While there is a rich body of literature in the social sciences focusing on romantic relationships, most research falls within a monogamous structure. In a new study, researchers at York University in Toronto provide new insights into polyamorous relationships — meaning being able to have open sexual or consensual romantic relationships with more than one person at a time — and why some people prefer them. According to the findings, having more than one romantic partner may help individuals better meet their needs for eroticism and nurturing.
A different romantic partner for different needs
Rhonda Balzarini, a post-doc in psychology at York University, says it is common for couples early in their relationship to experience high desire and passion, leading to frequent sex — this is often referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase’. Later in the relationship, sexual intensity tends to fade away, while comfort and intimacy tend to increase. But does this dynamic also apply to other types of romantic relationships?
In their new study, Balzarini and colleagues investigated how polyamorous and monogamous relationships differ in their ability to fulfill partner’s needs for eroticism (sexual intensity, pleasure, and passion) and nurturance (comfort and security).
The researchers recruited 2,183 monogamous and 1,168 polyamorous individuals who were surveyed about their experiences of eroticism and nurturance, as well as their sexual satisfaction and closeness with their partners. Those in polyamorous relationships had to rate these aspects twice: once for their primary partner with whom they had more commitments, and once for their secondary partner, with whom they had less ongoing commitments.
The results published in the journal Social Psychology, suggest that those in polyamorous relationships experienced greater nurturance with primary partners compared to secondary and monogamous partners. At the same time, they also experienced greater eroticism with secondary partners compared to primary and monogamous partners.
“One key takeaway is that people in polyamorous relationships do seem to diversify their need fulfillment across their relationships and this may allow them to experience the best of both worlds (high eroticism and nurturance simultaneously),” Balzarini wrote in an article for PsyPost.
“This does not mean that everyone should engage in polyamory but suggests that there might be benefits to diversifying need fulfillment and relying on different people to meet different needs. Although people in monogamous relationships are not permitted to have their sexual needs met outside of the relationship, they may be able to diversify their need fulfillment in other ways — for example, by seeking out friends and family to meet needs for support, adventure, or intellectual stimulation,” she added.
The researchers also found that when polyamorous participants experienced greater eroticism with a primary partner, they tended to have less closeness with the secondary partner.
In the future, the researchers would like to investigate whether experiencing eroticism and nurturance from non-romantic partners (i.e. friends and family for nurturing and pornography for eroticism) can compensate for unsatisfactory levels in one’s romantic relationship. It would also be interesting to see a study of how polyamorous relationships evolve over time and whether they deteriorate faster and more often than monogamous relationships. Can you really have the best of both worlds? Maybe, but perhaps not for long. In other words, each partner may be happy with their polyamorous arrangement — until they’re not anymore.
This sort of research might reveal hidden nuances regarding the evolution of romantic relationships. Most societies in the world today are comprised of monogamous couples, both for heterosexual and homosexual individuals. So there may be many reasons why monogamy is culturally superior to consented polygamy — and science might one-day have an elaborate answer to share.