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A new look at polyamory
Researchers estimate that as many as 5 percent of Americans are currently in relationships involving consensual nonmonogamy — that is, permission to go outside the couple looking for love or sex.
The boundaries in these relationships are remarkably varied, with some couples negotiating one-off "swinging" or partner-swapping experiences. and others forming stable bonds among three, four or five partners simultaneously. The latter is a version of polyamory, relationships in which people have multiple partnerships at once with the full knowledge of all involved.
Polyamorous people have largely flown under the radar, but that's beginning to change as psychologists become intrigued by this unusual group. The first annual International Academic Polyamory Conference takes place Feb. 15, 2013 in Berkeley, Calif., and ongoing studies are examining everything from how jealousy works in polyamorous relationships to how kids in polyamorous familes fare. Though there's a lot left to learn, initial findings are busting some myths about how love among many works.
Myth 1: Poly people are unsatisfiedSlide 2 of 11
Myth 1: Poly people are unsatisfied
When someone goes outside a relationship looking for companionship or sex, it's natural to assume there's something missing from their romance. But that doesn't appear to be the case for polyamorous individuals.
Melissa Mitchell, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Georgia, conducted research while at Simon Frasier University in Canada on 1,093 polyamorous individuals. The participants were asked to list a primary partner and a secondary partner (more on that later), and they averaged nine years together with their primary and about two-and-a-half years with their secondary.
Mitchell and her colleagues surveyed their participants about how satisfied and fulfilled they felt in their relationships. They found that people were more satisfied with, felt more close to and more supported by their primary partner, suggesting that their desire for a secondary partner had little to do with dissatisfaction in the relationship. And satisfaction with an outside partner didn't hurt the primary relationship. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
"Polyamorous relationships are relatively independent of one another," Mitchell said in January at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans. "We tend to assume in our culture that if you have your needs met outside your relationship, some kind of detrimental effect is going to result, and that's not what we find here."Slide 3 of 11
Myth 2: Poly people are still paired upSlide 4 of 11
Myth 2: Poly people are still paired up
Many polyamorous people do form relationships that orbit around a committed couple, with each person having relationships on the side. But the primary partner/secondary partner model is an oversimplification for many poly relationships, said Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont.
"I'd say about 30 percent or so of the polyamorous population would say they think of one partner as being primary," Holmes told LiveScience. "A large part of the population would say, 'No, I don't buy into that idea of primary or secondary.'"
Many polyamorous people resist that hierarchy and say they get different things out of different relationships, Holmes said. There are also many people who live in triads or quads, in which three or four people have relationships with each other or with just one or a few members of the group.
"What I've come across most is actually configurations of two males and a female living together," Holmes said.Slide 5 of 11
Myth 3: Polyamory is a way to avoid commitmentSlide 6 of 11
Myth 3: Polyamory is a way to avoid commitment
Research by Amy Moors, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, finds that people whose relationship style involves little emotional entanglement often say they'd love a polyamorous relationship, thinking that they could have the benefits of coupledom without too much attachment.
Wrong. Joining a polyamorous relationship and thinking it's going to be a commitment-free breeze would likely be a huge mistake. For one thing, plenty of polyamorous relationships are very serious and stable — Holmes says he's interviewed people who've been legally married for 40 years and in a relationship with a second partner for 20.
Secondly, successful polyamorous partners communicate relentlessly, Holmes said: "They communicate to death." It's the only way to ensure that everyone's needs are met and no one is feeling jealous or left out in a relationship that involves many people.Slide 7 of 11
Myth 4: Polyamory is exhaustingSlide 8 of 11