People in polyamorous relationships diversify their need fulfillment across multiple partners

New research provides insight into why some people choose to have multiple romantic relationships at the same time. The findings suggest that this arrangement — known as polyamory or consensual non-monogamy — can help individuals have a greater set of their needs met.

Our new study, which has been published in Social Psychology, was the first to examine the roles that different partners within polyamorous relationships play in meeting a person’s needs for eroticism and nurturance.

Often, in relationships, the sexual intensity is high in the early stages — couples tend to have frequent sex and report high desire and passion. But as the relationship progresses, the sexual intensity tends to fade, while comfort, closeness, and intimacy tend to increase.

So, this suggests that it might be hard for partners in exclusive monogamous relationships to simultaneously have their needs for eroticism (sexual intensity, pleasure, and passion) and nurturance (comfort and security) met.

In polyamorous relationships, where all parties agree that additional sexual or romantic relationships are permitted, partners may be more likely to have these needs met simultaneously, since they can diversify the fulfilment of their needs via multiple relationships.

The growing body of research on consensually non-monogamous relationships has found that polyamorous relationships can be as satisfying and intimate as monogamous relationships, but in my work, I want to understand the factors that are linked with satisfaction and intimacy in polyamorous relationships.

One of the unique aspects of polyamorous relationships is that couples can diversify sexual and relational need fulfillment across different partners, but we know little from a research perspective about how people do this. The goal of the current research was to determine if people in polyamorous relationships are able to experience greater levels of both eroticism and nurturance in comparison to people who are in monogamous exclusive relationships.

To test these ideas, we recruited a large sample of individuals who were in monogamous (N = 2,183) and polyamorous (N = 1168) relationships. We asked participants about their experiences of eroticism and nurturance, as well as their sexual satisfaction and closeness with their partners.

Those who were polyamorous and were in multiple relationships were asked about their primary partner, or the partner with whom they have been with longer and have ongoing commitments with, and also about their secondary partner, or the partner with whom they have been with for less time and who they have less ongoing commitments with.

Our results suggest that people who are polyamorous and have multiple relationships experience greater nurturance with primary partners (compared to secondary and monogamous partners) and greater eroticism with secondary partners (compared to primary and monogamous partners). Furthermore, we found that eroticism and nurturance were in most instances associated with reports of closeness and sexual satisfaction — so experiencing those sexual steamy feelings for a partner, as well as experiencing emotional support, security, and care, seem to benefit our relationships.

One key takeaway is that people in polyamorous relationships do seem to diversify their need fulfillment across their relationships and this may allow them to experience the best of both worlds (high eroticism and nurturance simultaneously).

This does not mean that everyone should engage in polyamory but suggests that there might be benefits to diversifying need fulfillment and relying on different people to meet different needs. Although people in monogamous relationships are not permitted to have their sexual needs met outside of the relationship, they may be able to diversify their need fulfillment in other ways — for example, by seeking out friends and family to meet needs for support, adventure, or intellectual stimulation.

Although people in polyamorous relationships reported higher nurturance and eroticism — so possibly greater need fulfillment overall — we saw mixed results when testing how having needs met in one relationship was associated with satisfaction and closeness in the other relationship. For example, we found that when polyamorous individuals reported more eroticism with their secondary partner, they reported greater closeness with a primary partner. However, greater eroticism with a primary partner was associated with less closeness with the secondary partner.

Taken together, these findings suggest that although multiple relationship may help individuals meet their needs for eroticism and nurturance, experiences with one partner do not always enhance a concurrent relationship, though more research is needed to understand how having one’s needs met across multiple relationships is associated with intimacy and satisfaction in each relationship, as well as overall need fulfillment.

As with any study, there are several caveats and future directions that arise from this work.

One key question that the current research cannot address is whether experiencing eroticism and nurturance from non-romantic partners, in the face of low levels of eroticism and nurturance in a relationship, can compensate for unsatisfactory levels in one’s relationship(s).

The question I would like to follow-up on from this work is whether these findings extend outside of relationships — for example, are there benefits for people in monogamous relationships when they diversify their needs (e.g., have friends and family meet needs for nurturance, and have outside sources like pornography help them meet their needs for eroticism)?

Also, we are just starting to learn about the unique processes that are associated with satisfaction and intimacy in polyamorous relationships, and in future research it would be ideal to follow polyamorous people over time to see how changes in eroticism and nurturance across different relationships contribute to satisfaction and intimacy with partners.

Everything we currently know about eroticism and nurturance in romantic relationships is based on monogamous relationships, since the vast majority of research is based on people in monogamous relationships. The current research sheds some light on how people might maintain sexual intensity and passion as well as comfort and security when they are navigating multiple sexual and romantic relationships.

Beyond this, I would like to thank my co-authors on this work, Chris Dharma, Dr. Amy Muise, and Dr. Taylor Kohut. I would also like to thank the individuals who participated in this research- this work would not be possible without them.