Monogamy;— to have only one partner at a time — is considered a social standard in modern human society. But is it a necessary component of a satisfactory relationship?
Canadian researchers present new findings, suggesting that it may not have to be the ideal relationship structure. People in open relationships report feeling just as happy and content as those in conventional, monogamous ones.
The study titled “Reasons for sex and relational outcomes in consensually nonmonogamous and monogamous relationships” was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships on March 23.
“We are at a point in social history where we are expecting a lot from our partners. We want to have sexual fulfillment and excitement but also emotional and financial support,” said lead author Jessica Wood, a Ph.D. student in applied social psychology at the University of Guelph.
“Trying to fulfill all these needs can put pressure on relationships. To deal with this pressure, we are seeing some people look to consensually non-monogamous relationships.”
While monogamy is omnipresent, Wood said that open relationships are actually more common than most people would expect. Currently, somewhere between three to seven percent of people in North America are said to be in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship.
For the study, the team surveyed around 200 people in monogamous relationships and around 140 people in open relationships to compare the data sets. Both groups were asked questions regarding how satisfied they felt, whether they considered separating, general happiness levels, etc.
Research has shown that many people tend to have a negative perception of open relationships. Some find it to be immoral, some equate it to cheating or sex addiction, and some simply believe it offers low levels of satisfaction.
“It’s assumed that people in these types of relationships are having sex with everyone all the time. They are villainized and viewed as bad people in bad relationships, but that’s not the case,” Wood said. “This research shows us that our choice of relationship structure is not an indicator of how happy or satisfied we are in our primary relationships.”
The results of the study revealed that people in open relationships actually had similar levels of relationship satisfaction, psychological well-being and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships.
Sexual motivation appeared to be the biggest predictor of satisfaction, regardless of relationship structure. This was because of how closely sexual satisfaction is tied to our psychological needs.
“In both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, people who engage in sex to be close to a partner and to fulfill their sexual needs have a more satisfying relationship than those who have sex for less intrinsic reasons, such as to avoid conflict,” she said.
So much of what we understand about relationships and love comes not only from the people we know, but the television characters we feel like we know. So when consensual non-monogamy started to finally get some screen time in popular shows like Broad City, more and more people were suddenly having conversations about polyamory and open relationships.
Unfortunately, examples of polyamory on television aren’t always accurate. After Ilana’s “sex friend” Lincoln hooked up with someone else in season three, she literally celebrated by jumping onto the roof of his car and yelling, “That. Is. So. Hot!” That moment sparked essays about how Broad City got polyamory right. But did it?
Sure, Ilana and Lincoln had a successful open relationship — at least until Lincoln revealed that he wanted to be monogamous and was keeping that a secret from Ilana. But the show didn’t show a polyamorous relationship. Even though they both fall under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy, polyamory and open relationships are two very different things.
For many people, being polyamorous is an important part of their identity, not just a word to describe having multiple sexual or romantic partners at the same time. “Being polyamorous feels hard-wired to their love-lives,” says sexuality educator Aida Manduley, MSW. Meanwhile, people in an open relationship don’t necessarily think of non-monogamy as part of their identity as much as a personal preference.
Everyone’s definitions of polyamory and open relationships is personal to them, of course, and the “open relationship” label is commonly used in two different ways, according to Terri Conley, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who focuses on sexual behavior and socialization. In most cases, it’s used to encompass all forms of consensual non-monogamy — like polyamory, swinging, and the narrower definition of an open relationship. When being used to describe a particular relationship, “open” generally refers to the idea that there’s a primary partnership of two people who have given each other permission to have sex with people outside of their relationship.
The main difference, then, comes down to commitment. For people in an open relationship, connections made outside of the relationship are usually just about sex. They’re not looking for another person to love or build a second relationship with, and they likely wouldn’t introduce the people they have sex with to their primary partner. “Open relationships are more likely to have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule,” Dr. Conley says. That means not talking details about the sex they have outside of their primary partnership, other than to make sure everyone is in good sexual health.
Meanwhile, the word “polyamory” literally means “many loves” and that’s a good working definition. Instead of just looking for sex outside of their primary partnership, poly people are often looking for love. It’s not about having one night stands with your partner’s permission, it’s about creating deep emotional and romantic bonds with multiple people and forming a tight-knit community. It’s more of a culture in that way, says Kate Stewart, a counselor and dating coach who works with polyamorous couples. The poly community in Seattle, where she lives, is incredibly close. “Everyone knows each other, they hang out together, they party together,” she says. That closeness creates a different dynamic in their relationships than someone in an open relationship would have.
So, why are the nit-picky differences between these two words so important? Because words have power in creating and finding community. That’s also why it’s important to have accurate depictions of polyamory on television and in other forms of media, because so many of us begin to understand who we are through what we see. If there’s nowhere for polyamorous people to see a love that looks like theirs (or at least, the kind of love they want to have), then it’s unlikely that they’ll ever find the community they need.
[P]olyamory. Ethical non-monogamy. Open relationship. There are many ways to describe the consensual choice a couple can make to live a non-monogamous lifestyle—and ever more ways to navigate it. Maria Rosa Badia’s new short film Polyedric Love, premiering on The Atlantic today, features honest conversations with couples about the rewards and challenges of their unconventional relationships.
“We’ve always been told that there’s this one way of being with someone, and if you retract from it, it’s not right societally,” says a woman in the film. “But if it’s right instinctually…”
Making the film was an eye-opening experience for Badia, who came to see non-monogamous relationships as an inspiration, particularly with regard to overcoming jealousy. “I was moved by the couples’ honest rapport with their partners about their individual needs,” she told The Atlantic, “and how they had a very straightforward communication about it. I realized that what’s necessary for a non-monogamous relationship to work—mutual respect and communication—is absolutely necessary for a monogamous relationship, too.”
[O]ne bright spring day last year I was idly browsing Facebook when my friend Dr Kate Devlin (a lecturer in artificial intelligence at Goldsmiths) updated her status from “single” to “in an open relationship”. Since I’m 49 and live in uptight, windswept Cambridge, rather than a sex-positive community in San Diego, this was a social-media first for me. It seemed clear the polyamory movement in Britain had finally achieved critical mass. There had been plenty of portents. First, the fact that the term polyamory, coined in 1992, entered the Oxford English Dictionary in September 2006, defined as “having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals… the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned”. Meanwhile, female friends on Tinder kept being asked if they’d consider forming part of a love quadrangle. And I noticed people in my circle citing Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (the bible for consensual non-monogamists).
Then there were the celebrity polyamorists. Author Neil Gaiman and his musician wife Amanda Palmer have never made a secret of the fact that they both took lovers, with each other’s consent; although their set-up has reportedly become more conventional since they have had a child. Will Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith once posted on Facebook, “Will and I both can do whatever we want, because we trust each other to do so. This does not mean we have an open relationship… this means we have a grown one.” Which sounds pretty much like your average polyamorist explaining why their ménage is an expansive, loving set of mutually agreeable arrangements, rather than a free-for-all. And Tilda Swinton became the poster girl for every mother who feels that, much as she loves the father of her children, she wouldn’t mind shifting him to another part of the house while she moves in her drop-dead sexy lover.
When news of Swinton’s unconventional domestic arrangements first broke, my husband said: “That’s the life you’d like, isn’t it?” I pointed out that John Byrne, the father of Swinton’s twins, has a croft he can escape to on his own, to read books and write: “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” It seemed an excellent quid pro quo – especially for couples who aren’t each other’s gatekeeper and don’t give a fig what curtain-twitching moralists think. Throughout our 24-year relationship, my husband has never attempted to curtail my movements, and confesses himself “infinitely puzzled by men who are physically possessive”. Indeed, I’ve only been able to pursue my line of work (delving into erotic literature and sexuality) because he’s totally unruffled if I say, “I’ve got to go to San Francisco to interview the leader of the Orgasmic Meditation movement.” In similar spirit, I don’t question my spouse’s deeply entrenched desire to do no socialising whatsoever, to eschew travel and to potter round the house pondering metaphysical dilemmas as well as the contents of our two boys’ school lunch boxes. We have lost four parents and a beloved step-parent between us, as well as our first pregnancy (a baby with a terrible chromosomal disorder), so we know what heartbreak means and that profound love entails a level of kindness and support that goes way beyond sex.
But then nobody is too surprised when editors of erotic magazines, aristos or bohemians lead unconventional lives. For me, the significant thing about my friend Kate Devlin’s post was that it marked the moment when I first witnessed a bunch of well-heeled professionals all nod and say, “Good for you!”, rather than falling silent or expressing surprise. I sent her a message offering congratulations and suggesting polyamory would make a great article for my magazine The Amorist, which explores passion and sexuality. She replied, “I’m already halfway through.” The finished piece caused a bit of a stir, and a version was reprinted in The Times. Kate explained that she had one lover who occupied more space in her life than the other, who she saw once a month (both men also had at least one other regular partner), but that it worked for all of them, and she concluded, “I am content though. Happy, definitely, in a way that I couldn’t be if I were with just one person. I am fascinated by people and delight in learning more about each one… I know polyamory is not for everyone. There are degrees of it that are not for me. I’m tentatively feeling my way blindly because the familiar social structures aren’t in place, but it’s OK. It’s OK. I remind myself that it’s OK. For every pang of insecurity, I have an equal and opposite panic about being trapped. Then my heart lifts as I remember: I’m not.”
For decades, the notion of a complex, open-sided set of mostly heterosexual relationships has been associated with the more baroque excesses of the 1970s – along with key parties, pampas grass, shag-pile carpets and the bearded man from The Joy of Sex. It’s no surprise that this is viewed as the decade of carefree sexual exploration. Lovers benefited from the advent of the contraceptive pill: the first time an entire generation of women had been freed from fear of pregnancy. It was also an age of relative innocence, before the Aids pandemic and doomy sexual-health ads terrified the populace back into serial monogamy. But it was also an age when the bearded man had the upper hand. The general consensus was that “free love” was imposed by randy men on unwilling women, and that it never really worked; someone was always left sobbing and abandoned in the corner. Joni Mitchell spoke for many when she said, “It’s a ruse for guys.”
The only problem with that point of view is that monogamy clearly doesn’t work either. One-on-one is clearly the best way to proceed when you’re in those electrifying early years of love: the space when you’re so narcotically in thrall to your beloved that everyone else seems faintly repugnant. And monogamy certainly works while your cultural inhibitions, religious sensibilities, or sense of loyalty and duty to shared family, friends or children outweigh all other considerations. But, eventually, so the statistics tell us, only the fortunate minority feel a deep, abiding, unconflicted contentment in one person’s arms over an entire lifetime. The other 70 or so per cent of humans in the Western world will be unfaithful at least once in their lifetime. Divorce rates now run at well over 40 per cent in Britain and America. The certainty of adultery, heartbreak and pain is the other great inconvenient truth of our times. Which is why New York-based relationship guru Esther Perel recently published The State of Affairs, which attempts to explore the myriad reasons for infidelity and to look at how couples can not only survive betrayal but learn from it and even become stronger. The prevalent myth Perel seeks to dispel is the notion that one person can be everything to another: soul mate, lover, best friend, fellow adventurer and co-parent. In her view, adultery is often about the desire to reinvent the self and become fresh and fascinating in another’s eyes, rather than an active wish to reject the best beloved.
So what does a pragmatic, ethical individual do if they don’t ever want to behave like a lying, cheating love rat to the person they adore? For increasing numbers of people admitting to an enduring libido, the logical answer is polyamory. Now if, like me, you’ve knocked about a bit, you’re going to find the concept far older and more familiar than something supposedly invented at the tail end of the 20th century. Many in the LGBT community laugh at polyamory being some form of novel arrangement. The gay writer and comedian Rosie Wilby, whose book Is Monogamy Dead? was published last year, told me, “The LGBT community has experimented with forms of non-monogamy for decades. If you’re already doing something that has been widely viewed as ‘deviant’, then trying out another deviance from the norm has never felt like too big a jump. So it’s hardly a new concept for us.”
Indeed not. Think of the sexually fluid Bloomsbury set, who Dorothy Parker famously described as having “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”. Many Edwardians – generally intellectuals, radicals and the upper classes – thought a free and open pass on fidelity was a practical way to go about things. After all, this was an era where the king himself – Victoria’s playboy son, Edward VII – was known to have taken many mistresses, including actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry. It was also an idyll, a long-skirted, Arts and Crafts summer of love, which followed the more fixed morality of the Victorian era and flourished before the terrible devastation of the First World War. Proponents of unusual erotic arrangements were everywhere, from Vita Sackville-West (lover of Virginia Woolf) and her husband Harold Nicolson to the children’s author Edith Nesbit, who shared a house with spouse Hubert Bland and his mistress Alice Hoatson. Nesbit even raised Hoatson’s two children by Bland. Sexual experimentation started at the top. Meanwhile, last winter’s arthouse cinema hit Professor Marston and the Wonder Women dramatised the story of psychologist William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who lived with wife Elizabeth and mistress Olive Byrne.
[B]eing in an open relationship is totally the same thing as being polyamorous, right? (Asking for a friend…)
Actually, while the two share some similar characteristics, they’re very different. “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people,” says Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., a sex and relationships therapist in Minneapolis, MN
Both open and poly relationships are forms of consensual non-monogamy, and technically, polyamory can be a type of open relationship, but expectations tend to be different when it comes to these relationship styles.
Are You Looking For More Love Or More Sex?
Open relationships typically start with one partner or both partners wanting to be able to seek outside sexual relationships and satisfaction, while still having sex with and sharing an emotional connection with their partner.
“People are looking for different experiences and want to meet the needs that aren’t being met in the relationship,” says Divine. But there’s never an intention for feelings to get involved.
In polyamory, the whole point is to fall in love with multiple people, and there’s not necessarily any relationship hierarchy, says Divine. For example, someone could be solo poly (meaning they want and seek poly relationships whether or not they’re dating anyone), and they may enter into two separate relationships at the same time and view each as equal.
In their nature, poly relationships are open, since they involve more than two people. But not all poly groups are looking to add more people to the dynamic, and aren’t always actively dating. This is called closed poly, meaning the group includes multiple relationships, but there’s an expectation that no one involved is expanding the group.
What Kind Of Boundaries Do You Want To Set?
In open relationships, couples may talk with their primary partner about their outside relationships, or they might decide together that it’s best to keep those exploits to themselves, says Divine. They may have sexual encounters together, in the instance of swinging, or they may go out with other people on their own.
In polyamory, there tends to be more sharing between partners about other relationships as there are emotions involved. A poly group might consider themselves “kitchen-table poly,” which means the whole group could hang out together comfortably. Two poly people might also date the same person, or have a triad-style relationship, and that typically doesn’t happen in open relationships, says Divine.
“Open relationships tend to be more focused on having sex outside a main relationship, but keeping that primary, dyadic relationship as the first priority,” says Divine. “I have run into couples where one wants a poly relationship and one wants an open relationship, but that person was not comfortable with their partner having an emotional connection with anyone but them
People might go into this because they’ve developed different needs over a long-term relationship, or because their looking to add excitement and interest to their lives. “But it revolves around a two-way love,” says Divine.
People who want to be poly, “believe you can love multiple people,” says Divine. “They’re open to additional people in that way, and they want that emotional attachment. Plural love is the main focus.”
In either case, expectations need to be clear with any partners who are making a change with you. “In some couples, one wants to try something new, and the other is okay with that, without participating themselves,” says Divine. “The key is communication. These relationships styles are all about being upfront and honest about what you want and what your needs and boundaries are. The most successful ones are those where people are on the same page.”
My husband and I were together for 12 years and had two children – but while he was happy with one person, I needed more
By Anita Cassidy
[I]t was the hardest thing I’d ever had to say to my husband, Marc. Three years ago, I sat down and told him: “The idea of having sex just with you for the next 40 years – I can’t do it any more.” But I had come to realise that my life was built around something I didn’t believe in: monogamy.
We had been together for 12 years and had two children, now nine and seven. I love being a mother and I set the bar high from the start – cloth nappies and cooking from scratch. But I needed something more in my emotional and sexual life.
Marc’s reaction was remarkable; he agreed to support me and open our marriage to other partners, although it wasn’t really what he wanted. We started counselling to try to identify the best of what we had, to save it and protect it. Sex is a big part of a relationship, but it is only a part. We didn’t want it to scupper us.
If that sounds difficult, it was. I don’t think we could have done it if we hadn’t spent most of our marriage reading, talking and exploring together.
I quickly embraced the dating scene and discovered another side of my sexual self. I enrolled on lots of sites, where you are asked specific questions about yourself and your preferences. It was illuminating: do I like this? Yes. Do I like that? Well, let’s see. They were the kind of questions I’d never been asked before – and had never asked myself.
I became convinced that traditional relationships are like an air lock. You meet someone. It’s amazing and it’s rare, and then you lock it; you shut the windows and doors, and you try desperately to keep it all to yourselves. Then the air turns sour because there’s no oxygen. You might make a sexual mistake on the spur of the moment because you are craving some – any – contact. Why not live in a world where you can have room for that connection, that spark?
I think most people’s reaction was that Marc should have kicked me out. My immediate family have been supportive, although my mother is still ambivalent. We discuss everything openly, and she understands where I’m coming from, but worries that I’m going to end up on my own. If I do, though, it will be because I have chosen that.
People who choose to be polyamorous often do so after delving deep into themselves and their desires, so it runs close to the kink scene, which was also something I wanted to explore. There’s a temptation to think that, had Marc and I explored these things together, our marriage might have worked without opening it up. I’m not sure that it would have, though, given that he wasn’t into it. It can seem quite intimidating, but I was so ready for it. The first time I went to a fetish club, I felt like I was at home – that I’d found my people.
I now have a partner of two years, Andrea. We work as a couple, but we also have sex with friends. He’s the only partner I have introduced to my children. I love Andrea and I’m very lucky to have him, but I don’t want to live with him – we both value our solitude too much. He and I can flirt with other people and ask for their number, but I still feel jealous sometimes. He went away with another woman and, yes, it was difficult.
Meanwhile, Marc and I realised we were no longer compatible. I had changed too much. We still share the family home and parent our children together. We still get on. We have counselling together, we spend Christmas together – we are still reading and learning as we used to. We wanted to keep all the bits that worked.
We have had to learn so much about communicating better, and I think the children have benefited from that. We have explained that Dad needs one person to be with and Mum needs more people to make her happy. The talk is ongoing; we won’t wait to sit them down when they are teenagers, expecting them suddenly to get it. Understanding polyamory is complicated, but monogamy is fraught with ambiguity, too.
You can craft your own polyamory, but I’m not sure I would want more than two or three other partners. I’m hoping two people I met recently will become lovers, but there’s no rush. People assume that I’m constantly having sex, but it’s not as simple as that. I want an emotional and mental connection with someone, so it takes time to build up to that.
Monogamy, meanwhile, feels more like a competition where you need to bag someone before anyone else does. None of that applies in a poly setup, which is incredibly liberating. Think how strange it would be to have only one friend. You can’t get everything from one platonic relationship. Why would you try with one lover?
But it’s a challenge: you’re swimming against the cultural norm and it’s difficult emotionally, with or without the support of an existing partner. On top of that, the amount of work involved in maintaining multiple relationships, sexual and platonic, is huge.
Andrea and I look to the future, but there are no expectations. We are part of a broader community and we think developing that is more important. Put it this way: I don’t see myself sitting on a park bench at 80 with one other person. I’d like to be part of a group of people, a community. We seem to want a silver bullet for everything. One God. One partner. But life is plural.
I’d realised for a few years that Anita wasn’t completely happy, so it wasn’t a total shock when she told me she wanted to explore non-monogamy. It was upsetting to hear that what we had wasn’t meeting her needs, but it was very important to me that she was happy. If that meant her exploring a different relationship style, then I would be there to support her.
I did a lot of reading around the subject of ethical non-monogamy. It makes a lot of sense intellectually, but it doesn’t resonate with me emotionally. It didn’t feel right. I was prepared for our marriage to continue, with me being monogamous and Anita having other partners, but that proved more difficult than we envisaged.
I completely support Anita. I’m glad she has been able to share with me what she’s discovering about the honesty and communication needed to make polyamory work. It’s also true of monogamous relationships, and I hope to take what I have learned from this experience into my future relationships.
What I have always wanted – and still do – is to be with one partner, long-term, with whom I can share all of life’s rich experiences, to enjoy the journey and the inevitable changes together.
“I don’t believe in rules. Rules are about trying to wall off an insecurity.”
by Damona Hoffman
[F]irst, let’s get a few ground rules straight. The polyamorists I spoke with do not want to be seen as sex hungry monsters who swing from partner to partner. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of polyamory is the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time. So for clarity, we are talking about emotional and physical intimacy here, not just sex.
“Polyamory, Swinging, Open Marriages, Open Relationships, Monogamish and more all fall under the umbrella of non-monogamy but people who are polyamorous are more interested in the relationship and don’t just want to have sex with people,” says editor of the online magazine BlackandPoly.org, Crystal Farmer. “However, a lot poly people have sexual relationships while there are also people who don’t have sexual relationships, who are asexual or don’t have a need for a sexual connection, but consider themselves polyamorous because they are in emotional relationships with other people.”
Are you following? This means you can be polyamorous through sexual relationships or non-sexual emotional relationships or, for most polyamorous people, something in between. The bottom line is that you don’t belong to just one person.
Crystal defines herself as “solo-poly.” “I consider myself my primary partner,” she proclaims. Other than her 7-year-old daughter Crystal explains that she doesn’t want to live with someone again although she says she’s open to having relationships with men, women and gender non-binary individuals.
She was first introduced to the lifestyle by her ex-husband, who wanted an open marriage but asked her to maintain a “one penis policy.” This means that he could bring other women into the partnership and she could have relationships with other females but men were off limits.
Author and speaker Kevin Patterson, founder of the blog PolyRoleModels.tumblr.com, has a very different point of view. He and his wife, who have been together for 16 years, have both maintained relationships with girlfriends and boyfriends with complete trust and transparency.
“I don’t believe in rules. Rules are about trying to wall off an insecurity,” Kevin told me. “When I’m triggered, it inspires me to ask where the insecurity is coming from.” He feels that his partners should all have autonomy.
In his forthcoming book, Love Is Not Color Blind, Kevin discusses what it is like being a Black polyamorous man just as he has done in speaking engagements around the country for years. Borrowing Mahershala Ali’s quote on the Black American experience, “We move through the world playing defense, we don’t have the capacity to play offense,” Kevin says he feels like he’s always defending the legitimacy of his marriage and his decision to be polyamorous to family, the church, and the Black community.
Denika, a 41-year-old polyamorous woman, also felt ostracized from her family and community for choosing to live her life in this way until she discovered the Black polyamorous community online.
A quick search of Meetup.com in my own city of Los Angeles yielded 19 options of polyamory groups to join. But just how diverse are these groups? Crystal, who is based just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, says that the groups she attends are predominantly white.
She is open to dating someone of a different culture but she admits that she feels more comfortable when there are other people of color in her poly groups.
In addition to meetup groups, OKCupid seems to be a popular date source for the non-monogamous.
“I am a happily married man in a polyamorous relationship” is the first line in Kevin’s dating profile. He finds it easier to date in circles where they already know about your lifestyle so you don’t have to “edu-date” a partner about how non-monogamy works.
Writer/director Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, 29, began using dating sites when she was new to the polyamory community but quickly found that her Blackness was exoticized among the couples on her polyamory dating site. She thought the first message she received, with the subject line “Ebony Seeking Ivory,” was an anomaly but when her inbox filled up with 200 similar messages, she retreated from the world of polyamory.
Although she still feels she is polyamorous, Alicia says in her essay “Diary of a Polyamorous Black Girl” that “white is the face of polyamory and has been for quite some time. It more than likely will remain that way. The face of the world is white – why wouldn’t the poly community be the same?”
Crystal sees there is more shame around polyamory in the African-American community because of our roots in Christianity and conservative values.
Denika recalls a time when her sister asked how her relationship with God played into her decision to be polyamorous. Denika sees intimacy and religion as two separate things yet that doesn’t stop her from noticing a look of disapproval when she tells people in the black community that she is polyamorous.
I turned to intimalogist Dr. Kat Smith to understand the psychology behind the polyamory movement. She sees it as a return to our evolutionary roots. “It goes to show how animalistic humans really are.” If you look at many animal packs, the leader is able to have sex with multiple females. “We are sexual beings first,” says Dr. Kat.
Her concern, however, is that women are ‘going rogue with sexuality.’ She warns, “It’s one thing to claim your freedom and sexual liberation. Another thing to put yourself in harms way by not respecting your body.”
Crystal was met with this sentiment so often that she wrote a blog about it for BlackandPoly.org. She wanted to make it safe for other people who feel like her. “I like having sex but that doesn’t mean that I’m compromising my values or putting my life in danger just for sex,” Crystal declares. “I’m a polyamorous person and I’m proud of it.”
Trust seems to be the highest priority among all the poly individuals I spoke to. Denika notes, “I need to be able to trust people. Sometimes it can be hurtful but I will be upfront with you so you’re not mislead in the end.” She clarifies that she doesn’t do hookups. “If all you want is sex then you need to be upfront with your intentions but don’t waste my time,” Denika explains.
Is polyamory “right” for African-Americans? You will have to draw your own conclusion. What I can say is that the polyamorous people I spoke with all seemed happy with their decision to live life in this way. It’s evident from the growing popularity of sites like BlackandPoly.org and PolyRoleModels.tumblr.com that there is at least a curiosity and an openness to exploring non-traditional relationship options.
Denika’s advice is to “know yourself, explore your sexuality, intimacy, sense of self and be open to something different.”
[A]ntoinette and Kevin Patterson thought they’d stop dating other people once their relationship got really serious. They didn’t.
Maybe, they said, after they got married.
When that didn’t happen, they assumed after they had kids. Not then, either. Today, Antoinette, 35, and Kevin, 38, still date other people. The parents of two continue to identify as polyamorous, meaning they maintain multiple relationships with the consent of everyone involved.
“I quickly and very early on realized that monogamy was just not my jam,” Antoinette said from her home near Philadelphia. “I struggled with it from Day 1. It was not something I was able to do.”
Polyamory, once portrayed as the sole realm of sexually open hippies, has a very real place in modern life, with participants from all walks of life navigating a complicated web of sex, relationships, marriages and friendships among those who are in love or lust with romantic partners often dating each other. Logistics are difficult (enter elaborate Google calendars), jealousy happens, and there’s a coming-out process for people in polyamorous relationships that can open them up to criticism and judgment.
But those who make it work say the benefits of living and dating openly outweigh the drawbacks.
Antoinette, a physical therapist, and Kevin, a writer, now say polyamory is a fundamental part of who they are. They both have upper-back tattoos depicting a heart and an infinity sign, a symbol and a constant reminder, Antoinette says, that they’re “doing this poly thing forever.”
Now, it’s about convincing others that rejecting monogamy doesn’t make them all that different.
“I’m not trying to freak the norms,” said Kevin, who wrote a book about polyamory and race. “Like, I have a Netflix queue. I drive my kids to school every day. I am the norm.”
In addition to her husband, Antoinette has a boyfriend. Kevin can’t say exactly how many people he’s seeing because it’s always evolving. Sometimes it’s five. Other times it’s a dozen. For three years, he has dated Kay, who is pansexual and open to all gender identities. She practices what’s called “solo poly,” meaning she isn’t in a primary relationship with anyone.
Facing a stigma
The words polyamory and nonmonogamy encompass a variety of relationships, including married couples in open relationships, people who practice solo poly, and people in “triads” or “quads,” which are multiple-person relationships where everyone is romantically involved with one another.
Terri Conley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and an expert in sexuality, said the general interest in swinging and nonmonogamy that took shape in the early 1970s died down in the ’90s with the HIV health crisis.
Since then, the idea of “consensual nonmonogamy” has re-entered the public consciousness, and there’s a slowly growing acceptance of it. Meanwhile, the internet has allowed members of this niche community to coalesce, forming active presences on social media and fostering meetup groups in cities across the country.
“We live in a culture that very much values and prizes monogamy, and anyone who deviates from that is often stigmatized,” said Justin Lehmiller, an assistant professor of social psychology at Ball State University in Indiana. “My sense of it is that the stigma is lessening, but it’s still there.”
Some studies suggest that 5 percent of Americans are in consensual nonmonogamous relationships, but as many as 20 percent have been in one at some point in his or her life. And though the reasons why someone chooses polyamory vary — some say it’s a deep-seated part of their sexual orientation, others say it’s more of a relationship preference — the consensus among experts is that it’s not a fear of commitment.
On the contrary, said Conley, “These are people that really like commitment.”
“I’m not polyamorous because I’m avoiding commitment,” Kevin Patterson said. “I’m making commitments with multiple people.”
Jealousy and joy
Shallena Everitt has two spouses. When she tells people she has a husband, Cliff, and the two have a wife, Sonia, the first question is almost always: “How does that work?” She responds simply: “It works like any other relationship. It’s just more people.”
Shallena, 40, identifies as bisexual. She and Cliff have been married for 18 years and have two children. Four years ago, they met Sonia. The three fell in love and in April had a commitment ceremony — a de facto wedding for the polyamorous triad, although Sonia’s marriage to Shallena and Cliff is not legal. They now live in a blended house along with Sonia’s three kids, and the relationship among the three of them remains open.
“A lot of people say, ‘How can you love more than one person?’ ” said Shallena. “You love them for different reasons and they bring different things to you.”
While some polyamorous people admit that they deal with jealousy, others say they feel joy when their romantic partners are happy in other relationships.
Tiffany Adams, a 30-year-old nurse, identifies as polyamorous and pansexual. Today, she has three romantic partners: Phillip, Dan and Huey. She said feeling truly happy for her partners can help keep her jealousy in check.
“When my partner tells me they met somebody and they really like them or that their new partner told them they love them, it makes me feel really good,” she said. “I think having those things can counteract any jealous feelings.”
Paul Beauvais, a 44-year-old IT architect, said some people assume he has it great, especially when he mentions he went on dates with “both” of his girlfriends during the weekend. But while Beauvais says he loves being polyamorous, he makes sure to add that the practice includes all the “not so great” parts of a relationship, too.
“Polyamory is really based on the idea that we shouldn’t be running relationships in a resource model,” he said. “Love is not a scarcity.”
One woman opens up about the benefits of polyamory
Tired of conventional romances, sex coach Beth Wallace embraced polyamory – being in more than one relationship at a time – and has reaped the emotional rewards
By Beth Wallace
[I]’ve been in relationships with women and men over my adult life and I guess from my teens onwards, I didn’t have that traditional heterosexual ‘normal’ perspective on relationships.
The idea that you meet someone, marry them, have kids and stay together until the day you die, that works for some people, but I think it’s a relationship choice that’s largely born out of societal norms and expectations. If you throw out that rule book of what a relationship ‘should’ look like, then what goes in its place?
“Polyamory means quite simply having a loving relationship with more than one person at a time, or being open to having a love relationship with more than one person at a time. Imagine a monogamous relationship and then imagine that with several people.
“In previous long-term relationships I’d talked with partners about the idea of having sex or relationships outside the primary relationship but it had never gone beyond the conversation. Then in my 40s I met a man who was already in an open relationship and if I wanted to be in a relationship with him then I had to be okay with how his life was already set up. That took a while to get my head around. We would be out for dinner with 12 or so people including his wife and he and I would leave together to be with each other for the night and she was fine with it. It made me question all the societal norms around relationships and this idea of how we’re supposed to behave. It redefined for me what love is.
“In my experience, polyamory is something like being gay, lesbian or bi, it’s an orientation, it’s who I am, not something that I do. It’s not something I can just switch off. If you’re a polyamorous person who finds it easy to love and be intimate with, and find a connection with, lots of people, you can’t switch that off just because someone isn’t okay with it, because then you’re going to feel like you’re not being true to yourself.
“People make a lot of assumptions. One of the most common reactions I get from women is that they think the men I’m involved with ‘just want to have their cake and eat it’. I find that very insulting because they’re assuming the male in whatever group of people it is the one calling all the shots, which isn’t my experience. Some people also assume I must be very sexually aggressive – I’m aware of some married friends who started holding their husbands a lot closer when I came out of my last relationship! But if someone is in a monogamous relationship then I would never cross that boundary. Polyamorous people are obsessed with talking about boundaries – which is hilarious because monogamous people tend to think we have none!
“In fact there’s so much discussion around boundaries, and time planning that goes on, there’s often more talking than sex. People assume being polyamorous is all about getting as much sex as you can, but it’s not like swinging or open relationships which tend to be more about sex, being polyamorous is about having a full -on relationship.
“It can be a logistical nightmare. Three relationships at once is my max. Recently I was seeing three men, two in Ireland and one outside the country. Each relationship offered me something different. With one of them, we had lots of fun. He was quite a bit younger than me and it was a very fun-based relationship where we laughed a lot and did fun, stupid things. The second guy was quite a bit older and we would have very deep meaningful conversations about life and spirituality, he brought out the philosophical aspect of my personality. The other guy was an artist who brought out the creative side of who I am.
“It can be the most emotionally challenging and difficult relationship to be in, because it really forces you to be vulnerable and deal with insecurities and excruciating jealousies. But, done right, polyamory can teach you to be an excellent communicator, very self-aware and good at listening. It also offers a very deep love for people that transcends what a relationship ‘should’ look like.
“It’s something I would say to somebody early on, because for a lot of people that would be a deal breaker. I’d tend to say ‘this is who I am, if I’m interested in someone else and I feel there’s a connection and something I want to explore, I’ll talk with you about it, but I don’t need your permission to go ahead and do anything’. That doesn’t necessarily go down very well. Most people would think that the majority of men would be super on-board with it but actually my experience is that they’re not. They might be okay with the idea of you having occasional sex outside the relationship but they’re not comfortable with an ongoing relationship. I think societal ideas of relationships are tied up with ownership, this idea that ‘you’re my woman and I don’t want ‘my’ woman having sex or being in a relationship with someone else because that makes me feel less of a man’.
“I’m not saying I would never be in a monogamous relationship, but if someone was to demand it of me, I’d be out the door. A couple of years ago I was with a guy and it got to a point where he said ‘well, you know eventually this has to stop’ and my response was ‘basically you’re saying I have to change who I am and you don’t actually love me for who I really am’ and the relationship ended.
“I’m single at the moment and happy with that. It’s hard to meet like-minded people and I find that quite a lot of openly non-monogamous people in Ireland already know each other.
“People might think that being polyamorous means you have to be in relationships, that you can’t be on your own. But I’ve found that polyamory has made me tackle my own insecurities and realise love isn’t about possession or control.
“I’ve learned not to cling on to people. Just because a relationship ends, doesn’t mean it didn’t work out. I think having the idea that there is ‘The One’ can be quite dangerous. It piles a lot of expectation on to one person and one relationship and no one person can give us everything.
“I think Ireland is becoming more open to non-traditional relationships. My family has mixed feelings about me being polyamorous varying from ‘sure whatever, if it works for you, great!’ through to ‘don’t talk to me about it’. Most of my friends are absolutely fine with my choices, although I reckon a few think ‘Oh Beth just hasn’t met the right man yet, she’ll settle down when she does’ – good luck with that!”
[S]how of hands: Who here was raised to believe that the only healthy, positive relationships are ones that are monogamous, just one-on-one?
Now a show of hands: Who here thinks monogamy is bullshit?
Many of us were raised on the idea that we would grow up and find one person whom we would marry and be with forever until death do us part. We would have children with this person, buy a home with this person, build a life with this person that would look like some combination of all the “perfect” families we watched on television and live happily ever after in monogamy.
I outgrew the fantasy of a “perfect marriage” in my 20s when I realized that most people can’t or don’t function well in long-term, monogamous relationships. The fact that my parents were my primary examples of this reality didn’t help; their marriage ended in a series of horrible fights and alleged infidelities on both sides, and we kids got to witness it all.
There is an argument to be made for monogamy being a social construct. In my personal experience, I’ve found that not only have I been able to feel romantic love for more than one person at a time, but as I move along this path, I have also found more and more people who think like me and are willing to engage in consensual, nonmonogamous relationships. Most of the relationships have actually been very healthy.
It’s no secret that nearly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the number of people who report being cheated on continues to climb steadily. What is it about long-term monogamous relationships that makes them so difficult to maintain, and why do nonmonogamous or open relationships seem to be on the rise?
For me, the decision to be nonmonogamous was an easy one. As I have said before, I have been the unfaithful one in a relationship before. I have known what it is like to love two men at once, both romantically. What was missing was a way to pull those things together and be honest with the people I was dealing with about what I was feeling and experiencing and doing.
I have to tell you that the most freeing part of my nonmonogamous experience is being truthful with all my partners and potential partners. I have also been on the receiving end of dishonest nonmonogamy. A partner lied to me about his new love interest and lied to her about his level of involvement with me, and that shit cut like a knife. It took everything I had in me not to destroy her trust in him the way he had destroyed mine, but I realized it wasn’t her fault, and ultimately not my place to tell her what was going on.
I moved on. I grew up. I licked my wounds and I vowed not to be that person. I vowed not to be dishonest and to be forthright with everyone, because it is the right thing to do. People deserve their choices. They deserve to be able to decide if they want to continue rocking with me while knowing that it may not always be their night.
So what, exactly, is consensual nonmonogamy?
Consensual nonmonogamy, also known as an open relationship or relationships, can describe many types of arrangements that people in love partnerships, committed or otherwise, can participate in.
Those include polyamory, which is being in love or romantically involved with more than one person; polyfidelity, which is a polyamorous arrangement in which a group of people treat all the members of the group as romantic equals and agree to have sex only with people within that designated group; and swinging, which describes the practice of individuals and/or couples meeting up in safe, sex-positive spaces to engage in sex openly and consensually with other people.
Whenever I say that I am nonmonogamous, some people immediately equate that with being a swinger, and while I have participated in the swinger lifestyle, nonmonogamy for me is more about me being open to the idea that there are some people I am going to love and some people I will only want a sexual relationship with, and the two are neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive. They can, and often do, exist in the same space.
Nonmonogamy also doesn’t mean that I am currently having sex with everyone I have romantic feelings for. One of the lovers I feel closest to, to whom I bare my soul on a daily basis, is someone I have never had intercourse with. I love him, and there is a level of mutual respect between us that keeps him at the top of my list as far as “lovers” go, even though we have never been intimate. He knows, understands and respects the lifestyle; he is also openly nonmonogamous.
We are sexually attracted to each other, and we agree that it will eventually become a sexual relationship, but right now it is simply a mutual admiration society with lots of long, deep conversations that we never want to end. He gets me, he listens to me and I can be totally myself around him. That’s enough for now.
Then there are the ones that I want only for sex. The sex is not detached or without emotion, but it is a contract entered into knowing that this is what we signed up for: the intentional rubbing together of our pelvises for mutual satisfaction and nothing more. We may converse, we may text throughout the week and we may even attend social gatherings in public together, but the understanding is always there that we are not looking for it to move beyond what it is right now, and that’s OK.
The bottom line is that at the core of nonmonogamy is honesty and mutual respect. You and your partners have to decide how you will navigate the open relationship waters, and once you have agreed on those terms, it is important to stick to them or renegotiate if you think there needs to be a change.
It is not a sexual free-for-all; while a lot of sex may be involved, it is important to remember that safety, consent and honesty play a big role in making this work.
I don’t pretend to be the expert on nonmonogamy. I can only speak on my own lived experience.
I can also provide you with links to more information if you are curious.
In the end, I wrote all this to say that contrary to what Molly said on last night’s episode of Insecure, open relationships and nonmonogamy are not just for white people. More and more black people are discovering and embracing the lifestyle.
I am out here living it, and when I tell you that I know for a fact that I am living my best life right now, it is no exaggeration.
Polyamory isn’t monogamy and it isn’t swinging, it’s being open to having loving relationships with different people of different sexes at the same time, and in that way learning to love yourself, too
By Elf Lyons
[I] have never enjoyed typical monogamy. It makes me think of dowries and possessive prairie voles who mate for life, and historically all monogamous relationship models have owned women in some way, with marriage there for financial purposes and the ownership of property.
For the last few years I’ve defined myself as a polyamorist. Friends before defined me as a “friendly philanderer”. I love to kiss people. Friends usually, or women who wear polo-necks. Polyamory is consensual non- monogamy. It’s a philosophy. Rather than the active pursuing of multiple partners in a lascivious way, it’s the embracing and understanding that it’s possible to fall in love, and have relationships, with more than one person at the same time.
Alongside developing CEO-worthy skills in multitasking, polyamory is the most empowering way of loving that I have encountered. It gives women more autonomy than other relationship models ever have. Although monogamous relationship models work for many, they’re not the only way to have relationships in society. In non-monogamous relationships, their success relies on everything being on the table from the start. I believe that it could be the huge relationship revolution that the feminist movement needs.
Many think it’s about sex – it’s not. It’s not swinging. It’s not Pokémon Go, you don’t have to catch them all. It’s about the freedom to be honest about the evolving ways you feel. It opens up the boundaries between friend and lover in a safe and transparent way.
As a teen I questioned what it was to be adulterous. I saw infidelities on a different level to other friends. When partners mentioned they found other people attractive, I never minded. It made sense. “Why wouldn’t you want to kiss Stephanie? She’s a legend!” Apparently that was not considered a normal way to react.
If I had known as a teenager it was possible to love more than one person, it would have saved so much anxiety, guilt and time spent writing awful poetry. I spent years beating myself up about it. It often caused me to end relationships rashly, giving excuses like “I’m not ready to be in a relationship,” or “I have commitment issues,” or “I’m not into Warhammer as much as you think.” I didn’t want to end the relationships, but admitting how I felt seemed a worse betrayal, so I would lie, breaking friendships in the process.
I discovered polyamory when I was 23. I met a parliament of poly performers at the Adelaide Festival who were hippyish, liberal and kind. These performers spoke about their partners, children, poly-families. There were ex-couples who were working together on shows while their other poly families toured elsewhere, married couples who had live-in partners, triumvirates where they all balanced an equal partnership. I was entranced by their openness. It seemed symbolic of our changing global world, and most peoples developing nomadic lifestyles where we travel for work and find love with others on the way.
So when I went to study at theatre school in Paris (fresh out of a relationship with a 45-year-old French father of three), I decided to embrace my inner Barbarella. And the reality? Non-monogamy is rather ordinary and occasionally dull. Stereotypes of weird Eyes Wide Shut sex parties and Sartre/de Beauvoir/Olga ménages à trois aside, it’s like any normal relationship, except with more time- management, more conversations about “feelings” and more awkward encounters with acquaintances at parties who try to use you as their “Sexual Awakening Friend Bicycle”, ie that shy girl from book club will get drunk and put her hand on your leg, before leaning in to kiss you, hiccuping: “I really loved Orange Is the New Black…”
There are misconceptions – a date once grabbed me for a kiss unexpectedly despite the fact I had made it clear I was in no way interested (my words were exactly: “This is not going to work. We have entirely different opinions on the EU and you have just told me I am ‘very funny for a woman’.”) When I pushed him away he was shocked. He believed because I was “sexually awakened” he could do what he liked. Luckily my experiences have meant that I am more vocal and confident, and able to stand up for myself. Yes I am open about my relationships and desires, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s allowed to touch me without my permission. Sexual awakenings do not mean the absence of consent.
I must admit, when I first dipped my toes into polyamory I misunderstood, went overboard with Tinder. The experience was stressful and would involve me asking awkward questions like: “Do you think crabs think fish can fly?” while wandering around the National Gallery for the third time that month. (There is no denying that polyamory suits the self-employed schedule). I learned that when people don’t know what polyamory is, they misunderstand it as another term for “hook up”, which it’s not. So previous partners have usually been friends I trust.
People often ask: “How can you truly love someone if you want to be with someone else?” and “Don’t you get jealous?” I think these statements enforce unhealthy relationship ideals. I feel it’s dangerous to think that you’re the only person that can complete someone else’s life, and be their confidant, their friend, their support network and their sexual partner. It’s too much pressure! When you take a step back, drop your ego and realise you’re one unique component of someone’s life, it’s liberating and freeing. Jealousy ebbs away and you realise that, of course, they may find another person attractive, because we’re all different pieces of a puzzle. This has made me more comfortable about myself – I am not holding myself up to standards about traditional female beauty, because I can experience it in a hundred different ways.
Of course, there have been tears, heartbreaks, existential crises and moments when I felt left out. I’ve wondered if it was actually making me more free, or more insecure, with jealousy popping up at the most inconvenient times. I’ve dated people who have lied and I’ve had relationships that have ended because they didn’t trust or believe in polyamory.
But, despite the downs, non-monogamy has revolutionised the way I view love. First, it made me less ashamed of my sexuality. I fancied girls way before I fancied boys. But as a teenager at house parties I remember being made to think that female sexual relationships were purely to turn men on. We’d all seen that scene in Cruel Intentions. I remember girls kissing at parties and the guys cheering. It was performative. Except, I wanted to kiss girls because I liked girls.
When I started getting to know people in the poly community it was as liberating as taking off an underwired bra. I have had partners of both genders. I didn’t have to “choose”: the people I met understood that it was possible to give infinite, equal love to both sexes. My confidence soared. I wasn’t hiding. Men and women had equal place in my life. I no longer felt like a pendulum, swinging from one to another. This refreshing awakening did result in many awkward conversations with my mum and dad though, which would go something like this:
Elf: “Mum and Dad, I am queer.” [Mum puts the hummus down.]
Mum: “What does that mean?”
Elf: “It means I have relationships with men and women”. [Mum picks the hummus up.]
Mum: “Oh! Well, I’m queer. Your father’s queer, your grandmother’s queer, we’re all queer darling!”
Elf: “No you don’t understand. I mean I have sex with men and women.” [Mum drops the hummus.]
Mum: “Oh Elfy… No wonder you’re so tired.”
Although I love sex, because of past unpleasant experiences I’m also mildly afraid of it. So when I started experimenting with non-monogamy the idea of being intimate emotionally as well as physically with more than one person was a challenge. But, the choice gave me a power and ownership over my wants which I felt I had lost and been made to feel ashamed about. I’m not saying I jumped in the sack with everyone I met. God no. I’m too busy. But through being less judgemental on myself, I relaxed, opened up to the people I trusted and started loving myself again. It forces you to be really honest, to live life with an undefended heart.
It’s not been plain sailing. But to quote RuPaul: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love anyone else” – this is integral to non-monogamy. You can’t use multiple relationships to fill the void and give you the gratification that you should be able to give yourself. More love doesn’t mean better love. If you are dating multiple people in order to enhance your self-worth, you end up feeling like out-of-date hummus, feeling jealous anytime anyone chooses to spend time with anyone else, resulting in you treating your partners badly and without respect.
We shouldn’t feel ashamed about being socially and sexually confident. Women have been made to feel embarrassed for their desires for too long. It’s about having the trust to speak our minds and behave the way we want to. The moment you start to crumble you need to stop and ask exactly what it is you want and if it makes you happy. Being loved and loving multiple people should make you feel stronger, not weaker.
In a time of censorship on women, increases in assault and constant critiques on how we should behave, polyamory and its manifesto of embracing our evolving feelings, sharing responsibility and communicating and working effectively with people from all around the world could help revolutionise the way we tackle privilege, inequality and control of women’s rights.
I have an authority and a voice that I didn’t feel I had before. My friendships are better, my health is better. Through being polyamorous and being a part of the community I have been made aware of issues, both personal and political, that need to be uncovered and addressed.
The world would be a better place if everybody was more open to polyamory. As well as that traditional idea, that it takes a village to raise a child, it would mean we’d all love more, and love better. Loving different people at the same time is like learning a different language. There are different rules every time and it’s always open for discussion. You start to realise that love is infinite. Every time you say “I love you” to someone it takes on a new meaning. It’s retranslated, and it’s wonderful.
[H]istorically, polyamory has been seen as a surefire sign of a failing relationship: If your partner is sleeping with others, even with your permission, your relationship is fizzling towards its demise. If you couldn’t satisfy your partner, your relationship was doomed.
It’s a conclusion that is at once surprising and revolutionary, mostly because polyamory is a practice that’s almost universally stigmatized as “not normal,” and in fact detrimental to the success of a relationship. But modern society is becoming much more accepting of non-monogamous relationships, says co-author Justin J. Lehmiller, director of the social psychology graduate program at Ball State University.
“I don’t think it’s because polyamory is more accepted,” he tells Inverse, saying there continues to be a pervasive bias about the nature of and reasoning behind polyamory. “People are more interested today with consensual non-monogamy
That openness has allowed Lehmiller and his colleagues to collect information from 3,530 self-identifying polyamorists, over half of whom were American.
Lehmiller points out that polyamory has various definitions. The standard definition of consensual non-monogamy — what we call polyamory — is a relationship in which partners agree that they and/or their partners can enter a romantic or sexual relationship with a third party. What complicates this definition is whether the relationship veers from romantic to sexual and whether one or both partners are polyamorous, extending from just one other partner to a “network” of partners.
The team of researchers asked participants online about their relationships and their partners regarding intimacy, communication, companionship, and attraction to both their primary and secondary (the polyamorous) relationship. They found that not only were the partners of polyamorous people accepting of their secondary relationship, but that the primary relationship was supposedly made better because of polyamory.
“People were less likely to keep those relationships secret,” Lehmiller says. “That means the primary relationship got better investment, more acceptance, and more communication.” This, despite the fact that the polyamorous individual was usually reporting more sexual activity with the secondary partner.
It’s a rare win-win for both polyamorous couples and social scientists like Lehmiller who study non-traditional relationships.
Lehmiller said that studies on polyamory have traditionally suffered from either tiny sample sizes or unreliable answers given the stigmatized nature of polyamorous relationships. But Lehmiller and team contacted participants through polyamory interest groups and sites, explicitly being transparent about study techniques and ensuring the anonymity of participants. Thanks to this approach, Lehmiller says they achieved what might be the largest and most accurate polyamory survey to date.
To Lehmiller, the fact that more partners were satisfied with their secondary relationships, the more partners reported being committed to primary relationships is what’s most interesting. “All these relationships can benefit one another,” he says. “People are tempted to assume that if you have sex with someone else you are less committed. But we have a demonstration here of the Coolidge Effect” — the idea that our sexual arousal and response habituates with the same activity over time, or boredom.
That’s not to say that Lehmiller and his colleagues are suggesting polyamory is the cure to the seven-year itch, or that monogamy is an institution that doesn’t work. In fact, Lehmiller says, his research suggests exactly the opposite: That relationships don’t have a single prescription for success, and that the adage that different couples work differently is true. “There are some people who are perfectly content with monogamy and have satisfying, passionate relationships,” Lehmiller says. “Monogamy works for some people. But I’m hesitant to say that there’s one kind of relationship that is more natural than another.”
The American-focused study — however simple in its construction — also offers fascinating insights about the range of sexual habits. First, it shows that polyamorous people are across the country, in every state and region and across genders. Polyamorous people are your neighbors and friends, and they are found across the political and religious affiliations. What unites them is that they are nonconformists, willing to try something new. “Does that come first, or is that the result of a polyamorous relationship? We don’t know,” Lehmiller says.
If anything, the survey proves that humans weren’t necessarily “designed” to be monogamous, feeding into the debate of whether or not humans are actually a lot more like their animal counterparts in how they mate. That’s a query that will take a long time for us to answer, and before then, Lehmiller says, we have to understand non-traditional relationships more.
The main takeaway of the groundbreaking study, Lehmiller says, is this: “There’s not a model or script for how you navigate your relationships. It’s whatever makes sense to you.”
Abstract: In consensually non-monogamous relationships there is an open agreement that one, both, or all individuals involved in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners. Research concerning consensual non-monogamy has grown recently but has just begun to determine how relationships amongst partners in consensually non-monogamous arrangements may vary. The current research examines this issue within one type of consensual non-monogamy, specifically polyamory, using a convenience sample of 1,308 self-identified polyamorous individuals who provided responses to various indices of relationship evaluation (e.g. acceptance, secrecy, investment size, satisfaction level, commitment level, relationship communication, and sexual frequency). Measures were compared between perceptions of two concurrent partners within each polyamorous relationship (i.e., primary and secondary partners). Participants reported less stigma as well as more investment, satisfaction, commitment and greater communication about the relationship with primary compared to secondary relationships, but a greater proportion of time on sexual activity with secondary compared to primary relationships. We discuss how these results inform our understanding of the unique costs and rewards of primary-secondary relationships in polyamory and suggest future directions based on these findings.
[I]n the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “[E]ven our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
Don’t assume ‘the lifestyle’ does not come with a rulebook. Communication is important, and rules can make relationships better.
[T]oronto’s Oasis Aqualounge, at Carleton and Church Sts., is a pretty open environment. The clothing-optional sex club hosts events each week for people to explore their sexual fantasies. But for such a sexually free venue, there are certainly a lot of rules.
No photos. Certain areas are off limits to men unless accompanied by a woman. No touching of any kind unless given permission. No means no, of course, but the club takes it a step further: only yes means yes. That means there are no sexy times until consent is verbalized, says Fatima Mechtab, the marketing and events co-ordinator at Oasis, which had approximately 16,000 members last year.
The clothing-optional space, where sex is allowed, is by its nature vulnerable, she says. The rules are to make sure everyone feels safe, comfortable and encourage people to talk. “A big problem with consent is people assume it’s something you don’t have to verbalize,” she says. In fact, when it comes to sex, there’s lots that people don’t talk about — but should.
Mechtab, a queer woman who has explored swinging and polyamorous relationships in the past, says these types of strict rules — don’t make assumptions, ask before touching — are common in “the lifestyle,” a term for consensually nonmonogamous couples. And, she says, rules make relationships better.
Couples and the locations they go to play have to create an environment in which all parties feel not only safe, but also heard. These boundaries take away the grey areas, forcing couples to say what they do or don’t want and what they need from sexual encounters. And there’s a lot non-swingers can learn from them about building a healthy (and satisfied) relationship.
A successful swinging relationship is based on constant communication, says Carol Hunt, founder of VenusCouples, a Montreal-based online forum for “sex-positive” exploration of the lifestyle. She and her husband have been swinging for a decade. Before any party or outing, they agree upon a set of boundaries (such as they’ll always be in the same room during sex) and expectations for the evening (be it sex with another person or a night observing others). Afterwards, they always break their experience down: what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what would they like to try in the future?
While it might seem exhausting to always talk about sex, Hunt says it means both parties feel their needs are being heard. If her husband wants to try something new, but she’s not interested, the decision isn’t shut down entirely. Instead, they discuss both points of view and try and find a happy middle ground in which they can explore. No always means no — but that’s only the start of the conversation.
That consensus building trickles out of the bedroom, says Edward Fernandes, a professor of sexuality specializing in swingers, at Barton University in North Carolina. “I’ve had people say, ‘We used to have trouble with our finances — we couldn’t talk about this,’ and once we went into swinging, that (inability to communicate) went away,’” says the Toronto expat. “Now, they’re able to talk about everything.” If you can talk about a taboo topic like sex freely, there’s nothing to stop you from vocalizing issues with the chores, he says.
One 2014 study from the University of Oklahoma, which compared monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous couples, found those in open relationships rated their happiness and health higher than their counterparts. Another study from 2000, found 90 per cent of couples said their marriage became happier after they started swinging.
“People will often avoid talking about things, because they don’t know how (their partner) is going to respond,” says Fernandes. “So we hide. Swinging tends to pull that curtain, and allows them to have direct communications with each other.”
Write your own sexy rule book
Hunt suggests couples looking to spice up their bedroom can start small: make it a point to go to a sex shop, for example, to discuss what both parties might enjoy or not. To avoid embarrassment, make it a rule that neither party can wander off on their own: you’re in it together and that can decrease the awkwardness.
Watching porn can be a great way to get both parties in the mood. But before hitting play, Hunt suggests setting expectations: you’ll only watch for an hour, and collectively pick one act to try and re-create.
If you’re trying something new and don’t enjoy it the first time, Hunt say don’t shut it down right away. Commit to revisiting the act at least once at a later date, and if you still don’t enjoy it, then it’s OK to take it off the table for the future.
Great relationships need work, she says. Set aside a couple hours each week just to be with each other. No television, no distractions (and if you want, no clothes).
Make a relationship rule to do one sexy thing a day — even if it’s just kissing each other deeply for a few minutes, Hunt says. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that, but it ensures a daily connection with your partner.
Sex between two people can provide a host of infections and diseases; sex among three people triples those odds. A threesome is riskier than sex in a mutually monogamous, long-term relationship where both people have been tested. For example, if you touch one person, and you get fluids on you, and you touch the other person, fluids have been exchanged.
There’s a risk of exposing the third partner to bodily fluids when two fluid-bonded partners engage in unprotected sexual acts. In the book The Ethical Slut, author Dossle Easton uses the term “fluid bonding” to describe when partners involved do not use condoms or other barriers during sex.
Barriers for all sexual activities can go overlooked in threesomes; all partners should use a new barrier every time they switch sexual acts. If one person goes from intercourse to fellatio, or vice versa, you change condoms. You also need to change condoms if you move from penetrating one partner to penetrating another. You need to pick up a new dental dam when performing oral sex on someone new.
As expected, men are more likely to initiate asking women for a ménage à trois . Women are more likely to be aware and concerned about the potential emotional pitfalls and hurts that can be detrimental to all relationships. This is why couples should discuss their physical and emotional limits before the third person becomes involved.
“I have seen some serious fall-out from threesomes gone badly. It can be hard to predict the intensity of jealousy and hurt when it comes to sexual experience and bringing another person in,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, told Medical Daily .
Finally, remember that the “special guest” is a person, too. They need to be treated with respect. It’s important to ask them about, and listen to, their limits as well. As with any other sexual experience, everyone needs to feel safe and comfortable enough to say no as well as yes.
5. Should Threesomes Fantasies Just Stay Fantasies?
The threesome fantasy is a common one, whether we like to admit it or not, but should we act it out?
“… Not everybody wants to act out their fantasies,” Masini said, and some people have very good reasons for abstaining.
Many people keep their fantasies in their imaginations because they know if they acted on them, they’d lose their primary relationship. If we fantasize about sex with a neighbor or a colleague, acting out the fantasy could lead to rejection from the object of our fantasies, and a break-up with our significant other.
This is not to say threesomes can’t go well. Those who really know themselves and their partners can have successful trios.
Saltz advises: “It needs to be thoroughly talked through with openness to [discuss] concerns, fears; [couples should be willing] to listen to each other, and retreat if one needs to.”
Once we see our partner enjoying sex with someone else, we can’t unsee it. The potential vulnerability it introduces, and the potential desire for the third person could be detrimental to a relationship.
Before we start calling up friends, or putting “Special guest wanted” in classified ads, we should ask ourselves why we want one in the first place. To fulfill a fantasy? To feel more desired or wanted? Are we trying to fix our intimate relationship with our partner?
Threesomes can be a fun, adventurous sexual experiment, but can they replace true intimacy between two people?
The idea of a threesome is hot, but it doesn’t mean you should actually do it.
We’re in control of our bodies, and our sexual escapades, so whether that means a intimate twosome or a frisky threesome, it’s up to us.