June 11, 2018

It’s tempting to get buried in the methodological weeds of Terri Conley’s latest study, “Sexual Satisfaction Among Individuals in Monogamous and Consensually Non-Monogamous Relationships.” For the uninitiated, consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) is when a couple mutually agrees to pursue sexual relationships outside their union. Conley’s basic question is whether “people in CNM relationships experience similar sexual satisfaction to those in monogamous relationships.” In a sample of individuals recruited specifically from web-based forums for the sexually adventurous (e.g., Craigslist), they found that sexual satisfaction doesn’t differ much between the monogamous and the nonmonogamous; where there are differences, they moderately favor CNM – particularly, swingers – over monogamists.

Not surprisingly, the media has been breathless to broadcast these findings. (For instance, see here and here; the second article scores in the top 25% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric). The attention that the study is getting, then, requires closer scrutiny of the quality of the research.

To their credit, the researchers asked about respondents’ sexual satisfaction with their primary partners as opposed to satisfaction with secondary partners (although it takes a deep dive into the study methods to find this clarification). Conley also reported on a second study in her article where participants were recruited more-widely than in the first study. There, they found no-difference or small-difference in sexual satisfaction, which is perhaps a worthwhile finding.

Still, to fully answer their basic question, Conley and her colleagues would need a large, representative sample of people in intimate relationships. The two samples employed in this study – even the larger, broader one – were modest in size and unrepresentative of the population (being convenience samples). So, we cannot place much confidence in how well the findings accurately reflect the larger population. (There are several nationally-representative surveys that ask about sexual practices, but Conley did not take advantage of them.)

Moreover, the researchers didn’t distinguish the responses of married and unmarried individuals; in fact, they failed to even report what proportion of their sample was married. This should matter, as there is a stronger expectation of monogamy in marriage. Are married couples who practice CNM just as sexually satisfied with each other? We don’t know. Also, the one-time snap shot of sexual satisfaction provided in this study tells us less than what a long-term (i.e., longitudinal) study would provide us. Finally, these particular studies offer a narrow, focused view on sexual satisfaction without looking at other indicators of relationship quality.

But more than the study methodology, it is the context and purpose of the study that requires greater attention. The study fits with Conley’s acknowledged agenda of questioning the superiority of monogamy in intimate relationships, and its research question is raised explicitly in the context of the stigma against CNM people. The authors argue that lay persons rate monogamous relationships more positively than CNM relationships, believing (for example) that monogamist couples have better sex than CNM couples; Conley cites a small body of weak studies to support the assertion. She and her colleagues also refer to social-psychology experimental studies documenting substantial stigma against CNM relationships. I don’t have a hard time believing that a large majority of people believes that monogamy is better than consensual nonmonogamy for intimate relationships. So, despite the weak body of research on this topic, I can grant the authors’ study premise of negative perceptions against CNM.

Conley and her colleagues hope to find results that challenge negative perceptions of CNM. They argue that it is “especially important now” to understand people in CNM relationships because these relationships “are growing in popularity.” This assertion of a trend is also based on weak research, but I can grant the premise for now in order to make a deeper examination of the context and agenda of this research. The authors conclude from their research – not especially controversially – that “a variety of alternatives to monogamy may yield sexually satisfying relationships.” In other words, seeking additional sexual partners is not necessarily motivated by unsatisfying sex with primary partners. Fine.

Elsewhere, in an article that has received a great deal of social media attention, Conley has been open about what frames her research agenda:

The optimality of monogamy… is an implicit premise underlying both formal theories of relationship functioning and laypeople’s implicit theories about how relationships work… We propose that given the current idealization of monogamy, examination of the premise that monogamy yields higher relational functioning than alternative romantic configurations is of the utmost social and theoretical relevance.

In other words, Conley’s premise was to disprove the theory that monogamy is better. In fact, she argues that CNM may be more functional in our modern society. CNM, she argues, emphasizes personal fulfillment and independence in relationships over selflessness and dependence. CNM also embraces a lack of boundaries and the value of keeping options open. These parameters fit better the emerging Western zeitgeist, she believes. And she is not alone. As the popular psychotherapist, Esther Perel, says in her recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, “the polyamouous experiment is a natural offshoot of the societal trend toward greater personal license and self-expression.” The influential sociologist Judith Stacey puts it more bluntly in her recent book, Unhitched: “Monogamy is not natural or even possible for everyone… Sexual variation, on the other hand, is natural and should be no cause for distress.”

Moreover, Conley says that CNM emphasizes quality of relationships over longevity. (“Polyamorists generally reject the premise that longevity is necessarily a sign of success in relationships.”) As a result, there is diminished language of relationship failure and, hypothetically, less relationship trauma over breakups (and less stress for children affected by those breakups). Also, CNM avoids the problem of sexual boredom, allowing for an emphasis on novelty and continual exploration, which also fits the current zeitgeist. Further, monogamists’ need to find the perfect lifetime soul mate creates more pressure to choose well. In contrast, Conley argues, CNMs face less pressure in any given relationship, allowing them to be more satisfied with lower levels of relationship quality. There is also – at least in theory – less jealousy in CNM relationships due to open communication and mutual agreement, and infidelity is not the problem it can be in monogamous relationships (although cheating occurs in CNM relationships, too). She also suggests that less jealousy and infidelity would produce less abuse in these relationships.

These theoretical benefits of CNM are not yet established by solid, empirical research, and I have speculated on how a widespread acceptance of CNM could weaken monogamy, commitment, and the institution of marriage. Conley does not share these concerns and is open about her attachment to progressive change and a social justice agenda. She invokes the recent rapid changes regarding attitudes toward other historically oppressed “sexual minorities” – LGBTs – to argue that CNM should also be accepted by society as a functional sexual practice and accorded social respect and legal protections.

My point in all this is that even though focusing on the methodological weaknesses of Conley’s new study is revealing, it is more important to recognize that this body of research and scholarship has an agenda to challenge the merits of monogamy in relationships, including marital unions. This is not the place to recount in depth the issues that normalization of nonmonogamy could create. (I posted some of my thoughts on this in a previous Unskewed post and in National Review.) Suffice to say that it would put monogamists into a defensive crouch and make it harder to expect and ask for sexual exclusivity in any relationship.

The vast majority of couples still want monogamy. Promoting widespread acceptance of nonmonogamy will ultimately weaken marriage, an institution that undergirds the well-being of both adults and children. (Tellingly, Conley and her colleagues rarely mention children in their scholarly treatment of CNM.) Given the impact that this kind of research can have on a fundamental institution in society, we can hold it to a higher methodological standard than is demonstrated in Conley’s latest study.

About the Author

Alan J. Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Endowed Professor of Family Life at Brigham University in Provo, Utah. His scholarship and outreach focuses on educational and policy interventions to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages.

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