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.