Polyamory: Longread Explainer

By Sofia de Martin

Polyamory or consensual non-monogamy is the romantic or sexual relationship with more than one partner. The key word in the term is the consent of all involved. All the people in question can be part of the relationship or it can be a relationship with an agreement to accept additional partners.

While still an obscure term, it is more common than we may think. Estimates suggest 4-5% of the US population is part of a polyamorous relationship and up to 20% of US single adults have been part of a polyamorous relationship at some point in their lives.

Yet, the implications of a relationship between more than two people brings its own share of stigma and discrimination both legally and socially.

How do people see this issue?

Societal Expectations

From a young age, most of us have been taught family and relationship values by the people around us. In many cases, there is an expectation to find a partner, more often of the opposite sex, start a family and settle down. And while this is an option which works for many people, it is not a one size fits all. For people in polyamorous relationships, the misunderstandings and prejudice that comes with their love life can be difficult to overcome.

A. “Each of us, then, is a “matching half”of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him” Plato in Symposium.

The idea that out in the world we have a soulmate who will complete us is not a new one. Plato’s Symposium was written around 385 BCE. In it we find an account of how humans were originally creatures with four arms and legs, so powerful even Zeus feared them. This fear led him splitting them in half, leaving them to search for their “matching half” all their lives.

B. “America’s new, souped-up version of polygamy is called “polyamory”.” Stanley Kurtz, research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Many conservatives see polyamory as a sort of euphemism for polygamy and as another radical-left creation to do away with traditional family values and commitments.

Studies suggest that conservatives, particularly those with religious backgrounds, are more likely to believe polyamory is an excuse to escape commitment and fidelity. Mr Kurtz, who is also opposed to the idea of gay marriage, argues that allowing people in polyamorous relationships to get married will be the next step into abolishing the institution of marriage altogether. That increasing awareness of polyamory, and its potential acceptance into society and the legal system, will lead to an erosion of traditional values and the sanctity of monogamous marriage.

C.”As a Marriage and Family Therapist/Relationship Expert for 20 years, it has been my ongoing experience that Polyamory is not the ideal scenario for children to experience as their parents’ lifestyle.” Dr Karen Ruskin

Even when people are accepting of polyamorous relationships, many don’t think they provide an adequate environment to start families and raise children. Karen Ruskin argues that the nature of polyamorous relationships is a promiscuous one, where partners change often and there is little stability for the children who life in those households. This leads to children feeling neglected and struggling to form lasting attachments even in adulthood.

Other arguments of this view focus more around the traditional structure of the family.One mother, whose daughter is in an open relationship, says she draws the line at her grandchildren being raised in a throuple - a relationship between three people.

D.“There’s no reason to believe that monogamy is any better [or worse] than other family structures – of which poly families are just one” Dr Meg-John Barker British psychotherapist, academic and author.

Studies on polyamory are still recent. There are few studies and few responders and evidence remains inconclusive. According to Meg-John Barker, there is no evidence to suggest children raised in households of a polyamorous partnership group up any better or worse than those raised in a more traditional household.

Dr Ruskin’s definition (See opinion C) of polyamory is that of an open relationship. Many of her arguments about children suffering in these households revolve around the instability of their parents changing partners regularly. This is a common misconception, that just because someone wants to be in a relationship with more than one person, they are more promiscuous. It can be the case for some polyamorous relationships, but that is by no means the only one. Many polyamorous people form throuples, or larger groups in a long term partnerships, in the same way couples do.

E.“Perhaps in the 1970s, same-sex marriage was as unimaginable as group marriage is today” Hadar Aviram, a professor of law at University of California.

Is this the next step in equal rights campaigns? It is true that in the 1970s gay marriage felt a long way off. Despite this, it is slowly being legalised in countries all over the world, with the US changing its federal laws in 2015. Furthermore, Professor Aviram has also noted an increasing proportion of polyamorous couples wanting equal marriage rights. She says in her first studies in 2004 marriage wasn’t a high priority for polyamorous individuals. Yet by 2012, more than half of responders to studies showed interest in marriage, should it become legal for them. Professor Aviram insists it is on it’s way: “The movement is absolutely going to develop if the activists so choose”.


In 2017, three men in Columbia became the first legal polyamorous union. Since then, there has been a very limited number of isolated cases of group marriages across the world. Even when societal barriers are overcome, the law rarely protects those in polyamorous relationships. There has been debate as to whether this should be changed, and what the implications to this should be.

A.“The social service benefits such as health-care arrangements, Canadian Pension Plan, Old Age Security and other benefits, such as employment insurance, that are indexed to the number of people in the household — those laws are also predicated [sic] that a relationship consists of two adults plus children” John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the Canadian National Research Institute for Law and the Family.

The laws in most nations, barring those with laws allowing polygamy, define family as relationships comprising of two adults and their children. This interpretation of family ignores the possibility of people in polyamorous relationships and their rights to their children and partners. But is this definition becoming old fashioned?

B.“Recent judicial decisions indicate that the trend towards greater legal recognition of multiple parenting goes beyond my own sample to the larger U.S. legal community.” Dr Elisabeth A. Sheff, Educational Consultant and Expert Witness Serving Sexual and Gender Minorities.

While marriage between multiple partners continues to be debated, in the US there is no law to prohibit cohabitation of polyamorous individuals. They are free to live and act as a family, they are just not able to get married and register as a family. And while just a couple of decades ago, this often led to issues in child custody, as well as household and employment discrimination, Dr Sheff’s findings seem to suggest this mentality is beginning to shift.

Many believe this should be enough. That marriage is a promise between two people, and asking for legal rights in group relationships goes too far, and that legal acknowledgement of this way of life should suffice.

C.“All families deserve the support of legal stability and recognition, including the many polyamorous partners among our clients and communities.” Diana Adams, Executive Director for both the Chosen Family Law Center in the United States and the Euro LGBT Family Law Institute.

In 2012, results from a study suggested around 65.9% of people in polyamorous relationships would want to get married if it were a legal option for them. With a rigid understanding of family, the law often discriminates against families in polyamorous relationships. These people advocate for equal marriage rights as a way to officially become family with their loved ones. This is not merely an issue of proving their commitment to each other, but of obtaining the same legal status as their couple counterparts. Marriage as an institution serves to protect members of a family. It grants benefits such as inheritance rights and tax breaks for both partners.

Yet those in polyamorous relationships, or openly polyamorous individuals, in the case of a break up or divorce - to one partner - continue to fear that they may lose custody of their children, as is more likely with sexual minorities. They are also at greater risk of discrimination in employment and housing and, though it rarely occurs, the law does not protect them against being accused of bigamy and adultery.

D.“I don’t think it’s the place of the government to tell people what is or is not a family.” Lance Davis, lawyer and Massachusetts city councillor.

In Massachusetts, the law has recently changed to account for polyamorous and platonic relationships. Under this new system, individuals will be able to register all their partners under their health insurance and pay hospital visits as family members. It remains unclear whether private insurance companies will follow the city’s lead, but policymakers remain optimistic.

When asked about the implications of this rewording of the law and the potential for people to register multiple partners, Mr Davis responded that he foresaw no complications: “I see no reason to think that is more of an issue than two people.”


Polyamory remains one of the more obscure sexual orientations, but it is gaining in awareness fast. Those in polyamorous relationships still face many legal challenges and misunderstandings in what it means. While critics talk about the impact to our existing social and legal structures, its proponents are quick to point out polyamorists already exist, they just deserve recognition as the families they believe themselves to be.

This page was last edited on Tuesday, 12 Jan 2021 at 18:55 UTC