Mitchell, M.E., Bartholomew, K., Cobb, R.J. (2013): Need Fulfillment in Polyamorous Relationships. Journal of Sex Research (10).
Polyamory is interesting because it violates very strong norms in Western culture that romantic relationships should be exclusive. There’s a (probably unrealistic) expectation that our one romantic partner should fulfill all of our interpersonal needs, from companionship to intellectual involvement to sex. When people decide to become ethically non-monogamous, or even when a partner cheat, some assume it’s because something is lacking in the relationship. “Isn’t your partner enough for you? What do you miss that you need to look outside of your relationship?”.
But this overreliance on partners to fulfill all our needs can actually cause relationship problems, because a lot of partners can’t live up to those high ideals. Some poly people argue that polyamory solves that problem, because that way we can get our needs met by different people.
And it’s true that it wasn’t untill the 1920’s that marriage became so strongly linked to romantic love. For most of our history marriage was a business transaction between two men: the one selling a daughter, the other buying a wife. But marriage quite recently became redefined as a romantic bond, and women became redefined as you know, actual people who make their own decisions instead of men’s possessions. So that was good. But it came with certain ideals around love, that you just need one person, and if you really love them you won’t want anyone else. Polyamory violates those ideals, and polyamorous people report they experience prejudice against polyamory. Those antipolyamory attitudes might have an effect on social policies and laws. So it’s important we get a better understanding of polyamory.
We’re not sure how need fulfillment with two partners is related to relationship satisfaction an commitment to both partners, and this study aimed to examine three different theories on that. The additive model predicts that need fulfillment ‘adds up’, so more fulfillment in the one relationship would enhance satisfaction with the other partner. The contrast model predicts that need fulfillment in the one relationship makes the other relationship look bleaker, resulting in less relationship satisfaction. And the compensation model predicts that need fulfillment in one relationship may compensate for the lack of need fulfillment in the other relationship, leading to more relationship satisfaction.
To study these theories they got a big group of poly people to fill out questionnaires for them. Some interesting findings about the characteristics of these poly people:
- sample of 1093 (which is a very big group – awesome!)
- 57% identified as female, 37.7% identified as male, 5.3% identified as something else (genderqueer, transgender, other, no gender)
- 94.5% completed some college
- 90% identified as caucasian
- 44% had kids
- of women, 67.6% identified as bisexual or pansexual
- of men, 61.4% identified as heterosexual
- 65.4% identified one of their partners as primary
So on to the measures! They used the Need Fulfillment in Relationship Scale to measure need fulfillment, which is still a bit of a new test. For relationship satisfaction they used the reliable and valid Relationship Assessment Scale. To measure commitment they used four items of the Commitment/Dedication scale. And they wanted to correct the findings for neurotisism, because that’s linked to outcomes about relationships, so they used the neuroticism subscale of the Big Five Inventory.
Most subjects lived with their Significant Other (SO), but about one in six lived with their Other Significant Other (OSO). When subjects had kids their SO usually took on a parenting role, and one in four reported their OSO took on a parenting role. Most women had two male partners or identified their male partner as SO and female partner as OSO, but 8% had a female SO and male OSO, and 4% had two female partners. The large majority of men had two female partners, 4.6% had two male partners and 1.2% had a male SO and female OSO.
Need fulfillment was consistently high with both partners across all needs studied. They didn’t find any strong evidence for any of the theories, I mean there were some very small statistically significant differences on some measures that maybe predicted a percentage of the variance but in all honesty, it was all so small it’s not really interesting.
“It is unlikely that need fulfillment with one partner has a meaningful effect on satisfaction with another partner”
“Need fulfillment with one partner was unrelated to commitment to another partner”
There were some findings that suggest that happy relationships enhance each other, so if you’re happy with your husband and then your boyfriend meets your needs as well you’re even happier with your husband. And some findings suggest that unhappy relationships are hurt by happy other relationships, if you’re unhappy with your husband and then your boyfriends meets some of your needs you feel even more unhappy with your husband. But, as the researchers say “these effects are too small to be of practical significance”. The effects were so tiny they were barely even there.
“Overall, these results suggest that polyamorous individuals’ relationships with one partner tend to operate relatively independantly of their relationship with another partner. Thus, having multiple partners in itself does not appear to have a strong positive or negative effect on dyadic relationships”
The findings show that people can have good, committed relationships with multiple partners. It also shows that people do not become poly because of low need fulfillment in their relationship. Instead, people actually scored highest for their SO, although truly their need fulfillment was remarkably high for both partners.
The researchers also mention these findings should have an effect on the clinical treatment of poly people, because some therapists want to treat the poly as the problem when a poly relationship is in trouble. The researchers recommend focussing on the problematic interactions within that relationship and only including other partners in the treatment if their specific problem asks for that.
“This study confirms that individuals can have simultaneous fulfilling, committed attachments to multiple romantic partners”.