Writer Ellen Ruddell explores what constitutes polyamory, and why this relationship alternative needs to be better understood.
Although polyamory as a practice has long-existed at the outskirts of our society, with images of harem-like relationships and fundamentalist sister-wives dominating the cultural perception of non-monogamy, growing openness and fluid dating preferences has contributed to a monumental increase in polyamory, and experimentation with non-monogamy. A 2018 study by euroClinix surveying 2000 UK adults found that 19% of those answering identified as polyamorous, with 27-28% of those asked from London and Northern Ireland identifying themselves as polyamorous, excluding those open to experimenting with non-monogamy, but who wouldn’t identify as such. The exponential surge in dating-app popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to dwindling offline opportunities to meet people, led to increasing communities of curious singles and couples exploring polyamory, with Feeld, a popular app amongst non-monogamous demographics, reporting a 160% increase in active users between January 2019 and summer 2021.
“The exponential surge in dating-app popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to dwindling offline opportunities to meet people, led to increasing communities of curious singles and couples exploring polyamory…”
Polyamory varies in definition, and non-monogamous relationships may take many forms, including, but not limited to: triads or “throuples”, (three-person relationships); “open relationships’, where partners are free to connect with other people, or “polycules”, referring more broadly to relationship networks, in which some, or all, members are romantically involved with each other. Conversely, monogamy refers to relationships between two committed individuals.
Polyamory’s rising prevalence reflects the enjoyment and benefit many people derive from having multiple partners or romantic relationships, just as we benefit from maintaining strong emotional connections socially. If we don’t expect children to only care for one parent, or have only one friend; why, as adults, are we insistent on romantic relationships being exclusively between two people?
Suggesting opening a relationship to a partner may be anxiety-inducing, and requires vulnerable, honest communication from the offset, as successful, ethical non-monogamy is inherently founded on the establishment of clear boundaries. This may be simply who, or how many, other people to involve in a pre-established relationship; how intimate new connections may be (romantic relationships or more casual dating?); what constitutes cheating, or how to mitigate feelings of jealousy. This frank and introspective conversation about boundaries and preferences sets a precedent that may allow for better communication throughout a relationship than between equivalent monogamous couples.
“Successful, ethical non-monogamy is inherently founded on the establishment of clear boundaries.”
Monogamy can place pressure on romantic partners to be constantly available, both physically and emotionally, which may cause strain on a relationship if one partner is busier due to work, distance, or simply needing space. Rather than expecting your partner to be present all the time, seeking the support and intimacy provided by romantic relationships from multiple partners may alleviate this pressure. Similarly, polyamory allows for more and varied connection within a relationship, as different individuals can fulfil different needs, and the excitement of getting to know potential partners via dating can continue within a long-term relationship.
However, although more partners may mean more reliably available plus-ones, it may also mean couples spend less time together. Due to the constraints of careers, university and the accompanying workload, social lives, and unending to-do lists, it’s difficult enough to navigate dating one person, aligning time in busy schedules. Further dividing this scarce time between multiple partners means even less time to spend as a twosome, leaving partners feeling neglected and distant, particularly if one pairing within a polycule is seeing substantially more of each other than others.
“Further dividing this scarce time between multiple partners means even less time to spend as a twosome, leaving partners feeling neglected and distant…”
Considerable external challenges face polyamorous relationships, largely from social stigma, as individuals have to “come out” to friends and family about having or wanting multiple partners, incurring judgement and prejudice. As society is structured around hetero-monogamy, polycules are denied any legal recognition. Scotland’s Marriage and Civil Partnership Act 2014 progressed bigamy from a common law offence to a statutory offence, as marrying or entering a civil partnership whilst knowing that either partner is married or in a civil partnership with another person incurs fines or up to two years in prison. This reflects the widespread marginalisation of non-monogamous relationships, constituting a major downside to polyamory, but which doesn’t prevent many people finding happiness with multiple partners.
Whilst it remains harder to find potential polyamorous partners, simply due to the majority of people preferring monogamy, dating apps are making it progressively easier to meet like-minded singles and couples. Thinking of expanding your relationships and experimenting with dating or pursuing multiple people? Why not have a conversation with your partner, or do some online swiping? Regardless, more empathy and openness towards polyamory can only strengthen our relationships, monogamous and otherwise, challenging and expanding our understanding of romantic connections, trust, and fidelity.