Would you — or could you – love more than one person at a time? An ongoing study by YouGov suggests that polyamory isn’t on the cards for most folk. But why? What are we missing out on and, potentially, misunderstanding?
As of August 2023, the data shows that most people have never heard of polyamory and therefore wouldn’t be “open” to it. However, younger age groups seem to be more receptive to the idea, with 12% of 18-25 and 10% of 25-49-year-olds saying they haven’t heard of it but would give it a go.
So, what is polyamory? And, why are so many of us turned off by it? To find out, we first need to ask ourselves this question...
Why are so many of us in monogamous relationships?
In the West, society typically prioritises heterosexual representation and monogamous relationships. This means that, in a nutshell, we’re raised thinking we should aspire to have a relationship structure that looks a little bit like this: One man, one woman, forever.
However, forever is a very long time – especially as our lifespans are lengthening. Forever in the 1600s might have meant 10 years whereas today, it could mean 80. There are also other things to consider, like sexuality.
Prishita Maheshwari-Alpin tells HuffPost UK that, for them, beginning to unpick and question monogamy was part of their personal growth journey. They were able to interrogate monogamy because they were already beginning to question how they fitted into society.
“As a brown person, an immigrant and slowly understanding my queerness during that period as well, [it] meant there was already stuff that I was engaging with that made me question what we’re being taught,” they explain.
“I’d think: the rules and expectations, they don’t work for me, and they’re not making me happy.”
For Bima Loxley, a sex and relationships therapist and sexologist, this default monogamy setting stems from the fact we are not taught to critically analyse relationship structures and identity. “We don’t question if we’re born monogamous. We don’t question if we’re born cis-het, do we?” they say.
So, where did monogamy come from?
It’s believed to have been popularised by the Roman Empire in the first century AD as they embraced the teachings of Christianity.
However, anti-polygamy laws made Greco-Roman society relatively sexually egalitarian long before the introduction of Christianity.
Whoever you attribute monogamy to, it soon became the status quo for the West. So much so, that centuries later, it is still considered the ‘normal’ way to have a relationship.
What is ethical non-monogamy?
If monogamy is one person at a time, then ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is the opposite. But that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all f*ck-fest or a constant slew of orgies.
Depending on which branch of ENM you choose to explore (there are many, many kinds – ‘swinging’, ‘open relationships’, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – to name a few), and how your relationships take shape, they can look however you want them to look. But the core theme is that everybody involved is aware and consenting to the dynamic.
Polyamory is one such branch of the ENM tree, which is defined by the ability to have any number of romantic or sexual relationships.
However there doesn’t need to be sex present and there doesn’t need to be romantic love felt. Polyamory is defined by the individual and those they choose to form relationships with and vice versa.
What being polyamorous means, according to poly people
Perhaps it’s good to start here, instead of the snippets afforded to us by pop culture, because what we might see represented on TV, or in films, isn’t a like-for-like of the real thing.
So, what does being polyamorous actually mean? Poppy Scarlett, a pleasure educator and content creator based in London has been non-monogamous for eight years and has identified as polyamorous for six.
She explains: “In its simplest form, it’s having the capacity or the desire to love multiple people at the same time. But what that really means to me is about living authentically and allowing relationships, regardless of whether they’re sexual or romantic or platonic, to take whatever shape feels natural rather than forcing it into a specific box.”
This view is shared by many people HuffPost UK spoke with. Alex started questioning monogamy and exploring relationship styles when the world was disrupted by Covid-19. “Post-pandemic I questioned: do I really want serial monogamy, marriage, kids, stuff like that? I don’t think I do,” he says.
For him, polyamory is about having the freedom to “just have a relationship that I want and the rules that I want around it without shame”.
And for London-based Abigail Hardingham, finding polyamory proved to them how flexible humans can be. They tell me: ”We can rewire the way we think. That you can choose to live a lifestyle that doesn’t fit what is prescribed to us from a young age. It means creating a queerer more communal way of living.”
Michael Munro, from Brighton, praises polyamory for teaching him about personal growth and the rejection of traditional relationship norms. “It’s a way of recognising the complexity of human emotions and relationships while prioritising honesty and respect in all connections,” he says.
Sluts, cheaters and cucks
Those within the polyamorous community often face scrutiny for doing love, sex and relationships a little differently. As such, misconceptions and disinformation can cause people to feel shame.
For Prishita, conversations surrounding jealousy often rear their heads. “People will kind of dismiss polyamory by saying that they just could never do it because of jealousy,” they say. “I’ve had to put in the work and actually part of that journey is accepting that jealousy happens.”
They continue to explain that jealousy is a natural human emotion and what’s more important is how you navigate it, communicate it and talk about it.
Other misconceptions centred around polyamory include the idea that you’re just sleeping around, being non-committal or are branded as a “cuck” (short for cuckolding).
Alex says this is particularly common for men: “One of the things that’s really common, especially for male presenting people, is the belief that you just want to screw everyone, or to sleep with multiple people guilt-free.”
Poppy explains that she has similar experiences and commonly finds comments on her educational content trying to devalue it by branding polyamory as “consensual cheating”.
“The other thing that comes up a lot is that non-monogamy is just for people who are scared to commit which I find hilarious,” she laughs, explaining that, if anything, she loves commitment so much she’s committed herself to three people.
Is polyamory an identity? Or a relationship style?
The truth is, it depends on who you’re asking, but most polyamorists agree that, for the most part, polyamory is more of a relationship style than an identity.
However, speaking to people at the heart of the community, it’s clear to see that it’s not always as simple as choosing either or.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer,” says Alex, who explains that there are multiple factors that go into deciding whether or not it’s an identity.
“I, myself, I’m not against sticking my flag in and going, yes, I am polyamorous. I am ethically non-monogamous and I’m not treating it as an identity as such,” he says, “but a lot of people in the LGBTQIA community find it helpful to have those kinds of labels and to go ‘yeah, this is who I am. This is where I feel safe.’”
Jamie*, who chose to remain anonymous, explains that being polyamorous can feel like coming out again. “It happened to one of my partners, it was just like, wow, this is like coming out all over again. It’s quite scary,” he says.
Poppy agrees that this should come down to the individual: “When I speak about myself, I say I identify as polyamorous because for me it’s fundamentally who I am.”
But she doesn’t think that this should be the same for everyone: “I think people are allowed to make their own decisions about whether that’s an ingrained part of their identity.”
So, should we all be a little more open to polyamory then? Unless you have the space, safety and self-esteem to explore sexuality and identity, then you might never know what suits you best.
This is why Loxley is calling for improved sex education, saying that the only way people can explore sexuality and identity safely is if they have all the tools and knowledge to do so.
“I don’t think that non-monogamy for everyone is the goal at all,” says Poppy. “I think the goal is to choose the relationship structure that works for you. And receive no judgment for that.”