Monogamy is such a drag, and there’s not much reason to practice it anyway. That seems to be the conclusion of a new study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The authors find that not only do people in “consensual non-monogamous relationships” have lower levels of jealousy, they also seem to have higher levels of trust in each other.
The study measured a variety of relationship components for more than 2,000 participants over the age of 25, including commitment and satisfaction, and found little differences between monogamous couples and self-described “swingers” as well as people in polyamorous relationships—particularly when it comes to relationship measures like jealousy and trust.
Importantly, the authors acknowledge one big limitation of their study, which is that “participants were not randomly selected, and, hence, the participants that we recruited may have been motivated to provide socially desirable answers.”
Despite the study’s weaknesses, Terri Conley, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the lead author, suggests that people have things all wrong when it comes to these relationships. “I’ve done studies about stigmas surrounding these relationships and found that people just assume that these relationships can’t work—for example, can’t work because there are too many jealousy issues—would be the type of comment that would come up,” says Conley. “So, this has just really given me an indication that for people who chose these relationships—they can be perfectly happy in them.”
Frankly, the whole study seems a little tautological. If you’re in a relationship where you agree up front that it’s okay for you both to sleep with other people, then you probably don’t get jealous when your partner actually sleeps with other people (or at least you don’t admit to being jealous). No kidding. If you were the kind of person who got jealous, then presumably you wouldn’t be in an open relationship to begin with.
And what does it mean to have “higher levels of trust” in these relationships? Obviously, it’s not that you trust your partner to be faithful. Do you trust them to do the grocery shopping well? Of course, there are other things our partners might lie about besides having sex with other people. But if the entire premise of the relationship is a lack of commitment, what does it mean that you have high levels of trust? And how is it different than the trust you might have in someone with whom you are not having sex? I trust my neighbor to take care of my dog while I’m away. I trust my best friend to visit me in the hospital. You might think that the person with whom you’re swinging is a good person, but how does that tell you anything about swinging relationships?
In what is perhaps the most bizarre part of the study, the authors suggest that consensual nonmonogamous relationships might have added benefits, including “preventing people from becoming abusive.” They speculate that “perhaps the relative lack of jealousy within the relationships could inhibit the forms of control that are associated with abusive relationships. Thus, partners in CNM relationships may not have the same expectations of exclusivity and the same controlling behaviors that foster the development of intimate terrorism. If this is true, CNM relationships could have unique protective benefits, which would contradict prevailing views of these relationships as damaging.”
So, is the idea that women should actually seek out these polyamorous or swinging relationships because they will be treated better than they would in monogamous relationships? This seems like a stretch. You should go for men who don’t care about whether you sleep with other men in order to avoid being beaten by men who do care about such things?
And given the kinds of abuse that are present in certain types of polygamous relationships, the authors might want to rethink that recommendation. For example, as I’ve written previously, Rose McDermott, a professor of political science at Brown University, wrote about her research on polygamous practices in subcultures in France, Britain, the U.S., and Africa. She found:
women in polygynous communities get married younger, have more children, have higher rates of HIV infection than men, sustain more domestic violence, succumb to more female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, and are more likely to die in childbirth. Their life expectancy is also shorter than that of their monogamous sisters. In addition, their children, both boys and girls, are less likely to receive both primary and secondary education.
The authors of this new study seem to be asking a question that plenty of other psychologists and sociologists have asked recently: Why do we insist on monogamy as the foundation for our culture? And the answer is not because it necessarily brings the highest rates of personal satisfaction for adults, but because it is the best way to raise children.
As I wrote recently, these polyamorous relationships are starting to lead to more and more complicated child-custody arrangements, as well as complex family forms for children to endure. And the research there is clear (see here or here, for example).
So even if you’re not jealous of your partner’s other partners—or even their other families—your kids probably will be.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. Her most recent book is The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.