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Is Polyamory Possible? Podcasts and Research Seem to Say So. What Say You?

A month and a half ago, my find of a great podcast for keeping awake in the car on long-night trips: Polyweekly, a weekly audio show on polyamorous relationships (“It’s Not All About Sex”). I’m not a polyamorous person myself, but I am intrigued by it as a phenomenon, since it invokes a less divisive, more inclusive vision of love than the vision most of us monogamous, pairing people tend to have.

As I wrote then, I’ve had conversations with friends who like me are in monogamous relationships, and their consensus seems to be that such relationships are wishful thinking, since they would be most likely unstable and would lead to nasty, messy breakups. Yet listening to CunningMinx, her interviewees, her call-in and write-in questioners talk about their experiences with polyamory has made it clear to me that either they’re all fibbing, or there are actually some people for whom stable, loving, long-term polyamory is possible.

Since then, I’ve come across an academic conference paper by Geri D. Weitzman entitled What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory: The Lifestyles and Mental Health Concerns of Polyamorous Individuals. Weitzman reviews research on people who maintain simultaneous relationships with more than one partner:

While openly polyamorous relationships are relatively rare (Rubin, 1982), there are indications that private polyamorous arrangements within relationships are actually quite common. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983, cited in Rubin & Adams, 1986) noted that of 3,574 married couples in their sample, 15-28% had “an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances. The percentages are higher among cohabitating couples (28%), lesbian couples (29%) and gay male couples (65%)” (p. 312)….

Hymer and Rubin (1982) conducted a study in which therapists were asked to imagine the psychological profile of a typical polyamorous person. 24% of these therapists imagined that polyamorous individuals feared commitment or intimacy, 15% of these therapists imagined that they were in marriages that were not fulfilling, and 7% hypothesized that they might have identity problems. In another study, Knapp (1975) found that 33% of her sample of therapists believed that people who pursued a polyamorous lifestyle had personality disorders and neurotic tendencies, and 20% suggested that such people might have antisocial personalities. 9-17% of the therapists “stated they would use their professional skills to try to influence clients to abandon sexually open marriages” (p.509)….

In 1976, Knapp administered a battery of standardized psychological assessment measures to a sample of polyamorous couples (Peabody, 1982). No significant differences were found between the couples in her sample and the general population norms. “That is, neither group was particularly neurotic, immature, promiscuous, maladjusted, pathological, or sexually inadequate… The response patterns suggested a modal type of individual in a sexually open marriage who was individualistic, an academic achiever, creative, nonconforming, stimulated by complexity and chaos, inventive, relatively unconventional and indifferent to what others said, concerned abut his/her own personal values and ethical systems, and willing to take risks to explore possibilities” (p. 429). Watson (1981, cited in Rubin, 1982) gave the California Psychological Inventory (Gough, 1957) to 38 sexually open individuals, and these subjects also scored within normal bounds.

Additional work has been done in the area of marital adjustment. Buunk (1980, cited in Rubin, 1982) found that couples with open marriages in the Netherlands were normal in terms of marriage satisfaction, self-esteem, and neuroticism. Spanier’s (1976) Dyadic Adjustment Scale was used to compare sexually open couples with sexually exclusive ones (Rubin, 1982), and no differences were found in adjustment or happiness between the two groups. “Nothing in this data argues for the view that sexual openness or exclusivity, in and of themselves, make a difference in the overall adjustment of a married couple” (p. 107).

A follow-up study (Rubin & Adams, 1986) found that after several years, there was no significant difference in marital stability (i.e. breaking up vs. staying together) between those couples who had been polyamorous versus those whose marriages had been exclusive. Similar proportions of each group reported happiness versus unhappiness, compared to the earlier sample. Additionally, “the reasons given for breakup were almost never related to extramarital sex” (p. 318). When polyamorous relationships ended, common reasons given included growing apart in general interests, feeling unequal levels of attraction to one another, and dealing with the stresses of long-distance (Ramey, 1975).

Another study (Peabody, 1982) found that most respondents reported feeling satisfied with their primary relationship, and felt positively about their partner having sexual relations with others. It was found that polyamorous individuals had slightly less frequent sex than the national average, emphasizing social activities, warmth, and open communication. “The continuing emphasis was a focus on warmth, acceptance, communication and friendship with the freedom to touch, caress, and have the potentialfor sexual activity if chosen” (p 429).

Weitzman’s review lends support to the point of view that polyamorous relationships are possible and that polyamorous people aren’t the maladapted, psychologically unhealthy people that we often hear they are. Reading the whole of Weitzman’s paper, I get the feeling that she is either a member of the polyamorous community, or is predisposed to be sympathetic to polyamory, or both. This leads to me to wonder whether there are other pieces of academic research out there that might come to more negative conclusions about the correlates of polyamory.

So, with that slightly suspicious and not completely credulous mindset engaged, I’d like to hear from you about this. Do you know of other research that touches on the causes, varieties, and/or outcomes of polyamory? And what about your own personal experience? Have you had some life experience with polyamory, or come into contact with it in a way that informs your own vision of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m sure we all can benefit from your knowledge.

10 thoughts on “Is Polyamory Possible? Podcasts and Research Seem to Say So. What Say You?”

  1. John Stracke says:

    I don’t know of research on the subject. I do know people who’ve had happy polyamorous and/or polygamous relationships; they seem to match up with the descriptions here.

    However, I’ve also known people whose polyamory has wrecked their marriages; they match up with the stereotypes you’d expect.

    Basically, doing polyamory right is a hard problem. It looks like it’s OK for people who have the relationship skills, and terrible for people who don’t.

  2. HareTrinity says:

    It’s hard in a culture biased for monogamy, sure, but there have been various cultures out there where polygamy was the norm.

    Some studies imply that polygamous relationships involving one woman and many male partners are the norm for the species, and cultures that had this believed that it made it easier for raising the children (since they would always have at least one father to look after them).

    I, personally, believe it depends on the individuals involved.

  3. John Stracke says:

    Some studies imply that polygamous relationships involving one woman and many male partners are the norm for the species

    I doubt it. Harem-based species tend to have much more sexual dimorphism.

  4. Tom says:

    Just look at the rise of divorce in this country. So much for “monogamous” relationships. It seems to be more judgemental espousing over actual thought. People in monogamous relationships are fine as long as they work. As soon as they don’t, married people have to go through the LEGAL system to undo their matrimonial bond (a decidedly spiritual, rather than strictly legal affair). Then, they’re suddenly free to explore other interests. No contradiction at all, eh?

  5. Iroquois Honky says:

    I remember reading something years ago, unfortunately I can’t give you the author’s name, but written by a practitioner with a MSW. It wasn’t a formal study, but some reflections on years of counseling, but in the context of marital infidelity. Also this is against a background of “open marriage” theory of the 80’s which was starting to be questioned.
    1) The first issue, of course trust, but if everything is out in the open, this issue becomes nonexistant.
    2) People who are ‘swinging’ or want unusual arrangments seem to be very vocal and determined to persuade other people to their view.
    3) Couples who swore this was the only thing keeping their marriage together (including secret affairs) five years later were no longer married.
    4)When a couple was ‘swinging’ it was the author’s perception that one partner was usually much more enthusiastic than the other and questioned the unforced nature of the sexual encounters for the less enthusiastic partner.
    5) When one partner broke up, they said it was because they “didn’t feel special”

    A couple observations of my own:
    Haretrinity, yes, the Tibetan polygamy involving one woman and several men is common there and usually with brothers. Population is sparse and traders must go long distances for years at a time. There is always at least one brother at home with the wife. Rotation and privacy is agreed on and the children know which husband is their father.

    I have lived both in a commune and with an extended family (Moslem). The commune was formed in the 70s with friends from 2 differrent liberal arts universities. In the commune, people paired off into couples, but there was no sense of support between members of the group. In the extended family, polygamy was legal, but not practiced. Sons brought their wives to live with the family (patrilineal and patrilocal). The “social activities and warmth” description of the last study mentioned fits this extended family without the sexual part of the description.

    I also knew of two families where there was one husband and two wives. In the first, each wife had her own house; the husband lived with the second wife but provided for all the children. The second family both wives looked and dressed exactly the same, but I was told they were not sisters.(Koran says wives must be treated alike.) You could sense tension between them. They all three lived in one house. In a third family the husband had three wives and I met the third wife. A fourth wife had left and they hoped to rent her (fourth) house to me. The third wife had left an abusive husband–I asked her how she like being married and she said “I have a nice house.” The second wife visited briefly in the third wife’s house with other relatives and I sensed relief all around when she left. Where the husband lived, I never found out.

    Finally, you see a lot of self-help books out there about overcoming emotional dependence in order to leave a destructive relationship, but you don’t see any books on making polygamy work.

  6. HareTrinity says:

    We do live in a culture that tends to encourage the traditional nuclear family as being viewed as perfection, which puts pressure on everyone.

    I do find it hard to imagine a polygamous relationship working when it’s 1 person getting 2 or more (thus them probably feeling like they just get a 1/2 or less), but would hope situations such as 3 homosexual women, or 1 heterosexual girl and 2 bisexual men, could work out.

    The men who collect multiple wives generally come across as men keen on feeding their egos rather than men who love and care about the feelings of their partners. Same probably goes for women who collect multiple male partners.

  7. Iroquois Honky says:

    The nuclear family works better here because people have to relocate to where the jobs are. My in-laws did live in a sort of extended family, with the older unmarried aunts raising the children and everybody else working–or trying to…there were always layoffs and economic problems in that area, but they never tried to move. Raising children takes energy and I can see how pair bonding would help this.

    Among the Moslems I knew, it was totally unheard of for a woman to be unattached. Marrying someone off is seen as a way to provide for them economically and prevent prostitution, which is seen as shameful–I guess marrying someone in order to eat is not considered shameful. Maybe the guy is wierd or maybe he is wealthy enough to provide for someone unfortunate to get Allah’s blessing. In the one household at least, the husband was bonded with one wife, and the other wife was just an economic arrangement to provide for the children. Also don’t forget the women are literally always pregnant, having 10 or 12 children.

    One story I heard several times is of a young man’s first sexual experience with a married woman–even though she would most probably be killed if this was discovered. Women are viewed as uniformly favoring sexual liaisons, or at least you can trust them not to tell, while men, especially if they are dressed in a religious manner, are viewed as opposing anything naughty (like kissing or even talking on the phone) and considered dangerous.

  8. minx says:

    Well, I have to thank you both for referencing my humble podcast and for doing an impressive amount of research on a topic that many people are quick to judge rather than explore.

    And the comments bring up such a variety of issues… well, I’m just too damn lazy to address all of them here, but you have definitely incited a good discussion. And that is quite a lot–for the most part, I personally shoot to have others (who are interested) understand and tolerate the poly lifestyle, even if they decide that it is not a lifestyle that would work for them. After all, if we expect tolerance, we should respect the fact that monogamy does indeed work very well for some people.

  9. Anonymous says:

    My ex-partner fell in love with another woman, and said that he still loves me and wants to see us both. It was too painful to watch him give his time and energy to another woman while he ignored me, and I left him.

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