Egalitarian Relationships, Sex, and Polyamory

Lori Gottlieb recently published a great piece in the New York Times called Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex? and it’s definitely worth a read. As the title suggests, evidence shows that, paradoxically, the more egalitarian a relationship is, the less sex occurs.

A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex.

The article is well sourced, well researched, quite thorough, and deserves a full reading. Yet it completely misses an entire spectrum of human relationships, and makes the reader suffer a lot of hand-wringing for it. I found it unbelievable that none of the experts that Gottlieb interviewed even mentioned polyamory or non-monogamy in passing.

(For those unfamiliar, polyamory is the simple idea that romantic and sexual love is not finite and can be shared with more than one person, just as a mother can love all her children equally and infinitely. As I understand it, non-monogamy is a little less specific than that, referring to a relationship arrangement in which one or both people in the relationship can pursue casual or serious relationships with others.)

Here’s what made me pull my hair out. From the final paragraph, Esther Perel, a couples therapist, is quoted to have said, as if she were Monogamy Manifest:

“It’s a tall order for one person to be your partner in Management Inc., your best friend and passionate lover. There’s a certain part of you that with this partner will not be fulfilled. You deal with that loss. It’s a paradox to be lived with, not solved.”

But this paradox has been solved. This is the foundation for polyamory: it is not reasonable to expect a single partner to satisfy all your needs. This puts a lot of pressure on your partner, and sets you up for disappointment. It is moral, ethical, and healthy to seek out others to fill in the gaps, so long as there is consent from all involved parties.

Polyamory works really well if you have a solid foundation to branch out from: a long-term, stable relationship with a compatible partner that makes you happy. From what this article says, egalitarian relationships are providing just that. We call this the primary relationship, as it is the foundation. From there, you and your primary partner negotiate a set of rules that make you both feel comfortable and secure. Communicate every step of the way. Regularly revisit your rules as a couple and tweak them as necessary. Be committed to safe sex; get tested for STIs regularly. If you’d like to learn more about the ins and outs of polyamory, I highly recommend Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino. You can also check out the Loving More website.

The most fascinating part of the piece, I thought, was the evolving female desire away from genetic variation and toward genetic similarity, driven by the greater availability of contraception, which increases a woman’s attraction to sameness in men. This leads couples to “a result can be something more siblinglike than erotic.” Despite this reduction in desire, people still report a high degree of satisfaction with their egalitarian marriages. “Introducing more distance or difference, rather than connection or similarity, helps to resurrect passion in long-term, stable relationships.” Indeed, one of the phenomenons of polyamory is that having sex with people outside the primary relationship reinvigorates your desire for your primary partner.

In the piece, a Kinsey Institute researcher talked about a study she conducted that “asked participants who had had affairs why they did so. Fifty-six percent of her male subjects and 34 percent of her female subjects said they were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ in their partnerships but cheated anyway.” What would these statistics look like if these happily married, yet cheating subjects were in non-monogamous marriages?

Reading this piece, I found that a lot of the hand-wringing could be at least partially solved by a society that better embraces non-monogamy. In fact, this piece all but promises that poly numbers will swell in the coming years, as egalitarian relationships continue to grow in number themselves. It’s unclear exactly how many poly people are out there. It’s estimated that 5% of marriages are open though – can we expect to see those numbers rise?

About Kelly Carter

I'm a freelance web developer, doing business under the name Rainworks Web Development. I'm a skeptical technophile, voracious reader, softcore gamer, and haphazard tinkerer. I have a long-term partner, a cat, and no time for glass ceilings.

Comments

  1. Ave D. C. says

    Thank you so much for this. I really enjoyed reading your article.

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