From a young age most of us are told to grow up, get a job, fall in love, and get married to, theoretically, live happily ever after. Our culture is so caught up in the fairytale of “the one,” but is it possible to love more than just one person? Relationships are evolving and challenging the cultural constructs of monogamy. Cinderella 2.0, as I like to call her, has many options as she waits for Prince Charming — with a possible prince or princess on the side.
So, should you unlearn the cultural constructs of monogamy to create your own 21st century polyamorous fairytale?
Open Relationship, Open Heart
Non-monogamous relationships are being discussed more openly nowadays, as an option more couples are considering. Americans are consciously choosing a relationship model that works best with their lifestyle. Currently, there are reportedly half a million polyamorous relationships in the U.S., though underreporting is common.
Polyamorists, not to be confused with polygamists, have a strong online presence on sites like Poly Matchmaker and Polyamory Meetups, on which they make up about 100,000 strong. Offline, two hotbeds for these communities include the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, which boast the largest poly populations in the country. In 2006, Trask estimated that there are 2,000 polys in the San Francisco Bay area.
Take Chris Messina, for example. A child of divorce and an aspiring designer-entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, he admits he became suspicious of marriage.
“Out here, we're data-positive and solution-oriented and if your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50 percent of your customers, then you need to fix it or offer something better,” he wrote for CNN Money. Messina saw room to improve the way society approaches modern relationships and figured non-monogamy could be a practical solution.
With a divorce rate of 40 to 50 percent in the U.S., according to the American Psychological Association, it’s no secret people have difficulty maintaining monogamous relationships. Dedeker Winston, an alternative relationship expert in Southern California, who runs a Multiamory blog and podcast on open relationships, has been an active member of the polyamorous community for the last five years. She believes polyamory is a solution for couples who want to romantically or sexually explore others without cheating or lying. A polyamorous relationship thrives on the foundation of trust. Couples keep an open mind when it comes to sexual relations outside the relationship because they have communicated trust in each other to remain faithful, also known as having an open heart.
“Some people find that polyamory works better with their particular life circumstances, such as maintaining long distance relationships,” she told Medical Daily in an email.
The reality is many relationships end because people cheat while pretending to be monogamous. If this is the case, why are open relationships — a seemingly easy fix — still such a cultural taboo?
Monogamy is the norm in American culture, but polyamorous couples now argue that the “norm” isn’t right for everyone. Humans have the capacity to love a multitude of friends and family, which shows we have an innate capacity to love because it’s essentially infinite. If that’s the case, we may be capable of romantically loving more than one person at the same time. Polyamorous couples view love not as a finite, but as an infinite resource that allows them to nourish themselves with many sources.
A man who is all too familiar with simultaneously sharing romantic love with multiple partners is relationship and non-monogamy coach Cooper Beckett. He runs Life on the Swingset, a podcast and website dedicated to swinging, polyamory, and other forms of non-monogamy, and has just published the book My Life on the Swingset: Adventures in Swinging & Polyamory, documenting his own journey through various facets of non-monogamy.
Polyamorists say the secret to their success as couples is clear and honest communication. It is one of the most definitive aspects of polyamory, since couples rely on communication to set distinct relationship boundaries and ensure safe sex practices.
This isn’t any different from communication among monogamous couples. Winston says she has witnessed monogamous couples blossom beautifully and grow much more intimate after opening up the relationship, and others crash and burn after the switch.
A 2010 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found couples who have more positive communication styles also tend to heal faster when it comes to certain ailments. The researchers suspect oxytocin may play a role, since it is a protective hormone, and seen at high levels in couples whose wounds healed the fastest. The findings suggest communication is more than just honesty; it dictates how other facets in our life unfold, such as illness, and for polyamorous couples, sexual desires.
How couples interact about issues such as time spent together/apart, money, health, gender differences, children, family, friends, commitment, trust, and intimacy impacts the ability to develop and maintain any relationship. Positively communicating fantasies, wants, needs, desires, what is working, what is not working, what they enjoy, what they do not enjoy, and everything in between, is what contributes to any relationship success. After all, communication is the basic building block of a relationship.
Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills psychotherapist, author, and expert panelist on WE TV’s Sex Box, premiering Feb. 27, told Medical Daily, “healthy communication and talking is the glue that keeps relationships together.”
But can healthy communication help fulfill even the most erotic of sexual desires?
One of the main reasons couples get into open relationships, says Walfish, is for sexual variation. It may mean one partner has a larger sexual appetite for sex than the other. This should not be viewed as immoral or wrong, since it is up to both partners to come up with a way of allowing each other to get the amount and variety of sex they desire.
Temporarily, it can increase sexual intimacy in a variety of ways. “Opening up to your partner and being vulnerable about attractions to others and sexual desires increases interpersonal intimacy, and can really allow your partner to become a valued collaborator in your sex life,” Winston said.
The different sexual techniques can also increase overall sexual intelligence. In Beckett’s experience, expanding circles of your sexuality with multiple partners tends to enhance the sexual experience across the relationships.
Open relationships are sometimes seen as risky because of the frequency of sex with a multitude of partners.
“There is a myth that people in non-monogamous relationships have higher risk of things like sexually transmitted infections (STIs),” Shuey says, but “if individuals are practicing safer sex, communicating about risk, and getting tested regularly, they could have less risk than a monogamous person who has unprotected sex with one person.”
Although there is no right or wrong relationship structure, consensual non-monogamy could actually be a more responsible choice when it comes to safe sex. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found people who cheat on their partners sexually are less likely to engage in safe sex while doing so than are people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships. Individuals who have permission to “cheat” are more likely to use condoms correctly than actual cheaters.
The truth is any sexual encounter, regardless of the relationship style, comes with the risk of communicable disease. However, couples who have consensual sex outside their relationship usually believe this arrangement is OK as long as it is safe. Poly couples tend to communicate better about sex, and are therefore more likely to engage in safer sex practices.
Can Polyamory Replace Monogamy?
Open relationships are starting to generate more buzz in today’s society as more adults engage in a college hook-up style. The desire for various partners caters to our primitive greed; we want to have our cake and eat it, too. Despite the popularity, at the root of the relationship, real poly couples argue there needs to be basic trust in each other so they know the other partner will not betray them by falling in love with someone else or leaving.
This seems to work at the beginning, but it can end in disaster once one partner decides he or she doesn’t want to live in the modern-day fairytale anymore. This is because feelings change moment to moment.
“Although a person may feel quite fine about it right now, what can happen is that the man or woman may develop a closeness or physical intimacy with the other woman. That creates feelings of envy, rivalry, jealousy, territorial competition, and ultimately puts a wedge between the couple,” Walfish said.
This shows, just like monogamous relationships, open relationships can face a myriad of victories and defeats. However, open relationships are found to have a higher failure rate because as human beings our feelings can change from moment to moment, including before, during, and after sex.
Dr. Helen Fischer, a biological anthropologist and leading expert in the science of human attraction believes poly romances don’t work because the human brain is simply built not to share. She believes humans have three brain systems: sexual love, intense romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. “We are a naturally jealous animal,” she told CNN Money.
Open relationships are beneficial when you’re dating, if you’re looking for someone with whom you want to be in a committed, long-term relationship. “You should play the field until you really get to know someone you feel is compatible and wonderful,” April Masini, relationship expert and author, told Medical Daily.
It looks like polyamory may not replace monogamy anytime soon, but it’s nice to know that Cinderella 2.0 has options while looking for Prince Charming. She may find him while having fun with Mr. Right Now. Until then, one’s company, two’s a crowd, and three’s a party.