At first, the whole poly concept sounded flaky. Married, happily, for 26 years to a guy she met when she was 19, “Cherise” always had “this niggling thing,” a curiosity about women that she’d never had the opportunity to explore. But she felt conflicted, “because I was deeply attracted to, and in love with, my husband.”
Then an opportunity with a close friend suddenly arose, and so she began listening to audiobooks on polyamory, a branch of the consensual non-monogamy tree that seems all very in vogue at the moment.
From the Greek “poly,” meaning many, and Latin “amor,” for love, polyamory involves partners agreeing to engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. No lying, cheating or deceiving. A high value is placed on all parties being open, honest and forthright.
Doing poly sounded complicated and emotionally exhausting, said Cherise, a pseudonym she chose. How could one keep multiple fires burning and still go to work and still have a healthy relationship with your “nesting” partner? “I was a little tentative: where does all their time and energy come from?” Cherise wondered.
She’s now eight months into a triad. Cherise and her husband, “Rubin” (also a pseudonym), have opened their marriage to another woman; all three are romantically and sexually exclusive to one another. All three live in a small community in central Ontario and wished to remain anonymous. Cherise and Rubin, who have three grown children, have come out to just a few close friends.
“It’s easier than I thought it would be,” Cherise, 46, said of managing the poly relationship. Maybe easier isn’t the right word, she quickly added. More fluid, perhaps. More natural. “Yeah, that’s it, it’s how natural it feels to be loving more than one person in like a conscious way.
“Part of me wishes everybody could be loved by multiple people.”
Polls suggest a good many people are or would like to be.
From dating apps for the “poly curious” and “ethically non-monogamous” to books, memoirs, poly podcasts, how-to-do poly magazine covers, Gucci’s steamy polyamorous trio ad featuring actors Elliot Page, Julia Garner and rapper A$AP Rocky, and Peacock’s just-dropped reality TV dating series, “Couple to Throuple,” there’s a lot of poly in the air. Whether it’s a moment or a movement is hard to nail down, but the surge in interest and pushback against “mononormativity,” the assumption monogamy is the only moral, healthy and legitimate way to do intimate relationships, is rattling social and religious conservatives who see the wider embrace of poly as the latest nosedive in sexual morals, “the next frontier in the war on the nuclear family.”
“The normalization of non-monogamy would change what people think they are getting into when they get married, and how they go about it,” Daniel Frost, of Brigham Young University and Princeton’s Robert P. George write in First Things, an Institute on Religion and Public Life publication. “The expectation of marital fidelity could come to be seen as clingy or possessive — the sort of thing that someone should go to therapy for.”
Public awareness of polyamory may be growing, but social and legal institutions aren’t chill with people sharing the love. To outsiders, it’s seen as a kink or a fetish, “narcissistic” and self-indulgent. People have faced rejection from family and friends, as well as child custody issues. It’s illegal in Canada to be married to more than one person at a time. Polyamorous partners can’t get medical or pension survivors’ benefits. From Valentine’s Day cards (“will you be mine,” not “ours”) to a Google image search for “romance” (typically heterosexual couples), “the norms are still very strongly in favour of monogamy,” said philosopher Carrie Jenkins.
Part of me wishes everybody could be loved by multiple people
But expectations around the tradition of marriage itself are changing. A recent survey of Gen Zs and millennials aged 18 to 42 found two in five view marriage as an outdated concept (most respondents, however, saw themselves getting married at some point). One U.S. survey found that previous engagement in polyamory was as common as holding a graduate degree (one in nine). About one in six people desired to try it, about as many Americans as own a cat, a statistic study author and Kinsey Institute research fellow Amy Moors likes to share during her polyamory lectures. Moors once analyzed hundreds of thousands of Google queries and found searches for words related to “polyamory” and “open relationships” increased significantly over a 10-year period (2006 to 2015), even after ignoring gossipy searches involving celebrity practitioners such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. In Canada, one-fifth of 2,003 adults surveyed in 2017 reported prior open relationships. A 2022 Abacus Data poll found a quarter of Canadians were open to the idea.
Younger people, especially, are seeking more relational “fluidity,” polls suggest. They’re more likely than their parents to say their ideal relationship is something other than complete monogamy.
“Amy” (we’ll call her) was introduced to polyamory 10 years ago, through a former partner. What intrigued her “was the concept of challenging the idea of love having to be kind of centred or focused on one person, or having to have a partner who has to be everything for you,” the 30-something Toronto woman said. “It just felt realistic in the way of just acknowledging how relationships can change, how you can love multiple people and it doesn’t necessarily diminish the love you have for somebody.”
She currently has two partners: one, a “primary” partnership, the other more “secondary,” a hierarchical configuration not everyone in the poly community considers an ideal way of going about things. Her partners know of one another but aren’t involved with each other. Amy said she appreciates how poly attempts to take “the possessiveness out of romantic relationships,” though it can be tricky to navigate at times, like sometimes primary isn’t thrilled she’s seeing secondary. The poly approach is to be as thoughtful, communicative, caring and transparent as possible. That means heavy conversations when conflicts surface. Lots and lots of conversations. “There are always questions of how could you be doing it better … Like, with any relationship there are loads of things that come up,” Amy said. “When you have multiples, it makes it that much more complicated.”
Indeed, polyamory can form in dizzying configurations. Triads. Vees or Vs like Amy’s (one person is involved with two other partners who aren’t involved with each other). Quads (a four-person network). A 2020 Canadian Unitarian Council task force report on polyamorous relationships that affirmed the validity of poly “as both a justice issue and religious duty,” described how there are as many ways of being “polyam” as there are polyam people: “Lee is involved with Pat; and Pat is also in relationships with Chris and Alex; and Alex, Evelyn and Kim are mutually committed to one another. And there are other possibilities, too.”
What polyamory generally isn’t is polygamy, as practiced by a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Bountiful, B.C. In 2017, two Bountiful bishops with 30 “celestial” wives between them (Winston Blackmore had 25 alone) were found guilty of polygamy, illegal in Canada, after a lengthy legal battle launched by the province. Polygamy is historically patriarchal, one man with multiple wives. Polyamory relationships, by contrast, emphasize the equality of all partners.
It’s one of the central tenets that attracted Josianne Masseau to a polyamorous relationship seven years ago. “It was kind of neat in a way, because there was no ownership.” A jeweler and photographer in Ontario’s cottage country, Masseau’s biggest takeaway from the experience was “you didn’t feel like you had to filter yourself.
“You didn’t feel like you had to change who you were, how you interacted with people because you were in a relationship. Because often, when you’re in a relationship, you have to do that, right? ‘How would that make him feel?’ Or ‘this guy’s a little bit flirty, I should set boundaries or be cold.’ I didn’t have to do that.
“It wasn’t like I was going to go around sleeping with everybody. It was just nice to have an authentic experience.”
Her partner, a friend who grew into something more than a friendship, was openly poly. He chose to be poly because he’d cheated on previous partners and felt he couldn’t honour being with one person. “We agreed to be together,” Masseau said. “He ended up seeing another woman. She knew of me; I knew of her. But we didn’t all hang out or anything.”
It lasted about a year. Not everyone has the capacity for “compersion,” the opposite of jealousy, the lofty goal of feeling joy from seeing your partner experiencing pleasure with someone else. The other woman “was really struggling,” Masseau said. “He had to manage a lot of emotional conversations. It’s a lot of managing emotions if not everybody is chill and accepting of the situation. I think the difference was, she really fell in love with him.”
Masseau herself wasn’t crazy in love. He was unabashedly flirtatious and playful with other women when they were together. “He wanted to have extra fun, for sure. It wasn’t so much jealousy. More annoying.”
It ended after she met someone new who was not OK with her being poly. She thinks she was able to do poly that time because it was exciting to try something new. “But I don’t think I would want poly now, because if I do really have feelings for someone, and I do really fall in love, I don’t feel like sharing.”
The rise of polyamory
Sociologist Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff considers the rise of polyamory part of the larger expansion of gender and sexuality in North America, Western Europe and other cultures, part of the “sex and gender genie” that’s out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in. Gen Zs, who have a countercultural streak about them, aren’t down with the strict “gay or straight” gender expression “that baby boomers were so invested in,” said Sheff, a leading U.S. academic expert who has conducted decades of research following polyamorous families. In a similar way, the all-or-nothing thinking about relationships — monogamous or cheating — is expanding as well, Sheff said. “How about multiple partners concurrently, or in different ways, different places, different times.
“I think people who are choosing this are doing so much more openly and much more thoughtfully and intentionally now than they used to,” she said. In part, that’s because monogamy didn’t necessarily work that well for their parents. “A whole bunch of people have watched adults try to be monogamous and fail at it in various ways,” said Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door.
About 40 per cent of first marriages end in divorce, and cheating is a driving force, though infidelity can’t always be reduced to “good and bad, victim and perpetrator,” renowned couples therapist Esther Perel told The Guardian. Betrayal “sometimes comes in many forms,” like demeaning or abusive behaviour. “If you just pretend that this betrayal (infidelity) tops all others … I think we do a disservice to honesty and to marriage,” Perel said.
For some, monogamy asks too much, Sheff said. “It’s kind of shooting itself in the foot with its rigidity, for a lot of people.” In today’s hook-up culture, it also has to be negotiated. “In the past, if you were hooking up with someone regularly, you could kind of assume that monogamy was a realistic next step for you,” Sheff said. But if people haven’t had the DTR, “define the relationship” talk — What are we doing? Who are we to each other? Exclusive? Open? — it can set them up for major disappointments.
Even when people agree to the “where is this going” chat, they must define what that means, again in ways people didn’t necessarily have to detail in the past, Sheff said. It used to be clear — monogamy means don’t have sex with other people, she said. “OK, but does that mean don’t send your ex emojis on Facebook? Don’t watch pornography? Some might say porn is totally fine. That still counts as monogamy. For other people, it’s like, ‘You are spending sexual energy on someone else besides me and that is unacceptable.’”
All the discourse, all the rules illustrate that monogamy isn’t “natural,” but rather a social construct, Sheff said. “If something is ‘natural’ from a sociological standpoint, it doesn’t need to be enforced. Like, people will just do it. Breathing is natural. But if you have lots of rules around something, and culture creates a lot of structure around it, that’s clearly socially constructed.”
“There are always questions of how could you be doing it better … When you have multiples, it makes it that much more complicated
Still, many people have bought into that construct, the “till death do us part” part, the idea that romantic love means not having sex with multiple people. Most people want exclusivity from their partners, even though many have secretly participated in “extra-dyadic” (intimacy outside a committed relationship) affairs, McGill University sociologist Milaine Alarie writes in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Sheff tried hard for 25 years to be a polyamorist. “We were unicorn hunters and that pretty much almost never worked.” For the uninitiated, unicorn hunters are heterosexual couples who seek a bisexual woman (the elusive unicorn). “I was not the unicorn hunter, I was the unicorn bait,” Sheff said, unwilling bait at that. “And so, I was like, ‘Well, of course that didn’t work, that was a f—ed relationship.’
“I finally just accepted I am a monogamous person. I have a monogamous heart and I cannot make myself want other partners.” For her, monogamy is an orientation. For others, “multiplicity” is.
“I have spoken to numerous people in my studies who had never been comfortable in a monogamous relationship, have never wanted one, even when they love their partner deeply. Monogamy just doesn’t work for them.”
These folks tend to have low levels of naturally occurring jealousy, she said. “It’s just not a big feature of their personality.” They also have a strong desire for newness, “to feel like the world is not closed off to them.” Poly relationships tend to be hypersexualized in the media, and let’s not kid ourselves, a lot of it can be about the sex. But for many polys it’s about the desire for wider connections, Sheff said. Unlike swinging (sex with other couples, no strings attached) or “open” relationships (sex with other people, but no romance or love), there’s an emphasis on long-term, emotionally committed relationships, she said. “And sexuality is included as part of that.”
But while more people appear to be flirting with poly, open to accepting it or doing it, not everyone is comfortable with it, Sheff said, especially when it involves women, mothers even more so. Monogamy is highly gendered, Jenkins, a University of British Columbia philosopher who was openly polyamorous for 12 years but is now in a monogamous relationship, wrote in Aeon magazine. Women, unlike men, are culturally expected to be “naturally” monogamous, said Jenkins, and that sexual double standard has given men much more leeway to have multiple partners. When we say, “you shall not have sex outside a relationship,” we really mean women, Sheff said. A man cheats, “and we think, well, men are dogs, you know? Like boys will be boys,” she said. A woman cheats or opts for more than one partner and she’s bad —”slut-shamed.”
That double standard also assumes that men have higher sex drives and a “multiplistic” orientation, while women have lower sex drives and a singular orientation, assumptions that “very patently” are not the case, Sheff said.
“It’s very clear that lots of women have high sex drives, higher than their male partners, and lots of women want multiple partners.”
Some of the most prominent poly agitators, in fact, have been women.
It was a neo-Pagan priestess, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, who first used the term “polyamorous,” in her 1990 A Bouquet of Lovers: Strategies for Responsible Open Relationships. The priestess was married to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, a self-described wizard who founded the Church of All Worlds in 1962, based on Robert Heinlein’s controversial sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, the tale of a human orphan raised by Martians on Mars who returns to Earth and challenges religious and sexual taboos.
The book landed as the hippie revolution was taking off, when counterculture was seeking a more “laissez-faire approach to experimentation and promiscuity,” historian Christopher Gleason writes in his new book, American Poly: A History.
Many early polys, and its most influential ones, were active within hippie communities, Gleason writes, flower children of the ‘60s who were into communes and crystal magic. Interest rose in the ‘70s, but declined thereafter, remaining on the fringes. But a small subset made it through, emerging again in the ‘80s — a largely female-led faction that tried to position polyamory as ethical, pro-family.
All believed in “radical equality,” Gleason said in an interview. But they disagreed on how best to structure those relationships. Some believed in polyfidelity — only primaries, no secondaries. Everyone is equal in the relationships. “Others preferred hierarchy, and still others remained kind of free-willed sex radicals that defied definition,” he said.
But women like Ryam Nearing (two husbands), co-founder of the poly non-profit Loving More, saw themselves as liberationists, “like a kind of Harvey Milk,” Gleason said, referencing the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, in 1977 (he was assassinated in 1978). On TV talk shows, they portrayed polyamorous relationships, and the kids raised in poly families, as healthy and grounded with stable and supportive parental figures. “Some of it was actually fairly conservative,” Gleason said.
Conservative for polys, perhaps. But this was during the conservative backlash of the ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan was celebrating “America’s return to God and family values,” Gleason wrote. Despite Nearing’s focus on family values, anything non-monogamy was seen as an excess of the ‘60s. “They just weren’t able to get much traction, because the mainstream culture wasn’t there yet,” he said.
Poly’s “godsend,” he wrote in American Poly, was the Internet.
The digital revolution of the ‘90s gave people “novel means to find the like-minded,” helped along by mainstream articles such as Time magazine’s 1999 piece “Harry & Mary & Janet & … Is your marriage a little dull?” There were still people “who tied poly into the idea that everything is (spiritually) connected and we should all be eating LSD,” Gleason said. But the community moved away from its penchant for spiritualism and New Age-y-ness that was turning a lot of people off.
“As long as relationships were conducted with honesty, transparency and respect for all involved, one-night stands and anonymous group sex were just as ethically valid as polyfidelitous group marriages,” Gleason wrote.
It was “ecumenical polyamory taken to its extreme.”
Cherise, Rubin and Rhonda
Rubin, 52, had to wrap his mind around sharing Cherise. “I had a moment when it was like, ‘Holy shit, we’re knee deep in this. From here on, what (Cherise) and I had created is kind of over now, because now we’re doing this.’”
While it might seem a straight man’s fantasy, Rubin’s not sure how many men would be able to handle “this” in the long run. Poly comes with its risks, Rubin said. “There are a lot of things that could go sideways. I’ve had moments where that jealousy vibe comes up and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. Where is that coming from? That’s just your ego getting in the way.’”
It isn’t easy to transcend jealousy. Research has shown people in poly relationships can experience issues with jealousy and possessiveness, just like the monogamous. One study found that 20 per cent of people who had participated in polyamory couldn’t cope with the emotional aspects.
“I think that even just the ability to be able to talk about feeling an attraction to other people, whether it was acted upon or not, is the healthiest thing, and to pretend that you’re not attracted to other people, ever, is a lie,” said Rhonda.
Rhonda is the other person in Cherise and Rubin’s marriage. She sees herself as the “third.” “In some ways, that’s liberating. The free spirit part of me is like, ‘Great! This is OK.’ But in (monogamous) relationships I’ve been in, it’s like, you know, me and them against the world.”
As things have progressed, she hasn’t felt the desire or need to go outside the triad. She’s agreed not to engage with other people, out of respect for everyone’s health and safety. People in poly relationships tend to be careful about sexually transmitted infections. Data suggest that it’s the cheaters, sexually unfaithful partners, who are less likely to practice safe sex and get tested for STIs than the openly non-monogamous.
Polyamorists, like the five interviewed for this piece, trend toward whiteness and privilege, though the broader idea of open, or monogam-ish relationships, is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. One Canadian study found people who engage in poly also tend to be younger (between 25 and 44), with higher levels of education, higher employment rates and higher incomes than the general population.
Are they happier with all this freedom and fluidity and choice? “On the whole, the evidence is mixed,” Eric Killeen writes in a paper published by the Canadian Journal of Family and Youth. While there’s strong evidence that they’re “no less happy” than monogamous people, at least some studies suggest people in non-traditional relationship structures “are indeed happier.”
Cherise said opening her marriage has made her relationship with Rubin deeper. “It’s definitely brought us closer. I feel like it’s opened up a different level of communication between us.” Rubin, who had a boyfriend and two girlfriends when he met Cherise when he was 25, said he felt comfortable opening things up, “given that we set up some safe boundaries.”
He said he felt comfortable with Rhonda’s energy. “There was an ease to it that felt OK.”
There are a lot of things that could go sideways. I’ve had moments where that jealousy vibe comes up and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. Where is that coming from?
Sheff sees consensual non-monogamy as a permanent addition to the “buffet” of relationship choices. “And that’s where I think the religious folks fall down — they’re having a hard time losing their temporary position of supremacy.” People with more conservative religious or political belief tend to look unfavourably at poly individuals than do people who hold more liberal beliefs.
Levels of infidelity are just as high among religious folks as they are among everyone else, Sheff said. “Religion is not a protective factor for monogamy. It’s a predictive factor of endorsing or claiming monogamy,” but not necessarily adhering to it.
And what if one partner wants a ticket to the buffet and not the other? Sheff said the “biggest negative reaction” she has seen is when an older parent comes out to an adult child as poly in the context of divorcing the other parent, because poly is not what that other parent signed up for.
“Let’s say Dad said to Mom, ‘I’ve been monogamous this whole time, I have tried really hard to be comfortable as a monogamous person, it’s been 30 years and I really want to see other people. I want to open our marriage.’
“And Mom is like, ‘I’m in my 60s, I’ve had all these kids, I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve got extra weight, now you want to start dating? What the actual f—k?’
“Maybe her daughter, who is now 32 and starting to notice that she’s got wrinkles, is like, ‘Holy shit, is my husband going to want to do this, too?’”
For long-married couples, it can be “existentially terrifying” to have a partner open up a conversation about opening up a marriage over the breakfast table, Jenkins, the UBC philosopher said.
“These were conversations (older people) were never allowed to have as younger people. These were possibilities that were never put on the table as options that they could consider,” Jenkins said.
“And so, you know, you could get to a certain point in life and feel a little bit cheated by that: ‘How come all these 20-year-olds are able to explore whatever kind of relationships they want, but I never got the chance to explore or ask for anything else, even if I might have wanted it?’”
Polyamory can be a way to meet one’s needs without putting pressure on “your one and only partner” to provide those needs if it’s not something they can or desire to do, she said.
That might come off as greedy, hedonistic. But Jenkins argues that “it’s possible to change what you want at different times of your life without that being weird.”
People should be free to dip a toe in and out of different relational waters, she said.
But poly groupings aren’t all shiny and rosy, Amy said, despite the poly positivity on TikTok. “It sometimes feels like the kind of values-driven principles of polyamory can make you look at it with rose-coloured glasses.”
Others have pushed back against its warm and fuzzy portrayals. “I’m just gonna say it — the culture of toxic positivity within the polyamorous community isolates actual polyamorist people who are struggling and does more harm than good,” Leanne Yau, founder of the Polyphilia Blog, said in Instagram posts reported by Vice’s i-D magazine. “It sets unrealistic expectations of what polyamorous living is like, and leaves newbies woefully unprepared.”
Some are using “I’m poly” as cover for egotistical, self-centred, self-serving behaviour. Tensions can flare over the pecking order: why is she primary and I’m secondary? Poly positivity can also gloss over the stigma. In surveys, people who engage in consensual non-monogamy are often seen as “promiscuous,” “immoral,” “perverted,” untrustworthy.
A ‘mononormative’ world
“It’s still a very mononormative world,” Jenkins said. Only it’s not really. “It just wants to believe itself to be.” Data show 42 per cent of people on Tinder are married or in “committed” relationships.
So, what are humans wired for? There are numerous theories on the evolution of human monogamy, from female dispersion or female-spacing, when females spread out to establish larger geographical territories for food, making it harder for males to travel around and fend off competing males, to threats of infanticide (males stuck with one female to protect her and the baby from other males). While disagreements exist, “the pair-bond is a ubiquitous feature of human mating relationships,” researchers wrote in a review of human-typical mating patterns. “This may be expressed through polygny (a man has more than one wife) and/or polyandry (a woman has more than one husband), but is most commonly observed in the form of serial monogamy.”
Whatever our innate tendencies, Sheff sees monogamy, and especially serial monogamy, moving from one short-lived or long-term relationship to another, as popular choices. Just not the only ones. “And it’s never really been the only choice because people have clearly chosen other things. But it’s been the only official choice.”
Cherise is hearing more people talk about opening their relationships but doesn’t see poly as a great choice for couples whose coupledom is shaky. “I don’t know that adding another person into a marriage that’s kind of on the rocks really ends well.” She wonders whether all that time spent in COVID isolation has driven a desire among more people “to be more connected to people” in unconventional spaces.
For now, “we’re still kind of building and figuring it out,” Cherise said.
“To be honest, I feel like we are just making it up as we go along.”
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