Are Monogamous Relationships Inherently Better?

If you’re in an exclusive, monogamous relationship, ask yourself why. Is it because you love your person and want to be only with them? That’s the ideal. But, more and more, researchers are exploring the reasons the vast majority of couples choose to be exclusive. Is it because monogamy is right for most people, or because monogamy is often presented in our culture as the only acceptable option?

Between 3.5 and 5 percent of people in a relationship identify as being in a polyamorous or open relationship or being “swingers,” according to a 2013 study. That might seem like a small number, but, in a nationally representative survey, 20 percent of single people said they had been in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship—meaning that the people involved in the relationship agreed to see multiple people simultaneously—at some point in their lives, 2016 findings showed.

monogamous relationships rewire pbsPeople are participating in “nontraditional” relationships, but our culture largely continues to view them as unsavory or inferior. A litany of studies have shown that people believe monogamous relationships are inherently more trusting, committed, passionate and  sexually satisfying and less likely to involve jealousy than other types of relationships. Some people even went so far as to say that monogamy cures jealousy.

“The presumed superiority of monogamy may promote a bias in favor of monogamy vis-à-vis other types of relationships,” wrote researcher Terri Conley and her team in a new paper on nonmonogamy. (If you’re interested in learning the history of nonmonogamy and more, check out the full paper. It’s fascinating.)

What’s the best way to be in a relationship?

So, people make a lot of assumptions about nontraditional relationships and the people in them. But do the people in those relationships really feel less satisfied than monogamous couples do?

Conley, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, wanted to test whether there really is a difference between the way people in monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships feel about their love lives. Her team surveyed more than 2,000 people over the age of 25 in straight relationships of all kinds—about 1,500 in monogamous relationships and 600 in nonmonogamous ones—on how they feel about them.

The result? “We have little evidence that polyamorous or monogamous relationships are superior,” the researchers wrote. You should do what works for you and your partner (or partners).

People in monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships reported satisfaction, commitment and passionate love (what social science-types call the “honeymoon period” of a new relationship) at the same levels. (When the nonmonogamous relationships were broken down by type, polyamorous folks gave their relationships more positive marks overall than monogamous folks did.) And—surprise, surprise—jealousy was lower and trust was higher in people in nonmonogamous relationships. That runs counter to what most people assume about these nontraditional relationships, the researchers pointed out.

How monogamy bias hurts science

The researchers aimed to debunk the myth that nonmonogamous relationships are less functional than monogamous ones. But they also pointed out that our aversion to nonmonogamous relationships is setting back research on these less common ways to love.

Nonmonogamous relationships “are happening, regardless of whether they are successful as monogamous relationships, and intriguing theoretical questions that are associated with (these) relationships exist,” the researchers wrote. “We suggest that stigma surrounding these relationships… has inhibited or discouraged exploration of these fascinating questions.”

monogamous relationships rewire pbsIn another experiment, the researchers asked monogamous folks to read a mock study of monogamy and nonmonogamy—a version that said monogamous relationships have more positive outcomes, and one that said polyamorous relationships do.

Participants who read the polyamory-positive version responded that they felt the researchers were biased in favor of polyamory. They were more inclined to trust the results of the study that reflected more positively on monogamy.

Findings that suggest (nonmonogamy) is of equivalent quality to monogamy might serve as an identity threat to monogamous people,” the researchers wrote.

Because of that, people, including other scientists, might take research on nonmonogamy less seriously, the researchers argued, which could stunt the amount we learn about other ways to be in a relationship and help to perpetuate the idea that monogamy is the best, or only, option.

“Enough evidence exists that (nonmonogamous) relationships are functional,” the study reads. “It would be beneficial to devote future research to incorporating these relationships into theories of love and intimacy.”

Want to talk to your partner about this and other sensitive topics but don’t know where to start? Try these steps.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.