Polyamory: No, it’s not cheating. Or similar to polygamy. Or even having a few “side pieces.”
Polyamory, a practice of maintaining multiple close relationships as an alternative to monogamy, draws adults of all ages, and online dating has made it easier for the polyamorous and poly-curious to find one another. Late last year, the online dating site OkCupid added a function so that polyamorous couples could search for new partners together. OkCupid added the feature after their data showed that 42 percent of their users, most of whom are under 35, would consider dating someone who is involved in a polyamorous relationship.
Curious about how these couples work IRL, I spent some time in December with four 20-somethings in the Washington area to learn what it’s like to be young and polyamorous. (You can read about them here.)
In the course of my reporting, I spoke to several experts on polyamory. Here are some of their views on who’s drawn to consensual non-monogamy and what types of challenges arise when it comes to raising a family or creating a life with multiple partners.
1. What types of people are drawn to polyamory?
Franklin Veaux, a sex educator and co-author of “More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory,” has five partners — and all of his partners have other partners. He notes that he knows people in their 20s up through their 80s who are in polyamorous relationships.
“In my experience,” Veaux said in a phone interview, “there’s a huge range of people drawn to polyamory. The only thing they have in common is that they don’t want monogamy.”
And they often have non-traditional ideas about relationships, he added. “There’s a lot overlap with polyamory and BDSM, polyamory and swinging.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that polyamorists are always casual about relationships; they take them very seriously. “It’s not for people who are afraid of relationships,” Veaux said, noting that that’s a common misconception about polyamory. “That would be like saying mountain-climbing is for people who are afraid of heights. If you’re scared of relationships, you’re certainly not going to do multiple relationships.”
2. Why is polyamory becoming more popular with young people?
Increasingly, sexuality is being understood as more of a spectrum than a gay-straight binary. In a 2015 YouGov survey, for example, more than half of millennials agreed that sexuality is a continuous scale. I asked Veaux whether this understanding of sexual fluidity could also mean that young people are more apt to view relationships as fluid and therefore be less focused on monogamy. “Absolutely,” he replied. “Millennials are growing up in a world where polyamory is a choice among many [types of relationships].”
“The fact that the gay and lesbian community has been so mainstream,” Veaux said, means that “people are more aware of the variety that’s out there, that there’s more than one way to have a relationship.”
When Veaux started getting into non-monogamy in the 1980s, “we didn’t have a language, we didn’t have a community, we didn’t have a way to find each other.”
“Now the word is there, the language is there. They talk about it on reality TV shows; they talk about it on Montel Williams.”
3. What about jealousy?
“If you’re an extremely jealous person, polyamory might not be for you,” says Tamara Pincus, a therapist in the Washington area who works with a lot of polyamorous clients and is poly herself.
It’s helpful for people to figure out what their jealousy is about, she advises, whether it’s stemming from a fear of being replaced or feelings of inadequacy; both responses can arise when multiple relationships are involved.
Pincus sometimes suggests coming up with “an after-care plan,” of what to do when someone comes back from a date, for how they might comfort a partner who’s jealous.
“People expect to be jealous,” Pincus adds. “I think people are more surprised when they’re not as jealous as they expect.”
Of course there are those who want to be polyamorous but the jealousy undermines the whole thing, Pincus says. “They’re not prepared for the amount of emotional work that’s it’s going to be.”
And it is a lot of work: Life with multiple partners means “you also have more exposure to negative things,” Pincus notes, such as loved ones who might be sick or going through difficult times.
4. How do you deal with co-parenting when more than two parents are involved?
Franklin Veaux doesn’t have children, but one of his partners has a daughter, who was 7 when they started dating and is 17 now. He doesn’t take a parenting role with the child. “I never wanted kids,” he says. All of his other partners are child-free.
When it comes to custody of kids, U.S. legal policy is structured around the two-person nuclear family and isn’t well-suited to protecting polyamorous families with three or four adults in children’s lives.
Still, Diana Adams, managing partner of Diana Adams Law & Mediation in New York, works with polyamorous individuals to come up with creative prenuptial, co-parenting and co-habitation agreements to give them “as much financial and legal stability as possible in a legal system that does not recognize their family form,” she says.
“I’ve seen many poly families create stable co-parenting relationships,” Adams notes. “It’s critical they don’t rush into that situation without professionals.”
The problems, she says, arise in such situations as when a couple with a child might have a girlfriend move in and it’s unclear: Is she a third parent or just a cohabiting friend? “Those kinds of muddled relationships are where the real problems lie,” Adams says, “both in co-parenting situations as well in sperm-donor agreements.”
Since polyamorous families don’t necessarily have legal rights, “you may be up against the proclivities of a specific judge” in a co-parenting or custody dispute, Adams notes. She tries to create contracts that a court would enforce, “but ultimately the judge would be looking at the best interest of the child as well as whatever agreement came before.”
5. Does the legalization of gay marriage open the door to plural marriage?
In Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts’s dissent in the court’s gay marriage decision, he posited that legalizing same-sex marriage could lead to next allowing polygamy. But none of the polyamorists I spoke to are rushing to advocate for it.
Plural marriage would be “helpful, but I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon,” Veaux says. “It’s not something most poly people are pushing for.”
Veaux currently wears two rings, signifying his deep commitment to multiple partners, but he’s legally single. With the law allowing only two partners in a marriage, he doesn’t want to marry one person and put any one partner over another, he says.
“Now that we’ve achieved same-sex marriage there’s an awkward shift,” Adams says, an acknowledgement that heterosexual marriage between two partners “is not the only valid family form.”
“At this point,” Adams says, multi-partner marriage “seems like a far-off potential because there’s already so much backlash continuing from same-sex marriage.”