Pin It

Polyamory isn’t perfect – but neither is monogamy

In recent years, the increased visibility of nonmonogamy has resulted in a wave of vitriol aimed at poly people

How’s your monogamy holding up? Over the past few years, nonmonogamy has gained a substantially greater cultural presence: nonmonogamy-focused app Feeld saw a 250 per cent increase in monthly active users between 2021 and 2022, and it’s now estimated that about five per cent of current relationships are openly nonmonogamous (and about 20 per cent of Americans report being nonmonogamous at some point). Terms are proliferating at dizzying speed: there’s ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, relationship anarchy, kitchen-table polyamory and parallel polyamory…

But the increase in visibility for open relationships has brought about a backlash too: TikTok and Twitter are awash with people criticising polyamory as impractical, shallow or even cruel, while there’s a whole subreddit (r/monogamy) dedicated to the belief that the perceived proliferation of polyamory is a blight on sexual culture.

So, we’re in an exciting and confusing time for navigating relationships. There’s a problem, though, if you want to genuinely interrogate which relationship style is better for you: it’s much easier to criticise polyamory than monogamy. Monogamy is the water we all swim in, and the one-true-love idea is central to western concepts of love and romance, with all other relationship styles being seen as inferior or suspect. There has been criticism, for example, that polyamory is hurtful, manipulative and just another way to “avoid taking accountability” for other people’s feelings. This disregards the fact that people have been using the trappings of monogamy to manipulate their partners since time immemorial, but we just consider that a shitty partner, rather than a problem with monogamy per se (for example, monogamous people by definition promise not to get involved with other people, but plenty of them still do). When monogamous TikTok users are quipping that “I don’t think your relationship style should be evangelised like a religion” – as if straight Christian monogamists didn’t evangelise their relationship style so aggressively that legal UK gay marriage is younger than the Xbox One – you can deduce that we might have a problem here.

So how do we figure out what we want out of relationships? All relationships, whether monogamous or not, bring up foundational insecurities about being alive in the world. They’re a bizarre mix of cold practical logic – rent is cheaper if you live together, bulk groceries are cheaper, you’re more likely to survive a medical incident – and giddy desire: here is someone who is going to make me feel good and wanted, enrich my life, support me in my goals, fulfil my wildest dreams (perhaps my wildest dreams are surviving a medical incident). We all want the storybook stuff. We want to be held and helped and brought gifts and told that we’re wonderful. It’s much harder to think about the things that can break you out in a cold sweat: what if we break up and I lose access to housing, income and community alongside the relationship? What if you find someone else more attractive and interesting than me? What if I lose the social status that comes with a stable romantic relationship, particularly a marriage? 

There’s no way to process those questions that will take the sting out of them. But it’s a mental prison to have to fear and withstand things without talking about them. I’ve heard people in decades-long marriages make wry references to ‘toughing it out’ until the youngest kid hits uni; I’ve watched people live under the shadow of knowing their partner’s cheating and refusing to admit to it. We had the ‘wife guy’ to keep faith in devoted monogamous men, but now he’s dead, and in his place is a wealth of exhaustion, doom and worrying attempts to recuperate straight monogamy’s glamour through the fascist tradwife aesthetic. Xanax is not widely available enough to keep the silent test-your-luck model of monogamy alive, and it fails both men and women: men are seen as childlike and bestial, incapable of really sustaining commitment or being faithful, while women are encouraged to keep up a healthy constant paranoia, as if watching a toddler near a pool.

A lot of the backlash against nonmonogamy is, in my opinion, reflective of anxieties about monogamy. And while there are absolutely couples in open relationships where one is very unhappy with the arrangement – as the tweet above suggests – what about the millions of married couples where one is crying themselves to sleep every night because they know the other is cheating, or because they want to leave but don’t have connections and support outside of their partner? Why is the idea of genuinely being able to love multiple partners so culturally unavailable? Is it because functioning polyamory might flash up some of the potential problems with monogamy: the scarcity mindset around affection or the possibilities for isolation and coercion? And might experienced poly people be able to teach us something about how to avoid unhappy, entrapping versions of monogamy, and how to cope better with common insecurities around relationships, even if you ultimately want an exclusive relationship?

To see if that might be true, I talked to some happily nonmonogamous people who are doing things in their relationships that others would find distressing, stressful, or incomprehensible: I talked to a guy who’s going to be the best man in his girlfriend’s wedding, a person who once tried to juggle five boyfriends at a time, and a guy who watched his partner have sex with “basically a hotter version of me”. When asked how they managed it, communication and self-knowledge recurred as a theme: “We have regular chats to make sure everyone’s still comfortable,” one said, while another said that they find it easier to strive to be a good partner now that they’re not scared that being attracted to other people makes them a bad partner. “We figured out that the thing that was meant to make us both feel secure and desirable wasn’t something we really cared about – and that meant we’ve put more effort into figuring out what does make us feel secure and desirable.”

Anxieties might be more regularly tripped in these relationships, but it seems like trying to address them without blaming anyone is a more explicit goal. “It’s easy to react to the thing you’re scared of when someone is talking rather than what they’re saying, and it’s hard to face the potential impermanence of a situation gracefully… One solution I have stumbled into is only being with people who are available for what I want, which is something 22-year-old me would not have been able to think about.”

The nonmonogamous people I talked to also had a different philosophy about jealousy: “my experiences and relationships with different people are so different from each other that I really don’t see my relationship with one person as taking away from my relationship with another, or even that they’re necessarily connected.” But even those who felt jealousy more acutely found it was usually surmountable when they could access what they were specifically jealous about, and didn’t feel like their partners were going to ridicule them. “Either you’re jealous of something specific, or you’re projecting onto the person, thinking that they must have everything you don’t. You can’t fix the latter. It’s not real.”

There was plenty of drama and stress in people’s experiences, all endemic to specific forms of polyamory: conflict between different partners, taking on too many relationships, stressfully trying to litigate what kinds of relationships were allowed and what weren’t, feeling guilty about being more excited by new partners than existing partners. What came through, though, was not that polyamory is good for everyone, but that really thinking through what you want and what scares you, and being upfront and seeing if a person will meet that level of transparency is a good way to avoid getting trapped. “I see some women wanting an equal, modern relationship,” one person pointed out, “but also wanting some of the stuff from monogamy that’s kind of inherently trad – you’re safe, you’ve been chosen, you can get on the pathway to your own biokids and stuff. I don’t fault them for wanting that, but it’s a lot to both have something be so contractual and so hard to talk about as contractual.”

We’re not even out of January yet; there’s time to make this a year of higher standards, clearer expectations, and wider possibilities, and of not letting fear of the void trap us in disappointing relationships. 

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.