Myth: Almost all polyam relationships are brief. Truth: Many thrive for decades.
Polyamory, aka consensual non-monogamy (CNM), is controversial. In “polyam” arrangements one, some, or all partners are free to explore other sexual and emotionally intimate relationships. But critics charge polyamory is simply a smokescreen for infidelity. It might work short-term, they contend, but over time, no way.
This opinion made no sense to Martha Kauppi of Madison, Wisconsin. Growing up, she saw polyam relationships thrive long-term. Her stepfather’s job required world travel. He and Kauppi’s mother agreed that while away, he was free to enjoy other lovers. When Kauppi was 10, her mother explained, “As long as it doesn’t happen around here, it’s not an issue.” They were married until her stepfather’s death, 31 years. Later, Kauppi’s brother and sister-in-law maintained a polyamorous relationship for 18 years until her sister-in-law died.
How Long Do Polyam Relationships Last?
Kauppi is now a couples and sex therapist who specializes in polyamorous relationships. She has also produced quite possibly the best survey of their duration.
Kauppi and a colleague used Internet polyamory sites to recruit 340 coupled adults involved in consensually open relationships. Participants were a “convenience sample,” anyone who responded to their advertising. They ranged in age from 18 to 71, average 34. Most (88 percent) identified as male or female, but 9 percent were transgender/non-binary, an over-representation. Whites accounted for 93 percent of the respondents, another over-representation. And three-quarters had educations beyond high school, more than the nation. So Kauppi’s sample isn’t perfectly representative. But it’s reasonably close and large enough to produce credible findings.
Participants completed the Holt Relationship Intimacy Questionnaire, which measures three dimensions of couple closeness: intellectual, emotional, and physical. Participants also discussed the dynamics of their CNM relationships, and why they’d opted for polyamory.
• Forty-five percent had “primary/secondary” relationships. The two primary partners agreed they both could explore other, less committed relationships.
• Thirty-four percent claimed “multiple primary open” relationships. All participants were free to make their own decisions about all their relationships.
• Seventeen percent favored “multiple primary” arrangements. Everyone in all relationships considered them equally important, with decisions ideally made by consensus, and failing that, using pre-negotiated ground rules.
• Three percent professed “multiple non-primary” arrangements. They considered themselves single, but had two or more ongoing intimate relationships.
• Respondents said they’d been polyam for an average of eight years, ranging from “just started” to 55 years.
• The 340 participants reported involvement in 758 relationships, 2.3 per person. One-quarter (26 percent) considered themselves polyamorous but were involved with only one other person.
• How long did all these relationships last? The primaries, an average of eight years, the secondaries, five years—but 20 percent had been together a decade or longer.
These findings can’t be extrapolated to all polyamorous relationships. Kauppi’s respondents frequented polyam sites, and were quite possibly more successful at it than most. But even if Kauppi’s sample is skewed, contrary to the mythology, the study demonstrates that many polyam relationships last quite a while.
• All the relationships—primary and secondaries—had high levels of emotional and sexual intimacy and moderate levels of intellectual intimacy. The 340 primary relationships were substantially more intimate than all the secondaries (p < .001). Contrary to the myth, polyamory is not a desperate move by couples who have lost intimacy. Nor does it threaten the ongoing intimacy of primary relationships. Again, we can’t extrapolate this to all polyamorists. But we can say that many CNM couples do just fine.
What’s Sex Got To Do With It?
The myth is that people get into CNM for more sex. Actually, when asked why they were polyamorous, only one-quarter (28 percent) mentioned wanting more sex. And when asked the main reason why they were polyam, fewer than 1 percent cited more sex.
Critics charge that CNM abuses women and that more libidinous partners, usually men, bully less horny women into it. But only 4 percent of study respondents said this was the case for them.
• If polyamory has so little to do with the bedroom tango, why are people into it?
• It’s just the way I am. (38 percent)
• I want more intimacy. (13 percent)
• I want more personal freedom. (8 percent)
• I want a greater variety of partners. (7 percent)
• It’s my philosophical preference. (7 percent)
• I want to explore relationships with people of different genders. (4 percent)
History Pro and Con
In the ancient world, polygamy reigned—one man, several women. Two of the three Biblical patriarchs fathered children by multiple wives—Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, Jacob with Leah, Rebecca, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Ancient monarchs also practiced polygamy. According to legend, King Solomon had 1,000 wives. Many Middle East potentates kept harems.
But for the past 1500 years, Western culture has largely demanded monogamy. The vast majority of American couples profess it—while, in secret, many people of all genders have affairs and many men patronize sex workers.
During the 19th century, the Mormons embraced polygamy. Eventually, to gain statehood for Utah (1896), they abandoned it. (Today, some Mormons remain quietly polygamous.)
From 1848 to 1879 in western New York, the utopian Oneida community frowned on monogamy, and preferred “complex marriage.” All adults were free to have multiple primary relationships. At its height, the community numbered 300.
In the late-1960s, birth control pills separated sex from reproduction as never before. The “sexual revolution” of that era made premarital sex almost universal, and normalized casual sex, that is, lovemaking by uncommitted partners just for fun.
Late-20th century CNM also triggered considerable push-back from religious groups and some therapists, who claimed polyamorous folks had personality disorders. Those therapists began changing their minds in the1980s when studies showed that monogamous and polyam marriages had very similar divorce rates. Today, monogamy is still the rule, but most therapists and much of the public have become more accepting of polyamorous alternatives.
Kauppi’s study produced four findings that contradict the conventional wisdom:
• Many polyamorous relationships stand the test of time.
• Polyam arrangements do not result from lack of intimacy in primary relationships.
• Polyamorous relationships do not destroy the intimacy of primary relationships.
• And polyam arrangements are much less about sex than a desire for greater emotional closenes. Many polyam folks say: “It’s less about sex than conversation.”
Not that polyamory is easy or trouble-free. Jealousy is a real problem, and some polyamorous arrangements break up.
“But,” Kauppi explains, “I see lots of open relationships that work fine long-term. I also see lots of couples with 20 or more years together becoming interested in opening up. It’s not just young people who are into this.”
For more, visit Kauppi’s PsychologyToday.com blog. Or read her book: Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists—and Their Clients.