Have you heard about the latest trend? Marital polyamory — or its more generic label, “consensual nonmonogamy” — is a family configuration in which a married couple mutually decides to open their marriage to other sexual and romantic partners. And it’s now become a “thing” in America today.
If that sounds at all concerning, you wouldn’t know it from the national commentary about the practice. A recent Vogue story, “Is Monogamy Over? Inside Love’s Sharing Economy,” proposes: “You could argue that CNM is simply evolution, like fins morphing into arms: commitment adapting to an era of questioning and change.” In her 2021 “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times, another writer echoes a familiar refrain heard in many of these articles: “What I want are relationships that operate with a spirit of possibility rather than constraint.”
Social scientists also appear infatuated with polyamory. For instance, Eli Finkel at Northwestern University suggests that loosening the reins of monogamy could be a remedy— a “love hack”— to the problem of spousal differences in sexual desires. Legal journals too are punctuated with arguments for why polyamorist unions should be constitutionally protected. “If one form [same-sex marriage] deserves dignity, so does the other,” asserts a 2022 Note (author unnamed) in the prestigious Harvard Law Review. “Polyamorous people seek out intimate bonds, strive to be caring parents, and must prove they are not lesser because of whom they love.”
It’s time for some straight talk about what polyamory really is — and the unacknowledged challenges of the practice. As relationship scientists, we think people should think twice.
In our 2018 study of a nationally representative sample, we found that 1% of married couples report they are currently in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship, with about 4% reporting that they had been in one at some point while married. Granted, 1%–4% is a small slice of all marriages. But that translates into 600,000–2,400,000 married couples in the United States. And this figure will undoubtedly grow.
In our research we found that 10% disagree with the idea that a married couple should be monogamous. Also, one recent national poll found that younger Americans were even more interested in polyamory (41% of millennials versus 8% of boomers). One in four married individuals expressed interest in polyamory, with (shock!) husbands more excited about it than wives (30% vs. 21%).
And to be clear, polyamory isn’t just a trendy East Coast thing: A recent feature on Utah polyamorous relationships joined the national trend of extolling the practice, with virtually no scrutiny of its challenges. The article quoted Utah state Sen. Derek Kitchen, who is in a polyamorous relationship, as being “willing to fight for the option to practice polyamory.”
As popular media and academic writings are nudging us toward acceptance of polyamory, there are moral, ethical and philosophical concerns that we have as family scientists. But there are also more pragmatic concerns that may be especially effective in helping younger generations see the problems with this soft-boundary approach to relationships. Consider them warning labels that journalists and academic writers usually gloss over. Here are four:
Emotional regulation. When it comes to sex, our emotions are in the driver’s seat, not our higher-order cognitive skills. And jealousy doesn’t magically disappear because you’ve opened up your marriage. What would it take for any of us to feel “compersion,” a new word in polyamorous circles that means experiencing happiness at your spouse’s sexual pleasure — with someone else? As relationship scientists, we know this level of emotion regulation would be hard to achieve. Oh, by the way, cheating occurs in polyamorous relationships, too; partners are not always fully forthcoming about all their extramarital liaisons.
Power and equity. In theory, polyamory requires mutual consent. But in practice, “mutual” can get muddy. Our survey of those who were or had been in an open relationship found that only about half said the desire for an open relationship was mutual or equal (57% of men versus 45% of women). Only 38% of heterosexual women said that they equally desired their open relationship. If you put your career on hold to care for two young children and your partner pops the polyamory question, how much power do you really have to say no? And what if one spouse is more gregarious and attractive and better suited to the polyamorous life than the other spouse?
Finances. As relationship scientists, we know how financial disagreements can undermine relationship quality. The financial can of worms this opens is substantial. Is it okay to draw from the married couple’s bank account to take your new girlfriend on a romantic getaway? In a polyamorous pod, does all the income go into the same pot, and if so, how are financial decisions made? The legal limbo of extra-dyadic partners makes mingling finances a potentially explosive problem. Financial communication in a polyamorous system may be even more challenging than sexual communication.
Time and energy. Maybe the most pragmatic issue with marital polyamory, however, is simply the time and energy involved in keeping love alive in multiple romantic relationships. Relationships need time and energy to counter the natural entropy of the social universe. And time and energy are as constrained for polyamorists as they are for monogamists.
Even positive media portrayals of polyamory occasionally acknowledge its complexities. In The New York Times portrait “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” the author doesn’t pull punches exploring this question. “And so it began. For Jamie, an endless series of dates; for Rich, one lost weekend with a woman he thought he could love. … [But] one year after they opened their marriage, Rich asked for a divorce. … The year had had its thrills, but Rich also felt perennially on guard, unnerved by the sense that there would always be more bruises to come. He … hated wondering, when he was home alone, what Jamie was doing with someone he had never met. He longed for the security of one partner, the beauty of its simplicity.”
So, what’s the bottom line? Ethics aside, the pragmatics boil down to this: You probably don’t have the skills and resources to make something like this work.
Instead of fantasizing that you may be an exception, think more seriously about making monogamy work. Be all in for one rather than spread across many; “forsaking all others” can be as liberating as it is restrictive. Keep your sexual relationship strong and vital, more through connecting soul to soul than novel sexual techniques — or additional partners. Embrace the breathtaking two-become-one journey of marriage. Invert your thinking: make sex serve your relationship needs rather than the relationship oblige your sexual wants.
Maybe you don’t think that polyamory is a thing that we should worry about. Why give it the attention that it doesn’t deserve? It’s tempting to think that what a few rebel polyamorists choose to do in their private lives won’t affect your marriage.
There we disagree. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. It seeps into the cultural groundwater from which we all draw, especially when popular media smiles on it and we change our laws and institutions to accommodate it.
If monogamy becomes an increasingly negotiated agreement between partners rather than a universally understood axiom of marriage, then monogamy gets harder for everyone to ask for and expect; it gets easier to question and devalue. That’s how polyamory becomes a big thing.
Alan J. Hawkins is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University and a member of the Utah Marriage Commission. Megan R. Johnson is a recent graduate of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and is currently a master’s student in the Marriage, Family & Human Development program at BYU. The views expressed here are their own.