Polyamory Is More Common Than You Think, But It's Not for Everyone
"Being in a poly relationship doesn’t always make someone poly at heart."
Bilyana Stoyanovska / EyeEm / Getty Images
“Would you want to have just one meal every single day of your life? Even if it was the best carbonara you’ve ever had. Would you still never want to have anything else?”
Does this sound familiar? Especially in reference not to food, but to love? Chances are, if you’re under 40 you’ve heard arguments like this trotted out in defense of one of the most irrepressible sexual trends of our times: polyamory. With the new film Professor Marsten & The Wonder Women, and shows like You Me Her and Polyamory: Married & Dating, it’s clear that polyamory is trendy. (When a sexual preference becomes a cover story for The Guardian’s magazine—a weekend staple for the middle-aged and middle-class—you know it’s gone mainstream.)
“I think most people who practice consensual, non-monogamous relationships would be offended by the use of the term ‘trendy’ because it may imply that polyamory is a passing fad,” says Rhonda Balzarini, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. “But I do agree that it is becoming increasingly visible.”
Polyamory, however, isn't anywhere close to as new as the mainstream media makes out. “The term ‘polyamory’ started to appear in the mid 1990s,” says Edward Fernandes, a professor of psychology at Barton College in North Carolina, and an expert on swinging. Though adultery is as old as civilization itself—“swingers” date to as early as Paris in the 1700s, and the hippies had “free love”—polyamory as an identity is really only a few decades old.
“The media loves ‘polyamory’ because of the emotional connotations,” he says. “It seems to imply that nobody is being taken advantage of.” Why's it so fashionable now? Cult manifestos like The Ethical Slut (1997) got the word out. But the biggest boost was from the New York Times best-seller Sex At Dawn (2010) by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jeetha (a married couple).
Ryan and Jeetha argued that polyamory is not just a choice, or a predilection that suits some people—it’s our “natural” way of being, our sexual factory setting. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and primatology, they argue that our ancestors would have all enjoyed multiple partnerships, and monogamy was invented and artificially forced upon us en mass thousands of years ago when we moved from hunter gatherers to agrarian communities.
Property became something valuable to pass on, and fathers needed to know for certain the child inheriting their land was actually theirs. Today, Ryan and Jeetha claim, we have polyamorous bodies that have been forced into monogamous boxes. Lifelong sexual fidelity, they argue, is therefore nothing more than a form of “cultural indoctrination." They continue:
“The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame. Serial monogamy stretches before (and behind) many of us like an archipelago of failure: isolated islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment.”
Even before this book came out, polyamorists were often just as evangelical and dogmatic. Poly devotees, Fernandes says, bear one striking difference to people who simply have open relationships. “They tend to have activists—people that promote it. I often joke that it’s a bit like a religion, but honestly: Why do people preach about anything? Because they think they have seen ‘the truth’ and want you to believe what they believe.”
It's somewhat ironic that polyamorists can be just as self-righteous as the sexual purists they seek to replace, from garden-variety monogamous couples to Silver Ring Thing proselytizers.
Lisa Dawn Hamilton, an associate professor in the psychology department at Mount Allison University, says that both the militant monogamists and polyamorist pontificators are wrong: “It’s scientifically flawed to lump everyone together like that—all our traits lie on a spectrum, from height to extroversion to hair color.”
This is the most obvious criticism to make of Ryan and Jeetha and all those who preach that polyamory is the “natural” state for humans. Any study of human sexual behavior—from preferences to gender identity to erotic kinks—indicates that diversity is the norm. Hamilton discovered just how true this is recently while recruiting men for research.
“In my mind, there would be two populations of men—one super monogamous and the other super non-monogamous. But what we found was that about 90 percent of the men lay somewhere in the middle.” In the end, she examined 20 men—ten from each end of the spectrum—and put them in brain scanners while showing them a variety of images. Her study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior last year, measuring blood flow in different regions of the brain with fMRI technology, found that if shown “romantic images,” monogamous men had more activity in certain areas of the brain compared to non-monogamous men.
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Which might imply that there is a true biological difference between people who are inclined to be monogamous and those who are not. This would counter the old-fashioned view that everyone is hard-wired for monogamy—a view upheld by influential biologists such as Frans de Waal, a famed primatologist and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. In his 2006 book Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature, de Waal writes, “The intimate male–female relationship...a ‘pair-bond’, is bred into our bones. I believe this is what sets us apart from the apes more than anything else.”
Polyamory might be trendy, but the vast majority of biologists—and laypeople—still think of monogamy as our default setting. So much so that polyamorists complain that they feel stigmatized, according to a piece published on this very site. However, there is a big difference between feeling stigmatized and being stigmatized. A yet-to-be published survey of 5,000 Match.com members carried out by Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute who has been studying monogamy and fidelity for four decades, found that while only six percent of respondents practiced polyamory, 68 percent of single people approved of it. They may believe they are stigmatized, but this piece of evidence says they are not.
Polyamorist “activists,” as Fernandes calls them, are just as intolerant as the militant monogamists they seek to replace. As a shameless monogamist myself, what strikes me as most flawed about the arguments I hear from many polyamorists is the way they describe monogamy as a chore: something we do because we are told we have to. If you’ve ever been in true love—eyes-for-one-only, weak-in-the-knees passion—you know that monogamy isn’t a chore or an obligation. It’s an addiction. An insatiable desire that nothing else will satisfy, despite all logic.
It's been said that romantic love is the only socially acceptable form of insanity. And, like any addiction, it can be destructive, as anyone who has ever been in or around an abusive relationship will attest. This last point, Fisher says, really strikes at the heart of what romantic love is, and how it is different in humans compared to other animals. Fisher herself last year published a review titled, “Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction?" Having a broken heart, she says, can come with “the common signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and chronic loneliness."
Indeed, Fisher continues, we have good biological evidence that romantic love is much more than anything that could be dismissed as simply a cultural construct. “Monogamy is not an invention: The brain regions that are involved in monogamous romantic love are associated with some of our most basic brain regions—the ones associated with fear and addiction, [and] the ones that orchestrate hunger and thirst,” she says. “This goes deeper.”
As for people in open relationships and polyamorous arrangements right now? “This isn’t new. We slept around in my day too,” she says. “The difference is they are being transparent about it, and I admire them for that. However, we have zero evidence that any of these arrangements are stable. There have been zero studies that show that these things are sustained long-term.”
Balzarini agrees, and she may have studied the poly community more than anyone: She spent a year in between her MA and PhD traveling the US and attending polyamorous meet-ups and retreats to gather interviews. Soon, she'll launch a longitudinal study examining relationship processes in polyamorous relationships over time—the first study of its kind in history, she says.
Magdalena J. Fosse, a clinical psychologist, couples counselor, and certified sex therapist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, echoes Balzarini and Fisher’s critique: “There is no reliable data—this population is very hard to assess,” she says. But though it’s undeniably a good thing if people who aren't monogamous in their hearts can be increasingly exposed to the concept of a new lifestyle—and feel less shame or stigma with that choice—it’s also true that the polyamory trend is causing a lot of pain.
Fosse says a typical story goes like this: The couple read all the right books, listened to all the podcasts, followed the online forums, talked to friends who are poly, and thought they were ready. Then they discover a problem they can't fix by themselves: Relationships bring out the best, but also the worst in us. Old traumas resurface. New insecurities emerge. “Intellectual readiness is not the same as emotional readiness, and as many patients I see attest to, what they thought they wanted is not actually what they end up liking and enjoying," she says. "Being in a poly relationship doesn’t makes someone poly at heart. They may still be monogamous by preference, just trying to make it all work to the best of their ability.”
Polyamory has always been in fashion—and like all things in fashion, celebrities have always given it the publicity boost it needs to stay alive. French intellectuals Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, have long been heralded as early examples of a polyamorist arrangement, evidence that polys are more enlightened than boring, conventional, monogamous squares. (Though I happen to doubt that a man famous for saying, “Hell is other people” would be a riot in the sack.)
The cross-dressing, genre-defying badass David Bowie was a polyamorist at one point in his life, too. But even Bowie quit his poly lifestyle when the right person came along. After his divorce from his first wife, Angie, het met Iman, and everything changed. As Iman put it in a 2016 BBC documentary, "He claims that he knew right away that I was the one. It took maybe a week," she said, adding that Bowie "courted her the old-fashioned way."
Maybe the vast majority of polys really will stay that way forever. Or maybe Bowie’s example is instructive: Some just haven’t really been in love yet.
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