If you haven’t yet met the term “polyamory,” let us introduce you. It’s becoming a “thing” and we think people should think more clearly about it. Marital polyamory is a family configuration in which a married couple mutually decides to open up their marriage to other sexual and romantic partners (usually after a monogamous relationship for several years). Sometimes an open marriage looks like sexual relationships with others outside the marriage—while preserving the primary relationship with the spouse—and other times it looks like a sexual system, with one or two partners attached to the marriage (usually living together) who exchange sex with other members of the sexual pod. (Polyamorists go to great lengths to distinguish their sexual systems from polygamy, which is a more closed, patriarchal union – e.g., “Hey, we’re not HBO’s ‘Big Love’—we’re just about ‘more love.’”)
As family scientists and cultural observers, we have immersed ourselves for several years in both the scholarship and popular literature on marital polyamory, sometimes referred to more generically as consensual non-monogamy (CNM). But it’s not just an academic curiosity; we’ve been encountering the subject in the wild a lot lately. Here’s a sampling from talking with family and friends recently: “My co-worker is getting married this year, but his fiancé wants to keep her girlfriend on the side.” Or, “My dance teacher and her husband just got divorced after being in an open relationship with another highly religious couple—and they ended up swapping spouses.” And from a therapist neighbor who counsels a lot of struggling young women: “What’s going on? I’ve lost count of the number of clients coming to me with requests from their partner to open up their relationship.”
The popularity of polyamory. So, is polyamory really becoming a “thing”? The numbers suggest that it’s still uncommon. Our 2018 study of a nationally representative sample found that 1% of married couples report they are in a consensual non-monogamous relationship. About 4% reported that at some point while married they were involved in CNM (although it could have been in a different marriage). Granted, 1-4% of all marriages is a small percentage; that doesn’t seem much like a “thing.” But if you think about it, this translates into 600,000-2,400,000 couples in the United States. So, numerically, it’s not nothing, and there are reasons to think this figure will grow. You don’t have the skills and resources to make something like this work, certainly not long term.
You don’t have the skills and resources to make something like this work, certainly not long term.
Maybe polyamory isn’t such a big thing yet, but open attitudes and demographic changes suggest we are headed in that direction. In the near future, the popularity of marital polyamory will likely eclipse same-sex marriages, which currently are also only about 1% of all U.S. marriages.
Popularizing polyamory. Fueling this growing popularity is the fact that popular media and academic writing are doing their part to celebrate the practice. The New York Times, in particular, seems especially enamored with it; we counted 10 articles in the last 5 years alone, each with an open and curious—often approving and advocating—tone. Haillie Blassingame, in her 2021 “Modern Love” essay, “My choice isn’t marriage or loneliness,” echoes a familiar refrain heard in many of these articles: “What I want are relationships that operate with a spirit of possibility rather than constraint.” The most recent NYT article reported on an open letter to Facebook calling for them to change the relationship status function to allow for polyamorists to list all their romantic relationships, not just one. The letter came from the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy (OPEN) and was co-signed by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
And polyamory isn’t just a trendy east coast thing: meet Salt Lake City couple Sabrina and Ben Gallegos and their throuple love interest, Allie Bullock, who were featured in a Salt Lake Tribune profile a few months ago. The relationship began when Allie broke up with her boyfriend and Sabrina, her co-worker and friend, offered her a place to stay. Over the next year, Ben and Sabrina both decided that they wanted Allie to be more than a friend. “Seeing Sabrina fall in love with Allie,” Ben says, “I kind of started to fall in love with Allie through her eyes.” They have been together six years now and Sabrina has given birth to a daughter, who is being raised by three involved co-parents.
Like journalists, social scientists, too, appear infatuated with polyamory. The research on this topic has serious limitations, but peer reviewers and editors readily overlook those flaws to publish on a cutting-edge subject that draws readers in. For instance, Eli Finkel at Northwestern University has analyzed the changing nature of modern marriage and recommends CNM as a remedy—a “love hack”—to the contemporary dilemma that we expect more of marriage these days than it can realistically deliver. He suggests that partners’ differences in sexual needs and wants—which he argues is a common modern and gendered marital malady—can be conveniently handled by loosening the reins of monogamy. Another set of social scientists critique the “zero-sum thinking” about romantic relationships reflected in negative attitudes about CNM in a 2017 issue of Psychology and Sexuality. After all, they argue, parents don’t love one child less just because they have additional children.
Legal journals too are punctuated with sophisticated arguments for why polyamorist marriages must be constitutionally protected. “If one form [same-sex marriage] deserves dignity, so does the other,” asserts a Note by an unnamed author in 2022 in the prestigious Harvard Law Review. “Polyamorous people seek out intimate bonds, strive to be caring parents, and must prove they are not lesser because of whom they love.” Writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, two legal scholars argue that the privileging of “mono-normativity” causes dignitary harm to polyamorists in the same way that “hetero-normativity” harms other sexual minorities. Brett Chamberlin, the Executive Director of OPEN, argues that “CNM is the next chapter“ in LGBT+ rights. Soon, monogamy may become no more necessary to the meaning of marriage than heterosexuality. Be all-in for one rather than divided across many. “Forsaking all others” can be liberating precisely because of the chosen limitations.
Be all-in for one rather than divided across many. “Forsaking all others” can be liberating precisely because of the chosen limitations.
Yes, it’s becoming a thing. We could change directions here and raise moral, ethical, and philosophical concerns that we have with it. But approaches that realistically probe the pros and cons of polyamory may stick better, especially with younger generations, than a philosophical debate about the moral underpinnings and meaning of modern marriage. On that basis, let’s focus now on the pragmatic stuff.
Polyamory pragmatics. The pros that polyamorists pitch are quickly available with any Google search: freedom, novelty, authenticity to an identity or a need, less pressure for one person to meet all your needs, an extra parenting partner, etc. There are even (unfounded) claims of “greater relationship stability” (because this presumably short-circuits common reasons for divorce like cheating) and the “potential for higher marriage rates” (for those who can’t imagine just being with one person the rest of their life).
Each of these “pros” calls for much more scrutiny. But what about the “cons”? There are many less-discussed, significant downsides meriting so much more attention—especially among young people, many of whom are seeing this as a legitimate possibility for their lives. What else should we know and consider about polyamorous married life? What are some things to think about—or think twice about?
We realize that for many there is just a basic “ick” factor to the whole idea of a sexually open marriage, while for others there may be a dreamy “ooooo-ness” to it. That’s why we believe it’s urgent to go beyond these gut-level reactions alone to explore, at least briefly, some pragmatic relational challenges with polyamory.
At the very least, this could help counterbalance the skewed one-dimensional scholarly ogling and rosy-glow journalistic portraits out there. Essentially, we think more young people deserve to see the warning labels that are missing or glossed over from these journalistic stories and academic writings.
Communication Skills. The very heart of polyamory, theoretically, is frequent, open, honest communication. Let’s be real, though; most of us are not communication savants. In fact, as relationship scientists, we know that many of us fall flat on our faces with this communication thing. There’s a reason that marriage therapists and educators are in high demand. Ineffective communication shows up regularly on lists of primary reasons why people say they got divorced. For instance, in a recent survey out of Utah State University of Utah parents going through a mandated divorcing parents class, 86% said that “communication problems” contributed a lot or somewhat to their breakup, by far the #1 reason. Both the volume of communication required in polyamory and the sensitive nature of discussed subjects—sex and romance—not to mention just all the day-to-day prosaic matters of romantic relationships, call for communication skill levels that will stretch most of us until we snap.
Emotion Regulation Skills. When it comes to romance and sex, our emotions are in the driver’s seat far more than our higher-order cognitive skills. If open and honest communication is especially crucial for polyamorists, that sexual communication is likewise not hermetically controlled within our frontal cortex. The more basal parts of our brain light up during sexual communication. Polyamorists are pretty real about the emotional challenges of non-monogamy and readily admit that it isn’t for everyone. Jealousy doesn’t magically disappear because you’ve decided it’s okay to seek romance and sex outside the marriage or with others inside your sexual system. “Compersion” is a new word that captures the phenomenon of experiencing happiness at your spouse’s sexual pleasure with someone else. To us, that sounds like some pretty high-level emotion regulation—requiring some special forces training in emotion regulation to be able to navigate the sexual communication and complex sexual behavior involved in polyamory.
Infidelity. Cheating still goes on in open relationships when partners do not fully communicate about their outside sexual adventures. One “soft-swinging” young married mom in an open marriage live-streamed on TikTok her confession of “stepping over the agreed-upon line” that has now led to her husband filing for divorce. “We played with fire, and we got burned,” she openly and honestly laments. Make sex serve your relationship needs rather than the relationship serve your sexual wants.
Make sex serve your relationship needs rather than the relationship serve your sexual wants.
Children. Children don’t get much attention in stories and studies of polyamory. But many unions have them or will want them. What are the rules? To start with, who gets a say in fertility decisions? Is it just the baby-making couple or do other partners in the system have a say? How are parenting boundaries and roles determined? What happens when a married mom gets jealous of the child’s father spending a lot of time with his new baby via another sexual partner? Legal questions around children and parenting in polyamorous unions are not well settled and can lead to destructive post-breakup conflict.
Finances. In journalistic portraits of polyamorous couples, something as mundane as family finances is seldom broached. But as relationship scientists, we know how potent financial matters are to relationship quality and longevity. Is it okay to draw from the couple’s bank account to take your girlfriend on a romantic getaway or even for a nice dinner out? Are separate bank accounts needed to reduce these kinds of potential conflicts? In a polyamorous pod, does all the income go into the same pot, and if so, how are financial decisions made? The legal limbo of extra-dyadic partners could make mingling finances a potential problem. And sex isn’t the only thing that couples struggle to talk about; financial communication may test our communication skills even more than sex. To keep money conflict to a minimum, it seems a comfortable financial situation with lots of discretionary income would be necessary. The research and public commentary on polyamory are mostly mute on these questions.
Time and Energy. Maybe the most pragmatic issue with polyamory, however, is simply the time and energy involved in keeping love alive in multiple romantic relationships. Relationships need time and energy to counter the natural entropy of the social universe. And time and energy are constrained for polyamorists the same way they are for monogamists. Polyamory isn’t just a quick sexual encounter. If that’s all it was, then time and energy wouldn’t be a major barrier. But it’s another romantic relationship that is unique in its shape and form, with a real human being who has expectations and demands.
We’ve only begun to outline here the daunting pragmatic challenges involved in polyamorous marriages. Even some positive media portrayals of polyamory acknowledge its complexities and potential pitfalls. In a New York Times portrait, “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” Susan Dominus doesn’t pull punches exploring this question. “And so it [polyamory] began [for Jamie and Rich]. For Jamie, an endless series of dates; for Rich, one lost weekend with a woman he thought he could love. There were several nights of threeways involving them both; relationships that flared then fizzled for each of them. Their own [marital] sex improved. And then … one year after they opened their marriage, Rich asked for a divorce. … The year had had its thrills, but Rich also felt perennially on guard, unnerved by the sense that there would always be more bruises to come. He had never really recovered from Jamie’s [pre-polyamory] affairs, and he hated wondering, when he was home alone, what Jamie was doing with someone he had never met. He longed for the security of one partner, the beauty of its simplicity and romance. … She had offered to stop seeing other people, but he said he did not want her to feel resentful. ‘This is not the life for me, and just as important, I don’t want to stop her from being who she is.’” (Notice the implicit assumption that individuals are “finding their true self” in polyamory—a common and even classic claim from anyone chasing unrestrained sexual fulfillment).
Another couple, Daniel and Elizabeth, who had leading roles in the aforementioned NYT story, struggled as well. “Daniel, too, after a year, felt burdened by resentments, disappointed by how painful the path to a better relationship with his wife [Elizabeth] had been, and by how many logistical hurdles were in the way of a relationship with someone else. Neither he nor the woman to whom he felt so close had the finances or time to support a long-distance relationship. After a few months of sweet, sad instant-message exchanges, they agreed that they would not be able to see each other again any time soon—and that it might be less painful, especially for her, to break off the steady communication.”
If your head is swimming after reading all this, we understand, and we haven’t even covered all the pragmatic issues would-be polyamorists should ponder, let alone the important moral and ethical issues. So, what’s the bottom line of our sampling of pragmatic challenges to polyamory? Well, we’re sorry to have to tell you this, but … the thing is … you don’t have the skills and resources to make something like this work, certainly not long term. Few people do. For us relational mortals, polyamory is closer to superhero stuff than a real option. Maybe that’s why Hollywood and love columnists enjoy indulging us in the fantasy of it. Embrace the beautiful simplicity of monogamy.
Embrace the beautiful simplicity of monogamy.
Maybe you disagree with us; polyamory isn’t going to become a big thing. We hope you’re right. Granted, most people still affirm that monogamy is an essential ingredient to—a defining pillar of—marriage. And we can be grateful for that. It’s also easy to think that what polyamorists choose to do in their private lives shouldn’t and doesn’t affect your marriage. There we disagree. What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. It seeps into the cultural groundwater that we all drink.
But “we’re not trying to convert anyone,” a young polyamorist woman with a soft smile protests in a 6-minute video posted on The Atlantic website. “We just want people to respect what we have.” Okay, but when respect requires fudging on a fundamental premise of marriage in our society, well, that’s an entirely different matter. Her word, “just,” seems misapplied here. Discussing together the option of monogamy that’s on the marital menu is vastly different from accepting an institutional rule that privileges it. If monogamy becomes a (continuously) negotiated agreement between spouses rather than a universally understood axiom of marriage, then monogamy gets harder to ask for and expect, easier to dismiss and devalue, and harder to embrace as a private guide and a public virtue. For everyone.