Sarah Brylinsky, a 34-year-old working in higher education in Ithaca, N.Y., is legally married to 36-year-old farm manager Brandon Brylinsky. Two years ago, on a camping trip a decade into their relationship, they met 35-year-old Matte Namer, the founder of a real estate firm.
The Brylinskys and Namer are polyamorous, which means they are open to romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. After meeting two years ago, they started going on dates together, and soon after, Namer moved in with the Brylinskys. Now, the three plan to have a child, and they want to make their relationship official so that they can be recognized by their community as a family.
But how do you make a relationship official when there are three people in it?
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy — when people have more than one sexual or romantic partner at once with all partners’ permission. A 2021 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that one in nine single American adults had engaged in polyamory.
In legal terms, polyamorous people are unable to marry all their of partners: It is illegal throughout the United States to marry more than one person at a time. Somerville, Mass., is thought to be the first U.S. city to legally recognize polyamorous domestic partnerships, which it started doing in 2020.
However, people like Namer and the Brylinskys are utilizing an option that symbolically, though not legally, binds all three of them: a commitment ceremony.
Commitment ceremonies are events that celebrate any number of people’s commitment to one another, and they can look many different ways, according to Connecticut-based marriage and family therapist Kristen C. Dew.
She’s seen some that “resemble the typical monogamous couples’ weddings,” she said, while others are parties or outdoor gatherings. She also said that “many opt for handfasting ceremonies,” or choose unique items as symbols of their love.
The ceremony that Namer and the Brylinskys are planning will be similar to a wedding. They’re discarding some traditions: They’ll have a cookie table instead of a cake, for example. But they will all make vows to one another. In addition, the Brylinskys will create a joint vow just for Namer, and vice versa, they said.
“We met Matte as a couple; there was a relationship that came before them, and it’s both important to establish that we made a family together and to acknowledge that we transitioned our existing relationship to make room for that,” Sarah said.
Ambyr D’Amato, a wedding planner based in New York, is helping to plan this ceremony. She said she has worked with several other polyamorous people on commitment ceremonies: In one of them, a couple that was already married waited at the end of the aisle, and the third person walked down the aisle to symbolically join them.
“It was important to [the third person], since they were not legally married to anybody, that they had a ceremony where they could involve their family and have things be more in the open,” D’Amato said. The event took place in Central Park, she added, replete with flowers, champagne, oysters and live music.
Another commitment ceremony D’Amato planned was between two people who were both legally married to other people, and each person’s partner was present to give their blessing. Afterward, they threw a dance party with their family and friends.
“I like that I can provide access to a heart-opening and connected time for people,” D’Amato said. “I also like that I can help them think outside of the box: You can do whatever you want. Nothing has to look a certain way.”
Many people are embracing the notion that their relationship doesn’t have to be celebrated with a traditional wedding, and opting for commitment ceremonies instead — even those whose relationships only involve two people.
Rachael, a 37-year-old writer, and Tom, a 36-year-old tech adviser — both based in Santa Barbara, Calif. — were legally married for financial and logistical reasons in 2015, but they publicly became each other’s spouses during a commitment ceremony on the lawn of the Santa Barbara courthouse six months earlier.
“We felt it was a better fit for us, being pretty nontraditional in many ways,” Rachael said. “We wanted to be very intentional about how we celebrated our commitment.”
Rachael and Tom, who spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, said they are non-monogamous and are open to committing themselves to an additional partner. Part of the reason they joined through a commitment ceremony is so that, if they do decide to hold another one with a third person, all three of them will be on the same footing, they said.
And as a genderqueer, pansexual person holding this ceremony in 2015 — before same-sex marriage was legal throughout the U.S. — Rachael wanted to stand in solidarity with queer people who couldn’t legally marry their partners, Rachael said.
To reflect the nontraditional nature of their relationship, Rachael wore blue, and instead of the gendered roles of bridesmaids and groomsmen, they designated a group they called “their people” to walk down the aisle one by one.
Jessica Fern, a Boulder-based psychotherapist who works with polyamorous people, touted the potential benefits of ceremonies like this.
“When someone experiences legal marginalization for their relationship structure or style, commitment ceremonies can go a long way to deepen a relationship, publicly acknowledge its significance, and even assuage some of the pain and injustice that being a minority can create,” she said.
Fern’s clients who have undergone commitment ceremonies have reported feeling more secure in their relationships as a result, she said: “They have more of a structure that they can rely on that’s bigger than just them. They can lean on each other in hard times, like, ‘I made this commitment.’ ”
But many non-monogamous people say they don’t feel safe holding an event as public as a commitment ceremony, because of existing stigma. And while those in polyamorous relationships can work with lawyers to secure certain legal protections (Namer and the Brylinskys are working with the Chosen Family Law Center to ensure they all have equal status as parents of their future child), a commitment ceremony does not confer the same rights as a legal wedding.
Some non-monogamous people hope that this will change in the future. “We have the right to be with our loved ones and share the resources that we would normally get to share in a monogamous context,” Fern said.
Still, Fern thinks anyone wanting to make an official commitment to a partner can learn from non-monogamous commitment ceremonies.
“There are so many traditions that we do in monogamous weddings, and we’re like, why do we do this?” she said. “Why do you throw the bouquet? … Why is the father giving the bride away? As people are questioning [these norms], they’re able to have even their own monogamous wedding that feels aligned with them and their values and their relationship.”