4 Surprising Results From This In-Depth Study of Polyamorous People

July 19th 2017

While the practice of polyamory has garnered more media attention as of late, there has been little in the way of scientific research into the actual lives of the consensually non-monogamous. But a group of researchers from the U.S. and Canada are aiming to change that and have recently released a study detailing the demographics and habits of polyamorous people.

The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE," focused on polyamorous people with primary and secondary relationships to see how people felt about their levels of investment, communication, as well as satisfaction in their relationships. The results of the hour-long questionnaire—which included answers from respondents about everything from who they had more sex with to how they self-identified—countered certain narratives about polyamory. 

Here are four highlights of the study.

1)  They’re not all straight men trying to have more sex.

Though the notion exists that most poly people are straight dudes trying to have non-committal sex, the survey dispels that idea. First of all, 58.6 percent of those surveyed self-identified as female and 36.8 percent identified as male,

But that’s not all: most respondents did not identify as heterosexual. 51.2 percent of participants identified as bi- or pansexual, with others identifying with terms other than heterosexual or homosexual.

As Dr. Justin Lehmiller, who worked on the study, wrote in Vice’s Tonic “compared to all other studies of sex and relationships I've ever conducted, our poly sample yielded the highest rates of both non-binary gender identities (like genderqueer) and alternative sexualities (like pansexual).”

2) It’s not all threesomes.

While shows like "Polyamory: Married & Dating" and "You Me Her" have helped to popularize the idea of married couples opening up their marriages to someone that can satisfy one or both of their sexual and emotional needs, the survey reveals that the majority of polyamorous relationships aren’t triads or “throuples.”

Most participants had relationship structures that were “vees,” which describes when a person has two partners that aren’t involved with each other, like a V shape. This could be influenced by the fact that researchers only wanted poly people that identified their partners as "primary" and "secondary," which not all poly people do, due to the hierarchical nature of such terms. The study noted that while more than 2,500 people interested in the survey indicated that they had at least two partners, those that didn’t use the primary/secondary relationship model were disqualified from participation.

3) Stigma keeps some poly people closeted.

There isn’t much research on stigma against polyamorous people, but in a survey of over 4,000 polyamorous people from 2012, more than a quarter of the respondents said they have experienced discrimination for their relationship model or beliefs. And as Michael Carey noted in Slate, some polyamorists live with the persistent fear that their children will be taken away by authorities, if their lifestyle is revealed.

Researchers from the PLOS ONE study imply that the stigma and secrecy around polyamory may be particularly harmful to secondary relationships, which people may feel they have to keep hidden from their family, coworkers, and friends.

4) In spite of stigma, participants were very satisfied with their relationships.

There is often the sense in monogamous—and sometimes polyamorous—relationships that when a partner is interested in someone new, their feelings for the person they’re with must be waning. However, the study noted that the answers given by poly individuals “suggest that individuals are more satisfied with, invested in, and committed to primary relationships, relative to secondary relationships," and that these results "serve to counter the idea that polyamorous individuals are seeking out alternative relationships due to a lack of satisfaction with the primary.”

One explanation proposed by the researchers was that each relationship had its own unique benefits. For example, while people said that they were more committed to and had better communication with their primary partners (usually by two to three percent, on 10-point scale), they reported a higher percentage of time spent on sex with their secondary partners.

As Lehmiller summed it up:

“In our study, we found that people were highly satisfied with all of their relationships, but even more interesting was the fact that the more satisfied people were with their secondary partners, the more committed they were to their primary partners. Put another way, our results suggest that secondary relationships appear to have the potential to make primary relationships even stronger. The fact that polyamorists don't put pressure on a single partner to meet all of their needs might make everyone happier in the end.”

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