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Montreal study finds non-traditional relationships on the rise

Research shows gay men have the highest rate of 'open relationships'

Among the groups surveyed, gay men had the highest rate of “open relationships.” Credit: ThinkStock

In contrast to the images of dyadic monogamy successfully mobilized in recent legal victories for gay marriage in the United States, non-traditional relationships — a category encompassing everything from couples who swing to polyamorous partnerships of three or more — are increasing in proportion to monogamous partnerships, according to research conducted by the Sexuality and Modern Intimate Ties and Networks (SMIT’N).

Through its website, SMIT’N has collected more than 5,500 relationship surveys. Lead researcher Martin Blais, of l’Université du Québec à Montréal’s Department of Sexology, was inspired to describe the growing number of non-traditional relationships because of his interest in youth, among whom the trend toward non-monogamy is particularly pronounced.

Speaking about the goal of the study, Blais says that despite the growth in non-traditional relationships, the mystery surrounding their prevalence and how they function contributed to their stigmatization. “Non-traditional relationships are still seen as second-rate options that people engage in only because they cannot find a monogamous partner — and alarmist reactions in the media to the sexual precocity of youth only contribute to the impression that these relationships are dangerous,” he says.

Blais says the historical growth of non-monogamous relationships in Quebec, where study participation has been greatest, is a move away from traditional institutions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. As individuals no longer depended on traditional institutions, including the family, to fulfill basic needs, they began crafting relations that emphasize autonomy and opportunity for self-actualization. Often this means multiple sexual partners.

Among the groups surveyed, gay men had the highest rate of “open relationships.” Just less than one-third of gay men reported being in open relationships, and these men reported the highest rates of relationship satisfaction among all gay men.

Results show that those who seek traditional relationships prioritize security and structure, while those seeking or currently in non-traditional relationships are motivated to create relationships that enhance individual autonomy. Couples in open relationships create rules that negotiate a continuing need for security with a desire for individual sexual exploration.

But SMIT’N’s data indicates that multiple partners might also be the source of more conflicts. “Greater numbers of people negotiating individual needs without the benefit of a model or guide are possible explanations,” Blais says.

Although research seems to support the hypothesis that, at least for some Canadians, relationships are fulfilling different needs than in the past, Blais was surprised to receive emails from people whose relationships did not involve any sexual activity.

He was also surprised by the frequency with which self-identifying hetero- and homosexuals described being attracted to members of the opposite sex. Instead of affirming the binary of hetero- and homosexual, data points to a more complex spectrum of attractions to both sexes among both gay and straight people.

SMIT’N is still recruiting participants, and its survey is available online. Blais hopes to issue fact sheets on the survey results sometime in late summer.