Are Open Relationships Less Sexually Satisfying or Is Dating?: An Alternate Hypothesis

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Image by Bill Smith / CC BY

Quartz recently published a piece called “Turns out open relationships aren’t the most sexually satisfying.”

As Cassie Werber writes in the article:

Opening up a relationship can be about more than sex. Advocates talk about the deep trust forged by letting one’s partner have other relationships, and the intellectual stimulation and support gained from multiple romantic connections. But the surveys indicate that multiple partners may well not trump one really great one in the bedroom department.

Examining my own circumstances, I’ve found the support system that can come along with non-monogamy to be personally invaluable, and it’s true that a pile of mediocre lovers isn’t going to do much to blow one’s mind. But I’ve also been in the situation where I’ve had at least one really great partner “in the bedroom department” and more on top of that.

My initial instinct was just to shrug and go on about my day. But over the last few days, a number of other outlets have run pieces on these same findings. I kept being reminded.

So I took a closer look at the data in the study.

The survey of over 11,000 European people did find that 82% of monogamous participants were satisfied with their sex lives, as opposed to 71% of those in open or polyamorous relationships. And indeed those in open or polyamorous relationships were also more likely to report dissatisfaction with their sex lives (22% versus 11% in monogamous relationships).

And it’s very tempting to take those two findings at face value and just call it a day. To decide that polyamory leads to suckier sex than doing the mono thing.

Except… Another statistic is very glaring.

And that’s the huge difference between the unsatisfied percentages in “Single, not looking” and “Single, looking.” In fact, single people who are looking are nearly twice as likely to be unsatisfied with their sex lives as single people who aren’t (41% vs 21%).

This would seem to suggest that the process of dating and not meeting with success carries attendant stress and feelings of dissatisfaction.

Guess who else dates a lot and doesn’t always meet with success?

That’s right. Folks who are polyamorous and in open relationships.

Could It Be that Dating Is What’s Sexually Less Satisfying and Not Non-Monogamy?

For folks who have a primary or anchor partner and that partner becomes popular dating others while they struggle to find dates? Well, it can very nearly mimic the conditions of a single person who is looking.

Sighing as no one answers your messages on dating sites. Having the rare but very disappointing first date.

I would personally find it very interesting to compare polyamorous folks who are happily polysaturated and not actively dating with those who are seeking additional partners (and not finding success). “Open/Poly, looking” versus “Open/Poly, not looking.”

Unfortunately the study’s methodology doesn’t allow for a way to clear this up.  To explore this alternate hypothesis. As it stands, there’s no way to tell what role actively dating and/or not meeting with success plays in the satisfaction measures.

And any self-report questionnaire has a number of limitations that often don’t stand up under objective scrutiny.

Still, it was an interesting study. And it was nice to note a reporter acknowledging that polyamory can be about more than sex.


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  1. I’m fully cognizant of the fact that the objection I raise here has a vaguely tautological ring to it. “Open relationships are less satisfying because of a commonly attendant element of open relationships.”

    But yeah. Interesting stuff to think about… whether the magnitude of the effect is governed largely by the process of dating or the challenges of sharing time or some other unknown factor…

  2. Interesting, but yes, open to a lot of definitions, mainly what is “satisfaction”? Complacency? What is the role of social pressures to declare oneself “satisfied” in a monogamous union, versus more openness to exploration – a higher ceiling for “satisfaction” for poly people, perhaps, even if happy with one’s existing relationship(s)? There’s also a range of possible causation! But with such a small sample size of poly people (like 250) it’s harder to break it down by the wide variety of poly relationship styles, or duration of relationships, or cohabitation, etc.

  3. Oh absolutely — you’ve introduced an important question re: the operational definition of all of these concepts.

    And you’re right, n = 275 is small given the overall sample.

  4. Although to be completely fair, I have seen other studies claim *more* with *less* of a sample (not that what happens in other studies mitigates the possible implications for this one).

  5. I cannot find any sort of peer-reviewed publication of this research. The data presented in this link is pretty minimal and gives no indication of their research methods, controls, biases, outliers, etc. My thinking is that the “study” doesn’t actually tell us anything meaningful about, well, anything really.

    I replied to your posting on reddit as well: I think that the populations (monogamous vs. non-monogamous) have inherent biases that limit our ability to directly compare results from surveys. And, these numbers are self-reported, which are always pretty dodgy. How do we know, for example, that one person’s “satisfied” is equivalent to another person’s “satisfied”?

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