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How many partners do most people have in their lives, and is everyone serially monogamous?

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Kalira asks:

I'm so used to seeing TV shows with the "bachelor" who constantly sleeps around and never has a partner, or the one who's looking for "the one" and falls in love and looses someone new every five episodes. And at school, I'm used to everyone dating for a week, then more or less switching partners, or randomly sleeping together.

My question is: How many partners do most people have in their life time? And do one-week stands count as a small relationship? How short can a relationship be, and how long can it before moving on and finding someone new becomes really hard? Can people be in committed, loving, polygamous relationships, or have different partners for different things (like someone else for especially rough sex you wouldn't want to subject a gentler emotional-lover to)?

Heather Corinna replies:

Oddly enough, I was just pulling up these statistics for something else the other day. Very few people in the world will have but one sexual or romantic partner in the whole of their lifetimes.

A census sponsored by the CDC from 1999 to 2002 found that on average, adult men between the ages of 30 and 44 reported an average of 6-8 sexual partners in their lifetimes, and adult women an average of four. (Math-heads seem to be up in arms about the difference in those figures, claiming it's not mathematically sound since women and men should apparently be reporting the same number of partners, but I think they're discounting things like the fact that some people have not had partners at all, that not everyone is heterosexual, and that not everyone defines sexual partnership the same way.) According to The Kinsey Institute, 80% of American men and 69% of American women report having more than one partner in their lifetimes to date. Even when we're just talking about young adults, most data shows us that only the minority of teens ages 15-19 will have one sexual partner: the study Non-coital sexual activities among adolescents (May, 2008, Laura Duberstein Lindberg, Rachel Jones and John S. Santelli), for instance, shows that in the U.S. alone, for oral and vaginal sex, 31.% of teens have had two to three partners, and 37.6 have had more than four. And those are averages: some people have fewer partners than that, and some of us have had a lot more.

In other words, the majority of people have more than one partner in a lifetime. And none of this is any kind of new development: these figures haven't changed much over the years, save accounting for changes in places where women are now more able to choose our own partners, have our own sexual lives (in most areas, men always have had sex before, without or outside of marriage) and to choose whether or not we want to be married and if so, when and to whom by our own choosing.

Not everyone is looking for one lifelong partner or for "the one." Some people, or some people during certain times of their lives, want to date without monogamy, or want more casual, shorter or more infrequent relationships. It's also normal for it to take a while for people who are looking for a long-term or lifelong partner to find that partner. Some people, in dating or looking for that person will be sexually active with dates or love interests, other people will not be.

For young people with little relationship experience, it's common enough to often feel completely convinced that every new person we get involved with is "the one," and to do a lot of rollercoastering when it comes to being so sure of that, then finding out or deciding we were wrong, then just a few weeks later, being sure that, no, it's this person, not that one before starting the rollercoaster anew. When we don't have a lot of life or relationship experience, it's very easy to confuse new relationship energy for the real deal; to be certain that our impression of someone or our ideal of them is in line with who they actually are. I think it can be helpful to keep in mind that that's usually just developmental, and a typical part of the learning curve when it comes to sex and relationships. In other words, it's not a good/bad issue, or something sage to put a value judgment on.

Of course, on television shows or in movies, this kind of drama is key to keeping people watching and ratings high, so it's unsurprising that adult relationships on TV look a lot more like adolescent or pre-adolescent ones. It's also no shocker that given that TV has to aim for the middle that when you do see people having multiple partners, rather than someone going ahead and forming models which are honestly open when it comes to multiple partners, we see serial monogamy instead. Plus, it's found more scandalous and oh-my-gawd-can-you-believe-he-did-that for someone to do that in that way. When people are honest and forthright, and set up sound models they communicate about, it doesn't make for something people looking to get all Jerry Springer about find particularly thrilling.

What someone "counts" as a capital-R relationship is a pretty individual thing, and what makes a relationship or interaction important to a person also varies. Usually, time alone isn't all that's considered. To have a relationship really simply means interrelating with someone or something else. Culturally, a lot of us use the word "relationship" to only speak to a specific kind of relationship, or to express when things have gotten serious, but that is a misuse of the term. Plants have a relationship with the sun, cars a relationship with oil. I have a relationship with my dog, with a client who is in my counseling office at the clinic for a half an hour, with my friends, my mailman, with people who are long gone from me, with my work, with my romantic and sexual partner.

I know I myself have had single, nonsexual or sexual evenings or days spent with a person which have been life-altering for me, and yet, some sexual/romantic relationships that lasted a few months that are but a blip on my radar. This isn't unique to me, it's something many people experience. Same goes for how long something can go on for in terms of how easy or hard it is to move on from it. By all means, time is often a factor, and it does tend to be tougher to move on from a five-year relationship than from a five-day relationship. But at the same time, that also depends on what that relationship was like, how much both people were emotionally invested in it, the impact it had on your life.

When you say polygamy, I think you mean polyamory. A polygamous relationship is one where a person is married to more than one person, and most polygamy in the world is based on a model where a man has several wives but a woman can have just one husband. Obviously, double-standards? Not so loving. A polyamorous relationship, on the other hand, is a model where people have more than one committed partner, either in a model where one partner is considered a primary partner, and the others secondary or tertiary, or where all partners are committed to one another pretty equally as a group unit. And yes: there are indeed people in the world who have that kind of relationship, and where those relationships are healthy and loving.

Sometimes, indeed, people have open, multiple partnerships that are, in some ways or in all ways, about what sexual activities they do with a given partner or what different sexual dynamics they have, and there are people who have multiple partnerships where the kind of sex they have with one partner is "kinky," and "vanilla" with another. I put those words in quotes because I don't personally think it's sound to divide sex into two simple binaries or boxes like that, and I think both those terms are unduly loaded, but those are terms familiar to most people and terms in common use. As well, I'd advise you to be cautious in presuming one kind of sex is emotional and another is not: there are people who have rough or aggressive sex where everyone is being very emotional, and people who have gentle sex where no one is being particularly emotional at all.

Obviously, all of this is very individual and very personal. No one else can tell you what kind of relationship or relationship model is best for you -- at a given time, or for the whole of a life -- nor by what criteria a relationship is or will be important to you. There's also no one, unilateral way any of us can avoid heartbreak or experience love and sound, positive partnership, save doing the very best we can to be self-aware when it comes to our needs and limitations, to be clear, honest communicators with partners and potential partners, and to choose the relationships and relationship models that are best for us and also what the folks we get involved with feel good about.

Of course, we might also want to consider not trying to conduct our love or sexual lives on television. Clearly, that's not the best recipe for the good stuff, but people earnestly more interested in sound relationships than a big paycheck or notoriety probably already have that one figured out.

Here are a few extra links to round all this out for you:

written 20 Jul 2008 . updated 20 Jul 2008

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