Polyamory, so-called ethical non-monogamy, is the practice of having more than one sexual or intimate relationship at the same time with the knowledge and consent of all persons involved. Over the past 20 years, polyamory has become an increasingly successful and assertive social movement, one result of dissatisfaction with monogamy’s long-standing insistence that sexual exclusiveness necessarily be linked to fidelity.
Polyamory directly challenges monogamy by seeking to relax the quintessential restriction that monogamy imposes on desire, i.e., sexual exclusiveness (abolition of which is every monogamist’s fantasy), and by rejecting monogamy’s claim of cultural supremacy or moral superiority because of its exclusiveness.
The gauntlet thus thrown down, or laid sweetly on the table, less traditionally-minded monogamists will react haltingly to polyamory, even if they like it. Monogamists envy polyamorists their freedom from sexual and emotional confinement to a single partner, because they have suffered from it, but they waver at all that this freedom may imply for the integrity of monogamous relationships, not least their own. They surmise that the spouse or significant other they have (or would like to have) could not possibly be as significant to them, not in the same way, if they “opened” their relationship, and vice-versa. They doubt that polyamory could distinguish itself from previous failed attempts at “free love.”
It is also believed that monogamy, whatever its flaws, has captured a depth of connection or commitment between people that is unique, even if “everyone” is doing it, and that it has a certain weight other relationships lack which should be preserved. Skepticism among monogamists arises at the thought of losing that uniqueness and weight toward generalized, less committed associations without preferences, the logical extremity of which is the meaningless promiscuity exemplified in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, its inchoate form on view in contemporary “hook-up” culture. The question, in short, “Polyamory sounds lovely, but will we risk what we have and want to keep (or would like to have and keep) which could be lost, for a new way that isn’t obviously superior?”, initially has no clear answer.
Polyamorists can answer these points proficiently; I, a monogamist, would never argue with them. Whatever their reservations may be, monogamists who would be open-minded, and honest about monogamy’s problems, particularly around sex, have a duty despite their hesitation not to interfere with the development of polyamorous norms, even though it may be attended by hooey (Have you heard the word “compersion“?).
There are exponents of polyamorist tendencies, however, buoyed along continuously of late by any number of questionable theoretical tracts, like Sex at Dawn, who, though they may claim to respect monogamy’s virtues in the abstract, move too quickly to dispense with monogamy altogether, because of its stark disagreement with what Bertrand Russell called the “generally polygamous instincts [of] uninhibited civilized people.” They are the inheritors of free love, and will be liable to its errors. But polyamory has distinguished itself as a whole in its consciousness of and respect for the tradition that it simultaneously severely critiques. I suspect that, for better or worse, polyamory will meet with more cultural success, but that the conflict between the two preferences, monogamy and polyamory, is hopelessly fraught and will never be resolved. Or polyamory will fail simply because it is too much work.