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Given how high the rate of infidelity is, some people have argued that humans are, by nature, not very well suited to monogamy. Others have gone even further and argued that we’d probably all be a lot happier if we were consensually nonmonogamous instead. But is that likely to be the case? Would everyone be better off if they were in some kind of sexually open relationship?
According to data I presented at last month’s meeting of the International Association for Relationship Research, probably not. Rather, my data suggest that whether we respond favorably to monogamy or consensual nonmonogamy is, to some extent, a matter of personality.
In this study, I surveyed nearly 1,500 adults who were currently in either a friends with benefits (FWB) relationship or a romantic relationship. The vast majority of the folks in FWB relationships reported that they did not have a monogamy agreement with their partners, whereas the vast majority of romantic partners did.
All participants completed a series of personality and individual difference measures including, among other things:
- Erotophilia – the degree to which one responds positively to sexual cues.
- Sexual sensation seeking – the degree to which one enjoys thrilling and risky sexual activities.
- Sociosexuality – the degree to which one is comfortable engaging in sexual activity outside of a committed relationship and can separate sex from emotion.
- Attachment anxiety – the degree to which one is worried about being abandoned by a relationship partner.
- Neuroticism – the degree to which one is reactive to stress and experiences emotional instability.
What I did was look at how these personality factors were linked to relationship satisfaction among people who were in different kinds of relationships. For purposes of this blog post, I’ll only focus on people who were in FWBs who did not have a monogamy agreement, as well as those who were in romantic relationships who did have such an agreement. I’m focusing on these two groups because they were the two largest by far (the other subgroups were fairly small).
First, I found that higher levels of attachment anxiety and neuroticism were correlated with lower satisfaction in both kinds of relationships. In other words, it seems that there are certain traits that make it harder for people to be happy in any kind of relationship, regardless of whether they’re monogamous or consensually nonmonogamous.
Second, I found that higher scores on the erotophilia, sexual sensation seeking, and sociosexuality scales were correlated with greater satisfaction among the nonmonogamous friends with benefits. At the same time, these traits were linked to lesser satisfaction among the monogamous romantic partners.
What this suggests is that people who have what I would term “sex-seeking personalities” (i.e., people who have positive attitudes toward sex, who enjoy new and exciting sexual activities, and who see sex and emotion as separable) are happier to the extent that they’re consensually nonmonogamous, but less happy to the extent that they’re monogamous.
By contrast, people who are lower in these sex-seeking personality traits tend to be happier when they’re monogamous, but less happy when they’re consensually nonmonogamous.
That said, these findings are limited because I only looked at consensual nonmonogamy in one context (i.e., friends with benefits), and it's something that can obviously take many other forms (e.g., open relationships, polyamory, swinging). Although I would predict that a similar pattern of correlates between personality and satisfaction would emerge in different kinds of consensually nonmonogamous relationships, we need future research to verify this.
Also, these results should not be taken to mean that everyone who is drawn to consensual nonmonogamy necessarily has a sex-seeking personality or that having such a personality is necessary to be happy in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship. There's bound to be a lot of individual variability.
Bottom line: My data challenge the idea that everyone is equally well equipped for a consensually nonmonogamous relationship. Instead, different kinds of relationships seem to work better for different kinds of people.
All too often, people try to argue that one kind of relationship (monogamy vs. consensual nonmonogamy) is “better” than another. My research suggests that such arguments are counterproductive and that we shouldn’t be in the business of shaming or disparaging relationships that are different from the ones we personally prefer.
The reality is that we’re probably predisposed to find one kind of relationship more satisfying than another because of our personalities and, as a result, we shouldn’t project our preferences onto others.
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Data Source: Lehmiller, J.J., Smith, J.L., Vaughn, D.P., & Wheat, S.C. (2016, July). The link between personality and relationship satisfaction in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Paper presented at the International Association for Relationship Research Conference, Toronto, ON.