Why polyamory? New insights into people’s motivations challenge old stereotypes

A new study examines the motivations that lead some individuals to pursue polyamory, the practice of engaging in multiple consenting romantic and/or sexual relationships. According to the study, polyamorous individuals are largely driven by a desire for greater belonging (connection with people), autonomy and a desire to have more of their needs met. The results go against stereotypes that view polyamorous people as “commitment-phobes” or that their relationships are unsustainable.

Consensual polyamory has become increasingly common in many countries. According to recent statistics, 4 to 5 percent of Americans adopt this approach to relationships, while about 7 percent of British adults have had at least one consensual polyamorous relationship in their lifetime.

Not only are more and more people choosing to practice this subset of non-monogamy, but there has also been a significant shift in attitudes. Polyamorous individuals are increasingly positively represented in popular culture, both in films and TV shows, as well as in literature and video games. Likewise, dating platforms like Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid are including it as a legitimate option for people’s profiles.

But despite these positive changes, polyamory is still viewed with suspicion and prejudice by many people who see it as a danger to society and accuse polyamory people of being immoral, promiscuous and hypersexual. And yet the new research pours significant cold water on these beliefs.

In the study, researchers examined the reasons why people choose this form of non-monogamy. They wanted to gain potential insight that could help support polyamorous individuals, especially those who experience prejudice.

“From a minority stress perspective,” the team wrote in their paper, “members of a stigmatized population often face a range of negative experiences, such as discrimination and harassment, the harmful consequences of which contribute to disparities in physical and mental health.”

Individuals suffering from such stress may further internalize stigma, increasing the risk “of negative physical and mental health consequences.”

For this purpose, the team recruited participants through the ‘r/polyamory’ forum on Reddit, allowing them to collaborate with people deeply involved in polyamory and its related experiences. Those who participated had to be over 18 years old, live in the US, and have been in or currently involved in a polyamorous relationship. This gave them a final sample of 63 participants.

Participants provided information about motivations for adopting a polyamorous lifestyle by answering six open-ended questions. They were also asked to provide demographic information about their age, gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and household income.

Finally, participants were also encouraged to provide additional information about themselves, their experiences with polyamory, and/or feedback on the survey itself.

Once the data was collected, the researchers identified four main themes: values ​​alignment, relationship factors, external stimuli, and sexuality.

A significant number of participants identified an attraction to polyamory because it best fit their underlying values ​​or attitudes toward relationships. Some people said they were aware of these values ​​from early childhood or adolescence, while others became aware of them later in life.

This theme was further divided into subthemes, including themes involving a philosophical approach to relationships that emphasize authenticity, an explicit aversion to societal norms that center monogamy as the status quo, and a transition away from other forms of consensual non-monogamy as their needs evolved.

The second theme focused on how unsatisfactory relationship dynamics had contributed to some participants choosing to engage in polyamory. Some individuals referred to their own profound dissatisfaction, while others mentioned their partner’s dissatisfaction with the existing relationship.

The third theme, external stimuli, involved individuals developing feelings for someone outside their primary relationship or becoming interested in polyamory through media, friends, or community. These participants explained how an external interaction with polyamory – through people or positive representation – challenged their beliefs about relationships and love.

Finally, the fourth theme, sexuality, involved situations in which individuals engaged in polyamory as a means of exploring their own sexuality. Compared to the other themes, participants in this theme reported a closer association between polyamory and sex. This theme included a range of sexual motivations that stemmed from an individual’s desire to have their sexual needs met or for their partners to do so.

The study provides valuable insights into the nuances that underline polyamory, but has some limitations. First, the participant-provided data were obtained from individuals who chose to participate, which may lead to self-selection. This is especially true because those who choose to discuss and share their relationship experiences on Reddit may have a much more positive view of polyamory than those who don’t.

But nevertheless, the results challenge common stereotypes of people who view polyamory as based on immoral motivations and sexual desire. The situation is much more complex and the motivations are much more diverse, including the need for greater autonomy and a sense of belonging.

“The current findings refute existing stereotypes of polyamorous people as ‘commitment-phobes’ or polyamorous relationships as untenable,” the authors conclude.

“Instead, participants described achieving significant personal and relationship growth through their pursuit of polyamory. Understanding the autonomy and relatedness motivations of individuals engaging in polyamory has the potential to contribute to positive psychological interventions to combat internalized stigmas of individuals engaging in polyamory.”

The study was published in Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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