In Defense of Polyamory August 8, 2009

In Defense of Polyamory

(Hemant’s note: This is a guest post from frequent commenter and forum admin JulietEcho. She is a polyamorist.)

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

Polyamory is a catch-all term that describes any relationship that involves more than two “loves” in a romantic/sexual context. It includes polygamy in both its traditional forms (polygyny and polyandry), as well as other patterns of relationships, such as those that only include people of the same sex and those that involve all partners being sexually linked to one another. Having multiple significant others is usually associated with fundamentalist Mormon groups, at least in America, as various polygamists who illegally marry underage girls make the news now and again. It’s easy to forget that polygamy isn’t unique to Mormons — it’s still practiced in many areas of the world, including Middle-Eastern and African countries. Still, there are stigmas attached to those practices too, due to their association with the abuse of women and their incompatibility with most modern Christian beliefs about relationships.

What many people don’t know is that there is a fairly secretive population of people in the Western world who practice polyamory — not for religious reasons, and not for the purposes of having orgies, but rather because they have found that it’s the kind of relationship that makes them happiest.

While the term “polyamory” is broad, I’m not focusing here about people who have “open relationships,” a relationship style that allows partners to have outside sex as an agreed-upon part of their relationship. I would like to concentrate on so-called “poly-fidelitous” families who are committed to one another for the long haul. Groups of three or more people who are attached by romantic and sexual bonds (although not all people in the relationship are necessarily sexually involved) exist as strong, stable units. They raise children together, they often all share a house, and they usually have to hide their relationships to at least some degree. These relationships can include a wide variety of formats — two couples where the women are both sexually involved with both men (or vice versa), two men involved with the same woman but not with each other (or vice versa), three members of the same sex all sexually involved, and many more configurations.

Polyamorists cannot legally marry more than one of their partners (and if all members of the relationship are of the same sex, they probably can’t even get that much recognition), because our laws don’t accommodate such arrangements. People in relationships with multiple partners are sometimes left without access to health insurance, visitation rights, and even custody rights due to cultural prejudice and current laws. Would new laws have to include limits to avoid abuse by people trying to “cheat the system” in areas like citizenship and health care? Certainly. Is it possible to recognize and legally legitimize these relationships while blocking opportunities for that kind of abuse? Again, I think the answer is yes.

Some polyamorists see themselves as having a polyamorous “orientation,” but I would guess that’s a minority position. Most simply acknowledge that humans are complicated animals who aren’t always fulfilled by or equipped to handle monogamy. Different people will find that different types of relationships make them happy — some people can’t stand the thought of sharing their partner, and others are completely happy to see their partner in love with another person, with most people falling somewhere in-between. Polyamorous relationships form in many ways, with some people knowing from a young age that they want more than one partner in life, and others deciding to include someone new in an already long relationship.

Most members of polyamorous relationships and families aren’t activists for reform — they would be assuming too much risk by being publicly “out,” and they are often too busy with the demands of extra spouses and children to spend time organizing rallies or writing petitions. They are likely to be “out” to their friends and families about their unusual relationships, but they fear letting co-workers, employers, teachers, and other public figures find out. They have to face a difficult choice: face the ramifications of telling someone their secret, or lying about something that’s very central in their lives. Many poly families pass one or more members off as “friends” or “housemates” which can become painful and limiting over time.

The legalization of polygamy is something that’s often mentioned by gay rights opponents as the next step of a slippery slope that leads to people marrying their pet lizards or underage children. It’s not something that most people see as a serious civil rights issue, but it’s taken quite seriously by those of us who live in such relationships. We’re consenting adults, choosing our own path in life, and we have nothing to be ashamed of ethically. Still, we’re often essentially forced to hide in a culture that considers us adulterous, immoral and dangerous.

I know that the legalization of polygamy in America won’t happen for a long time — if it ever happens. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll be old and gray if I live long enough to see the day when I can be married to both my partners, but the first step towards that ultimate goal is awareness. Legalization aside, the important issue here is tolerance (and hopefully general acceptance) that the poly community hopes to gain in society. We’d like to be honest about our relationships without fearing hate or reprisals at work. We’d like to be seen as perhaps a quirky, but normal part of our neighborhoods and our countries. We don’t want to be demonized.

What I’m asking here is that you will remember, in your conversations about civil rights, the struggle facing polyamorous families, and bring up the topic of plural marriage — not as part of a slippery slope, but as a rational extension of marriage rights and a way to make our society a more equal place for those who choose to live in ways that might not match the religious right’s morality. I hope that when topics like relationships, marriage and family come up you’ll spread the knowledge that polyamorous families exist. Every person who learns about polyamory and comes to accept it as something non-threatening brings us one person closer to a world where polyamorous people won’t have to “come out” or fear exposure — a world where we’ll just be another accepted part of society.

If anyone is interested in learning more about different forms of polyamory practiced today, the challenges that polyamorous relationships face, the benefits they bring, and the general facts about the polyamorous population, take a look at this website‘s FAQs about polyamory, this Newsweek article, and a post that I made on our Friendly Atheist Forum a few months ago, outlining some key definitions and distinctions within polyamory. I would also recommend the book Opening Up by Tristan Taormino as an excellent resource for people interested in practicing polyamory or understanding polyamory better.

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  • weaves

    While not polymarous myself, I’ve never had anything against those who are in relationships that work, and should they put forward a change to allow a multiple-people marriage, I would support it completely.

    Of course, it goes without saying it should be between consenting adults, and not the appalling cases with underaged girls forced into marriage.

  • Amy

    I’ve never really understood why there are laws against people marrying multiple partners, as long as all parties involved are in agreement with the arrangement then I don’t see how it can harm society in any way.

    The right to plural marriage is certainly a logical step on after allowing same-sex marriage.

  • ungullible

    I’ve long since believed that taboos (and laws based on taboos) should have some underlying logical basis or they should be discarded. If you can’t demonstrate where X harms somebody or interferes with another’s rights, then X should be legal, even if it is contrary to your sensibilities. And you should probably start to question your taboo. While I do not relate to polyamory, I would not judge someone who I knew practiced it.

    However, I must admit to some strong hesitations towards any talk of recognizing any such relationships legally, such as marriage. Not so much for moral/ethical reasons, but because the complexity of the benefits and rights within such a relationship would seem to grow exponentially with each new member, resulting in a legal mess whose costs to society outweigh the benefits to its participants. I generally loath slippery slope arguments because they often are silly (like the poster’s lizards and children example) but at what point do you draw the line here? 3 members? 10 members? a commune? Where ever you draw it, the n+1 group will then complain (rightfully so?) of discrimination.

  • I’ve long argued against extending marriage right- in favor of abolishing marriage entirely. Instead, I advocate making marriage a private/religious institution, and having the public equivalent be household corporations.

    The government has no business promoting one kind of relationship over another kind.

    A household corporation would have one requirement: cohabitating membership. Lovers, college roommates, whatever. Mind you, it would be a difficult thing to dissolve the corporation, so you probably won’t see many short-haul corporations (like college roommates). The corporate structure would provide methods for resource pooling, tax sheltering, joint ownership, and child custody. Corporation members are “medical associates” of each other, in the sense that they’re allowed hospital visitation. Etc.

    Since it’s a corporation, a large amount of its value arises from shares. Which addresses ungullible’s complaints- even though these shares aren’t traded, they still represent real value (the economic value of the household), and the more it gets diluted, the weaker the corporation gets, unless the members put more back in than they take out.

  • Ron in Houston

    I’ve studied this issue a fair amount since I’m from Texas and we had that massive YFZ polygamist child raid.

    In human cultures polyandry (one women – multiple men) is almost unheard of. There is some obscure tribe that practices it, but other than that it’s a very rare practice.

    Which means that polygamy is predominantly polygyny (one man – multiple women.) This practice has been condemned by the UN as a human rights violation. Here’s a quote from a law review article on the legalization of polygyny:

    For example, women in polygamous marriages are at higher risk of low self-esteem, as well as depression, then women in non-polygamous relationships (Al-Krenawi, et al 2002; Slonim-Nevo and Al-Krenawi 2006). Other studies show that these women are also enjoy less marital satisfaction and more problematic mother-child relationships (Al-Krenawi and Slonim-Nevo 2008). In addition, further studies demonstrate that women in polygamous marriages are especially vulnerable to depression after becoming pregnant, as their husbands become more likely to turn their attention to their other wives (Fatoye, et al 2004; Ho-Yen, et al 2007). Women in polygamous marriages are typically subservient to their husbands who hold their wives primarily responsible for child-bearing (Gher 2008: 584). These women are often unable to exercise any control over the addition of new wives by their husbands, contributing to feelings of powerlessness and emotional abuse (Cook 2007; Hassouneh-Phillips 2001). Women may also lack control over their ability to seek employment, as several studies have found that only a small fraction of women in polygamous marriages work outside the home (Al-Krenawi 2000; Elbedour, et al 2002: 257; Peterson 1999).

    Furthermore, women in polygamous marriages have also been found to be at a greater risk of sexual diseases, including AIDS. For example, one study of 1,153 Nigerian men and women found that not only were men with three or more wives more likely to engage in extramarital sex and were at greater risk of contracting sexual diseases and infecting their wives than men with one or two wives. Thus, women were at greater risk from men with three or more wives both as their wives and as extramarital sexual partners than from men with one or two wives (Mitsunaga, et al 2005).

    Studies have also found that children from polygamous families may be at a greater risk of several harmful effects. For example, there is ‘[c]onsiderable research that children of polygamous families experience a higher incidence of marital conflict, family violence, and family disruptions than do children of monogamous families’ (Elbedour, et al 2002). Moreover, children from polygamous marriages are at a greater risk of both behavioural and developmental problems (Elbedour, et al 2003). There is also some evidence that young women from polygamous families perform less well in school than those in monogamous families (Elbedour, et al 2000). In addition, the Utah Supreme Court has recently stated that polygamy ‘often coincides with crimes targeting women and children[, including] incest, sexual assault, statutory rape, and failure to pay child support’ (Strasser 2008: 88-9).13

    While I agree that non-abusive consenting adults should be able to partner as they wish, polygyny is hardly just some benign practice.

    Further, this issue actually is one of the arguments against same sex marriage. When same sex marriage come up, invariably the counter argument is “what’s next, polygamy?”

    The country to watch is Canada. They’re putting a couple of polygamists on trial and it’s expected to be a landmark care under their constitution.

  • Thank you! Yes! I am poly too, and it’s good to finally see some recognition. I reckon that the state of polyamory in modern society is about the same as homosexuality in about the 1950s. Which means we will need to wait at least another 50 years before we start getting legal rights.

    Ron in Houston, what you have posted about polygamy has pretty much nothing to do with polyamory, which should have been clear from the post. By far the biggest obstacle polyamory has to being accepted in society is the confusion between polyamory and abusive polygamy. They are not the same thing at all. In fact, they’re about as different as it’s possible to be. Please do not conflate the two.

    In the end, polyamory is simply the recognition that love is not a zero-sum game. I can love one person, and that in no way diminishes my capacity for loving another. Hence, I can love, and be in love with, a number of different people.

  • Grimalkin

    Polyamory creeps me out. I have this imagine of some sort of Gorean system whereby one man is lord and ruler of his women – where the male is able to go out and date (to bring new individuals into the relationship, even if the final step requires permission from the wives) while the sexuality of the wives is much more tightly/jealously controlled. I have trouble imagining it playing out in any other way.

    It just seems to me that it’s hard enough to maintain a balance of power when there’s only two people involved. When there’s three or more, it only gets easier for one person to step forward as the “head of the household” and that, by definition, will devalue the human worth of every other adult in that household.

    But can I ask for legislation to prevent women from entering abusive relationships? Can I, with the force of the law, remove them from such relationships against their will? No. In other words, it doesn’t matter what I think happens in polyamorous relationships. If I think that abuse/abuse of power is occurring, my ability to interfere ends with simply being supportive of individuals living in such situations.

    In other words, polyamory should be legal. As long as it’s all consenting adults, there is no reason why they should not be allowed to make these choices for themselves. Any harm that may come of it is no greater and no worse than that which comes daily in who knows how many monogamous relationships all over the world. Any ickiness in “how do we arrange family benefit plans?” is just making excuses. We can find a way to make it work if we try.

  • medussa

    I was introduced to polyamory when I was a teenager, by a boyfriend, much older and wiser than me, who taught me that his love for me was not diminished by his love for several other women. I resisted, thinking he was just wanting to “cheat”, but found to my surprise that this arrangement worked both ways, and that it really suited me.

    I don’t actually practice polyamory any more, mostly since most of my love interests seem monogamously inclined, but I think I would jump at the chance if given the opportunity.

    JulietEcho’s post is very well written and to the point, thanks.

  • I must admit to some strong hesitations towards any talk of recognizing any such relationships legally, such as marriage. Not so much for moral/ethical reasons, but because the complexity of the benefits and rights within such a relationship would seem to grow exponentially with each new member, resulting in a legal mess whose costs to society outweigh the benefits to its participants. I generally loath slippery slope arguments because they often are silly (like the poster’s lizards and children example) but at what point do you draw the line here? 3 members? 10 members? a commune? Where ever you draw it, the n+1 group will then complain (rightfully so?) of discrimination.

    And that’s precisely my problem with it. Glad to see I’m not alone.

    Just imagine splitting up the family fortune in a divorce…

  • jemand

    I think the legal construction allowing for polyamorous marriages would be a significant change in the law, having to be able to deal with divorce of one partner but not the other two, more complicated “next of kin” rules for disagreements with medical decisions, etc. The stigma definitely needs to go away and such relationships should not be illegal, but I think it’s going to be a lot harder to extend legal recognition of such marriages than to extend it to homosexual couples, where none of the law needs to be rewritten in practice.

    And there IS a huge difference between abusive polygamy and polyamory, but again, writing a law that will be able to distinguish between them will be difficult.

    What if the law were changed to allow for any one person to enter into two simultaneous marriages? That would cut out the one man, 7 much younger women structure that is more likely to be abusive, but would cover any three way relationship, and some of the other structures. There are just so many different ways to structure polyamorous benefits and I’m really not sure which will be the best.

  • Another Atheist

    I like the household corporation idea.

  • The only issue I have with polyamory is the legal ramifications of it in the end. Love is love is love, and I agree with the others who say that the government should withdraw from “marriage” and simply work with legal contracts. Let the churches marry.

    In Canada, that’s essentially how it is currently, though I am watching the polygamy case from BC. It will be interesting to see how the court rules; the government may win, given the interest of the government in protecting itself from the extra paperwork polyamorous relationships in the current legal environment would cause – but the government may lose, if the court finds similar as it did in Halpern v. Canada; it is possible such will be used as precident in the upcoming ruling.

    However, many people are not sure – personally, I expect that the court will find the government is correct in its ban of polygamy. I don’t agree with that, but I do expect that is how they will find.

  • Those of us in polyamorous relationships have very little desire to press the issue of “legalization.” Honestly, there’s no legal action to be taken against us in current U.S. law books. What we sincerely fight for is being free to practice freely without discrimination. There are still laws in the country that allow companies to discriminate or make decisions for their company based on “morality clauses” that include in them provisions which polyamory would fall under. Our way of life is open, honest, consentual, and ethical. No amount of religious chest-beating is going to ever be able to prove otherwise. It’s about learning – as arthwollipot said – that “love isn’t a zero-sum game.”

    I truly appreciate the logic and reason applied to this article. I will most definitely pass it on to folks who inquire about it in a less-than-productive manner.

  • I write a blog about atheism and polyamory, so I’m glad to see this topic being discussed.

  • JulietEcho

    Thanks for commenting guys.

    Personally (and this also seems to be a consensus in the poly community), I’m less concerned about marriage rights than I am about equality. I’m all for the option of abolishing marriage and working out individual rights, or using an idea like household corporations.

    What I am concerned about is the way we’re misunderstood and demonized by western culture, as if we’re doing something wrong. Let me reiterate: everyone in the relationships I’m describing are of legal age and consenting. No one is forced into anything.

    Additionally, the traditional status quo of polygyny (one man with multiple women) isn’t the status quo within the polyamory community. These are people who are in these relationships because it’s what they want – not because a religion is telling them to (and certainly not because any culture is telling them to!) and in my personal experience, the majority of the poly families I know of involve more men than women.

    I’ve personally been in a relationship with two men (one my legal husband and one our “boyfriend” but of equal status in the relationship) for three years, and it’s been great. We’re out to all three of our families, and two out of the three accepted us with open hearts and treat all three of us like family. We all live together, and it’s only made our lives richer and easier.

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that the polyamory I’m describing is secular polyamory (most poly people aren’t terribly religious, for the same reason that GLBT people aren’t terribly religious), and it’s not accurate to equate it with Muslim, Mormon or certain kinds of cultural polygamy. It exists for completely different reasons, involves completely different values and is often comprised of completely different configurations as well.

  • I wrote about that Newsweek article, too…and about some of the pundits who displayed poly panic in fear-mongering about it. Members of the LGBT and atheist communities are probably much more likely to be poly-friendly than the average bear–and the more poly families who come out, the better!

  • mike

    I have some friends in California that are like that. The older brother just got married. He and his wife also have a girlfriend. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this since everyone is well over 18 and is consenting, but there’s still plenty of ways for this to end badly.

    For example. His current wife is actually his and his first wife’s girlfriend, who he divorced after she went crazy. Why did she lose it? Because he ended up putting the girlfriend first time and time again. He did it with his first marriage and it ended badly, and now he’s doing it again with this marriage (who takes the girlfriend on the honeymoon??).

    Also, the older brother kinda stole their girlfriend from his younger brother. When I went to go visit them over spring break, it made for very awkward dinners.

    I’d like to say this is just people having fun, but my friend and his brother are originally from Montana, and their parents are Mormon (though they renounced religion years ago when they moved to the coast).

  • Since we are stuck with government regulated personal relationships right now, I support gay marriage. But I’m with t3knomanser, too. Much more so, I think the government has no business regulating personal relationships between consenting adults.

    I primarily see two groups attacking polyamory. One is the religious who think their beliefs trump other’s rights. And, like here, many people will confuse polyamory with abusive polygymy. So there are attacks from confused people who mean well.

    I never really thought about polyamory much until I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The main character is in a 100-year-old line marriage, and much of the Moon society is involved in various types of group marriages. Great read.

  • Lauren

    Can I say amen?

    I’m in a poly relationship right now that has to be kept a secret from our families. It’s incredibly painful to keep something that integral to who you are a secret, especially when it makes you so happy that you want to shout it from the rooftops.

    Thanks so much for the post!

  • JulietEcho

    @ Chris

    I never really thought about polyamory much until I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The main character is in a 100-year-old line marriage, and much of the Moon society is involved in various types of group marriages. Great read.

    I read that book in middle school and it’s what initially opened my mind to the idea that it could be okay and even rewarding to be in a relationship with more than one person. Definitely a great read.


    I’m in a poly relationship right now that has to be kept a secret from our families. It’s incredibly painful to keep something that integral to who you are a secret, especially when it makes you so happy that you want to shout it from the rooftops.

    I definitely know how much it hurts to keep the relationship a secret – it’s horrible lying and pretending when you’re dealing with the people you love most in life. I hope that you’re able to come out someday soon, even if the families don’t take it well. Sometimes having it out in the open is the healthiest thing, no matter how bad their reaction. (The exception being when kids are involved, if you think they might try to take away your custody, which can and does happen).

  • Ash

    I don’t care much about poly relationships (consenting adults, happy with their choices, not interfering with anyone else’s lives, etc.) in that if someone else is living like that, it doesn’t bother me. However, the reason i would not want to see it legalized is precisely because cultural or religious polygamy demonstrates how open such legalization is to abuse within relationships. Where most people trapped in an abusive relationship would still have access to the larger community to know that said abuse was wrong, for people in a poly relationship the others involved can be their only community. This can make it very easy to become dependant if they are not an income earner, + the stigma of divorce and becoming ostracized from their only known community leads to people with no real choice but to stay. For a western style poly relationship, this probably wouldn’t be an issue, but unless one was to only legalize western style unions (blatantly racist), there would be no way to endorse poly marriage without allowing for a significant amount of abuse.

    On the non legal front, to get socially accepted all that needs to happen is the same thing that’s happening with atheism and being gay; keep talking, don’t be afraid to be yourself, and let the world know that you’re out there and happy with how you live.

  • Support for polyamory is a tough one. There should be nothing wrong with any number of consenting adults considering themselves as a single family. What they do in the bedroom should really be none of my business.

    On the other hand, polyamory does often happen as part of a cultural context that treats women as inferior to men, or sometimes even as property. Do we really want to enable this?

    On the other other hand (I need more hands), in many monogamous marriages, the woman is also considered submissive to her husband, or even his property. This has clearly never been an argument against monogamous marriage, so why should it be an argument against polyamory?

    Therefore, in the end, I can only support polyamory.

  • I support polyamorists and all other sexual minorities all the way. Some questions:

    How common is polyamory?

    You say “some people knowing from a young age that they want more than one partner in life”. How does that work? How young are we talking?

  • stephanie

    I always thought the laws against poligamy had more to do with shutting down the Mormons than anything. So, I’d think that overturning the law would be a step in the right direction, even though Mormons are not high on my list following their role in Prop 8’s passage.

    I have nothing against polyamory on a broad scale (between consenting adults, of course) even though personally, it’s not my style. I don’t see why it’s the government’s business at all.

  • JulietEcho

    @ miller: I don’t know where they got their numbers, but the Newsweek article included an estimate that there are over half a million polyamorous individuals in the US.

    Also, some people (including my husband, according to him), just grew up with the idea that it would be fine to have more than one person to love. Reading Heinlein helps too 🙂 And I think that a desire for polyamory can spring from the kind of upbringing you had, in part at least. So it’s not a matter of realizing some sort of orientation, just growing up without any existing resistance to the idea as opposed to growing up learning about monogamy as the only acceptable option.

  • Chris

    There’s some societal concerns that go along with this. I don’t think polyamory is some sort of phenomenon that a certain percentage of the population is “born with” or something, in fact, i’d suggest that a lot of guys, if they were honest with themselves, would love to be in a polyamorous relationship with multiple women (I would). The other kind, however, is going to be a lot more rare, just due to the way we are wired. I’m not saying it won’t happen, or that ALL men wouldn’t be ok with it. But you have to admit that men in general are going to be a lot less OK with their significant other sleeping with someone else. One of the harsh truths of the dating world is that women are less attractive for sleeping with more people, while men are more attractive for doing the same thing.

    I’m just playing devils advocate here, but it seems like polyamory could have similar societal consequences to polygamous societies, where a vast number of men end up disenfranchised and resentful as they aren’t one of the lucky guys who gets to have a lot of wives. Hell, look at that George Sodini guy who seemed pretty frustrated by his absolute lack of success with women – there would be a lot more people like that created in a polygamous society. Yes i know it’s kind of one of those “slippery slope” arguments, but I do feel like it’s kind of legitimate.

    I have my doubts that polyamory is going to have any success. In my opinion it’s too hard wired in us on a biological level to condemn infidelity, even if that’s not precisely what polyamory is.

  • Tizzle

    I am single. I would happily be nonmonogamous, but I predict that I won’t find a partner who agress. I can handle monogamy, for one thing, it’s simpler.

    I don’t think the government should legitimize these relationships because, unlike the poster, I don’t believe it’s possible to allow for it “while blocking opportunities for that kind of abuse”. Also, the legal and financial logistics seem too hard. Perhaps this is simply a failure of imagination.

    The mood in this country, even on the left, would have to change drastically to allow for this. One thing is, we’d have to stop being quite so excited about affairs among the politicians. We are still way too prudish for more alternative lifestyles to be accepted.

    I think the only way for this to actually happen, keeping in mind the obstacles, would be for the government to relinquish it’s control over/interest in relationships. Marriage should be for churches, civil unions for the govt. But that would require changing current tax structures.

    My thoughts are a little confused, obviously.

  • Ron in Houston

    Interesting discussion –

    I always thought the laws against poligamy had more to do with shutting down the Mormons than anything.

    Actually, in Western society polygamy has been against the law even before the colonization of the new world. It was illegal in all the colonies. A federal law was passed because when the Mormon’s started colonizing Utah, it was only a territory.

    How common is polyamory?

    I wonder about this and also wonder about the long term stability of the relationships. I’d imagine it would make a great dissertation for some sociologist.

    Ron in Houston, what you have posted about polygamy has pretty much nothing to do with polyamory

    I see the differences between consenting adult polyamourous relationships and abusive polygyny relationships. However, the problem is that they’d be pretty hard to distinguish under the law.

    Legally, laws against polygamy have been upheld since the Reynolds decision in, I believe, 1878. The Supreme Court also pretty much said in dicta in Lawrence v. Texas that they would not find a constitutional right to polygamy. Legalizing polygamy would also have profound effects on a number of other laws such as law of inheritance.

  • Eric

    I’m currently in a poly relationship (and have no desire to see it end) and I can say that there is a huge mess when you open up to your families about it. My family knows and freaked out about it (it didn’t help that my mates are transgendered). The other families haven’t been explicitly told, but there’s already the tension due to transsexuality and we just don’t see the need to make it worse.

    And the argument that it’s a control issue is pretty stupid if you ask me. Monogamous marriage itself can be abuse as well, why does having an extra person make it so much worse? If somebody is trying to use groups like the FLDS to argue against polyamory, I can just as easily pull up the statistics for domestic abuse. It’s holding our relationship to a higher standard.

    So, thank you, JulietEcho, for writing this and thank you, Hermant Mehta, for hosting it.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Ron: If a special kind of “marriage” was devised for polyamorous relationships, that guaranteed that none of the rights that traditionally go with monogamous marriage would be given to them, would you vote to legalize it? Essentially, it would only give the word marriage to polyamorous people, with none of the messy rights.

    Obviously I’m not proposing this as a real-world idea, because not only would it be a waste of paper, but it would stand no chance of passing. What I’m asking you, though, is whether you think that polyamorous relationships deserve the same respect as other relationships between consenting adults?

    I find it sad (but not surprising) that although I made it abundantly clear in the original article that we were talking about consenting adults here, many comments have included caveats like, “as long as there are no kids involved” or “as long as there’s no abuse.” When people talk about gay marriage, they don’t generally throw in phrases like, “so long as they aren’t having sex with young boys” after statements of support.

    I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate the support, and I’m guessing that the people who used those phrases didn’t really think about it – it was just a natural response to make sure that no one thought they were supporting something awful. Polyamory isn’t the same thing as domestic abuse or pedophilia, any more than heterosexual or homosexual monogamy represents those things.

    It’s kind of like saying, “I totally support the right for musicians to play on street corners… so long as they aren’t also beating people up in alleys and robbing them.” The second part is completely unnecessary, and it only strengthens any existing stereotype about street musician-burglers.

  • Ron in Houston


    From an equal protection standpoint I’m very much in favor of legalizing consenting adult polygamy. I had a client who was quite happy in a polygamous relationship.

    However, from a practical standpoint, I don’t see how you can legalize that while still stopping oppressive religious mandated polygamy. Considering our First Amendment there’s no way to say that secular polygamy is OK while religious polygamy is not.

    In case you’re interested, the leader in studying this issue are the Canadians. There are a number of papers online detailing both the pros and the cons of legalizing polygamy.

    I empathize with anyone in a non-traditional relationship. We live in a highly judgmental society. Another wonderful legacy of our Judeo-Christian heritage, huh?

  • Eric

    Ron, how many monogamous marriages do you think there are where the man exerts control over the woman because it’s Biblical? There is the same potential for abuse, regardless of the number of people involved. Whether you know you’re doing it or not, you are holding poly relationships up to a higher standard than mono relationships.

  • Ron in Houston


    I understand what you’re saying, but that’s a classic straw man argument. I can’t give you any cites, but my guess is that abusive religiously mandated polygamy far outnumbers secular consenting adult polyamoury.

    Also, like I said Eric, in many ways I support your cause. I just don’t see how you can do what you want while still stopping the abusive parts of polygamy.

  • Eric

    Think of it like this. I don’t see how you can support secular monogamy without supporting religiously based, abusive monogamy. After all, it is an institution that taken by the Abrahamic religions as a method to control women, hell, in traditional marriage, women are men’s property.

  • Ron in Houston


    Clearly being an atheist, I don’t support religiously based, abusive monogomy. Abuse is abuse. I just submit that polygyny is more prone to abuse (due to the fact that women make tremendous sacrifices to bear and raise children) than monogamy.

    The Abrahamic religions need to come to grips with their treatment of women. Jimmy Carter leaving the Southern Baptist church is a prime example of this.

    I’ve tried telling my monogmous wife that she’s my property but after spending several nights on the couch, I retracted that statement.

  • Dan W

    Hmmm… I think there’s nothing wrong with polyamory. I’m not inclined to want to be in a polyamorous relationship myself, probably because I’d want to be the only man dating (etc.) a woman (maybe I’m a tad selfish like that), but I see no problem with it between consenting adults. And polygamy, again between consenting adults, should be legal.

  • JE, I just want to led my support to everything that you’ve written. A poly relationship isn’t for everyone but then why should it be. I think that the perception is that one of you is cheating or that one of you will be jealous and that this jealousy is natural and justified. I don’t think it is.

    I strongly believe that cheating is considered so bad by many, not because of the sex you have with someone else but because of the breaking of a trust. In a typical monogamous relationship they trust one another to be exclusive and you break this trust when you cheat. If there is permission then there is no betrayal of trust. A poly relationship has that trust established and supported no matter how it is structured simply because that is the nature of the relationship.

    This is basically what I wrote in the forums but I thought it was worth mentioning again.

  • EdW

    Hell’s bells, I have a hard enough time with heartache and romance just with one girlfriend at a time. If I was a poly, I would just be *exhausted* with the effort.

    Bear with me for a second, because this is going to sound awful. Polyamory and homosexuality scream against every instinct and impulse I have — The idea of being sexually attracted to another man is abhorrent to me, it’s just icky. HOWEVER, I am a staunch supporter of the rights of all people to love as they choose. I’m just incredibly straight on the gradient of gay-ness.

    And, while I can easily imagine myself having sex with two or more women (and often do), I simply can’t imagine being in a fulfilling, full-time relationship.

    I think that’s where the real disconnect comes from — a lot of straight, monogamously-oriented people just cannot imagine loving more than one person or another person of the same sex, so they have major problems with it. It’s a matter of education and exposure. If you know and care about friends who are gay, you’re a lot less likely to be homophobic.

    As painful as it is, polyamorous triads, quads, etc. need to come out, to stand up and let themselves be known. I do not envy you this position. I can’t even comprehend how difficult it must be.

  • Eric

    Yes, Ron, I understand that. But my point is that you are judging polyamory due to a subset of it, which is why I turned around and judged monogamy based on its equivalent subset. You still seem to be holding it to a higher standard than a monogamous relationship.

  • Ron in Houston


    Perhaps I am. However, one is already legal, and one is seeking legalization. If you’re arguing in court on equal protection grounds, you will need to show that the one seeking legalization is benign. Otherwise society has a compelling interest in stopping the one seeking legalization.

    I understand the my arguments are perhaps frustrating, but I’m arguing the case of legalization of polygamy from a legal perspective.

  • jemand

    So if polyamorous marriage were already legal and monogamous marriage wasn’t Ron wouldn’t support extending benefits to monogamous couples until he was convinced “jealousy” is never used as a motivation for committing a crime or engaging in abusive behavior?

  • Aj

    I’d rather have the advantages given to married people taken away than extended to homosexual couples and polyamorous groups if this really is the slippery slope. Especially if that means that benefits are given to multiple people instead of one, that would give an incentive to this type of relationship. While the noble effort of marriage incentive was to harbor enviroments for people to reproduce and raise children, this striving for “equality” seems to be “screw you single people, I want to be special too”. Perhaps instead of trying to incorporate the various groups into this structure we should admit that it doesn’t make sense today.

    I don’t have any moral objections to polyamory but I stop short of supporting or advocating it. I don’t think there’s been any good quality research done on the subject. Unless polyamory offers something that helps stability and success (possible) more than monogamy, just an extra point of failure (at least one extra person) would suggest to me that it’s less stable and successful. Also I find the infinite love arguments to be ridiculous, something that not even all polyamorous supporters believe, that relationships don’t just consist of love and that love is dependent on the rest of what constitutes a relationship, and that includes time and effort that would be divided.

    I agree that polygamy is wrongly maligned with stereotypes, and that the same arguments that are made against legalizing it could be made against regular marriage. I’m pretty sure it’s not for me but that doesn’t matter at all, I’m not sure regular marriage is for me.

  • Eric

    Ron, replace “polygamous” with “homosexual” and I hope you’ll see what’s wrong with your argument.

  • octadeca


    The BDSM folks have it worse than the poly folks (though, there is a lot of overlap there, also), sorry.

  • Neon Genesis

    I fully support the legalization of poly marriages and I don’t see what’s wrong with it. If people are being abusive in a poly relationship, then isn’t the problem that people are being abusive in it, not the number of partners? It’d be like saying since there’s plenty of people out there who have multiple friends that are also abusive, then we should make having more than one friend illegal. And why should it be considered strange to love more than one spouse or partner? We don’t consider it strange to love more than one friend or more than one parent, so why is it strange to love more than one person romantically? I also don’t get the argument that we should get rid of government legalized marriage and call it civil unions with all the same benefits as marriage. Isn’t that just marriage under a different name? Why not just call it marriage then and all the people who have a problem with people having equal rights can just STFU it? I also don’t get why Christians of all people should have a problem with polyamory. As far as I’m aware, nowhere is it condemned anywhere in the bible. In fact, David, a man after God’s own heart, was allowed to have multiple wives and so were the rest of the Isrealites. There was only an issue when David cheated with Basheba, which could have been easily solved if God had just allowed Basheba to have multiple husbands. And as far as I’m aware, poly relationships is never brought up in the NT, so I don’t see what the religious basis is for forbidding poly relationships. Also, I’m confused by the legal status of poly relationships in the U.S. Is it just poly marriages trying to get a legal contract from the government that’s illegal or is it people cohabiting with multiple partners that aren’t seeking a government contract that’s also illegal?

  • Most members of polyamorous relationships and families aren’t activists for reform — they would be assuming too much risk by being publicly “out,” and they are often too busy with the demands of extra spouses and children to spend time organizing rallies or writing petitions. They are likely to be “out” to their friends and families about their unusual relationships, but they fear letting co-workers, employers, teachers, and other public figures find out. They have to face a difficult choice: face the ramifications of telling someone their secret, or lying about something that’s very central in their lives. Many poly families pass one or more members off as “friends” or “housemates” which can become painful and limiting over time.

    This is very true. We were at a family function tonight (a birthday party for a parent) where our other partner (my wife’s other male partner) had to be the “roommate”. Although nobody thought anything weird, I know it still hurt his feelings.

  • Indigo

    One thing is, we’d have to stop being quite so excited about affairs among the politicians. We are still way too prudish for more alternative lifestyles to be accepted.
    A note on this: I condemn politicians who have affairs most roundly when they run on a platform of “family values” (read: “I only value certain kinds of families”). If you yourself are unable to adhere to a particular model of relationships, then you have no business at all going out in public and telling everybody else that they have an obligation to follow that model. And infidelity, even if you are a groovy-lefty politician, is never cool. I believe that poly relationships are completely ethical and acceptable – but if any of the people I had been in mono relationships with went out and had sex with someone else on the side, I’d still be angry.

  • Charon

    I agree with the above arguments that legalization of such relationships is probably an intractable problem. You can’t have, for example, more than one person empowered to make medical decisions on behalf of someone else – come on, who breaks a tie? Does majority rule? This problem faces elderly parents who are trying to pick which child must be responsible in their living wills… and if such asymmetry were introduced into a polyamorous relationship, equality is broken.

    And I also agree that it’s bollocks to compare this to gay rights. Gay people are different from straight people, in their sexual attraction. They are fundamentally different. Polyamorous people aren’t any different sexually – everyone is sexually attracted to more than one person. As far as I can tell, the only difference is unusually low jealousy.

    So people who want to be in polyamorous relationships, go ahead. Fine by me. It’s also already legal. Multiple marriages on the other hand, just seems completely unworkable, and you are not a suspect class that needs extraordinary protection.

    You also have failed to address the n+1 problem raised above, which seems crucial to this discussion.

  • keddaw

    Marriage (or civil union) is a legal agreement between adults. Adults should be allowed to enter into legal contracts with other adults.

    The government should stay out of the bedroom.

    The biggest obstacle faced here, apart from public opinion, is that in the US your health insurance is based on your spouse’s occupation. That is an incredible evil that the richest nation on earth should resolve asap. Once this problem is removed then the biggest problem is the legal and financial problems that result from divorce. So what, get people to sign pre-nups agreeing the amount or ratio of wealth to be distributed if there is a split.

    I cannot understand how so-called liberal people who were all over the gay marriage thing can come out and be against this. Cognitive dissonance exists even in liberal atheists…

    btw. I am against doing this personally as it takes all the fun out of having an affair.

  • Neon Genesis

    On the subject of whether or not one’s tendency to be polyamorous or monogamous is genetically caused, there’s actually been studies that show that it is, contrary to popular belief.

    There’s news for women who want a man who bonds instead of a James Bond: Scientists have identified a common genetic variation that appears to weaken a man’s ability to emotionally attach to one partner.

    The study, to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to try to examine whether a hormone that encourages monogamy in animals plays a similar role in male humans. Before getting ideas about a DNA-fidelity test, though, women should consider that the study wasn’t designed to determine how much — or even whether — the gene in question is responsible for monogamy in humans.

  • cat

    Isn’t banning marrying children a better way to stop child marriages? There are states in this country where a fourteen year old can legally be married to a sixty year old. You think that’s cool if she’s his only wife? Let’s ban child marriage if it would be consider statutory (or child) rape if the partners weren’t married.

    Btw, I’ve heard all of these polyamoury stereotypes, but not once have I seen a credible study to that effect (I’ve also heard the same stereotypes ‘child abusers’ ‘perverts’ ‘diseased’ about LGBT people despite credible studies which show they are untrue). One of the beefs I have with the ‘gay marriage’ movement is that it throws so many people under the bus, including polyamourus people (there’s more than a little transphobia in these movements too).

  • Heh.

    The BDSM folks have it worse than the poly folks (though, there is a lot of overlap there, also), sorry.

    Or how about incestuous couples? If they have no intentions of having children (or are same-sex or otherwise incapable of doing so), you can’t really make an argument against them. I fully support pretty much any type of relationship between consenting adults (I can’t actually think of an example I don’t right now, just leaving it open so someone won’t distract with a “Oh? Well how about…?”).

    Plus, if you’ve heard of the Overton Window, you know that to shift the discourse on public policy, it can help to seriously propose even more extreme ideas. When people started pushing for gay marriage, gay civil unions became more acceptable. Pushing for poly marriage could help gay marriage become more acceptable. And pushing for incestuous marriage could help out poly.

    Marching for civil rights is fine and good, but sometimes I feel that an all-out charge may be necessary.

  • SomeOtherGuy

    I’m a regular reader and occasional commenter under another name, and I’m in a long-term stable polyamorous situation.

    My primary parter and I don’t mention this under our own names online because she works in education, and it could affect her ability to get a job.

    But we’ve been together five years, and I have another girlfriend I’ve been with for 2.5 years, and she has two other boyfriends she’s been with for 2 years and 1 year, respectively.

    @Deen said:

    On the other hand, polyamory does often happen as part of a cultural context that treats women as inferior to men, or sometimes even as property. Do we really want to enable this?

    This is really, really wrong. Nearly everyone who uses the word “polyamory”, instead of “polygamy”, is excruciatingly concerned about equality of women and egalitarian relationships. It’s a big part of why the term was coined in the first place, to distance the movement from a history of religious, patriarchal polygamy.

    In fact, my primary partner and I aren’t married, and a significant part of that is that we see marriage as a historical and culturally-laden artifact that existed, in large part, in order to treat women as property … and we’ll have none of that, thanks.

    (This means I am not particularly concerned about whether the goverment allows us to legitimize our poly relationships, either. Why does my relationship need the government’s recognition at all?)

  • SomeOtherGuy

    A couple people on this thread have said things along the lines of how poly relationships “have many ways they can end badly”. This is undoubtedly true, but I would ask, in reply, how many monogamous relationships end well, exactly? Most relationships end – including most marriages. And many of them that end, end badly … that’s just the nature of love.

    As it happens, for me relationships have become much *more* stable since becoming poly, and the extensive, honest communication that is necessary to manage polyamory means that even when they end, they often end with respect and understanding.

  • sailor

    “I’ve never really understood why there are laws against people marrying multiple partners,”

    I think the answer to that is it opens a can of worms. We may be beyond this now, but I would imagine if we did this, what you would quickly get is powerful and rich men with multiple wives. Our past lies in that direction, and many societies still practice it. The problem with that is that you can end up with many young men with no available partner, and that can end up in serious discontent.
    I would say, let things be, don’t encode it.

  • Joffan

    Leaving aside the cultural resistance to polyamory, which will not be a quick or easy fix in itself, the legal difficulty of a poly-marriage seems to me to be associated with the special responsibility that a marriage confers, which I describe in shorthand as next-of-kin. Marriage is when you select your own next-of-kin, giving them special status in your medical decisions, inheritance and often other financial arrangements, and taking special status in theirs. As things stand it you can only have one next-of-kin (at a time), and I think it would be legally extremely tricky to rewrite much of the dependent legislation to allow multiple next-of-kin simultaneously because consensus is never guaranteed.

    Being mathematically inclined, I notice that the existing marriage requires a symmetrical next-of-kin relationship in marriage… I wonder whether it would be possible to have a one-way next-of-kin “circuit” without breaking the concept beyond recognition? Hmmm… we should find a firm of lawyers and see what devious uses they could see for it; just as “personhood” got appropriated by corporations, I have no confidence that laws will be put to their intended uses.

  • Keori

    Infophile, the reason there is no need to vest incestuous relationships with the legal recognition of civil marriage is because incestuous couples already have a legal tie of kinship. Civil marriage is a declaration of kinship between a conjugal couple (or reasonable facsimile) who are not already related. It creates a family where previously there was none. A brother-sister already have that right of kinship, so things like probate, hospital visitation, etc are already a given for them. In terms of household protections, what they would need is some type of legal access to joint tenancy in entirety to avoid paying prohibitive estate taxes, and access to things like insurance.

    Hawaii has Reciprocal Beneficiaries, which were originally created to stop the screaming from the LGBT community when the mormon church bankrolled the first anti-gay marriage amendment. RBs are available to any two cohabitating people who can’t get married for whatever reason. They give the right of joint tenancy in entirety, among other things.

  • polyfulcrum

    So far as the point about deciding who would be in charge of medical decisions in a multi-family household, might I suggest that the person who is most competent to make those decisions be tapped?

    One of my partners is more medically oriented than the other, and while I am certain that he would consult my other (also male) partner, I’m more comfortable with the person who has the skills making the final calls. These things are pretty simple to note on legal paperwork.

    In my household, there are two male partners, who are not involved physically with each other, and myself, the female person in the “fulcrum” position between them, plus the two children we raise together, not to mention the dogs! One man has been my partner for over 15 years, and the other for 2 1/2. Everyone is free to date outside the household as they desire.

    It’s been my experience observing the poly community that it is extraordinarily gender-equity oriented. Any man who thinks he’s getting into poly to have hawt threesome action with his wife and other chicks is in for a rude awakening!

    It might not be the simplest way to go about loving and living, but I find it to be the most rewarding and enriching, with the best opportunities to explore and experience personal growth. While we don’t have legal recognition of all of our relationships, the legal documentation to support many of the “rights” afforded to married couples is in place. I’d encourage any polyamorous households to do the same.

    We’re also out to daycare, teachers, and all sets of grandparents, primarily as a way to defuse any negative leverage points with our children. It’s not always easy, but it is achievable.

  • Polyamorous/ethically non-monogamous people now have a group on Atheist Nexus.

    Feel free to join us (or not) in the Atheist Nexus Polyamory group.

  • thank you for posting this. i’m part of a polyfamily with 4 children & 4 adults. people aren’t usually sure what to think of things like this & it’s really hard to tell people (especially in our small town) because you’re constantly worried what would happen to the children. it’s not immoral or awful, this home has more love than any of our biological families ever gave us growing up. & they are the smartest most well rounded children i know. i hope one day we can all be accepted for who we are because not being able to be ‘out’ can suck sometimes. but mostly we just want to share each other with the world.

  • JulietEcho

    lola – I think that every person who learns about the existence of polyamory is another step in the right direction. And kudos to having smart, well-rounded kids. Whether they’re all “parents” or not, having lots of positive, loving adult role models is a plus for any kid.

  • DexX

    I just moved into a newly-built house with my wife, her boyfriend, and my boyfriend. My wife also has a girlfriend, and my boyfriend is married, though they were legally separated for a few years and are in the process of patching things up. My wife’s girlfriend is married, plus she has another partner, who may have other partners (I’m not sure). We’re a mix of straight and bisexual, and a few people in the network are happily monogamous but have no issues with their partner being poly.

    It works. We’re stable, happy, and as free from melodrama as your average monogamous people. It helps that we’re individually quite sane and drama-averse, and we all approach our relationships with peace and happiness in mind.

    Many of us are also active in our local poly community, being part of various committees and contact groups. A few of us like to think of ourselves as poly ambassadors, and our happy little family unit has been described by friends as “poly poster children”.

    As for legalisation, well, I have no delusions. We can’t even get same-sex marriage off the ground here in Australia, so I’m not holding my breath for legal plural marriage. I’d love to marry my wonderful boyfriend the same as I am married to my wonderful wife, but I don’t think it’s even worth pursuing yet. Let’s get same-sex marriage legalised first, have a rest, and then think about where to go next.

  • It might work for a few folks, but from my observations it’s just too damn complicated. Even if you can get beyond the often oppressive gender power dynamics, the emotional interweavings don’t lend themselves to stability. More complex systems are inherently more difficult to maintain.

  • Thank you, JulietEcho, for a very well-written, intelligent article on polyamory and polyfidelity.

    Someone asked how young a person might be when they realize that monogamy is not their thing. I was nine years old when I first understood that monogamy would not be my preferred path in this lifetime. I had no cultural reference for this. My parents had then (and still do now) a very traditional American marriage. None of their friends, none of my relatives, were polyamorists. In fact, no one had even mentioned such a word to me before, but I can still remember that day when I realized it, where I was at, and what a revelation it was to me.

    I’ve only personally known of one polyamorous relationship that came to a bad end, and I believe that it was doomed from the start. One of my friends suggested to her new husband that they live as one family unit with another couple shortly after they were married. My friend had a long and close history with this other couple, while her husband was new to them. They had no time alone to establish their own relationship before they got involved in other relationships. Sadly, both couples involved are getting divorces, and my friend plans to marry the other husband eventually. On the other hand, one of my closest friends has been a “secondary consort” as she and her partners phrase it, for nearly a decade, and there has been no hint of cheating, jealousy, separation, or divorce. I also know of a “foursome” who have been functioning as one, stable family unit for the better part of two decades, including the joint raising of all children born to their family unit.

    Roughly nine out of ten of my friends in “traditional” relationships have endured cheating, separations, and/or divorces.

    In my case, my husband and I gave ourselves time to get to know one another and establish a solid relationship before we decided to bring anyone else into the mix. We were open and honest with one another from the start, though, and we entered this marriage knowing that neither of us believed love could be limited by number or gender (provided that we’re talking about consenting adults, and only consenting adults, that is). We do not date people separately, and we never go forward with anything unless both of our hearts are in it. We honestly hope to eventually find one or two other people to join us on a permanent basis, people with whom we can share love and respect.

    Thank you again for sharing this with your readers.



  • Thegoodman

    I feel that the key to polyamory is releasing yourself from any amount of jealousy.

    This is impossible for most people so the happy open relationship tends to end when 1 of the 2 people is acting jealously. Personally I feel that I am capable of an open relationship but I know that my fiance is not. This is a situation where there is no real compromise, she calls the shots.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Thegoodman – I think what’s important is being honest with your partner(s) about what you can and can’t handle. If both partners are willing and happy to pledge monogamy forever, then great! If both are willing and happy to have a polyamorous relationship, then great!

    The problem is that many people aren’t honest about what they want (or don’t know what they want) and end up resenting their partner for something they signed up for. People who want monogamy (or are willing to be monogamous for the right person) should be with other people who want monogamy, plain and simple.

  • Yannick Jacob

    Also Meg Barkers book 
    ‘Rewriting the Rules’ is great!

    Bests from London

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