Commitment in Polyamorous Relationships
Chapter 2: Literature Review
Monogamy, marriage and commitment. Our culture assumes a connection between them. Is it possible to have marriage and commitment without monogamy? What would that look like? The focus of the study will be on people in sexually open committed relationships (i.e., they have open, honest, sexual, loving relationships with others in addition to their spouse or other committed partner). Since there is a lack of scholarly work on multiple partner relationships (Sheff, 2005), this literature review includes articles pertaining to other forms of nonmonogamy (such as swinging) as well. Note that the difference between polyamory and swinging is that in polyamory there is a focus on love and the emotional relationship with other lovers, whereas swinging is often recreational sex, with an explicit intention to avoid an emotional connection. The definition of swinging used by Jenks (1998), is "married couples exchanging partners solely for sexual purposes" (p. 507).
This chapter starts with a look at the way monogamy is linked to commitment in books on marriage, in order to give a background on prevailing notions about commitment. The rest of this chapter looks at alternatives to monogamy, starting with academic studies, continuing with books, both fiction and nonfiction, and finishes with a section on relatively recent articles on polyamory and nonmonogamy.
There have been many reasons given in the literature for monogamy. Some, like Masters and Johnson (1974), recognized that there may be some circumstances and reasons for disregarding it, but they still presented a case for why monogamy is the basis for commitment. They expressed a concern that extramarital sex is a cure that is worse than the problem it is supposed to resolve, that it weakens the commitment that is created by the pleasure bond of the sexual act.
Pearsall (1994) also emphasized the commitment that is part of monogamy, and discussed the healing that comes from a loving, committed, sexual relationship. He suggested that "Sexual pleasure may be programmed into us as a signal to our brain that we are on the right track in preventing illness and staying well by making contact with another person" (p. 11). He expressed a concern that extramarital sexual relationships reduce the bonding and intimate connection that are necessary for sexual healing.
While Pearsall (1994) discussed physical healing, Hendrix (1990) proposed marriage as the arena for healing our childhood wounds. He stated that we choose as our partner a person who gives us the opportunity to work through the pain that we suffered as children, the person that we need to help us grow. Hendrix (1993) also proposed monogamous marriage as a spiritual path, and stated a belief that a committed relationship requires monogamy.
Others have also stressed the spiritual aspect of monogamous marriage. Hal and Sidra Stone, who advocated monogamy (Stone & Stone, 1993), included a chapter on spirituality in their book on partnering (Stone & Stone, 1990). Welwood (1990) described marriage as "an alchemical vessel in which two people's natures are steadily refined through the heat of their loving commitment to stand by each other" (p. 185) This requires monogamy as a container; having other lovers or complaining to friends when things are hard makes the container too leaky. Moschetta and Moschetta (1998) "discovered that there is a spiritual element present in every strong and vibrant marriage" (p. 15). They claimed that "When you have the marriage spirit you are monogamous by choice" (p. 256). They viewed marriage as a sacred place. Schnarch (1994) encouraged the integration of sexuality and spirituality. He encouraged a voluntary choice of monogamy, made as a commitment to oneself, to promote growth and differentiation (Schnarch, 1991, 1998).
Not everyone agrees with the concept that monogamy is superior to nonmonogamy, and that commitment is impossible without monogamy. Rubin (2001) observed that "The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of intense reexamination of interpersonal relationships, marriage and family life" (p. 711). He wrote a fairly thorough review of the literature on swingers, group marriages, and communes (and incidentally, on open marriage), noting that in the 1990s one had to go to the popular press to find information on swinging. Another review of the literature on swinging was done by Jenks (1998). He concluded that "Although many people in our society disapprove of this behavior and believe that swingers are very unhappy and have unsatisfactory marriages there is no evidence for such a claim" (p. 591).
Of interest to the researchers two to three decades and more ago was whether there was a psychological difference between the people who were monogamous and those who were not. Watson (1981, as quoted by Rubin, 1982) studied 38 people in sexually open marriages and found no significant difference from the standardization norms of the California Psychological Inventory. Buunk (1980, as quoted by Rubin, 1982) found no significant differences from the norm in 50 couples with sexually open marriages in the Netherlands. Other researchers (Gilmartin, 1972; Paulson and Paulson, 1971; and Cole and Spanier, 1974, all as quoted by Rubin, 1982) concluded that "there was no evidence that swinging is harmful to marital or family stability" (p. 102). (Swinging is included in this review of literature since there are more studies of it than of sexually open marriages). Rubin's own study of 130 sexually open respondents and 130 who did not have an agreement to be sexually open, using the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, concluded that "Of the couples who were living together, those in sexually open marriages were as well adjusted as those in sexually exclusive marriages. Of the couples who had 'split up,' those who had been in sexually open marriages were no more unhappy than those who had been in sexually exclusive marriages" (p. 107). Murstein, Case and Gunn (1985) found that swingers vary from societal norms in some ways and have an unusually high interest in sex, but were reasonably adequately functioning individuals. Kurdek and Schmitt (1985/86) studied gay couples and compared those that were sexually exclusive and those that were not. They found "no evidence that psychological adjustment is related to type of coupling" (p. 95). Rubin and Adams (1986) found no statistically significant difference in stability between sexually open and sexually closed couples.
Others examined particular situations. Ramey (1975) studied 380 individuals involved in what he termed "intimate friendships," friendships which included sexual intimacy, and described the types of relationships they had. He concluded that "at least for these few respondents, if their self reports are to be believed, behavior that combines the positive aspects of friendship with sexual activity that might otherwise be covert, non-consensual adultery is seen by them as more honest, more rewarding, and a distinct improvement over the way they previously lived their lives." He cautions, however, that "It remains to be shown in any definitive way that this life style actually is an improvement over their previous life style" (p. 529).
Knapp (1976), in her report of her study of 17 sexually open marriages, noted that there had been little empirical research on sexually non-monogamous marriage, and much of that had been on group or multilateral marriage. She acknowledged her study was not rigorously scientific, but expressed hope that there would be additional research on the topic of non-traditional marriage styles.
Some researchers wrote in ways that implied some nonmonogamous relationships might require a greater degree of psychological development than monogamous ones. Ryals and Foster (1976) explained Jane Loevinger's theory of ego development (Loevinger, 1966, quoted in Ryals and Foster), focusing in particular on the stages of "conformist," "conscientious," and "autonomous." Drawing on O'Neill and O'Neill (1972), they hypothesized that couples practicing open marriage would need to be at the autonomous stage, committed to each other's growth, and respecting each other's autonomy. They stated that people at the conformist stage would not likely have the cognitive complexity to understand the notion of autonomy in marriage, and people at the conscientious stage would be likely to try "to intervene, to help, to protect, which, regardless of altruistic underpinnings, may create the status differential which interferes with peer like equal status interdependence" (p. 301).
Peabody (1982) also referred to Loevinger's ego development theory. She noted the intensifying pressure on marriage which has resulted in an increasing rate of divorce. She explained swinging, open marriage and group marriage, and stated that "the traditional monogamous marriage can no longer provide adequately for the intimacy needs of some individuals" (p. 430). She then suggested that monogamous marriage and the three alternative life styles could be viewed on a continuum of increasing complexity, with the individuals in a successful sexually open marriage needing to be at a more autonomous level of ego development.
There were some articles on the counseling implications of these alternative life styles. In addition to Peabody (1982), Ziskin and Ziskin (1975) explained the types of issues that might come up in counseling with couples who have an agreement that explicitly permits one or both spouses to have sexual relations with others. Constantine, Constantine and Edelman (1972) stressed both the need for counselors working with clients in open marriages or multilateral (group) marriages to avoid pathologizing their clients' choice as well as the opportunity to "help tailor the family structure to the people rather than to continue to help individuals fit a single structural option" (p. 272).
Ramey (1972) presented a model of different types of nonmonogamous relationships. He explained that there are more strains on current marriages, since much more is expected from marriage than previously. In addition, as women became peers of men, there was a greater possibility for the alternatives to marriage to become more widespread. He classified relationships in what he termed an increasing order of complexity of interaction.
Biblarz and Biblarz (1980) criticized the studies of swinging which had been done in the years preceding their article. They stated that the researchers were on the side of the swingers, either openly or by default, since the researchers did not believe that, as scientists, they could make ethical judgments of the behavior. Biblarz and Biblarz raised the question of whether marital improvements reported by swingers were the result of a low starting point, and raised the possibility of self-deception. They suggested that more attention should be paid to the mental, emotional, and social components of sexuality, and to the effect of swinging on the person's self-worth.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s there were also a number of books published on the subject of nonmonogamy and alternative relationships. Some novels, like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1967) and Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment (1967) and Proposition 31 (1968) were very influential on the young people (including this author) who went on to try nonmonogamous life styles (Ramey, 1972). In a book that seemed geared at titillating the general public, the Lobells (1975) described how to have a sexually free marriage.
There were more serious books as well. The O'Neills' Open Marriage (1972) was a best seller. While it was primarily about general guidelines for relationships which encourage growth for each individual, good communication, and flexible roles, it touched briefly on sexual openness. This became the focus of public interest. The O'Neills have expressed regret that the core of the book was ignored, and that open marriage came to mean sexually open marriage (Wachowiak and Leopard, 1977). In a later book, Nena O'Neill (1978) discussed sexual fidelity in a way which did not encourage nonmonogamy.
Ellis (1972) showed how to apply rational emotive therapy to extramarital relationships. The Francoeurs (1976) analyzed hot sex as a depersonalized, genital centered view of sex which is based on an inequality between partners, whereas cool sex is more egalitarian and allows people the freedom to do more exploration. The Ziskins (1973) described different types of extramarital sex agreements, gave some case histories, and wrote some general comments on reasons and realities. Libby and Whitehurst (1977) brought together 24 articles from a variety of sources which took a serious look at nonmonogamous relationships from the perspective of sociologists, therapists, historians, sex educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, and more. Mazur (1973) described the varieties of sexual life styles and different types of intimacy, suggesting ways of handling intimacy and sensuality in our relationships. Rogers (1972) in his book about what works and does not work in marriage, described a couple who, by being open and honest with each other, found they could be open to being sexual with others in a way that was positive for their marriage.
The 1990s brought a new series of books. Nearing (1992) discussed polyfidelity (closed group marriage). Anapol (1997) described various forms of polyamory (which she noted comes from the roots meaning "many loves") and how to make it work. Easton and Liszt (1997) came from the viewpoint that "sex is nice and pleasure is good for you" (p. 4) and discussed how to act accordingly in an ethical manner. West (1996) used the word polyfidelity to "express multiple lover relationships openly enjoyed in candor and good faith" (p. 73), and explained ways to do it. Kilbride (1994) suggested that plural marriage could provide better opportunities for children by giving them access to multiple parents. Francoeur, Cornog and Perper (1999) compiled a group of articles and stories connecting spirituality and sexuality and suggesting alternatives to strict monogamy.
More books have been introduced in the 2000s. Life (2004) suggested that polyamory can be a path that helps us realize our spiritual truth. Matik (2002) wrote about alternative relationships from the perspective of her experience, and noted that having open relationships "means re-defining and re-building a relationship based on your needs and your values. [It's] a political act" (p. 4). Ravenscroft (2004) explained that his book was intended to be a handbook for newly polyamorous people, answering as many of their questions as possible.
There are other books which touched briefly on the concept of nonmonogamy within discussions of ethics. Fortune (1998) recommended monogamy, but noted that the decision to be monogamous or not needed to be decided by the partners in each relationship. Heyward (1989) and Ellison (1996), working towards a liberation theology, emphasized the importance of listening to our bodies and making our own decisions about our sexuality. They stated that when people are not in touch with their feelings and able to make their own choices about their bodies, they are less able to relate to others out of strength and personal integrity. When people are not in touch with their own needs and desires, they cannot support the needs and desires of others, and therefore cannot act effectively to break the bonds of oppression for themselves or others.
Many of the recent articles on polyamory or other nonmonogamy have bisexual/lesbian/gay issues. The Journal of Lesbian Studies (Munson and Stelboum, 1999) and the Journal of Bisexuality (Anderlini-D'Onofrio, 2004) each published a double issue on polyamory and related issues that was simultaneously issued as a book.
Loulan (1999) defended polyamory as a valid choice for lesbians, in spite of members of the lesbian community seeing "polyamory as an affront to the sacrosanct union of two women struggling against the tides of the evil world" (p. 37). Halpern (1999) noted that fears about polyamory can be internalized in a way that is similar to homophobia and that the assumption that more than one sexual bond will break up the primary relationship is likely to create that reality. She addressed the concern that bisexual women would never be happy with just a woman partner. Labriola (1999) described various models of open relationships and gave examples. She concluded with questions to ask to help people choose the relationship model that works for them. LaSala (2004) studied the relationship quality in strictly monogamous gay male couples compared with openly nonmonogamous couples, and found no difference on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. However, nominally monogamous couples who engaged in extrarelationship sex were less adjusted and satisfied. Pallotta-Chiarolli and Lubowitz (2003) studied women in monogamous, open, and polyamorous relationships with bisexual men, and how it affected their sense of being in a community or being on the outside of community.
Kassoff (1988) discussed nonmonogamy in the lesbian community. She described different types, and clinical implications for therapists. Rust (1996) studied monogamy and nonmonogamy among bisexuals. She noted that some people find that no one person can fill all their needs. She warned against pathologizing clients who choose nonmonogamy, and commented that bisexuals often need special support regardless of the relational forms they choose because of the lack of support they receive elsewhere.
Charles (2002) also addressed therapy. She noted that monogamy may impede self-awareness in some people, by preventing them from testing their idealized sense of self in other relationships. It may make growth more difficult, or force people into a choice between self and relationship. Ford and Hendrick (2003) included open marriage in their study about the implications of therapists' sexual values on their work with clients.
Davidson (2002) provided an outline of a talk about working with polyamorous clients. This included notes on how therapists can prepare to work with people who are exploring polyamory, basic understanding of polyamory, and key issues to watch for.
Jackson and Scott (2004) stated that nonmonogamy was central to the politics of feminism in the 1970s, but there has been a retreat from this position from the 1980s onward. They questioned the more recent feminist assumption that, in heterosexual relations, women are damaged by nonmonogamy.
The issue of gay marriage has raised the possibility of the marriage of more than two people, with some gay rights opponents warning that "same-sex marriage leads a parade of horribles such as polygamy" (Emens, 2004, p. 279). This is the context in which Emens (2004) and Strassberg (2003) have chosen to examine polyamory, marriage and the law.
Strassberg (2003) examined polyfidelity (closed group marriage) in the light of Hegel's analysis of the function performed by romantic love and marriage in supporting the modern liberal state. She concluded that "polyamory may be more of a Pandora's Box than many realize" (p. 563).
Emens (2004) described some reasons that monogamous people might find polyamory threatening, and suggested some ways in which laws might be rewritten to avoid privileging monogamy.
The only published survey of people who identify as polyamorous that this author is aware of was published in a nonacademic magazine (Weber, 2002; Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2002). Weber estimated that half a million Americans are polyamorous (even if they have not heard the word). The more than 1,000 people who responded to the survey were more highly educated than the general population, and had a higher household income. Pallotta-Chiarolli reported that a large majority of the respondents did not have children. Another survey was being done at the beginning of 2005 at www.polystudy.com for a dissertation, but the site is no longer active. Sheff (2004) did an ethnographic study for her dissertation. Wolfe (2003) studied jealousy and compersion in the polyamorous community. She notes that the term compersion was coined by the Kerista community, which used it as the opposite of jealousy, or taking pleasure at seeing one's partner enjoying him or herself with another lover. (Kerista was a commune that existed in San Francisco from 1971 to 1991. For information on Kerista, see http://www.kerista.com).
Sheff (2005) found that polyamorous women expand their family, cultural, gender and sexual roles. The women she interviewed felt both more empowered and more disempowered in their relationships. They felt empowered by their greater freedom to make their own sexual choices, create new roles for themselves and express themselves sexually, and disempowered by feelings of insecurity with respect to their partner's other relationships, fear of censure, and social stigma because of their deviance.
Barker (2005) outlined ways "in which polyamory might challenge key elements of the dominant construction of sexuality" and described how some members of polyamorous communities "construct their identities in relation to more dominant cultural constructions" and explored "the implications that being polyamorous has for their own sense of self" (p. 76).
As can be seen by this fairly thorough review of the literature on polyamory and nonmonogamy in general, it contains little or nothing on commitment, especially not about the issue of how couples maintain their commitment. Therefore this study of commitment in polyamorous relationships is addressing an area which has not yet been researched and published.
(c) 2005 by Elaine Cook