Interest in sexually open or consensually non-monogamous relationships is on the rise. An article published last year in the Journal of Sex Research revealed that Google searches focusing on open and polyamorous relationships increased significantly over the past decade. People aren’t just reading about these relationships online, though. They’re experimenting with them in real life, too. A recent national survey of single Americans found that more than one in five had been in a sexually open relationship before. However, far more than that want to give consensual non-monogamy a try: a 2016 YouGov poll of 1,000 Americans found that almost half of men and one-third of women said that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous to some degree.
Clearly, the idea of having a sexually open relationship is appealing to a lot of us—but would we all be equally happy if we tried it? According to the research, whether you’re likely to be content with an open relationship depends on your personality. Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering whether a consensually non-monogamous relationship might be right for you.
KNOW YOUR SOCIOSEXUAL ORIENTATION
First, what is your sociosexual orientation? What I’m talking about here is your degree of comfort with casual sex and the ease with which you can separate sex from emotion. In other words, are you the kind of person who thinks sex without love is okay? If so, psychologists would say that you have an unrestricted sociosexual orientation, meaning there are fewer constraints over when and with whom you’re willing to get it on. By contrast, if you need to be close to someone before sleeping with that person, you would have what’s called a restricted orientation.
Research finds that people in open relationships tend to fall on the unrestricted side, whereas those in monogamous relationships tend to be a bit more restricted. Unrestricted people sometimes end up in monogamous relationships, though, because—as you well know—there’s a lot of social pressure to commit to just one person. When this happens, they tend to be less satisfied than their more restricted counterparts and, when the going gets rough, unrestricted folks are the most likely to cheat.
In short, if you’re an unrestricted person, odds are that you’d probably be happier in an open relationship.
KNOW YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE
Beyond your sociosexual orientation, your attachment style matters, too. For example, when you’re in a relationship, do you need a lot of comfort and reassurance? Do you worry that your partner might leave you? If you answered yes to these questions, psychologists would say that you have an insecure attachment pattern.
A study of same-sex couples found that, for insecure people, being monogamous was linked to higher satisfaction and commitment, whereas being non-monogamous was linked to lower satisfaction and commitment. By contrast, for people who had a more secure attachment style, they were about equally happy regardless of whether they had opened up their relationship.
Put another way, if you need a lot of reassurance that your partner loves you or you’re threatened by the prospect of your partner falling in love with someone else, consensual non-monogamy might lead to a lot of anxiety, jealousy and hurt feelings; however, if you’re more secure in how your partner feels about you, opening up your relationship is probably a less risky bet.
KNOW WHETHER YOU’RE EROTOPHILIC OR A SENSATION SEEKER
Finally, two other important personality traits here are erotophilia and sexual sensation seeking. Someone who is erotophilic likes sex. A lot. These are people who have positive attitudes toward masturbation, group sex and porn, among other things. Basically, if it’s sexual in nature, erotophilic people tend to like it.
Sexual sensation seekers are people who prefer sexual activities that are thrilling and risky. They have a heightened need for stimulation when it comes to sex and, in order to really enjoy themselves, they need to keep trying new and exciting things.
In a study I presented last year at the International Association for Relationship Research conference, I found that being more erotophilic and having more sensation seeking tendencies were linked to greater satisfaction for persons in sexually open relationships; by contrast, these traits were linked to less satisfaction for persons who were monogamous.
In other words, if you’re someone who really likes sex and you frequently find yourself searching for sexual thrills, being consensually non-monogamous would probably suit you well by giving you more of an outlet to explore your sexuality.
Although these findings may sound fairly intuitive, they’re important to highlight because they challenge the claims a lot of scientists have made about the nature of human mating.
Some argue that humans evolved to be monogamous, whereas others argue precisely the opposite—that we evolved to be promiscuous. So which one is it? Well, this research suggests that the story of human mating is much more complex than either side lets on, with different kinds of people being meant for different kinds of relationships. Some of us are simply more well-suited to monogamy, while others are more well-suited to consensual non-monogamy.
The bottom line is that there isn’t one “right” kind of relationship that works well for everyone or that we’re all “supposed” to want; instead, the type of relationship that’s right for you depends upon your personality.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.