A New Study Busts This Common Misconception About Open Relationships

by Claire Lampen
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Here's a piece of vindicating news that may strike some of you as extremely obvious: People in ethically non-monogamous relationships report as high a level of satisfaction as people in monogamous ones, according to a new study. Which probably won't shock readers already engaged in consensual open relationships.

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, surveyed 200 people in monogamous relationships and 140 people in non-monogamous ones (that involved a primary partnership), asking participants questions designed to gauge their overall satisfaction with their chosen situation: How often they think about separating, whether or not they treated their partner as a confidant, and to score their overall happiness in the relationship. Ultimately, according to Jessica Wood — an applied social psychology PhD student and the study's lead author — "We found people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships experience the same levels of relationship satisfaction, psychological well-being and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships. This debunks societal views of monogamy as being the ideal relationship structure."

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Ethically open relationships "are perceived as immoral and less satisfying," Wood said in the report. "It's assumed that people in these types of relationships are having sex with everyone all the time." Ultimately, Wood's team concluded that structure mattered less here than whether or not partner saw their sexual desires met.

"In both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, people who engage in sex to be close to a partner and to fulfill their sexual needs have a more satisfying relationship than those who have sex for less intrinsic reasons, such as to avoid conflict."

On its face, that concept seems fairly straightforward: Sex is less enjoyable when used as a scapegoat, an argument exit strategy, or a band-aid patching major disagreements. Partners who talk to one another and listen, however — who make a point of sharing their feelings honestly and freely — can satisfy the other's (or others', as the case may be) wants and needs. That's true whether we're talking about sex or emotional investment. And that's why the study's findings don't surprise Britt Burr, editor-at-large of Psych N Sex, in the slightest.

"Monogamy is a model we’ve been identifying with for a long time, without identifying why or asking questions," Burr tells Bustle. "Now people are finding a lot more space to ask questions, and ... there’s a whole new vocabulary for relationships," a vocabulary that helps people understand themselves and others.

Ethical — or consensual, as the study calls it — non-monogamy is part of that vocabulary, an open relationship subset slightly separated from the concept of polyamory. Polyamory typically involves a central partnership wherein one person entertains multiple romantic relationships with other people — and with everyone's full agreement, of course. Ethical non-monogamy, meanwhile, doesn't imply the same degree of emotional connection inherent in a polyamorous arrangement; rather, it means being completely honest about the fact that you'd like to see and/or sleep with other people, "ensuring that both partners or all partners are 100 percent aware, or at least aware to the extent that they want to be," Burr says. It's a little more fluid and a little less rule-bound than polyamory, but anchored in the idea that everyone needs to be fully apprised of what the people they're sleeping with are doing.

"People do not like being surprised and they don’t like being disoriented, by nature," Burr says. "If you’re entirely transparent the whole time, everyone knows what they’re getting into, and there’s really no room for error. But it does get a little challenging when the honesty is broken."

Because if you're not being honest with your partner about sleeping with other people, you're likely cheating. Sex doesn't constitute the entire betrayal when a person is unfaithful; often, there's also the violation of trust that hurts.

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So how do you create a successful open relationship? "[This] is something to decide upon in and of yourself," Burr says. Non-monogamy shouldn't be undertaken to appease a partner who eschews exclusivity, or to inject some spice into a stale relationship — unless you both really feel it's the relationship model that works best for you. "First and foremost, you have to ask yourself what you’re comfortable with." Which means confronting your own jealousy.

"Just because you’re in a non-monogamous relationship or polyamorous relationship doesn’t mean that you don’t get jealous," Burr says. "You need to understand what your triggers are and communicate those, or at least communicate them when they arise (because of course we can’t be aware of all of them) in order to bridge those potential tensions."

It might be that you find out non-monogamy is an ill fit once you and your partner start sleeping with other people. "The most specific advice I can offer is full transparency and the utmost as self-respect," Burr says. "When you’re feeling anxious or jealous or unhappy, you need to express [it] so you can remember why and when and what those triggers were."

Because even with sex as the primary motivator in Wood's study, the element that makes non-monogamous relationships work is honesty: You have to tell your partner about your needs in order to agree on an open relationship in the first place. You have to be forthcoming about your limits and your boundaries. You have to communicate, relentlessly and respectfully, and at the bottom of any relationship, that's the crucial ingredient for success.