New study helps illuminate experiences of jealousy within consensually non-monogamous relationships

A study recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior provides new insights into jealousy among people in open relationships — and some of the gender differences typically found among monogamous individuals were not found among people in consensually non-monogamous relationships.

The research also found that while monogamous individuals scored higher on a measure of emotional jealousy, consensually non-monogamous individuals scored higher on a measure of cognitive jealousy.

“Research has overwhelmingly focused on topics related to relationship quality, like jealousy, among monogamous partnerships, but it has largely ignored partnerships where the individuals mutually consent to forming extra-pair relationships,” explained study author Lisa L.M. Welling, an associate professor at Oakland University.

In consensually non-monogamous relationships, including but not limited to polyamory, swinging, and triads, all partners agree to engage in sexual or romantic relationships with other people.

“Certainly, researchers believe jealousy evolved to allow people to identify threats to the relationship and take corrective action before relationship dissolution occurs, yet what constitutes a relationship threat will differ across relationship types,” Welling said.

“Consensually non-monogamous people report dealing with jealousy by negotiating boundaries with their partner(s) and by cultivating compersion, which refers to a feeling of satisfaction or happiness from knowing or imagining that your partner is emotionally or sexually involved with another person.”

“We investigated how jealousy is experienced within consensually non-monogamous and monogamous relationships, and we took it a step further by looking at how negotiating consent impacts feelings of jealousy across these groups.”

The researchers examined how 529 monogamous individuals and 159 consensually non-monogamous individuals — who all reported currently being in a romantic relationship of some type — reacted to imagining their romantic partner(s) become involved with another person.

The participants were asked which scenario they found more distressing: their romantic partner had formed a deep emotional attachment to another person (but was not having sex with them) or their partner was “enjoying passionate sexual intercourse” with another person (but had no emotional connection with them.)

In one versions of the scenario, the participant had consented to their partner’s sexual or emotional involvement with the other person. In the other version, the participant was asked to imagine they had not consented to their partner’s behavior.

The researchers also had the participants complete assessments of jealousy and mate guarding.

“Unsurprisingly, monogamous participants were more distressed than consensually non-monogamous participants when asked to imagine their partner being emotionally or sexually involved with another person,” Welling told PsyPost.

“However, there were some interesting gender differences among monogamous participants. We found that monogamous men compared to monogamous women were more likely to report enjoying their partner’s hypothetical emotional versus sexual extra-pair involvement for both consensual and non-consensual scenarios.”

“Monogamous women, on the other hand, were more likely to report enjoying their partner’s hypothetical sexual versus emotional extra-pair involvement for consensual, but not non-consensual, scenarios,” Welling said.

As expected, consensually non-monogamous participants tended to report being less upset about their partner flirting with someone else. Unlike monogamous participants, there were no gender differences in their responses to extra-pair involvement.

“Among consensually non-monogamous participants, we asked them to identify a primary partner and a secondary partner. There were no gender differences in reported distress or enjoyment of hypothetical consensual or non-consensual emotional or sexual scenarios among participants currently in consensually non-monogamous relationships,” Welling said.

“But these participants did report that is was more important that their primary (compared to their secondary) partner not enter into other relationships without their consent and that such actions would be more distressing from a primary than secondary partner.”

However, consensually non-monogamous participants did report feeling more cognitive jealousy. In other words, they indicated that they had thoughts such as “I suspect that X is secretly seeing someone of the opposite sex” and “I am worried that someone of the opposite sex is trying to seduce X” more frequently than monogamous participants.

“Consensually non-monogamous participants did report thinking about their partner’s extra-pair relationships more than did monogamous participants, whereas monogamous participants expressed greater confidence that their partners would never enter another relationship without their consent. Consensually non-monogamous participants also reported more confidence that their primary partner would never enter another relationship without their consent compared to their secondary partner,” Welling explained.

“Finally, we replicated some of our previous work showing that monogamous people use more ‘mate guarding’ behaviors than consensually non-monogamous participants do, and that consensually non-monogamous participants mate guard their primary versus secondary partner more frequently. Mate guarding refers to behaviors that function to keep your partner from straying or being poached by a romantic rival, such as using public displays of affection or going through your partner’s things.”

“Overall, our study suggests that the way we respond to and process information about jealousy, consent, and compersion may lead to the pursuit of different relationship strategies, but there is still a great deal to be investigated among consensually non-monogamous individuals,” Welling said.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Because this is non-experimental research, there may differences between our groups other than the pursuit of non-monogamy. For example, we have substantially more non-heterosexual participants in our non-monogamous groups compared to our monogamous groups. Such differences between groups could be driving some of our observed findings. Similarly, other factors known to be associated with jealousy and mate guarding, like hormone levels, should be accounted for in future work,” Welling explained.

“Shifting our focus away from the viability of consensual non-monogamy to processes related to healthy and satisfying relationships generally is more productive and allows us to gain a better understanding of relationships among sexual minorities. By extension, a better understanding of varied relationship types helps reduce stigma toward sexual minorities.”

The study, “Jealousy, Consent, and Compersion Within Monogamous and Consensually Non-Monogamous Romantic Relationships“, was authored by Justin K. Mogilski, Simon D. Reeve, Sylis C. A. Nicolas, Sarah H. Donaldson, Virginia E. Mitchell, and Lisa L. M. Welling.