Is polyamory a smokescreen for men just wanting more sex? Or is it a valid choice that refuses to buy into the cultural norm of monogamy? And could it be a good thing for people’s finances? Sarah Lang looks into it – and encounters some surprises.
We don’t often see depictions of polyamory – the practice of having multiple intimate relationships that everyone involved has sanctioned – in TV or movies. But there’s a new TLC reality show called Seeking Brother Husband (yes, a truly terrible title): six episodes about four women who are looking for additional male partners while keeping their existing relationship. It’s the sister show to TLC’s Seeking Sister Wife. (Can they really not think of a better title?)
Elsewhere in popular culture, there’s American television host, actor, rapper and comedian Nick Cannon, who has had 12 children (11 surviving) with six women, most of whom (except Mariah Carey) he’s in polyamorous relationships with, from what we can tell. Recently he mixed up his Mother’s Day cards to different baby mamas. But he’s an outlier. Having that many polyamorous relationships is unusual (as is having that many children!)
So what is polyamory exactly? Well, for starters, it’s not polygamy, which involves multiple marriages and, you know, isn’t legal in most countries, including ours. Polyamory is the practice of having or desiring multiple intimate relationships at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all those involved. Polyamory is typically characterised by emotional as well as sexual intimacy. Derived from the Ancient Greek word polloí (many) and the Latin word amor (love), polyamory is rooted (pun not intended) in the philosophy that we can love more than one person in a romantic sense.
Polyamory isn’t, as some assume, the same thing as having an open relationship. The latter is when someone in a couple has casual sex outside of their romantic relationship, without having (or without intending) an emotional attachment. Socially, an open relationship is considered more socially acceptable than polyamory – because of the cultural norm that we can romantically love only one person. You could even argue that cheating is considered more socially acceptable than polyamory, with cheating represented more in popular culture like TV and movies. Also, many people might understand the urge to cheat, but not understand polyamory, because of cultural norms or their personal monogamous preferences.
Because of the stigma still usually involved, polyamory may be kept secret even from close friends and family. That makes it hard to know how common it is. We don’t have New Zealand stats, but a Psychology Today article says “at least one in five Americans has had a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point in their lives”.
“A growing body of research,” the article says, “shows that partners in such relationships find their bonds to be just as satisfying and fulfilling as those of married people, and derive just as much happiness from them. But there are serious challenges as well: polyamorous relationships demand openness, consent, trust, communication skills, clear boundaries, and mutual respect. Feelings of jealously may arise, especially when a new partner joins the relationship, and debates over how to raise children can also disrupt connections.”
That said, many people can prevent or overcome these problems through open communication and clear boundaries.
“Research,” the article adds, “has found that, despite the complications, polyamory offers benefits ranging from greater satisfaction and extra help with childcare to increased relationship commitment”.
Things I found out about polyamory:
During my research, I found out a LOT about polyamory. But understandably people weren’t willing to go on the record, or even speak anonymously, because there’s still such a stigma around polyamory.
A preference, an orientation?
Many people call it an orientation. Some call it a lifestyle or preference. There might be many years between when people realise they’re polyamorous and when they decide to live life this way, because polyamory used to be even more stigmatised than it is now.
The structure is a polycule: a connected ‘network’ of people in non-monogamous relationships. This can take different shapes. A throuple – three people – is the most common. But sometimes people – either a male or a female – can have three, four, or even more partners. Sometimes everyone cohabits, but sometimes they don’t. You might be in a polyamorous relationship with someone you see occasionally. Polyamorous relationships are often thought of as short-term, but generally they’re not necessarily of shorter duration than monogamous relationships. Sometimes one relationship between two people in a polycule lasts and another relationship doesn’t.
The biggest misconception about polyamory is that it’s about sex. That it’s about men who want more sex – and more sexual partners – and that they’ve talked their primary partner into it. However, many people take a long time to get to know the potential partner and form an emotional connection before becoming intimate, in what some call ‘courting’. You have to have those hard conversations early on to make sure everyone’s as comfortable as possible before they jump in, in order to avoid things going wrong. You have to discuss with your primary partner and prospective secondary partner(s) what each of you is and isn’t okay with – for instance, contraception, sexual health or whether you discuss each partner with the other partner (a possible no). Sometimes, although not usually, a polyamorous relationship will be limited to cuddles and physical touch but not include sex.
Broaching the subject
If you’re bringing up the subject with a current primary partner, for the first time, talk a lot. Don’t rush. Reassure them that you still love them and that you initiating this conversation doesn’t mean they’re ‘lacking’. Becoming polyamorous doesn’t mean you’ve fallen out of love with your primary partner. We love more than one friend. We love more than one family member. We may still love an ex. So, polyamorous people argue that it’s very possible to love more than one person romantically. You could argue that no one other person can fulfil all your needs, expectations and desires. And if you or your primary partner has changed as a person, you might still love them but also want a different dynamic with someone else. If you’re dissatisfied with your primary relationship, you need to deal with that separately, before you start pursuing polyamorous arrangements.
The short answer: there is generally some jealousy involved – that’s natural – but it’s about how you deal with that jealousy to alleviate it. Communication is key. You could structure things so that someone feels less jealous – for instance, if you all live together, you don’t kiss in front of the other person. If you don’t all live together, perhaps you don’t discuss details of your time with the other partner.
Disapproval from families
This can happen with anyone, but is particularly prevalent when it comes to people whose family is religious or from a traditional background. Sometimes people even cut ties from family members who continue to disapprove of polyamory. Other families are actually open-minded and accept it once they get used to the idea.
How people meet
Some websites have subgroups for polyamory. And on some apps, people put the fact that they’re polyamorous in their profile. Some people meet through social-media groups.
What about children?
People with children can make it work. Sometimes the person who isn’t the parent can be a sort of aunty, and sometimes parents are open with their children about their polycule.
If you, say, live in a throuple, you can split the bills between three not two people. You might pay off your mortgage more quickly. You might have more money for things like holidays. If one person becomes unemployed or can’t work for some reason, the other people can cover costs. And if someone dies, there are still two people to cover costs.
To buy a house together, many polyamorous people set up a trust, because it’s easier legally – you can buy people out of trusts, or bring people into trusts. After all, the Property (Relationships) Act wasn’t drafted with three or more people in mind.
However, there has just been a battle in New Zealand over a $2 million property owned by a man and two women who were in a polyamorous relationship. The Supreme Court released a majority decision finding that a “triangular relationship is capable of being subdivided into two or more qualifying de facto relationships under the PRA [Property (Relationships) Act].”
Having to hide
Some people feel they have to hide their polyamorous arrangements from friends and family, or from public view – and/or worry about being ‘outed’. It would mean a lot to polyamorous people for the practice to be considered socially acceptable and not taboo. The more it’s normalised, the more people might open up about it to friends, family members, etc. If people can live and love without judgment, that has to be a good thing.