Marriage isn’t what it used to be. For most of human history, marriage was seen as an economic arrangement in which husband and wife fulfilled specific obligations centered on raising children and maintaining family property. In the 19th century, the notion of marrying for love was seen as the ideal, and by the 20th it was the norm.
In the 21st century, however, we expect even more from our marriages. We want our spouse to be our soulmate—the one person in the world who meets all of our social, emotional, and sexual needs.
Providing “Oxygen” to a “Suffocating” Marriage
According to relationship scientist Eli Finkel, we expect so much from just one person that we end up “suffocating” the marriage. When our “soulmate” fails to meet one of our needs, we’re at a loss because we have no one else to turn to. To give our marriages more “oxygen,” we need to rely more on other people to serve as our companions and confidants. But what happens when our partner is unwilling or unable to meet our sexual needs?
Intimate relationships start with high levels of sexual desire for both partners, but after a few years, that burning desire transforms into the warm glow of attachment. At this point, one partner—usually but not always the male—wants far more sex than the other one does. Some couples manage to negotiate a suitable compromise, but often the frequency of sex is determined by the low-desire partner, leaving the other one perpetually frustrated.
If partners can meet other psychological needs outside the marriage, they should be able to go outside the relationship to meet their sexual needs as well. This is the logic behind consensual non-monogamy, in which married couples allow each other to take on additional sex partners. But are people in open relationships happier than their monogamous counterparts? This is the question that York University (Toronto) psychologist Amy Muise and colleagues explored in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
The Dynamics of Consensual Non-Monogamy
In discussing consensual non-monogamy, or CNM for short, we need to distinguish between the primary relationship, which refers to the two original partners in a committed relationship, and the secondary relationship that each partner builds with their extramarital lovers. CNM comes in three varieties:
- Open marriages. Each partner can take on one or more sex partners, generally under a set of rules agreed on in advance. Typically, the primary partners do not socialize with each other’s secondary partners.
- Swinging. Couples swap partners with one or more other couples for the evening, but they usually go home together. Primary and secondary partners all know each other, but extramarital sex only occurs within specified swinging situations.
- Polyamory. This is similar to an open marriage, except that primary and secondary partners often know each other and may even socialize with them. Some practitioners even form extended poly families known as “polycules.”
Practitioners extol the virtues of CNM, and research from the early 1980s suggests that a secondary relationship can boost satisfaction in the primary relationship. Nevertheless, both the lay public and relationship specialists alike often hold negative attitudes about this arrangement.
What the Research Tells Us
Muise and colleagues surveyed over 1,000 individuals in CNM relationships. These respondents reported on the degree to which their primary and secondary partner fulfilled their sexual needs. They also indicated sexual and relationship satisfaction for both partners.
The study yielded three main findings. First, when people in CNM relationships were sexually fulfilled by their primary partner, they also reported greater satisfaction with their secondary relationship. This finding suggests that at least some CNM practitioners don’t seek out secondary relationships to compensate for deficiencies in their primary relationship. Rather, they do so to expand their sexual experience more generally.
Second, men who were more sexually fulfilled by their secondary partner also indicated that they were more satisfied in general with their primary relationship. This finding provides support for the notion that “offloading” sex to a secondary relationship can free up the primary partner to provide other needs, such as companionship and emotional support. However, it’s important to note that only the men benefitted in this way.
No doubt this pattern emerged because men generally have higher sex drives than women. Thus, opening the marriage provided them with alternative ways to meet their sexual needs, and as a result, they were more satisfied with the other kinds of support that their wives provided them. It could be that women with higher sex drives than their husbands could also benefit from an alternative sexual outlet.
Third, women who were more sexually fulfilled by their secondary partner indicated less sexual satisfaction in their primary relationship. It’s important to keep in mind that these data are correlational in that it’s unclear what causes what. It could be that once a woman finds a fulfilling lover, she comes to realize how disappointing her husband is in bed. However, I think it’s more reasonable to interpret this association in the opposite direction. Namely, women (like men) seek out secondary partners precisely because they’re sexually unsatisfied in their primary relationship.
Is Consensual Non-Monogamy Right for You?
Overall, these findings support the notion that consensual non-monogamy can provide “oxygen” for “suffocating” marriages. When sexual desire plummets in established relationships, the partner with the higher sex drive can meet his or her sexual needs with a secondary partner, freeing the primary partner to provide more of what they do best—companionship and emotional support. By taking the obligation to meet your partner’s sexual needs off the table, you reduce stress in the marriage and allow more positive emotions to prevail.
While CNM confers benefits on many of those who practice it, there are also considerable difficulties to overcome, making it difficult for many people to be successful at it. The most obvious of these is jealousy, which needs to be replaced with feelings of happiness for your partner’s happiness, an emotional experience known as "compersion." And finally, CNM practitioners need to be skilled at communication, since ground rules need to be clearly established in advance and nothing can be secretive or hidden. For those who can jump these hurdles, consensual non-monogamy can be an invigorating experience.