Social research completed in the 1950’s revealed that polygamy as cultural norm has dominated the world cross culturally for most of history, albeit in most times and places, like monogamy, as a sexist and chattel based practice. Careful analysis of Franceur’s recent encyclopedia of sexuality shows that feminist and free love movements in the United States did not end here, but catalyzed change in marriage and family in many world cultures. Polyamory is a word coined in the 1990’s for a movement that has developed in the last 40 years in response to cultural evolution.
“Family” is being redefined. Old norms are not sufficient for a culturally evolved society of long-lived people. When social attitudes, government policy, and laws maintain old norms and suppress understanding of needed changes, those who are already living in adaptive and progressive lifestyles can be harmed. In addition, the larger population is prevented from learning helpful knowledge being gained by those in progressive formats.
That social, legal, and other dangers exist for people in polyamorous partnerships has been established. Prejudices are not confined to lay persons lacking information.
Common clinical misconceptions include that polyamorous persons are sex addicts and/or have attachment disorders. Bisexual and self identified polyamorous people are accused of being unable to commit, or just refusing to make up their minds. These conclusions are grossly incorrect. Clinicians need information to assist without prejudice those clients who maintain with integrity more than one relationship simultaneously.
The idea of polyamory brings into question not only the Judeo-Christian dictate for confining sex to heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation but it challenges the prevailing ideology that romantic and sexual love of one person can exist genuinely and responsibly for only one other person at a time – and that it should last forever. I call these Euro-American cultural programs and expectations of marriage “the fairy tale syndrome.”
Similar wording is used by Emens when she discusses “ … the pervasiveness of the fantasy of monogamy.” The word monogamy means legal marriage with one partner at a time. The sexual relations within that marriage are not defined. Our culture defines it as sexual relations with only one partner. Two studies in the 1980’s revealed that 30% of monogamous couples practiced some form of negotiated non-monogamy. Quantitative studies on polyamory are scarce but estimates gathered from a variety of sources suggest millions of practitioners.
If we are to judge by the media, very little sex takes place in monogamous marriage – Strong and Devault state that TV soaps alone show 24 times as much sex taking place outside of marriage. Until recently research has focused on extra marital sex, but little is known about marital sex within what is defined as the nuclear family: a heterosexual couple and their biological children, with one spouse employed outside the home and the other an at home caretaker. Some estimates are that as few as 13% of families actually live this way. There is no typical American family. As of the year 2000, there were more stepfamilies than any other kind.
Even though most people believe when marrying that they will be lifelong partners, the high divorce rate of the 20th century continues. Currently the most common overt American partnership style is serial monogamy; one exclusive sexual partner after another peppered by high rates of extramarital covert sexual affairs. The World Health Association reported in 2000 that among sexually active 16 – 45 year olds in sex nations including America, between 22 and 50 percent of adults have been sexually unfaithful…and these are just the subjects that admit it. In virtually every scientific field, humans are revealed to resemble most species in existence, as non monogamous by nature. The hallmarks of polyamory are honesty and acceptance of what appears to be human nature.. Polyamory presents designs for dealing with more than one relationship with responsibility and integrity.
The term “open marriage” was popularized in the 1970’s, during the free love movement and qualifies as polyamory because it is negotiated, egalitarian, responsible non-monogamy.
My presentation today is a pilot study to my current research on three common forms of polyamory. It addresses the question of open marriage as an alternative to the dissolution low or no sex marriages. Misdiagnosed as low desire and most often attributed to women, what are actually differing desire levels of partners and loss of desire in long term relationships are among the most commonly presented problems in relationship and sex therapy.
Participants in my study were former clients or volunteers located through the polyresearchers internet list. In depth interviews were conducted collecting data as described on the handout.
Participants are couples, formerly in traditional monogamous marriages who chose to open sexual relations in direct response to sexual desire differences. Couples report that these differing desire levels caused frustration, anger, self-doubt, guilt, and shame. They further suffered loss of companionship with one another, dwindling communication, undermining of intimacy, sleep disturbances, and loss of focus at work and other activities. Previous treatments such as medical testing and marital counseling had not ameliorated their sexual issues.
Couples were distraught, each saying they still love their partners and want to remain married and maintain family. In short, the fairy tale ended, and they did not want to cheat. In the limited time available here, I will share two cases which represent several themes and issues common to this type of polyamory.
People who identify as polyamorous, design their relationships on a continuum of openness, from not sharing much about outside partners on one end, to sharing everything including living space with multiple partners on the other. Both of these couples decided on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement. Preliminary research results suggest that this is not the most successful form of polyamory, but it seems attractive among some couples who start out as traditionally monogamous. While honest with each other and clear in their decision to open the marriage, they do not share any details about lovers with one another. They maintain a traditional appearance and context, which requires discretion and puts limitations on outside partners as well. Wives in these cases do not want to know when or with whom husbands partner. Husbands cannot neglect family and must follow safe sex practices.
Thesee wives had little interest in sex, and the husbands refused to be dishonest or have covert affairs. Wives benefited by losing the pressure to have unwanted sex, and the guilt of depriving their husbands of getting legitimate needs met.
While my larger research includes Europeans, African Americans, straight, bisexual, and transgenedered persons in three regions of the United states, these couples are in the white, upper middle class, metropolitan, educated demographic. They married for love and family with a monogamous agreement.
Jill and Jack were married for 12 years, both about 50 and have one daughter. Jack is employed as a software engineer with a second successful career as a musician. Jill has a home business and is a singer.
Jill estimates that she does 80% of the childcare and housework, while Jack provides 80% of the income. Both express satisfaction with this situation. Jill is a lifelong Unitarian and an active member of a large church. Jack shares some activities with her but does not consider himself part of any religion.
This couple married for the same reasons reported by many: to be intimate partners, create a home and have children. They intended to live monogamously. They were in love and good friends. They are an excellent match on paper, so to speak: similar backgrounds and daily living habits, values, and goals. Both state that in their past, they had had more exciting sexual partners than one another. But that those sexual partners would not have made good spouses. Each thought that their mediocre sexual relationship would be outweighed by other similarities and advantages of marriage.
They soon discovered their lack of sexual chemistry was more of a problem than anticipated. Jill, never as interested in sexual activity as Jack, became even less so after their child was born. As years passed, attempts to develop a satisfactory sexual connection, including with professional help, failed. Jack experienced growing physical and emotional stress, Jill experienced guilt and anxiety about their marriage. Both state they were at the point of divorce, and would have, if they had not tried an open marriage.
Jack said he would prefer to have sex with his own wife. But faced with three choices – Jill forcing herself to have unwanted sex, Jack going without sex completely, or a divorce – Jill and Jack both preferred Jack seek outside partners for sexual activity.
Since Jack travels for both of his jobs he has opportunity to meet with women while already absent from home.
They both report experiences typical among couples I’ve researched in this situation: relief from pressures and guilt, acceptance of their true selves, caring and respect for their partners needs, a renewed sense of freedom and connection between them, and personal growth and change.
They also report typical problems of the “don’t ask/don’t tell” arrangement. Jill experienced over time a sense of inadequacy and feeling undesirable. She compared herself unfavorably to unknown women. Jill felt Jack was away from family even more due to seeing other women. However, when Jill expressed her dissatisfaction about time sharing, jack responded positively and stuck to a schedule they made for family time and activities.
Jack reports that although he was consistently adamant in honesty about remaining married, some of his lovers were emotionally closer to him than was his wife. He found some difficulty in finding partners who would accept his situation, but reports that over a period of six years, he had several relatively long term lovers.
Jealousy is a common issue in nearly all polyamorous situations. Jill thinks she limited her jealousy by knowing nothing about Jack’s other relationships, and she stated, she would use forgiveness and understanding to ameliorate her feelings.
Jack states he doesn’t know if he’d be jealous of his wifes outside partners, bcs she consistently chose not to pursue any although she had equal right to do so. He states that if she could have found pleasure with someone else, he wished that she would. Jack explained that he did experience extreme jealousy with one of his lovers, who did not see Jack exclusively and was quite open about her other partners. Jack experienced two extremes on the polyamory openness continuum – a partner at home with whom he shared practically nothing, and a partner outside the home who shared almost everything about her lovers.
Opening their marriage, they state, kept them together until their daughter was in high school, six years longer than had they not adopted the arrangement. They separated for a year, thinking they might divorce, and both reiterate that polyamory was not the reason, but instead, the issues and problems that they struggled with from the beginning of their marriage, coupled with social pressure.
Jill’s already low sexual self-esteem did not improve, and she reports a common complaint among all types of long term partners –over time they had less genuine sharing and growth when they were together. Jack expressed a preference for a single partner with whom he shares sexual compatibility, if that were possible. He felt increasingly like an adulterer despite the open agreement, which is typical of don’t ask/don’t tell situation.
Jack also felt that he was in the way of Jill finding someone more suitable to her since he continued to play the role of live in husband, and Jill felt uncomfortable looking for partners in the networks of people in her life, while appearing to be traditionally married.
Over the years, it was impossible to completely hide Jack’s other partnerships and liaisons. Both Jill and Jack experienced social stigma which they state is one direct cause of their separation. Jill’s few friends who knew told her Jack was using her for housework while getting his sex elsewhere, a rather unfeminist evaluation in my opinion, that devalues Jill’s genuine enjoyment of motherhood, ignores her lack of interest in sex, and Jacks responsible commitment to his home and family. Jack’s few friends who knew, claimed that while they understood his situation, they “didn’t like to see someone have sex outside their marriage.”
Because of these personal and social pressures they decided to separate. Jack moved across the street and maintained his usual schedule of family time and home care with his daughter.
Each express pride that they managed this non-traditional arrangement. The six years longer they lived together with their child had a positive impact on her life, during which time Jill and Jack experienced personal growth. Each state they love and respect each other, that they separated more amicably bcs of their open arrangement, and remain good friends and parents.
AS advice to others who consider an open relationship, Jill stated that while she did not choose to have other partners, it might have been easier and better for her if she had. She found patience and forgiveness to be valuable attributes. Jack says he would keep checking in over time, that he never looked back to re-examine or modify their arrangements. He emphasized he has the highest regard for his wife and that mutual respect is essential.
As of fall of 2008, Jack moved back into the house with Jill. They both agreed they didnt want to divorce, but that they wanted this time to be different than before. Jill took steps to meet others by posting on polyamory dating sites. Their intention is to create a more equal open arrangement.
Couple two, Ann and Stan, I will cover more briefly as a comparison. Each are in their 40’s. Stan travels for his job as an insurance broker, Ann has started several fortune 500 companies and is an author. Stan has one son from a previous marriage. Ann spent several years living in a monastery as a Buddhist prior to her marriage to Stan. Stan does not identify with any religion but espouses a practice of positive thinking and affirmations, thankfulness, and forgiveness.
Ann and Stan enjoyed an exciting sex life when they first met. They both express that the other has been a helpful partner in dealing with life issues such as Stans former alcoholism and Ann’s depression. They have been married for 9 years.
Over time Ann became more involved with her work and less involved intimately with her husband. Eventually she struggled to maintain any desire for sexual activities which she claims were never a priority in her life especially as someone who had espoused a Buddhist lifestyle. Stan always had a high sex drive and the couple tried many avenues to create an acceptable sex life to both of them including medical testing and couples workshops. Traditional approaches of sex therapy for low desire couples failed them and on the brink of divorce they accepted the idea of trying an open sexual agreement.
Ann was leary at first but became excited about the idea when she learned she could make rules and boundaries about the situation, and free herself from pressure. Stan was pleased about the idea but did not know how he would find partners, and he did not want to stop having sex with his wife. Ann agreed that the open arrangement would not end their own sex life. They planned date nights and practical changes to assure relaxed time together.
For many months this worked well. Stan stated he could not find outside partners that were acceptable within the parameters of his agreement with Ann. He decided to use the internet and pay what he called professionals as long as they did not use drugs that he could ascertain, and followed strict safe sex practices. He said this was better than going crazy with no sex, and some women were companionable. He still had sex with his wife, but she remained usually less than enthusiastic despite their efforts.
After a year, during which Ann was marketing a book and working 60 hours a week,
unaddressed problems came to a head. Stan claimed Ann had never consistently honored her part of the commitment by keeping their couple time sacred. He stated that she had a lover which used all her time – her work. One day their dog died unexpectedly and Ann was very emotional. She reached out to Stan in a way that had been absent in their relationship for some time, after which they had particularly intimate and exciting sex. Ann declared she wanted the monogamous agreement back in place to “keep their relationship in that space.”
Stan did not want this, claiming Ann had become a workaholic, which she admitted, and was again depressed. He had finally met someone he liked according to their open agreement, and did not wish to discard this possible relationship when Ann had not been keeping her commitments to him. He agreed if she put time back into their lives that he would close the marriage again.
This distressed Ann and they saw a therapist. She agreed she was seriously overworking and becoming depressed. However she wanted to label Stan as a sex addict. When Stan next left for his weekly work schedule out of town, Ann stopped answering his calls and sent him an email with an ultimatum to close the marriage or get a divorce. She did not continue counseling.
Stan did not regret the open relationship and felt it helped when Ann was also following the plan. They both stated they would have divorced anyway if they had not tried it.
Existing research on polyamory shows that it is as successful and long term, or not, as monogamy. When monogamous couples come in for therapy, we do not traditionally presume sexual monogamy as part of their problem, we look at each individual and the dynamics of the rlshp. When partners in an alternative lifestyle come for therapy, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that polyamory is the reason.
Polyamory has few distinct issues that are excusive to the lifestyle. As Jill and Jack stated, it was personal problems coupled with social stigma that caused their eventual separation. Ann’s workaholic lifestyle and her untreated depression would effect any relationship.
Subjects in all my studies recommend, like Jack and Stan, ongoing communication, and to re-evaluate poly arrangements as time passes. Like Ann’s experience, issues build up and when not addressed, later may not be repairable. People come into relationships with themselves and their problems. Clinical assistance for polyamorous persons must include sorting out what has to do with each individual, and what has to do with the partnership arrangements.
Participants in this and other of my studies all state that polyamory is something they are compelled into, by circumstances and personal orientations they can’t deny, challenging the stereotype that poly is a choice, for fun. While sexual benefits were mentioned by all, they are not the first mentioned by any. The couples in this study ended in divorce, but not sooner than statistical averages for length of monogamous marriages. My own and other research show couples, triads, and networks of polyamorous partnerships lasting twenty and thirty years.
Jill and Jack demonstrate that polyamory can be supportive to commitment, and to a stable family environment. Ann and Stan experienced positive results with open marriage, but were thwarted by untreated individual problems and the need for clinical help with open arrangements.
Most problems noted with polyamory are also noted in monogamy. My research indicates that social stigma, strong emotions for more than one person, and time sharing, are the only issues that are specifically inherent, or exist to a greater degree, in polyamory than in monogamy. Serial monogamy and cheating are the most common relationship patterns in our culture today. Polyamory is an alternative that is not for everyone but is a rapidly growing, legitimate lifestyle fostering responsible, egalitarian, multiple partnerships and family ways which deserves continued attention and research.
Interviews were conducted by telephone or in person and tape recorded. A transcript was made and all identifying information removed. Each participant approved of the content as accurate and respectful of their privacy. Interviews were approximately one hour and in conversational format. Below questions were not directly asked, but were used as a guideline if conversation and stories did not elicit answers to the following: Demographics: Age, birthplace, data on family of origin, spiritual or religious background, education level, employment.
1) Sexual and marriage relationship history of the primary persons.
2) Number, gender, and ages of children.
3) What is your motivation or reason for having an open or multiple relationship format?
4) How open is your agreement? On a continuum, how much is shared
between partners and how well do all partners know each other?
5) How long has each participant shared this lifestyle together?
6) What are the boundaries and agreements regarding time, health, commitment, communication, privacy, and others applicable?
7) Are persons within your partnerships legally married, and are children in the group/situation?
8) Are practical aspects of life shared among partners, such as finances, parenting, and housework?
9) How much do children/parents/friends/co-workers know of your situation? Why or why not?
10) What does each participant consider positives and negatives of polyamory?
11) Would you say that you are in love with more than one person?
12) Do you experience jealousy? If so, how do you deal with it?
13) If you could give advice to others about this kind of relationship, what would it be?
Anapol, D. (1997). Polyamory, the new love without limits: Secrets of sustainable intimate relationships. San Rafeal, CA: IntiNet Resource Center.
Browning, C., Reynolds, A. L., & Dworkin, S. H. (1991). Affirmative psychotherapy for lesbian women. Counseling Psychologist, 19, 177-196.
Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1983). American couples. New York: Morrow.
Butler, R. N., & Lewis, M. I. (2002). The new love and sex after 60. New York: Ballentine Books.
Cloud, J. (1999, November 15). Henry & Mary & Janet &….New York: Time, 90-91.
Emens, E. F. (2003). Monogamys law: Compulsory monogamy and polyamorous existence. Chicago Law School, working paper number 58.
Ferrer, J. N. (2007, January/February). Monogamy, polyamory, and beyond. Tikkun, 22, 37-62.
Ford, C., & Beach, F. (1952). Patterns of Sexual Behavior. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
Francoeur, Robert, T., Ed. (2001) International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Vol 1 – 4. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.
Hall, Scott S. (2006). Marital meaning: Exploring young adults belief systems about marriage. Journal of Family Issues, 27; 1437.
Hymer, S. M., & Rubin, A. M. (1982). Alternative lifestyle clients: Therapists’ attitudes and clinical experiences. Small Group Behavior, 13, 532-541.
Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. (1948/1998). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders; Bloomington: Indiana U. Press.
Knapp, J. J. (1975). Some non-monogamous marriage styles and related attitudes and practices of marriage counselors. The Family Coordinator, 24, 505-514.
Law Commission of Canada. (2001). Beyond conjugality: Recognizing and supporting personal adult relationships. Canada: Minister of Public Works and Government Services.
Lovemore.com. (2007). http://www.lovemore.com/faq.shtm. Retrieved October 17.
Noël, M. J. (2006). Progressive polyamory: Considering issues of diversity. Sexualities, 9, 602.
Page, E. H., (2004). Mental health services experiences of bisexual women and bisexual men: An empirical study. Journal of Bisexuality. 3, 3/4, 137-160.
Peabody, S. A. (1982). Alternative life styles to monogamous marriage: Variants of normal behavior in psychotherapy clients. Family Relations, 31, 425-434.
Roughgarden, Joan, 2004. Evolution’s Rainbow. Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Roughgarden, Joan, 2004. Darwin & Gender Diversity. Plenary presentation, San Francisco: Western Regional Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
Rubin, A. M. (1982). Sexually open versus sexually exclusive marriage: A comparison of dyadic adjustment. Alternative Lifestyles, 5, 101-106.
Strong, B. & DeVault, C. (1992). The Marriage and Family Experience, (5th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.
Weitzman, G. D. (1999, March). What psychology professionals should know about polyamory: The lifestyles and mental health concerns of polyamorous individuals. Albany, NY: Paper presented at 8th Annual Diversity Conference.
Weitzman, G. 2006. Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6, 1/2, 137-164.
Internet and other resources:
The Kinsey Institute library collection of polyamory literature and research
Email poly chat and events lists in western, midwest, southeastern, and northeastern states