From Monogamy to Polyamory

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Words || Jodie Ramodien

Ross and Rachel, Jim and Pam, Megan and Harry. As a culture we love monogamy. It’s the stuff our fairy tales are made of, the happily ever after, Cinderella and her Prince riding off into the sunset in a golden carriage #couplegoals. Monogamy isn’t just a lifestyle choice, it’s a contract. Within Christianity, it’s value is held in such high regard that to break it is a cardinal sin, “thou shalt not commit adultery,” reads one of the Ten Commandments. When monogamy works we celebrate it with weddings and gifts, when it doesn’t many of us try again until it does. There’s a kind of rinse-and-repeat philosophy. The idea of trying and failing in relationships until one finally finds the shining pinnacle of monogamous marital bliss that they’re looking for, using words like; ‘the one,’ ‘soulmate,’ and ‘true love.’ 112,954 marriages were registered in Australia in 2017 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the same year 49,032 divorces were granted. Not a great success rate. 

Historically enforcing monogamy served a practical purpose. In a time before DNA testing, while it would have been abundantly clear who the mother of a child was, determining who the genetic father was could not be done with absolute certainty. Therefore monogamy ensured the children were of the same father that raised them. This reasoning, from a patriarchal, heteronormative culture, even had it’s principles tested with infidelity still occuring in both genders. Mistresses are as old as marriage itself. In her book Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz ironically notes that “in Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealised as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to ‘exert its power between two people who are married to each other.’” 

This concept, that love and marriage were mutually exclusive, has been widely accepted in many cultures since ancient times. It later became accepted that while love in a marriage could potentially develop, it would be unwise to marry solely for the purpose of love. Coontz adds also that “Hindu tradition celebrates love and sexuality in marriage, but love and sexual attraction are not considered valid reasons for marriage.” These two concepts eventually became aligned. In Western cultures, marrying for money, property, and social stature transitioned into needing the components of love, intimacy, and trust as a reason for marriage. Yet these ideals aren’t always met. What the changing perceptions of the interconnectedness of marriage and love show is that monogamous marriage is a human construct and a historically recent cultural movement. It isn’t even practiced as often as you might think. In his New York Times article ‘Monogamy and Human Evolution,’ Carl Zimmer notes that, “Only 17 percent of human cultures are strictly monogamous. The vast majority of human societies embrace a mix of marriage types, with some people practicing monogamy and others polygamy.”

Which takes us to what may be the future of marriage and the growing number of non-monogamous loving relationships; polyamory. I would say a large part of the popularity of monogamy ⁠— other than the previously stated religious and cultural influences ⁠— is the emotional aspect, possessiveness and jealousy. Polyamory is defined as “the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.” In her article ‘All you need is loves: the truth about polyamory’ for The Guardian, Sirin Kale suggests a useful test: “Does the thought of your partner in the first flushes of romantic ardour with another person fill you with contentment, lust, indifference, or murderous rage? If it’s the last one, best to swerve polyamory.” Kale also touches on a lot of the lingo; ‘compersion’ which refers to the feeling a polyamorous person has when they see their partner with someone else and ‘polycule,’ a play on the word molecule as it refers to a non-monogamous relationship and the interconnected links within said relationship e.g. a ‘V’ type polycule would involve one person who is in a relationship with two other people but the two others aren’t involved with each other. 

There’s a lot of terminology to get down when trying to understand the ins-and-outs of non-monogamous relationships. Being in an ‘open-relationship’ is different from polyamory as it means that a person is free to seek new romantic or sexual connections whereas a ‘closed-relationship’ in a polyamorous context denotes that the people within a relationship have chosen not to seek additional partners. ‘Monogamish,’ a term coined by Dan Savage, can mean appearing to be visibly or mostly monogamous with occasional non-monogamous sexual encounters. Some other terms include ‘metamour,’ the partner of ones partner, ‘unicorn,’ someone who exclusively dates a couple, and ‘polysaturated,’ feeling overwhelmed by the number of partners and stuff in general in ones life. Suffice to say polyamory differs greatly between people and each relationship is nuanced, unique, and not always easily defined. ‘Polygamy’ is not polyamory, pologamy is the marriage of multiple spouses at a given time, here I will tactfully and reluctantly refrain from making a joke about 19th century fundamentalist Mormons. 

There are a number of misconceptions and reactions people have upon hearing the word ‘polyamory.’ Most immediately view these kinds of relationships as purely sexual in nature, associating them more closely to swingers groups and orgies. Yet the word itself establishes the importance of an emotional connection, ‘poly’ meaning many, and ‘amory’ meaning love, therefore it directly translates to ‘many-loves.’ This concept of being able to love more than one person is also something that gets contested. “How can you love two people equally at once?” In a group discussion with monogamous and polyamorous people on Jubilee’s Youtube channel, the question was answered simply with, “you don’t have to.” Though this does occur, it appears to be more common for there to be a ‘primary partner’ in which one would have a family with or live with, and secondary or other partners.

Representations of polyamorous people and characters in the popular media are slim but slowly growing. Some famous celebrities that openly identify as polyamourous include comedian Gaby Dunn who previously worked at Buzzfeed and actor Ezra Miller. Gaby found that a lot of boyfriends saw her mention of wanting an open-relationship as a ‘trick.’ She notes that the media that did portray non-monogamy would show it as “‘I have a boyfriend. I’m gonna be with hot girls too. Is that chill?’ And the boy would be like, THE MOST CHILL. THE BEST. THIS IS GREAT.” Yet the reality would be that the boyfriend became either upset, jealous, or outraged. 

Ezra Miller, famous for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and his characters, The Flash and Credence Barebone/Aurelius Dumbledore in the respective major franchises Justice League and Fantastic Beasts is also a part of a polycule. “I’m trying to find queer beings who understand me as a queer being off the bat, who I make almost a familial connection with, and I feel like I’m married to them 25 lifetimes ago from the moment we meet,” he said in an interview with Playboy. 

In Australia the statistics and studies about the number of polyamourous relationships have yet to be done but according to Rolling Stone “it’s estimated that 4 to 5 percent of people living in the United States are polyamorous — or participating in other forms of open relationships — and 20 percent of people have at least attempted some kind of ethical non-monogamy.” In the way of literature there’s a wealth of books that explore and discuss polyamory, one of the more comprehensive ones being Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton’s third edition of The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love, which has achieved mass success with over 200 000 copies sold. 

Polyamory is as ideal for some as monogamy is for others. As it becomes more well-known, people will have the opportunity to better choose the way they lead their romantic lives. If history, culture, and modern society has taught us anything it’s that there is no one way to love.