Fifty years ago, or even 25 years ago when a lot of us were coming of age, it was inconceivable to think about a relationship outside of the standard monogamy style of relationships. People just “did” monogamy, or, technically, serial monogamy, and we didn’t think twice about it.
Yes, there were mavericks who experimented with other relationship styles like polyamory, but these people were on the fringes of society. But now, it seems like there are more options for relationship styles- Millennials in particular are more open to polyamorous relationships.
In one study, (see above charts), 43% of millennials said their ideal relationship was non-monogamous (and that 31% of them were currently in non-monogamous relationships). But the phenomenon is not just limited to the younger set- the same study found that 32% of all Americans said their ideal relationship was non-monogamous to some extent. However, other research has shown the opposite pattern: poly relationships may be more common among older people- in an openpsychometrics report, 8% of people in the 33-55 age range were currently poly, 7.2% in the 26-32 age range were, 6.4% in the 19-25 were poly, and from 13-18, 7.7% of the respondents reported being in polyamorous relationships. Sampling differences between the two studies may account for the difference between the two studies. So, what’s the hype all about? What exactly is a polyamorous relationship, and what are the pros and cons of being in one?
What Exactly Is Polyamory?
What exactly is polyamory? Is it as simple as having multiple sex partners outside of your primary relationship? Simply put, it is the practice of engaging in multiple romantic and sexual relationships with the consent of all persons involved. It is not the same as an “open relationship,” which usually refers to having sexual partners (but not necessarily romantic partners) outside of a primary relationship. It is also NOT cheating- although 18% of Americans admit to having had sex with someone else without the consent of their primary partner. Polyamory is also not the same thing as polygamy- which is the practice of marrying more than one person at the same time. Polyamorous relationships can take a variety of forms- couples “dating” each other, or adding a 3rd-or 4th person to an already established partnership or marriage. Some people could be described as “poly-curious”- which is when someone is curious about, or is interested in, being in a poly relationship, but has not actually done it.
When I was in my early 20’s, I declared to my parents that my husband and I were polyamorous, and our relationship stayed that way until its demise (which had nothing to do with polyamory.) Poly life was great for me at that time of my life- I am bisexual, and it gave me the opportunity to have relationships with men and women. That was really fulfilling to me. However, after the divorce, none of the partners I’ve had were comfortable with the idea of polyamory or open relationships, so I’ve given it up, at least for now. As much as I liked the freedom of polyamory in my 20’s, now that I am in my mid-40’s, I like the comfort of a monogamous relationship. Monogamy is like your old favorite sweater- you can crawl into it when you want to be comforted and safe. Polyamory is like fishnet stockings- a little risky, sexy, but definitely not something that, at least I, would like to do all the time.
Pros And Cons Of Poly Relationships
What are the pros and cons of poly relationships? How are they different or more challenging than monogamist relationships? Willow Smith, in this Red Table Talk, says the main benefit of poly relationships is that it allows you to create a relationship style that works for you, rather than just stepping into a monogamous relationship because that’s what everyone says you should be doing. Gabriella Alexa equates polyamory with self-love: she writes, “It is a rejection of the power dynamics and mechanisms of control that socialized me to betray myself.” Jada Pinkett-Smith, in this interview with HuffPost in 2013, said, “”I’ve always told Will, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be OK,’ because at the end of the day, Will is his own man,” she said. “I’m here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be and that’s not for me to do for him. Or vice versa.”
So, if poly is so great, why are so many of us still in monogamous relationships? Why is it so hard to walk away from monogamy? Cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel tried a poly relationship when she was in her late 40’s because she thought it would allow her to focus more on her work, but she found that it made her more jealous than she expected. Relationship and sexuality expert Esther Perel notes that “monogamy is not natural,” but says that what is not natural or easy can be very good. “A lot of us get this idea of what it’s like to be a perfect poly person, which we take to mean that you never feel jealousy and you’re always perfectly happy about what your partner does. And that’s not realistic,” says Liz Powell, a sex therapist and speaker. She said, “Humans are messy creatures. We have messy hearts that feel things strongly. That doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong or that you’re bad at poly, it just means that you’re having feelings. I think it’s worth looking at those feelings and acting on what they are telling you.”
How do you know if you’re cut out for a polyamorous relationship? Some of the major pros of being in a poly relationship include:
- Humans may be polyamorous by nature
- Bigger selection of partners
- The lower risk that people will get bored in a marriage
- Bigger families imply more connections, and more social connections has been shown to be good for our physical and mental health
However good this “pros” list looks, the “cons” of being in a poly relationship are just as long:
- Polyamory can lead to jealousy
- Having more than one partner can be expensive- how much do you spend on one partner eating out and entertaining? Now try multiplying that cost by 2 or 3 times!
- Polyamory may promote gender inequality- if there are an unequal number of men or women in a poly relationship (for example, 2 men and one woman), the woman in that relationship may be treated unequally by her two male partners
- more open to STDs- the more people you sleep with, the more likely you are to get an STD
Pros And Cons Of Monogamy
On the other hand, what are the pros of monogamy?
- It’s more comfortable and acceptable for children to be raised by two parents, not 3, 4, or 5!
- Fewer chances of contracting an STD
- It really takes a lot of energy, character, and will to be in a polyamorous relationship, communication and balance between partners is easier in a monogamous relationship
- Emotional security- monogamy can feel very safe and comforting
- Financial support- paying for the needs of multiple partners can get expensive
- Culturally approved-most societies only approve of monogamy
But there are just as many “cons” associated with monogamy:
- People change- people evolve over time, and the person you fell in love with 15 years ago may be a very different person today
- Lack of personal growth- having multiple partners allows you to explore other aspects of yourself
7.6% of people in the openpsychometrics survey report having had been in a poly relationship that is now monogamous. Polyamorous relationships tend to last about as long as monogamous relationships- with a half-life of about 7 years.
Monogamous And Want To Go Poly? Poly And Want To Go Monogamous?
Are you in a monogamous relationship and you want to try turning it into a polyamorous relationship? How is that done?
The first step, and the most important, is open communication with your partner. If you want to move your monogamous relationship to be poly, you have to have an honest, frank, and open conversation with your partner. The second step is to develop guidelines and rules that you both agree to and both feel comfortable with. Polyamorous relationships have rules just like monogamous relationships do- what is accepted and what is not. Third, give your partner time to think about it- don’t rush this! The fourth step is to accept if your partner says “no” and explore your options- do you want to stay in a monogamous relationship with them, or is it time to find a relationship that will support your poly goals?
What if you are in a poly relationship and you want to go back to being in a monogamous relationship? The key is exactly the same as going from monogamy to poly: communication. Open communication between both partners is critical whether you are going from mono to poly or from poly to mono.
Do you feel trapped in your monogamous relationship? Why do we stay in relationships that don’t meet our poly desires? Social psychologist Terri D. Conley and her co-authors (2012) found that there is a significant stigma surrounding poly relationships, and that there exists a “halo” effect around monogamous relationships. This stigma could be a significant factor on why people don’t try polyamorous relationships. Dr. Alexandra Solomon, PhD, says that people feel trapped in monogamous relationships because they are afraid of commitment. However, poly relationships require at least as much commitment as monogamous relationships do, so don’t blame your desire to be in a poly relationship as a sign that you are commitment phobic. In fact, poly relationships can require MORE commitment than monogamous relationships, because of the sheer amount of communication and trust involved.
The Bottom Line
Poly relationships can bring a lot of benefits to your life, including increased control over your life and sexual and romantic relationships. Monogamous relationships, on the other hand, can feel comfortable and safe, especially if trust in the relationship is high. Both kinds of relationships require frequent, open, and frank communication: what we want in a relationship changes as we age, and it is critical that you communicate your wishes and desires to your partner/partners. Whatever kind of relationship you are in, poly or monogamous, physical and emotional safety of everyone involved is critical, and on-going honest communication is one key to maintaining that emotional safety.