Justin Mogilski

Breakthrough Star: Justin Mogilski

USC Salkehatchie psychologist studies non-monogamous relationships

As an evolutionary psychologist, University of South Carolina Salkehatchie assistant professor Justin Mogilski probes fundamental questions about how our brains work. As a researcher focused on non-monogamous relationships, he wants to improve outcomes for a population that has traditionally been overlooked.

“I’m interested in how people get along, how people form romantic relationships, how they navigate problems,” Mogilski says. “By studying the architecture of how the brain works, you can start to make predictions about how people will create satisfaction in their relationships and resolve conflict, or why people experience jealousy in the first place.”

And when it comes to non-monogamous relationship dynamics, there are additional complications and strategies for countering those complications, though neither has been adequately studied, according to Mogilski.

“There's quite a bit of research on monogamous pair bonding, how people within an exclusive pair manage their relationships and deal with attraction to other people, how they coordinate resources or take care of children,” he says. “This is not as thoroughly studied for multi-partner relationships.”

Multi-partner relationships, which can include consensual non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging and open relationships, are more common than many people realize, says Mogilski. As in monogamous relationships, individuals in multi-partner relationships encounter a gamut of relationship challenges — dealing with jealousy, coordinating finances, raising children and avoiding partner exploitation, such as abuse — though Mogilski cautions that such relationships aren’t as unstable as some assume.

“What we know from existing scientific research is that people within these relationships seem to be able to accomplish a comparable level of relationship satisfaction,” he says. “They tend to be at least as stable as monogamous relationships, but no one's exactly sure why. So, how do they deal with the challenges that are unique to having multiple intimate partners?”      

Now, thanks to funding from an ASPIRE-I grant from the University of South Carolina Office of Research, Mogilski is spearheading an effort to understand the dynamics of multi-partner relationships, identify existing relationship strategies and determine whether adherence to those strategies improves relationship satisfaction, relationship quality and conflict resolution among individuals in multi-partner relationships.

I’m interested in how people get along, how people form romantic relationships, how they navigate problems.

Justin Mogilski

And it’s a big team, including 32 researchers from North America, South America, Europe and Southeast Asia. So far, they have developed a new measure to assess peoples’ adherence to the multi-partner relationship maintenance strategies identified, and then administered the measure to a sample of approximately 1,500 individuals representing diverse age groups and different types of romantic relationships.

In addition to providing detailed demographic information, participants answer approximately 250 questions about conflicts in their relationships and resolution strategies relating to relationship and sexual satisfaction, jealousy, childcare and a host of other relationship outcomes.        

Long term, Mogilski and his co-investigators hope to expand the study and identify how the effectiveness of the strategies they’ve identified vary across environments. “We've designed this measure to cut across cultures, and we expect that some strategies will be more effective in some environments than others,” he says.

As for future applications, one goal is to use the practices they’ve identified to design a public health intervention to reduce deleterious relationship and health outcomes, such as violent rivalry among partners or sexual disease transmission among people who have multiple intimate relationships.

“If we can show that the strategies we’ve identified improve the relationship outcomes of people with multiple intimate partners, sharing these strategies could help people avoid or resolve common sources of conflict in their relationships,” he explains. “This could improve relationship health and public health and take away peoples’ reasons to stigmatize multi-partner relationships.”

Mogilski also sees the potential to create advice scripts for marriage counseling and relationship therapy that are specifically geared toward multi-partner relationships.

“There should be something applicable that comes out of this research,” he says. “Then there's a lot of work that just goes into building the foundation for this area of research, and honestly that’s a life’s work. If I can prototype how people should approach this research, that would be a lifetime well spent to me.”

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