Polygamy is a familiar concept, mostly from programmes like 3 Wives one Husband, which follows 15 Mormon families living in an isolated Utah desert community. It usually involves one husband with several wives and, more often than not, is affiliated with religion. Polyamory, which is frequently confused with polygamy, is different.
Polyamorous people practise what is known as consensual non-monogamy – numerous committed romantic relationships with different people, with the ground rules carefully discussed between parties from the beginning. It is closer to the constant emotional exchange of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the Woody Allen film in which two American women fall for the same Spanish painter and pursue relationships with him, than Sister Wives, a show which depicts a family of four wives, 18 children and one husband and father at the middle of it all.
Though monogamy is still very much the norm, the way we think about relationships is certainly changing. While there is a dearth of research in an Irish and UK context, a recent University of Michigan study showed that Americans’ Google searches between 2006 and 2015 showed a significant increase in the terms “polyamory”, “swinging” and “open relationships”.
It is difficult to definitively say whether polyamory is more common than it used to be or simply more visible, but it is certainly the latter
A 2016 study published in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy stated that 21 per cent of the study's participants reported having been involved in some kind of non-monogamous relationship – "any relationship in which all partners agree that each may have romantic and/ or sexual relationships with other partners". Without more extensive research, it is difficult to definitively say whether polyamory is more common than it used to be or simply more visible, but it is certainly the latter.
While many poly people operate under the radar for what they see as their own safety, there are "out" polyamorous people talking about the lifestyle. Author Jenny Yuen has even written a book, Polyamorous, about being polyamorous.
The book looks at various case studies, but also includes Yuen's own story. A reporter for the Toronto Sun, she writes frankly in the book about her relationships and her route to motherhood. When we speak via Skype, Yuen is at home in Toronto with her newborn daughter, Ella, and is juggling all of the standard chaos of new motherhood, but she sounds in high spirits and describes Ella as a pretty good sleeper.
It helps, she says, that she has an excellent support system. Yuen lives with her husband and nesting partner, Charlie. Her other partner, Adam, who is 31 years her senior, lives up the street. On Sundays the three get together at Adam’s for dinner and a movie night. Yuen describes their relationship as a V – she and Adam are romantically involved, as are she and Charlie, but Adam and Charlie don’t share a romantic relationship, though they are close and the three operate as a family unit.
People ask Yuen how her daughter will be raised in a poly family – “I want people to know that she’s going to have more support. My partner lives up the street. My husband’s at work right now; my partner was able to spend some time with me this afternoon and also take care of the baby. That’s a benefit and a luxury that not everyone has and that we are lucky to have . . . thanks to polyamory.”
A lot of communicating, specifically about emotions and practicalities, characterises polyamorous relationships
Polyamory is regularly maligned as a sort of sexual kink or form of formalised promiscuity, but the reality is less exciting than that. A lot of communicating, specifically about emotions and practicalities, characterises polyamorous relationships, which tend not to be casual, at least not without a careful discussion of what the involved individuals’ expectations are first.
All of the emotionally laden conversations and interactions that characterise a serious monogamous relationship feature in polyamory. Quite literally everything is a conversation. If you live with multiple partners, the tedium of asking who takes out the bins has to be performed with more than one person; ditto where the new sofa is going. Even if you live alone but have multiple partners, there are conversations about who you are having dinner with when, and where partners should leave their things at your home. Does everyone get a sock drawer? Poly people are and must be skilled, emotionally sensitive and enthusiastic communicators.
Lea, a bisexual poly student from Cork, who has a long-distance relationship with a male anchor partner (the term primary partner is frowned upon, because it suggests a hierarchy), chuckles when I mention that some people consider polyamory a vehicle which enables male promiscuity. If anything, she says, it encourages men to improve their communication skills in relating how they feel.
It seems clear that polyamory is too much work for anyone who is just in the mood to sleep with a stranger without strings attached; there are apps for that. Lea describes polyamory as empowering for women, just as it is for men, because it prioritises clear communication of one’s needs and regularly checking in with how partners are feeling.
As a person who often needs alone time within a monogamous relationship, I was curious about whether poly people ever just need a break from people. “Oh yeah,” Lea says. “That’s called polysaturation.” The term refers to a situation in which a polyamorous person feels overwhelmed when the emotional demands upon them outweigh their resources, and they need alone time. The solution? Again, it appears to be communication.
Yuen says that scheduling is essential to ensure that everyone’s needs are respected. She spends the night at Adam’s house a couple of nights each week, and the rest of her week at her own home with Charlie, while the trio have their Sunday movie nights together each week. Lea spends a week or more with her anchor partner every couple of months, and sees another partner, who lives in Dublin, every weekend. Until recently, she had a third partner, who she would spend time with every other day.
I would feel guilty about being attracted to other people when I was in a relationship, and wanted to know how to deal with it in an open, honest way
There can be issues unique to polyamory, however. Some poly women face being fetishised or commodified as “thirds” by married couples – termed unicorn hunters – who seek someone (normally a bisexual woman) to be brought in as a third without being allowed to form her own outside relationships. Of course, some women enjoy this, but it seems that most don’t and demand for such thirds far outweighs supply.
Erica from Louth describes herself as a 35-year-old cisgendered bisexual woman who works in tech. She became interested in polyamory after a series of monogamous relationships. “I started doing research on polyamory and open relationships, and realised, okay, there are other ways to have relationships.
“I would feel guilty about being attracted to other people when I was in a relationship, and wanted to know how to deal with it in an open, honest way.”
Consensual non-monogamy appealed to her, but she has found that some men who don’t understand what polyamory is can make presumptions: “Men I know who would be in relationships have hit on me once they find out I’m polyamorous or want me to help them cheat, and that’s just not what it’s about.”
This is a subversion of what is considered “good” poly practice, which suggests that everyone’s needs must be equally recognised and respected. Of course, as in monogamy, this is a delicate balancing act which may be desired more than it is observed.
Polyamorous people stress the importance of consent, communication, and meaningful connection. If polyamory had a dirty secret that unsettles the monogamous norm, it would be that it is qualitatively like monogamy, except that the emotional work of relationships is multiplied by the number of partners.
While many people unfamiliar with the mechanics of polyamory are hand wringing over the idea of orgies, the reality of polyamory seems to be seeking out the same deep connection that monogamy instantiates, but more of it. This idea is offensive to some who consider such connection possible only with one person at a given time. However, that really seems like a determination each of us can only make for ourselves.
Poly people and monogamous people all talk about the same things: jealousy, rejection, being heard and understood, commitment and fear of commitment
Perhaps the most striking aspect of polyamory is that it is counter-cultural, which could easily be – and has been – mistaken for being controversial.
Sile Walsh specialises in integrative coaching psychology and has a special interest in polyamory. She says “poly people and monogamous people all talk about the same things: jealousy, rejection, being heard and understood, commitment and fear of commitment, love and fear of being stuck. The structure of the relationships are different and have different ‘rules’, however, the core feelings that arise around relationships . . . emerge in both.”
Walsh emphasises that cultural non-acceptance of polyamory is one of the major stresses on poly relationships: “In Ireland, many poly people keep their lifestyle private and out of the public eye, with private groups and meet-ups for those choosing a poly lifestyle. There are a number of cultural barriers to poly[amory], one being no legal position in law for poly marriage . . . Another being ideas about what successful relationships look like and obviously religious influences.”
There is an arbitrariness to social and religious ideas of monogamy which don’t hold up well to serious scrutiny, but are nevertheless deeply ingrained in our very idea of what romantic love is. We operate under the belief that love is not a finite resource; we don’t think, for example, that a person has enough love for, say, only two of their friends or siblings, or for only one of their children. Yet we presume that we can romantically love only one person at a given time.
Increased interest in polyamory does not prophesy the end of monogamy any more than same sex marriage indicated the death of marriage. Firstly, at least for the time being, it seems that interest in polyamory might exceed engagement in it. A 2016 YouGov poll participants found that 48 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women involved described their ideal relationship as “non-monogamous”, but that significantly fewer indicated that they were in such a relationship. Polyamory is still far from mainstream in Ireland.
The true signifier that something has been accepted into mainstream culture is indifference; the luxury of having no particular feelings indicates a phenomenon’s normality.
Since Ireland legalised same sex marriage in 2015, and since non-religious weddings have increased in popularity, we have become accustomed to every sort of wedding. Last summer, I attended a wedding with two grooms featuring a pagan handfasting ceremony. Afterwards, one of the grooms’ aunts whispered to me that in truth she had been at a similar ceremony in the spring, and that her nephew’s wedding was, by comparison, “a bit samey”. When elderly relatives consider same sex pagan nuptials a bit unoriginal, we can concede that things are changing.