’, defined as ‘longest relationship’ or ‘most time spent with’ or ‘most of your life is wrapped up with.’
All p-values were listed after multiplication by number of questions tested for, to help avoid p-hacking.
Bonus graph: All averaged scores (men, women, trans, and other combined, all 5 metrics present)