They were high school sweethearts, sort of: Britt and John met in middle school right outside of Houston, the kind of place where the person you end up marrying is someone you’ve known your whole life. They flirted later in the halls of one of those big Southern high schools that boasts pro-football players as alumni. When John moved to Mississippi for a while they stayed in touch, writing letters; Britt was bonkers for him the whole time. When he returned and they got together in earnest, she didn’t have eyes for anyone else. They got hitched at 18.
“I thought it was happily ever after,” she says. “I wanted to go with him anywhere he went.”
Fast-forward three years: their marriage is no longer and Britt’s OkCupid profile acts as a one-two punch of invitation and warning. If you’re into hiking, Little Miss Sunshine, or The Bible, message her. If you’re into one-night stands or want to be monogamous, please don’t. Britt, an aspiring comedian, doesn’t fit stereotypes of countercultural swingers, opting instead for a modern Texan bombshell look (high heels, sundresses, red lipstick). But she’s patently uninterested in spending her life dating a lone dude. Not that she doesn’t want a relationship; believe her, she’s trying. She’s just learned a couple of lessons in the last few years.
Non-monogamy—the consensual, upfront kind—is a dizzyingly diffuse practice. The terms of these relationships vary wildly in scope and level of detail. Its practitioners come in configurations of one or three or 16, living as families together or keeping separate houses even after going steady for years. There is, to date, no overarching survey of how many people practice consensual non-monogamy in the States; academics told me the number could range from one to nine million, depending on one’s definition of “polyamorous.” But nearly everyone for whom the arrangement works secretly believes their way of being non-monogamous is superior—much like two people in the early stages of romance might believe they have made fools out of the rest of the world.
Despite decades of cyclical media attention, these so-called “poly” arrangements, open relationships, and monogamish marriages are conflated, side-eyed, and gawked at along predictable lines. In the early ‘70s swinging was decried in Time Magazine as a “troublesome addiction” among people who were “incapable of intimate relationships”; as recently as 2009, social scientists in the New York Times speculated that people in open relationships simply “haven’t found the right person yet.” Readers still ogle these easy objects of attention: the throuples, quads, group marriages that redefine the two-parent household. Either that or they feature breathless 30-something couples spilling about “our experiment,” as if non-monogamy were a weird appendage to tack onto a nice, normal relationship instead of a practical, individual choice.
We have a tendency to pit single-partner bliss against a hedonistic and dysfunctional hook-up culture.
In her wide-ranging Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz points out that it’s only through the 20th century that sexual satisfaction, the consolidation of resources, domestic bliss, and romantic love were rolled together into the imagined ideal of a Western partnership. In some tangible ways, that ideal has been slowly unraveling. Polyamory is making a cameo even in the conversations of otherwise straitlaced young people like Britt. We live in a world where platonic college students play at BDSM and “pretend to be a couple just to spice things up”; where OkCupid reported such an uptick in users interested in non-monogamy that they added features allowing partners to link their profiles together or set up a profile as a couple.
When I spoke to Elizabeth Sheff, who has been studying polyamory for more than a decade, she told me that older generations are learning to practice above-ground non-monogamy from the internet. People coming of age now, however, are hearing about it from friends. “Look,” she told me, “if monogamy were natural we probably wouldn’t need to have so many rules about it.”
And yet, all this new enlightenment is not without its own cognitive dissonance. People my age are getting married later, if at all—but statistically, most of us will still end up tying the knot. One in four ostensibly monogamous married Americans will at one point cheat—yet the stories we hear about the alternatives continue to frame it as a kinky deviance best left to the gullible or the sexually over-achieving. Particularly within straight relationships (gay culture has historically been far better at navigating ambiguity), we have a tendency to pit single-partner bliss against a hedonistic and dysfunctional hook-up culture.
Open relationships, I’m told by well-meaning acquaintances, are breaking up’s gateway drug. When you’re in love, you just don’t desire anyone else. Or, as a married person once told me, I really ought to just settle like he did—save myself all the effort and heartache.
You’d think that the sexual revolution our parents imagined would’ve been the scaffolding for a more vocal promiscuity, one that could support affairs with porous borders. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. What’s the holdup?
The old rules certainly felt applicable to Britt and John. Shortly after the wedding, going anywhere with him meant an army base in another Texan town. Britt happily followed her husband, only to find out what couples often do: that people change. Priorities shift. Resentments become so deeply lodged they end up being indistinguishable from the relationship itself. When Britt decamped back to Houston after a year, the marriage didn’t stick, but some of the conversations with polyamorous couples on base did—namely, that cheating doesn’t have to be cheating if you’re honest, and promising yourself to a single person til death do you part isn’t the most pragmatic plan.
Fifty years ago, Britt might have found a community of wife-swapping swingers when her husband joined the army. Some of the first recorded instances of mass communal mate-swapping in the U.S. were among Air Force pilots and their wives during World War II, a practice that later bled into the suburbs. Swinging, the most conservative form of non-monogamy, arranges sex, divorced from emotion, around the primacy of matrimony. According to Britt, the “swinger culture in the military is insane,” with vast numbers of people were swapping partners for the night or the weekend. But the ideas about sex and relationships Britt talks about valuing—communication, honestly, fluidity, sexual freedom—don’t come from that tradition.
Still, it made Britt realize that the “comfort and stability” of monogamy isn’t worth the monotony. She wants a partner who also wants to sleep around. She likes hearing and talking about the dates and the sex. Britt isn’t into being controlled; it makes her resent people when they tell her what to do. Plus, she’s busy with work and stand-up and she is, in her words, a “handful, emotionally.” She prefers to spread that intensity around a bit. “There are just so many options open to couples who are in an open relationship,” she says.
Intimacy has a way of developing between people who spend a lot of time pressing their naked bodies together.
With more options, of course, come more variables, and an overwhelming taxonomy of relationships types. The language we use to describe our lovers—hook-up, girlfriend, the often delusional friends-with-benefits—speaks volumes about what we expect them to be. Most are prescriptive, offering boundaries and end points. And some relationships dwell in the cracks of these designations: Not every love has to turn into an endless sleepover, not every ex deserves to be excommunicated forever, not every mutually tender feeling towards your fuck buddy has to be a source of angst. These days even the definition of what constitutes adultery is getting more complicated. Is sending dirty emails to an internet stranger closer to sleeping with them IRL, or more akin to a masturbatory fantasy?
When they’re monogamous, people are described as remaining “faithful” to their partner; infidelity refers to one of two things: sex outside of marriage or defection from God. So perhaps it’s no surprise an increasingly agnostic generation is wrestling with the various Thou Shalt Nots embedded in monogamy, or that secular love might require more pliant boundaries.
Rob*, for instance, was very faithful. Now, he might say too faithful. At 36, Rob is part of that seemingly endless swell of ageless New Yorkers that give me hope for my own thirties; he holds down a steady job in Manhattan, but on the weekends he’s working on film projects and vibing around the parts Brooklyn I frequent myself. His voice and physical presence are wildly mismatched: When we meet at a shoebox-sized bar near his office he’s dressed in a sensible collared shirt and sweater, yet his voice is pitched to an earnest register, punctured with the favored colloquialisms of people born after 1980. “Yeah man, totally,” he tells me with an exaggerated shrug. “I did a lot of stuff in my early life because I thought I should.”
Nowadays, Rob is in a committed relationship with a woman he loves; they’re moving in together soon, and he still goes on dates with other people occasionally. “It’s not really about the sex even,” he tells me, though making out is pretty great. “There’s a measure of independence” in non-monogamy, he says; he thinks abandoning the idea that he and his lady have to be responsible for each other’s’ every need ultimately makes their life together more sustainable. You can go off and do your own thing sometimes, says Rob, and “still come back to the person you love.”
When Rob and his girlfriend first negotiated all this open stuff, she asked him what would happen if he met someone he was super into who wanted him to be their one-and-only. “I was like, ‘I’ll shut that shit down,’” he says. “‘It’s not worth my partnership with you.’”
Besides, he says, most of the time going on those dates makes him appreciate the depth of his relationship more. “I mean, most people suck.”
Rob was born and raised in Nashville, but he’s been in New York since 1997. Growing up, he says, going steady was “the path that was laid out.” He had a girlfriend in high school who cheated on him (“because high school”); he fucked around on his college girlfriend (“because college”). He broke the latter’s heart so thoroughly he decided he wasn’t ready for a relationship and bounced around for a bit, even as his friends started pairing up. Until he met Anne*, that is. In the five years they were together, and through their awful breakup, and to this day, he never cheated again.
Anne, a playwright, was brassy and talented. They moved in together after about a year but found themselves unhealthily wound up in each other, suffocating under the weight of what they wanted the other to be. Both had a distaste for the institution of marriage at first, but as time went on, the end goal changed. “It was like, well, maybe we could have a fake wedding and people would give us money to celebrate our love for each other,” he says. They started half-looking at engagement rings, cloaking their problems in symbols of matrimony. By the time they finally split, when Rob was 33, he barely knew how to be alone.
Maybe it’s the pseudonyms, but when Rob talks about stretches of his life in the city they sound like something out of a smutty noir film. “Can you just call her Night Nurse?” he asks. “That’s what I called her.”
Night Nurse—red-haired and tattooed, working the graveyard shift at a hospital—is how Rob got the specter of monogamy out of his system. The two met through mutual friends at a ball game shortly after their respective long-term relationships had imploded; both felt they’d been coupled a few years too long. When they started sleeping together, they kept it intentionally casual—just about the sex. But as any human who has ever attempted such a balancing act knows, intimacy has a way of developing between people who spend a lot of time pressing their naked bodies together, particularly if their fuck buddies are nice people to spend time with.
This, of course, is the sticking point, the source of a nauseating level of terror for most people. It’s what made the iron-clad rules of swinging so appealing to married couples and it’s what inspires people now to tell their primary partners they’re allowed as much sex as they want as long as nothing remotely resembling a feeling is involved—a rule that, looked at in a certain way, all but guarantees the coldness and alienation hook-up culture’s detractors claim it to perpetuate. Conventional poly talking points will tell you that every relationship is a unique snowflake, that love isn’t a zero-sum game; that doesn’t mean navigating a lover’s level of emotional commitment to another person can’t be absolutely brutal. So, I imagine, is 50 years spent wondering about every flirtation you could have acted on. So is being taken for granted. So is feeling trapped.
Being ethically non-monogamous requires muting some of the most seductive ideas we have about romantic love.
Best case, you and whoever you’re seeing want the same things and come to an understanding. Worst case, you don’t and it’s a dealbreaker, like not wanting kids or moving across the country. Night Nurse and Rob made it work for a few years, once they realized they were falling in love. “We were like, okay. We’re in this relationship. Maybe we’re in an… open relationship?” says Rob.
Of course, there’s an immature, manipulative partner for every mature conversation like this one. Spend time on non-monogamous message boards and you’ll find a rage-inducing catalogue of ways in which people fuck each other over. They cheat and retroactively claim amnesty, citing polyamorous buzzwords. Couples write Google Docs together outlining the rules—no one younger than me, not if you have feelings for them, never on a Sunday night—and proceed to break every one. After all, transgression is hella sexy, and the allure of adultery is at least partially rooted in sneaking around.
But for Rob and Night Nurse the arrangement made sense. They both dated around, they talked about the people they were seeing, they joked about the insane OKCupid messages she would get. She dated a couple for awhile, he saw a number of people on the side. They dabbled in sex parties and went to a few polyamorous cocktail hours, “but I found the scenesters kind of repellent,” Rob says. In part, it was that the crowd was into self-conscious theatrics and punchy nicknames (“Porno Jim,” for instance), but it was also the constant conversation about relationships and sex: he found a lot of people in that community overly concerned with themselves. “I hated the scene but I was like, Oh my god. This is the way to live,” he says.
About two years in, Night Nurse met a guy in a bar and the relationship fell apart a few months later. It was the only time Rob felt truly, painfully jealous, in part because it was clear he and his lady were drifting apart. She didn’t exactly leave him for the dude—she’d seemed distant for a while—but her acquisition of a new beau-slash-escape-hatch didn’t exactly help the heartbreak that ensued.
“I don’t blame [polyamory] for the dissolution of that relationship,” Rob says. “I blame Night Nurse for that. Because, you know, love is a decision.”
Sit on that for a second: “Love is a decision.” If that sounds crazy, think about the fact that all committed relationships, monogamous or not, require all types of choices. Sometimes it’s whether you can accept your partner’s level of financial stability. Perhaps it’s whether helping them wrestle with their various neuroses feels like a worthwhile endeavor. For Night Nurse, it was whether she was into Rob enough to keep dating him, bar guy or no.
That all might come off as overly pragmatic, even a little harsh. But being ethically non-monogamous requires muting some of the most seductive ideas we have about romantic love. Most of us like to think of it as a gaping chasm you are helplessly swept into, swooning. Certainly not an informed negotiation.
People who reject monogamy believe it is not simply impractical but potentially damaging to ask your partner alone to shoulder your entire life’s worth of clamoring for companionship, struggle, and sex. They believe that affection and desire does not diminish when it’s shared with more than one other.
And, perhaps most disruptive of all, they believe that when that person takes those sweet, stupefying feelings away from you it is not because they found a fresher version of it somewhere else or that they were stolen away from you. When that happens, it will be because that person no longer wants to be with you, and you will have only yourself and that person to blame. Which—if you’re insecure or watch a lot of TV or believe in such precious ideas as “the one”—might strike you as a little unromantic, if not completely devastating.
Polyamory says we can have all of the feelings —however complicated or muted or fleeing—about the people we sleep with.
Polyamorists have invented a language to describe ideas not often in currency in modern-day America. One is “compersion,” a feeling of satisfaction and empathy while seeing one’s partner happily fucking or enjoying someone else’s company. NRE—“new relationship energy”—is a topic that blazes across poly communities on the internet, where longstanding couples wrestle with the reality that what’s mysterious and new has a fundamentally different quality than the familiar. Which doesn’t make it better, they say, just different.
Concepts like these can appear hokey or cultish to outsiders. Rob wasn’t the only person I spoke to who felt alienated by the trappings of the “poly scene.” Britt, too, told me she sometimes had trouble finding so-called “normal” people who understood what she was going for. And when I ask 28-year-old Kaela about the poly meet-up she and her dude, Riley, went to recently in Kansas City, her voice drops to a mock whisper. “Oh my god,” she giggles. “It was weeeiiiirdddd.”
In part, Kaela and Riley, who is 27, ended up at the meet-up out of curiosity; they were looking for other people like them. After all, there isn’t exactly a hopping poly scene in Lawrence, Kansas, the Midwestern college town where they met and now live together. When they started this whole thing, they didn’t have many models. They only knew of one open relationship: Kaela’s best friend, a gay man, who’s in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell, long-distance kind of deal. (A common story, of course. A lot of straight people have picked up ideas about consensual non-monogamy from the queer community.)
When Kaela and Riley first met a few years ago, it was Riley who initiated what Kaela calls the “relationship conversation” after they’d only been dating a few weeks.
“It really freaked me out,” she says. “I was like, oh god, this guy is gonna try to tie me down.” Actually, though, Riley wanted to talk about them being in a relationship—but also seeing other people. “So I put on my research hat,” says Kaela. “I thought, ‘there has to be books on this.’”
The basic ideas in Kaela’s list of books have incubated in various American communities throughout the 20th century. On one end of the political spectrum there’s swinging; according to investigative journalist Terry Gould’s book-length survey of “The Lifestyle” in the U.S., as many as a third of swingers openly practicing mate-swapping in the ‘90s voted Republican. On the other end, there is the brand of free love that gained notoriety through the ‘60s and ‘70s and was closely associated with countercultural notions; think communes and transcendentalism.
These are just some recent strains; some feminists preached open marriage during the Victorian era, ancient Greeks were famously accepting of extramarital sex, particularly between men; and as monogamish proponent Dan Savage is fond of mentioning, though many parts of the Western world men have rarely been expected to be truly monogamous behind closed doors. Along with his column, Savage Love, couples over the last few decades have been swayed by period-specific texts like 1972’s Open Marriage or 1997’s The Ethical Slut.
Relationships are fucking painful. No arrangement will ever manage to erase that fact.
These days, for a generation suspicious of straight-up self help but fond of making decisions “because Science,” that text seems to be Sex at Dawn, a book that makes the argument against monogamy based on some (pretty soft) evolutionary psychology. Suffice to say, for all the hand-wringing and gawking this stuff inspires, it’s been around for awhile, in all reaches of the country, whether or not there are role models nearby. None of these ideas are particular to 2016.
The fact that they’re becoming more legible to mainstream culture, among heterosexual people in liberal islands of conservative states like Kansas, might be. Kaela says her friends and parents know about her and Riley’s arrangement. Some of them get it; some of them just smile and nod. Given the absence of hard numbers and many Americans’ reluctance to self-report when it comes to their sex lives, stories like Kaela and Riley’s may be some of the only benchmarks we have.
The staying power of monogamy may lie in the moral pedestal we still place it on. One recent study of Americans’ perception of consensual non-monogamy found that we think people who are monogamous are better at paying their taxes on time, walking their dogs, flossing their teeth. Implicit monogamy clinched the movement for gay marriage: The Supreme Court decision waxed poetic about “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice,” rather than going the more practical route of declaring marriage a civil right. A flexible attitude towards monogamy is a rebuke of some of the most satisfying lies we tell each other—that every time we fall in love it’s the last time, that true romance is totalizing, that some love is “good” and some is “bad.”
The rub is, instead of making monogamy play the virgin to hook-up culture’s whore, polyamory says we can have all of the feelings —however complicated or muted or fleeing—about the people we sleep with. The person who feels neglected when their lover is spending time with another could just as easily be put off by a partner who spends all their time on the job. Jealousy can be felt just as hard when you spy your monogamous partner flirting as it can when you give them permission to spend the night in someone else’s bed. So maybe we should just be honest about all that and do our gosh-darned best.
Recently, I was talking to one of my oldest friends—she’s getting married this year, and I like to give her a gentle ribbing about it. After a few exchanges (mostly photos of hipster brides wearing antlers; grooms in suspenders) she asked me about my current relationship. Am I still, you know..open? When I said yes, she congratulated me: “Everyone I know who has figured out how to do this is, like, a wizard.” I told her it’s really just a matter of trading one set of complications for another. Relationships are fucking painful. No arrangement will ever manage to erase that fact.
After all this: Non-monogamy isn’t for everyone, just as marriage doesn’t appeal to some. But it’s worth asking why, through so many massive upheavals in the way Americans think about their erotic inclinations and domestic lives, monogamy has remained the highest virtue, our default setting, or at least a rule one grudgingly must follow. For a generation feeling out their emotional boundaries now, who are by most accounts having more nuanced, informed conversations about sex, maybe some of this stuff won’t feel so unthinkable.
Last year, Emily Witt wrote a story about internet sexuality that predicted a future in which what is now the “bold and risky” performance of camming and sexting and chatting dirty could be considered just, well, sex. In that same world, the people we sleep with and flirt with and become stupidly enamored with may not find themselves beholden to a cut-and-dry script. They can just be, you know, the people we love.
*Rob asked for his name to be changed out of concern for his partners’ privacy (aww)