What is known about the psychological and social functioning of polyamorous individuals?
By Geri D. Weitzman
March 12th, 1999

In 1976, Knapp administered a battery of standardized psychological assessment measures to a sample of polyamorous couples (Peabody, 1982). No significant differences were found between the couples in her sample and the general population norms. "That is, neither group was particularly neurotic, immature, promiscuous, maladjusted, pathological, or sexually inadequate... The response patterns suggested a modal type of individual in a sexually open marriage who was individualistic, an academic achiever, creative, nonconforming, stimulated by complexity and chaos, inventive, relatively unconventional and indifferent to what others said, concerned abut his/her own personal values and ethical systems, and willing to take risks to explore possibilities" (p. 429). Watson (1981, cited in Rubin, 1982) gave the California Psychological Inventory (Gough, 1957) to 38 sexually open individuals, and these subjects also scored within normal bounds.

Additional work has been done in the area of marital adjustment. Buunk (1980, cited in Rubin, 1982) found that couples with open marriages in the Netherlands were normal in terms of marriage satisfaction, self-esteem, and neuroticism. Spanier's (1976) Dyadic Adjustment Scale was used to compare sexually open couples with sexually exclusive ones (Rubin, 1982), and no differences were found in adjustment or happiness between the two groups. "Nothing in this data argues for the view that sexual openness or exclusivity, in and of themselves, make a difference in the overall adjustment of a married couple" (p. 107).

A follow-up study (Rubin & Adams, 1986) found that after several years, there was no significant difference in marital stability (i.e. breaking up vs. staying together) between those couples who had been polyamorous versus those whose marriages had been exclusive. Similar proportions of each group reported happiness versus unhappiness, compared to the earlier sample. Additionally, "the reasons given for breakup were almost never related to extramarital sex" (p. 318). When polyamorous relationships ended, common reasons given included growing apart in general interests, feeling unequal levels of attraction to one another, and dealing with the stresses of long-distance (Ramey, 1975).

Another study (Peabody, 1982) found that most respondents reported feeling satisfied with their primary relationship, and felt positively about their partner having sexual relations with others. It was found that polyamorous individuals had slightly less frequent sex than the national average, emphasizing social activities, warmth, and open communication. "The continuing emphasis was a focus on warmth, acceptance, communication and friendship with the freedom to touch, caress, and have the potentialfor sexual activity if chosen" (p 429).

As these studies show, "the alternative life styles chosen by individuals are not necessarily the cause nor the result of unhealthy personalities; in actuality, the alternative life style behavior may be supportive of the psychological health of the individuals" (Peabody, 1982, 426,434). Thus, therapists should not assume that polyamory is maladaptive, or that people in polyamorous unions would improve their relationships by shifting to a traditional monogamous style. Therapists who maintain that monogamy is inherently preferable to polyamory may be reflecting their own cultural biases, rather than considering what is best for their client's individual needs.

In many cultures, polyamory is the norm, and many benefits of this lifestyle have been reported. For instance, in Nigeria it is said that "the sharing of responsibilities among members may greatly dilute the burden, financial or otherwise, of care for members with problems" (Makanjuola, 1987, p. 366). Venezuelan Yanomamo women who choose a polygynous lifestyle may not need to work as long on household and child-care tasks as their monogamous sisters do, due to co-operation between co-wives (Hames, 1996).

In sum, many polyamorous people "are in relatively stable primary relationships and do not seem to be motivated by neurotic and pathological needs." (Peabody, 1982, p.430).

Now, the polyamorous lifestyle, while not inherently pathological, can present some unique challenges. The next section of this presentation will describe some of the lifestyle-specific concerns that polyamorous individuals may present with in therapy, and that therapists can be of help with (see also Appendix A). It should be remembered, of course, that polyamorous individuals often seek therapy for reasons that have nothing to do with their lifestyle per se.