Are Open Relationships as Healthy as Monogamous Ones? Yes!

Accumulating research from several sources underscores that our society is evolving in many realms. A major example is the new generational transformation underway via the highly diverse “post-millennials.” Their shifts in attitudes and behavior will have a significant impact on our country, as the Pew Research Center has reported. Perhaps the most significant and pervasive change occurring in American society is the form of intimate relationships that adults desire, seek, and engage in today.

That is, the features of a relationship that people find healthy and satisfying are broadening and diversifying. I’ve described some of those shifts here, writing about the increasing visibility of polyamory and “serial non-monogamy,” my explanation of why some affairs are psychologically healthy, and the increasing acceptance of open relationships. This broad shift is visible across generations and extends into the lives of aging baby boomers even.

The open relationship, in particular, is moving into the mainstream. See, for example, the recent New York Times article highlighting it. The open relationship first became more visible some decades ago, when a book and a movie brought it into greater popular awareness. Of course, such arrangements had long existed; they were just not spoken about so openly. Most recently, an interesting new study examined the open relationship empirically to determine its impact on participants’ emotions, sexuality, and behavior.

In essence, the study found that partners in open relationships are as happy, satisfied, and experience well-being equally to those in monogamous relationships.

"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," said lead author Jessica Wood. "This debunks societal views of monogamy as being the ideal relationship structure."

For the purposes of this study from the University of Guelph, an open relationship was defined as one that’s consensual and non-monogamous, in which all partners agree to engage in multiple sexual or romantic relationships as they wish. The researchers pointed out that between 3 and 7 percent of people in North America are currently in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship, and that it's more common than many people may think.

According to Wood, "We are at a point in social history where we are expecting a lot from our partners. We want to have sexual fulfillment and excitement but also emotional and financial support. Trying to fulfill all these needs can put pressure on relationships. To deal with this pressure, we are seeing some people look to consensually non-monogamous relationships."

From my own work with men, women, and couples over the decades, I find that the old stigmas about open relationships — as well as the other forms of intimacy I cited above — are fading away. The fact is, people's actual lives and relationship practices are ahead of the culture. The norms of the latter are visible in the researchers’ observation that open relationships are still “ … perceived as immoral and less satisfying. It's assumed that people in these types of relationships are having sex with everyone all the time. They are villainized and viewed as bad people in bad relationships, but that's not the case." That gap is visible when you look at the range of comments following the New York Times article, for example, or those following my post on healthy affairs.

Interestingly, the study found that people in non-monogamous relationships were just as satisfied with the relationship they had with their main partner as those in monogamous ones. Moreover, Wood added, “If you are fulfilling your psychological needs and are satisfied sexually, you are more likely to be happy in your partnership no matter the relationship structure.”

And that’s key: A relationship that’s fulfilling — emotionally, sexually, and spiritually — having a sense of connection, and being on the same “wavelength” is what most people seek. And that’s independent of the form it takes, conventional or otherwise.

The study was conducted with over 140 people in non-monogamous relationships and more than 200 in monogamous ones and was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.