Stand in a world that still feels basic and traditional, shut your eyes, and spin three times. When, jolted out of habit, you look again, you will see polyamory everywhere. Instead of pinning all their hopes on one true love, more and more people are choosing many loves, all at once.
Startled, I read the stats aloud to my husband, knowing that huge societal shifts intrigue him. He begins sending me YouTube videos about polyamory, raising the topic at dinnertime and again at bedtime, questioning just what makes a relationship polyamorous.
At first, it is fun to have a research partner. Then an ice cube slides down my back. Why is he so interested?
When it gains just a little more traction, polyamory is going to make the culture wars over abortion and same-sex marriage look like quibbles.
Marriage is the strongest and most fragile of bonds. It sets itself up as absolute and permanent, spanning sickness, health, and all the sprained ankles, lousy moods, and migraines in between. You face in different directions, but you lean your full weight against each other, your backs warm, straight, and supported. The idea is to remain this way for the rest of your lives—but every once in a while, one of you shifts an inch, and the support is not where you thought it was, and you cannot relax into it until you figure out what changed.
I wriggle a little, trying to get my bearings again, not wanting to make a Thing of this. In almost thirty years of marriage, the closest we have come to polyamory is picking out spouses for each other, so whoever dies first does not condemn the other to the loneliness we both insist we would prefer. We have been as monogamous as a pair of swans, and if Andrew does die first, I expect to paddle in circles, alone and bereft.
Unless . . . he is changing his mind?
• • •
When it gains just a little more traction, polyamory is going to make the culture wars over abortion and same-sex marriage look like quibbles. Man and woman, husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs.—it was hard enough to extend that singsong symmetry to same-sex couples. To shatter it altogether and turn romantic love into a team sport? And then explode the nuclear family?
This will not go smoothly.
Granted, the nuclear family has been melting down for decades now. The original version, with Dad working and Mom taking care of 2.5 kids, now describes only seven percent of U.S. households. A 2020 survey found that for one-third of U.S. adults (and roughly half of those under thirty), the ideal relationship is not monogamous. OK Cupid now allows a couple to register to search for a third (or fourth or fifth) partner, and forty-two percent of the site’s members said they would consider dating someone in an open or polyamorous relationship. More than one in five people in the United States report having engaged in “consensual nonmonogamy”—which might mean polyamory, an open marriage, or one that swings.
The key word in that clunky phrase is consensual, for all parties.
The key implication is that traditional marriage is no longer the automatic norm.
Do we need it anymore? Teenagers no longer “date around.” They skip from friend groups to feverish sex and immediately announce that they are not “single” anymore, a status claim that strikes me as oddly premature. Polyamorous arrangements would at least expose them to a few more relationships. And I can see polyamory’s appeal if one is old and lonely and in need of some lighthearted, multifaceted arrangement….
More than one in five people in the United States report having engaged in “consensual nonmonogamy”—which might mean polyamory, an open marriage, or one that swings.
Proud to feel so open-minded, I mention these possibilities at a dinner party.
A friend listens awhile, then asks, with some urgency, “But where’s the amory?” At first I think he means sex, but he corrects me: “Where’s the love?”
And then I realize the limits of my thinking: I can only conceive of polyamory working when emotions do not run deep.
Is this my problem or polyamory’s?
• • •
Almost a decade ago, gerontologist Aubrey de Grey predicted that “the overdue demise of monogamy” could be one of the greatest advances in the history of civilization. That might be a bit grand, but it would certainly be the most radical shift since the Sexual Revolution. And we are primed; I can see that. We have survived the days when women were property and marriage a way to either protect or control them. There is no longer an economic need to bear one child after another in rapid succession. Birth control has made sex more recreational than procreative. DNA tests establish paternity far more reliably than a marriage certificate ever did. People have sex before marriage, then marry, divorce, and remarry, often sneaking in an affair or two along the way. “Infidelity,” notes therapist Esther Perel, “has a tenacity that marriage can only envy.”
Consensual nonmonogamy wants to end those illicit thrills and make all relationships ethical, transparent, and matter-of-fact. Like monogamy, it opposes “the impulsive, short-term, alcohol-fueled casual sex culture of bars, clubs, frat parties, and Tinder,” says Geoffrey Miller, one of the brave members of the American Psychological Association’s controversial new Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force. Some polyamorous relationships are a frank, casual seizing of opportunity; others are nesting partners, as committed as a traditional marriage.
As a friend once quipped, “Husbands are great. You just need more than one of them.”
• • •
“How do you define polyamory,” Andrew wants to know. “Some of these videos say it’s always sexual; some say it’s romantic but not necessarily sexual; some say it can be emotionally intimate and not necessarily romantic or sexual. So what’s the difference between that and a close friendship?”
“I guess polyamory would mean a friendship was free to turn into something more,” I answer warily. He scowls, not satisfied with my answer.
A few days later, I see somebody on Facebook wearing a T-shirt that reads “Polyamorous As Fuck.” I take a chance.
“Infidelity,” notes therapist Esther Perel, “has a tenacity that marriage can only envy.”
Cofounder of Sex Positive St. Louis, David Wraith does mean what his shirt says, and he is happy to talk about it. I start with Andrew’s question: “How you draw the line between a platonic polyamorous relationship and a close friendship?”
“I think that’s something monogamous people need to negotiate,” Wraith tells me gently, reminding me that “when you are polyamorous, there is no need to draw that line. But when you are monogamous, there’s a hard boundary there, and usually that boundary is way before sex.”
He is remarried (his first wife died of cancer), and he has a girlfriend, and he sees other people as opportunities arise. When he was young, he says, either he would cheat on a girlfriend or she would cheat on him, neither of which felt comfortable.
“Why cheat at all?” I ask, sounding sterner than I mean to. But he has thought about this.
“If it were just a high sex drive, I would be having more sex with one partner,” he says. “It’s more a desire to experience other people in an intimate way; to experience the world through their eyes. Every person you love changes you.”
Yes, and you carry them all inside you, I think to myself. But to be changed that profoundly by more than one person at a time? I would feel like pulled taffy.
Wraith, it turns out, likes Perel as much as I do. He remembers her saying “that people often cheat not because they are dissatisfied with their partners but because they are dissatisfied with themselves. It’s not that we want a new partner; it’s that we want a new self. And with a new partner, we are a blank slate.”
To my tradition-bound brain, that sounds like an argument against polyamory. But he says his sense of self stabilized, and monogamy still felt like the wrong choice. He began negotiating ahead of time: “‘This is what will happen if I find myself in a situation with a woman I’m attracted to, and I offer you the same freedom.’ I didn’t know there was a name for it until I met a woman who introduced herself as polyamorous.”
Since then, he has watched the movement grow: “People from my parents’ generation tolerate infidelity because it’s the devil you know. My generation, by the time we heard polyamory was an option, we had a spouse, kids, and a mortgage. This generation coming up behind me, they knew about polyamory before they started dating. And for the generation behind them, it’s all one big thing: gender identity, polyamory, socialism, the economy, politics. I think they are going to change the game.
“So many of what we call family values were just the circumstances of the time,” he adds. Now, we are following a model we have already outgrown. “And we are still so afraid, so terrified, of sex, and so terrified of our bodies.”
The thought of having to be sure someone else was okay with my zaftig curves, habitual quirks, inadvertent noises—oh, Lord. Is my fidelity to marriage just discomfort with my body, an illogical shyness that judges my own flesh more harshly than I would someone else’s?
No. I am afraid of way more than that.
• • •
A geometry of possibilities, polyamorous relationships can be open or closed to outsiders. Wraith is the hinge in a triad, conducting two separate relationships, but there are also throuples, in which three people are all intimately involved with one another, and quads (two couples joining and criss-crossing), and polyfidelity (with a larger group).
An example from an online forum: “I’m one girl, three guys. My first partner is one guy, me, and one genderqueer person. My second partner is one guy, me, and two other girls. Third partner is just me and him.” Another example: “I am married to my husband, who is also dating one of my friends, who I am not involved romantically with. My boyfriend is married, and has one other partner beside his wife and I. His wife has a handful of partners who also have other partners.”
Dizzy, I reach for my bound, one-and-only Oxford English Dictionary. But even that stuffy tome blurs the line, defining polyamory as “simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity.” Esp.? Since when is sex an afterthought?
. . . there are also throuples, in which three people are all intimately involved with one another, and quads (two couples joining and criss-crossing), and polyfidelity (with a larger group).
Right before that confounding little abbreviation, though, lies a clue: “viewed as an alternative to monogamy.” All parties must see themselves as polyamorous, willingly trading away the old constraints. Which means that if Andrew is angling, he is out of luck. Just as Wraith says he felt polyamorous from the start, I am, you will recall, as monogamous as a swan. Or, to stay with avian metaphor, a jackdaw. When they pair up, they interact less often with the rest of the flock, because they can rely on each other for flight information. This allows them to flap their wings more slowly, saving energy.
As intrigued as I am by the freedom of polyamory, the guiltless desire, the thrill of discovery . . . it just sounds exhausting.
• • •
The first research paper I ever wrote (for a high school class called “How to Write a Research Paper”) was, to put it kindly, overambitious. Knowing nothing about psychology but fascinated by the word “libido,” I spent weeks at a university library struggling to compare Freud’s notion of a limited amount of psychic energy with Erich Fromm’s far lovelier insistence on an infinite capacity to love. The elderly nun teaching the class blinked a few extra times and handed the paper back with no comment.
Am I now siding with Freud?
Polyamory’s logo is a heart with an infinity symbol. Love need not be measured out like flour; it exists in infinite supply. More is always there, waiting for you. I try to imagine living with that assurance, moving freely, open to any possibility. The tension that crackles when we slip out of alignment, one of us preoccupied, the other needy, would become irrelevant. There would always be somebody else to share my silly mood or buffer Andrew’s cynicism. Somebody who would understand candlelight and music and wear a dinner jacket without bribery and sweep me off to a five-star restaurant on the spur of the moment….
Wait. This is just fill-in-the-gaps fantasy, not polyamory. And where does Andrew go while we light the candles—do we send him upstairs like a banished kid? Or does he (the thought can barely complete itself) go off to hook up with somebody else?
I try again, envisioning life with a third person we both enjoyed. There would be none of the polarizing that can wound a marriage, stubbornness setting in as two people push each other farther apart. Dinner conversations and holidays would be livelier. We might even play board games.
But it all falls apart at bedtime.
• • •
Seven years into our marriage, I remembered my grandmother warning me about the seven-year itch, this inevitable restlessness that came over men (it was always men) and made them want to “stray.” I pushed her words to the back of my mind.
About seven months into that seventh year, Andrew had a gooey, throbbing sinus infection, so I went to some social thing by myself. When I came home, I found that a friend of his, a coworker, had come over. Her feet were tucked under her on the sofa, and she was turned toward Andrew, also on the sofa and with a fucking wine glass in his hand (he hates wine). They were laughing.
I made some excuse and went to the—our—bedroom. When she left, Andrew came in, smiling broadly. I tugged off my wedding ring and threw it so hard I heard it crack against his jaw.
“What the hell? What’s wrong?”
Clearly, I informed him, the two of them were more compatible than we were—they had lots of common interests—and he would obviously rather be married to her.
Blinking slowly, rubbing his cheek, Andrew explained that she had called, all upset, and even though he felt like crap, he still suggested she come over and talk it through. He put some Japanese anime in the DVD player to lighten the mood, and he opened a bottle of wine because he thought it might take the edge off her anxiety. When he finally he got her laughing, he told himself, “I’m a good friend!” And then I came home and flung my ring at him.
We argued about that night on and off for the next decade. I kept trying to explain how intimate that little scene looked, and he kept reminding me what it was.
Even now, twenty-one years later, I almost left out the wine, because it still seems so suspiciously romantic.
Dante punished the jealous by sewing their eyes shut with iron wire. I say jealousy is punishment enough. How do people watch someone they love sharing intimate moments, intimate gestures, with someone else? Intimacy is the perfect euphemism for sex, because you make yourself just as vulnerable, opening your inner self to the other person. The tiniest exchanges—a shared joke, a pet name—take on extra meaning, celebrating who you are together, how you have reached a closeness others do not share. But small groups can be close, too; they can know one another inside-out, use affectionate nicknames, lend powerful support. Is my definition too narrow, too introverted? Why stop with two?
Because it feels safer. More secure. More sustainable.
Dante punished the jealous by sewing their eyes shut with iron wire. I say jealousy is punishment enough.
“When you are confident in how much your partner loves you, it doesn’t bother you when they show affection to someone else,” I read on a polyamorous forum. “Love is infinite.”
And now I feel mean and petty and insecure. I am thrilled whenever anything good and happy comes to Andrew—but do I have to welcome the thought that he might desire another woman? In the polyamorous community, the word is “compersion”: feeling joy for the joy your partner feels with another partner. How generous that sounds, how devoid of ego or insecurity. How unattainable.
The new divide will not be between the conservative and the sex-crazed, but between those of us who are alarmed by our own capacity for jealousy and those who either deal calmly with theirs, bury it, feel none, or lie.
I ask Wraith if his wife and girlfriend ever get jealous. He laughs a little too hard. “Let’s just say yeah and leave it there. And I get jealous too, but it’s not the end of the world. I feel like with monogamous people, it’s ‘Oh my God, jealousy!’—like you get jealous and someone dies. You just get jealous and deal with it. Is this anger? Is it fear? Is it something I need to work on in myself, first?”
I ask myself that question. Yeah, probably. A quiet flutter of jealousy when someone flirts with Andrew is electric, reminding me that others see how wonderful he is, too. Let it last more than a few minutes, though, and I am shocked into anger. Because I feel I own him? Because I find myself incomparable? If jealousy invaded my friendships or work, I would grapple with that monster and stop it from twisting my thoughts. Yet in a sexual relationship, I have been taught to see jealousy as a proof of love.
Andrew was insanely jealous in his earliest relationships. To his relief, the jealousy eventually burned itself out. When I tease that I wish he had saved a little of it for me, he turns serious. “Be careful what you wish for,” he warns. “It’s a sickness.”
“When you are confident in how much your partner loves you, it doesn’t bother you when they show affection to someone else,” I read on a polyamorous forum. “Love is infinite.”
Or a biochemical state, the philosopher Ronald de Sousa suggests, set off by the stories we are told about what we have a right to expect or what others would find appropriate. Who cares that I trust my husband; what would someone else think if they saw a woman curled up on our couch drinking wine with him while I was gone?
Rather than fly into a rage or a sulk, De Sousa would have me feel pleasantly aroused by that burst of jealousy and happy to see someone I loved enjoying someone else. Compersion, he says, can be liberating.
“Love wildly, with reckless abandon,” urges a guy giving a TedX talk on polyamory. Do not be so precious about it, so possessive.
When we married, we gave each other our hearts, our bodies, our future. A little possessiveness feels natural to me. Imagining Andrew naked with another woman, learning her body, building a repertoire of shared experiences, a history—I shudder. I find polyamory’s candor, its refusal to cheat, admirable. But honestly? I would rather he cheat and never tell me.
• • •
A few years ago, I was tearing through the house looking for the latest thing I had lost—earring, sock, checkbook, it could have been anything. Andrew thought a minute, then walked straight to an illogical, totally unlikely place and, like a stage magician, produced the misplaced object.
“What on earth made you look there?” I demanded.
He shrugged. “I tried to think like you.”
This was disconcerting, but also a comfort. Three decades in, we might not “share a brain,” in the cute idiom, but we sometimes swap. I love that he knows my body better than I do. Joys, sorrows, and burning questions all hang in midair until we have shared them. After years of confiding, going a little deeper each time, I have reached a point where I can no longer lie even to myself.
“Love consists in this,” Rilke wrote, “that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Could there be three solitudes? Four? I picture our hard-won, tensile intimacy diffusing into a soft-lit blur. How could all those people know how to decode pain I was trying to hide or guess the weird place that only I would put whatever it was? How could I come to know each of them inside-out and adapt to all those rhythms and changing interests and moods?
“Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” We have been dramatic about monogamy for centuries. Maybe we felt we had to give it extra weight so nobody flew away? But this notion of two becoming one is far more than a physical conjoining, a religious sacrament, or a legal imprimatur. You are one when you are so vulnerable and unselfconscious that pleasure breaks you free from space and time. When you rescue a hurt bird and tend to her together, needing no words. When you move together, gratefully, through the sweet routines of daily life.
Society has stacked all those experiences into a single relationship. They could be parceled out. But there is a synergy in keeping them exclusive. The word implies careful selection, quality you can count on.
Exclusivity is also snobbish, building itself up by making strict codes and locking others out. Monogamy can look like that, too.
• • •
Swans do divorce, by the way. It happens rarely; most are faithful until death. But recent DNA testing of the Australian black swan revealed that one in six cygnets is a love child. The researchers still have not figured out how the moms sneak away for a liaison before returning to glide around the lake with their mate, long curved necks entwined in a heart shape we have made the eternal symbol of fidelity.
Have we all been fooling ourselves?
• • •
“We’ve torn everything else down, right? Love is the last fridge magnet left,” Shiv tells her new husband in the HBO series Succession. She is tiptoeing into a proposal of open marriage: “Love, it’s like twenty-eight different things, and they all get lumped together in this one sack. And there’s a lot of things in that sack—it needs to get emptied out!”
Once a practical arrangement that lasted through childrearing until a fairly early death, marriage now requires two people to become each other’s best friend, passionate lover, intimate confidante, financial partner, social date, roommate or joint property holder, spiritual mentor, intellectual sparring partner, court jester, life coach, protector, caretaker, and loyal fan for six decades.
Grill someone who is polyamorous, and they will point to the divorce stats. And it is a bitter disappointment, watching a fairy-tale dissolve into acrimony. But the famous “fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce” is misleading: Marry later, with a college education, and your odds improve significantly. In fact, the overall divorce rate has improved, dropping from 4.0 per thousand U.S. citizens in 2000 to 2.7 per thousand in 2019. What is changing is how many people even marry: In 1972, the rate was 10.9 per thousand; in 2019, it was 6.1.
Wanting to write something clever about how we have moved away from the days of Ozzie and Harriet, I try to think of an iconic contemporary couple and draw a blank. “Famous happily married couples,” I google. Ah, here we go: a list, undated, topped by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Except—the Smiths have since shifted to consensual nonmonogamy. “Marriage for us can’t be a prison,” Will explains.
• • •
The nuclear family was never as tidy as it looks in those car decals: Tall stick figure, shorter stick figure in a skirt, two little stick figures. Divorce adds new stick figures on either side. For a polyamorous intimate network, though? You need decals for all the metamours (your partners’ other partners) and all their family members. Your whole windshield is covered.
And that, it turns out, is part of the appeal. Anybody can sleep around, but with polyamory, your relationships are known and established, and their network creates an instant village. In some cases, polyamory is a return, by the wistful children of divorce or single mothers, to the big, interconnected, extended family of old.
Rumors swirl about orgies, but in truth, the scheduling of date nights is so tedious, people use apps like Poly Life to keep track. Sometimes the goal is to have more sex, but it is also a way to have less sex. One throuple is frank about the wife’s low sex drive and the husband’s high drive, and there is a soft, playful eagerness to the woman they linked up with. But I worry for her. She admits there are times she fantasizes about being monogamous just with him. I doubt that the wife, who seems cerebral and controlling, is going to walk away. And the husband clearly relishes being in the middle, a woman under each arm.
Anybody can sleep around, but with polyamory, your relationships are known and established, and their network creates an instant village. In some cases, polyamory is a return, by the wistful children of divorce or single mothers, to the big, interconnected, extended family of old.
This, however, is just the soap opera I have made up for them. If I force myself to be honest, they seem, at least in short videos, to be playful, honest, and relaxed, without any hostile jabs or rivalry.
I am jealous of their lack of jealousy.
• • •
Polyamory can sound noble, large-minded, and easygoing—until you watch enough YouTube videos. People talk incessantly about their needs, how many needs we all have, how one person cannot meet all your needs. This is why we have friends, hobbies, and work, I inform one video. A constant scouting expedition to find just the right person to fill a particular need—is not love.
It is, however, hard work. “Open relationships incentivize people to stay healthy, fit, creative, and funny,” brags Miller, “because they’re always in the mating market.”
Compare that to Colum McCann’s lines: “His face had softened: as if just being a moment with her had relaxed him, allowed him to be someone different. I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be. You drop the mask. You allow the fatigue in. You lean across and kiss the years because they’re the things that matter.”
Not to everybody, though. Researching Selfie, Will Storr talked to a young woman in Silicon Valley who told him, “‘Half the people here are poly.’” Storr thought about the connection and decided that it showed “an implicit faith in libertarian-neoliberal individualism: that putting the self’s desires above all will always lead to progress.”
Polyamory can sound noble, large-minded, and easygoing—until you watch enough YouTube videos.
The politics of this are interesting. For some, polyamory is Ayn Rand. For others, it lands as far left as you can go, using individual freedom to challenge the economic and political establishment of monogamy. “Many polyamorists see poly as part of a broader progressive movement to undermine religion, capitalism, patriarchy, and the gender binary,” Miller says. And that is as tall an order as the demands we have made of marriage.
Disillusionment led us here, and so did therapy, the shift in women’s lives, the shift in the nature of work, and the softening of traditional norms. Not to mention technology itself—all those dating apps, all that swiping left, pretty well canceled the Cinderella fairy-tale. People seem less starry-eyed about finding a prince or a soulmate these days, more willing to see sex as physical recreation or a pursuit of pleasure. “Everybody I meet in St. Louis is either in an open relationship or playing golf in plaid shorts,” complains a friend in her forties.
“The sexual relationship is just easier with newer partners,” a polyamorous woman remarks. “Where my needs weren’t being met, I could get them elsewhere,” says another. “I don’t want to muscle through commitment,” announces a third. “I want to wake up each day and decide for myself: Do I still want to be with this person? And know that he’s deciding for himself, too.”
I shift in my chair, trying to dislodge the poker stiffening my spine. The point of commitment is that you have already decided, I want to shout, and when you feel wobbly, that promise steadies you. Some of these remarks smack of distractable self-indulgence, a shopping mentality that commodifies potential partners. The old quest to “get some,” “get laid,” “have her” was already acquisitive enough.
The politics of this are interesting. For some, polyamory is Ayn Rand. For others, it lands as far left as you can go, using individual freedom to challenge the economic and political establishment of monogamy.
As for the oft-cited need for novelty and NRE (“new relationship energy”), it seems to kick in when a marriage hits a rough patch or goes silent. My husband is still the man I fell in love with, but so much about him continues to surface or deepen that he holds my attention like Netflix’s hottest binge.
“To complain that I could only be married once,” said G.K. Chesterton, “was like complaining that I had only been born once.”
• • •
“Why are you so interested in this?” I finally ask, keeping my voice as even as I can. “Do you want us to be polyamorous?”
Andrew swallows wrong and sputters until I whack his back (a little too hard). “Good God, no. I could never figure out two women—I can barely keep up with you. But I’m sick of people saying men and women can’t be ‘just’ friends without it turning into something ‘more.’ A good friendship is a complete and satisfactory relationship in itself; it doesn’t have to be sexual or romantic or polyamorous.” Point made, a look of wry amusement crosses his face. “Remember that night you threw your ring at me?
I laugh a little, ha, so long ago, so trivial.
“Also,” he says, on a roll now, “I’m not sure I feel comfortable with calling three or four people a ‘marriage.’ Marriage is two people bound to each other, ideally for life. That means something.”
The words cancel gravity; I am so relieved, I could walk on the ceiling. “More than two people could make that commitment,” I say, expansive now. “We just don’t have the bandwidth.” We have has slid back into place, and I lean back, thoroughly relaxed. I do not like to take that smug marital “we” for granted. Andrew says the point of marriage is that we can.
“Why,” I continue, “does it have to be only two people?” I ask. Have I landed, then, with polyamory?
I have stayed in midair. Because while I do not want to share our marriage, I would rather share the institution than see it die. Our culture tends to be stingy with matrimony, whether for historical or religious reasons, or to guard legal rights and tax breaks, or because so many of us have made ourselves comfortable on the moral high ground. But relationships can thrive in all manner of ways, of this I am certain.
Our choice should depend on what sort of intimacy brings us joy—and what sort of pain we can tolerate.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.