Editor's Note: This piece emerged from the discussion of my recent post on the legality of polyamory. Please welcome Daylight Atheism's newest guest contributor, JulietEcho, who has her B.A. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies and is also the administrator of the Friendly Atheist forum. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
I've been in a polyamorous relationship with my two partners for over three years now, and it's been great. The only downside: the secrecy. Many people in the US don't even know that plural relationships exist outside of Islamic countries and fundamentalist Mormon compounds. Polyamorous families tend to be very secretive - and with good reason. The religious majority in America considers any romantic relationship that's not between a straight woman and a straight man (usually in the context of marriage) to be sinful and immoral – and people in polyamorous relationships mostly consider silence the safest option, given the risks of losing jobs, reputations and even custody of children. However, bad reactions to polyamory aren't limited to reactions rooted in religion. I'm going to outline what I've found to be the three most common bad reactions to polyamory from non-religious people, and I plan to demonstrate why they're bad reactions.
1. "Polyamory? That's okay, as long as <insert horrible things here> isn't going on."
Underage marriages. Forced marriages. Abusive marriages. Polyamory is just swell, as long as it's not underage, forced, and/or abusive polyamory! While the reaction based on historical connections is understandable, it's a non-sequitur. When you find out that someone is marrying the woman of their dreams, you don't say, "That's great, as long as you don't plan on beating your new wife!" There's a long, horrible history of socially-acceptable violence against women, not to mention the centuries during which they were treated as property. This doesn't, however, mean that we're obliged to point out that it's unacceptable every time we find out about a man and a woman in a romantic relationship. No one should have to clarify that their polyamorous relationship is abuse-free, any more than someone in a relationship with a woman should have to clarify that they don't plan on treating her like property.
Some even argue that we should criminalize polyamory, or never acknowledge poly relationships as a normal part of society, because it would benefit abusers who force underage girls to marry them. This is beyond ridiculous – the fact that pedophiles are out there hasn't led us to outlaw sex, and the fact that thieves are out there hasn't led us to outlaw property ownership. There are still abusive relationships, pedophiles, and forced arranged monogamous marriages all over the world – are these things okay as long as they only involve two people? Should we outlaw one-on-one marriages so that we aren't providing a framework for abusive husbands, forced arranged marriages, marital rape, etc? The solution isn't to penalize polyamorous relationships – it's to crack down on the abuse of women, whether they're being abused singly or in groups.
2. "Those relationships are always about drama/don't last/are dysfunctional."
You don't tend to hear about the relationships that do last, because polyamorous families don't stand to gain anything from going public. You hear about the failed attempts from people who are upset and bitter about bad relationships (monogamous people don't have a monopoly on those), and from cases where there was serious fall-out between groups of friends, etc. You don't hear about the ones that last, because the people involved are generally terrified that they'll lose their kids and their jobs if people find out.
With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people. There's one more person who needs to "click" and more personal dynamics involved. It's hard to find (and sustain) a happy, healthy polyamorous relationship – but once you've got one, the people involved tend to be strong communicators, prioritize honesty and not take the relationship for granted. That's what it takes to make polyamory work.
In the end, to paraphrase Dan Savage, every relationship you have is going to fail – until one doesn't. That's true no matter how many people you date at once.
3. "Telling people that you're polyamorous is over-sharing – it's like telling them about your sex life."
Telling someone that you're dating a man is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with men. Telling someone that you're dating a woman is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with women. Telling someone that you're in a polyamorous relationship is essentially telling them that you don't see sexual monogamy as a necessary part of a healthy relationship. That's all. It doesn't imply (and no one should infer) that poly people have group sex, orgies, or have open relationships. It doesn't imply that every person in the relationship has sex with every other person in the relationship – in a way, it gives you less information about someone's sex life than finding out that only two people are dating each other.
It might feel like too much information to hear that someone is in a poly relationship – but that's about your personal comfort zone, not about the objective amount (or type) of information being shared. Many people are uncomfortable around gay couples or would rather not know that someone is gay – and that's tough cookies. People in love shouldn't have to (and aren't going to) go through a constant, public charade so that other people won't be grossed out or offended. No one is going to have sex in front of you. No one is going to ask you to join their poly relationship, like it's a club or something. Admitting the existence of a romantic relationship isn't inappropriate or over-sharing – it's normal.
When it comes right down to it, perhaps the biggest unspoken reason people have for objecting to (or being offended by) polyamory is fear. It's common for monogamous people to fear that a partner might leave them for a polyamorous relationship (or might demand opening up the existing relationship) if polyamory becomes normalized. But if your partner would actually leave you, or demand that you open up your relationship against your wishes, then you obviously aren't on the same page. There are tons of people out there (I'd wager a large majority of people) who want mostly or completely monogamous relationships – and they should find, date and marry other people who want the same thing.
Being honest about whether or not you're truly willing to commit to one other person sexually and romantically for life is ethical and healthy. Pretending to want monogamy (or genuinely wanting it, and then changing your mind and keeping it a secret), and then cheating is very, very common. Perhaps divorce and infidelity would become less common if more people were aware that poly relationships are an option, and if people made a greater effort to communicate their needs and desires. In short: polyamorous people aren't a threat to people who truly want monogamy – any more than relationships with men are a threat to people who are only interested in relationships with women.
Whether polyamorous marriage is ever legalized or not, I'll be more than happy if it's someday considered socially acceptable. There's nothing inherently unethical or offensive about it, and I've been surprised to find out how many polyamorous people I know, once they feel safe enough to talk about it. "Coming out" as polyamorous is currently a frightening, risky thing to do. If a friend discloses a polyamorous relationship to you, I hope you won't react in any of the ways I've discussed above, but rather give them the support and friendship that they need.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you're curious about polyamory, and thanks for reading.