Marriage Is Going to Look Different After the Pandemic
The pandemic exposed the pitfalls of traditional marriage, and some couples are turning to polyamory to meet their needs.
As the old nursery rhyme goes: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … even more lovers, all living together in a harmonious polycule.
And yet, despite its existence since the beginning of time, polyamory (wherein a person has more than one partner) has yet to infiltrate the mainstream in a way that doesn't imply a laugh about swingers or Sister Wives. The two-person, monogamous union has long reigned as the prototypical relationship in the U.S., and, reminder, it took two centuries for the American definition of marriage to even include same-sex partners. But now, post-pandemic, ethical non-monogamy could be getting a long-overdue pop-culture rebrand.
Society's view of poly relationships has already come a long way since Showtime's and TLC's shock-value-based reality shows: What was once largely stereotyped as an "alternative lifestyle" full of reckless promiscuity and commitment phobias, has begun earning more mainstream attention as a practical way to live. This acceptance is owed in part to greater awareness, from Jada Pinkett Smith's Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk, which recently aired an episode on the subject with 4.3 million views so far, to the polyamory subreddit (with 200k members and counting) where people talk out the practicalities of going poly. There are also podcasts (Making Polyamory Work, Normalizing Non-Monogamy) and articles in mainstream publications (like this one) spreading the word.
Like many trends that were already in progress pre-pandemic — such as working from home or only wearing a bra if you feel like it — the past year of quarantine has only accelerated this mainstreaming of non-monogamy. According to a report by RollingStone, 4 to 5% of people in the United States practice polyamory, and roughly 20% of the population has been in a polyamorous relationship in their lives. While it's too soon to gather data, some experts predict a post-pandemic spike in polyamorous relationships, especially among people who are already married.
Tammy Nelson, PhD, a sex and relationship therapist and author of the forthcoming book Open Monogamy, sees two main reasons for a post-pandemic pique in poly relationships: The desire for something new (both in the bedroom and otherwise); and the need for support, whether that be the emotional variety or in running a household.
"With increased domesticity, increased parental responsibilities, increased stress that decreases desire, arousal, pleasure and satisfaction," many married people felt understandably at their wit's end, she says. In other words, the pandemic created the perfect storm for exposing the faults of a traditional marriage: There aren't enough bodies around to ensure that everything in the home runs smoothly and the adults are getting adequate time without the kids — be it together or solo. The weight of all of this could tank anyone's libido, or add to an already stressful desire mismatch, making the idea of a third partner — or more — start to sound not just exciting, but like a relief.
There are several ways in which some of the issues of a traditional marriage could be addressed outside of romantic relationships — say, a lower-stress job that allows for a healthy work-life balance and a decent salary, or access to affordable childcare, or a full economic recovery. But short of an act of god or a President Bernie Sanders, these crises are not going to be solved any time in the near future. For couples who had been considering opening up their relationship, Dr. Nelson says now's a great time to explore the benefits of having multiple partners and the watershed effects that may bring elsewhere in their lives.
Imani Ware, a 22-year-old from California, and her ex-partner were one such couple who had begun thinking about a poly relationship before lockdown. "The desire [to try polyamory] was there, but it definitely got stronger while isolated from our friends and family and everyone," she says. "We were just craving closeness and connections."
Alabama-native Alexandra* began to consider polyamory following a divorce and a subsequent move to Santa Fe, which she says has a large poly community. Though she lives alone, Alexandra has a primary partner who lives across the state and stays with her four days a week. She sees two friends-with-benefits and is dating another woman, and says she feels more fulfilled than in any of her previous relationships.
"What I ended up finding out is that being poly in the pandemic kind of goes well because polyamorous people are already good about talking boundaries," she says, emphasizing the total communication and honesty required to sustain multiple relationships. Because of this openness and the ability for each person in her polycule to "live their truth," she says she and her primary partner are "in a more trusting and more deeply intimate relationship than ever before."
Many of the people I spoke to relayed the feeling that traditional monogamy never quite made sense for them and, as Imani put it, "all the love I have to give." But even the concept of marrying for love rather than something transactional is relatively recent, originating in the West only in the last three centuries. Especially as we're living longer, adds Dr. Nelson, one person may not always feel like the perfect partner for every chapter of these longer lives. "You could have this partner and know that your relationship will go through many different phases," she explains. But, she adds, were challenges to arise over the years, "you don't have to necessarily get divorced … you may have several outside partners or extended partnerships." For the generation who grew up in an era of rampant divorce, polyamory can offer a less painful and — in the case of a pandemic lifestyle — more practical alternative to dissolving a relationship.
For Allen* and Christina*, a married polyamorous couple in the Pacific Northwest, dating outside of their primary relationship was on the table from the very early stages of their courtship, but they waited until a few years after they were married to try it.
The couple, now both 35, are planning to have children in the near future. "We are married," Christina emphasizes. "For us, it's just us. We're the parents." She envisions her future children knowing of their parents' other relationships, and having those people around in a manner similar to a close-knit extended family, occasionally staying over but with the understanding that the stay is a visit. "I grew up with a community of people," says Christina. "I had a whole bunch of aunts and uncles and play cousins, and that's how I see it. I see our partners being part of [my children's] lives, but in an auntie, uncle type of way."
Dr. Nelson predicts that post-pandemic, "people are going to continue to have primary or central relationships, but their monogamy agreement's going to be much more flexible or fluid," similar to Christina and Allen's arrangement. She attributes this theory not only to the fact that couples may have been suffering a sexual drought during the pandemic, where increased stress and mood swings lowered one or both partners' libidos, but to the fact that isolation may have forced them to confront the fact that some needs, in order to be met, must be outsourced — but that outsourcing doesn't take away from the love for their primary partner.
When I ask Dr. Nelson of the rise of platonic marriages — and, specifically, two platonic spouses that went viral on TikTok after sharing the story of the home they've built together — she says that for some, poly relationships are functionally the same thing.
"[The platonic spouses] decided that their companionship — the part that is their roommate life, their co-parenting, managing the business of their home life — they do that well together. But then the erotic part, the romantic part, they're outsourcing to other people," she says. "They might have multiple partners going in that direction, and they might shift at some point. But [their relationship] is kind of an open monogamy, where the partners have choices but want to maintain their primary relationship."
For some polyamorous people, though, a hierarchical structure can be restricting. Libbi* is married to Jake*, but she considers her relationship with and attraction to her boyfriend Seth* of equal significance. This relationship triad is sometimes referred to as a V, with Libbi acting as the "hinge," and Jake and Seth as the "arms." (Jake and Seth are not romantically involved, but describe their relationship as like brothers.) The three live together in Tennessee where they're raising a son, Owen*, who is 8 months old.
Libbi says some onlookers misconstrue her relationships as predicated solely or selfishly on sex — a common misconception about poly people. Like many who practice ethical non-monogamy, she insists that while there is a romantic and sexual element, her relationships are also about intimacy and love. And right now, as parents of an infant, Libbi, Jake, and Seth's sole focus is the baby and giving him that extra love and attention.
"I would have loved for someone to give me as much attention as we give our son," she says. "He's a happy baby. I believe that most kids that grew up with poly parents will tell you that they had a happier [childhood], more understanding of love and life."
Of course, the pandemic only heightened issues associated with the amount of attention and care children are able to get. "This pandemic has forced people into this idea that you can't hire someone to come over and take care of your kids, even if you're privileged," says Dr. Nelson. Traditional support systems, like neighbors, relatives, and after school programs disappeared, leaving adults in one- or two-parent households to take on the work of whatever their "village" may have looked like previously. It's no wonder some began to see three-adult family structures in a new light.
Many poly parents in Libbi, Jake, and Seth's situation have advocated for the legal recognition of such relationships, specifically to settle the issue of guardianship. Last summer, the city of Cambridge, Mass., approved of legislation that recognizes poly relationships as domestic partnerships. In Tennessee, Libbi says that they've worked around the legal limitations by giving their son one of Seth's hyphenated last names as a middle name. Jake is the father listed on the birth certificate, but they are also able to legally name Seth as a guardian on Owen's medical paperwork, despite the fact that he is not "immediate family" in the traditional sense. "He's also [Seth's] son," Libbi adds.
The beauty of polyamory, adds Allen, who is also an online admin for a local poly group in the Pacific Northwest, and before that for a Black poly group in Atlanta, is that each person is able to choose their own boundaries. Even between the two of them, Christina and Allen say that they each "do poly differently." Christina, who was looking to explore the sexual side of herself when they first opened up, currently has one long-term boyfriend; Allen has four girlfriends, two local and two long-distance. All of their partners are in other poly relationships, and some have children and spouses. While Imani and her partner have since split, she is currently practicing solo polyamory — or polyamory without a primary partner. "I didn't expect that there would be so many variations within polyamory," she adds. "With monogamy it's cut and dry, with polyamory you can decide your own relationship and boundaries. It's so fluid."
Each of the individuals interviewed here explained that they maintained distance during the pandemic, only seeing their partners when it was safe to do so, and refrained from dating new people during lockdown. That they quickly returned to seeing additional partners when it was safe exemplifies a common reaction to the pandemic's isolation, or the isolation of modern life in general: seeking more people.
Dr. Nelson points to a study conducted by Ashley Madison, the controversial website for monogamous people looking to cheat on their partners, which found that many of the site's users were not looking to leave their relationships. Rather, they were seeking something in addition to their current relationships. It would seem, then, that polyamory is a modern solution for a modern world, a world in which we're conditioned to believe that our partners should be our everything — not just our lovers, but our co-parents, best friends, travel buddies, therapists, intellectual equals, and more. Acting on attraction outside of monogamous relationships, she continues, "will be seen as more normal, more reasonable, more legit. Of course you're going to be attracted to other people. You're not dead, you're just married."
Many poly people stress that opening up a relationship is not simple, and it isn't a "solution" to existing relationship problems. "We were perfectly fine [before polyamory]," explains Christina. "There was nothing to fix."
Which brings us back to the concept of marriage itself. In a piece for Glamour published last year, writer Lyz Lenz went viral when she explained, "it took a divorce to make my marriage equal." The day-to-day chores, from taking out the trash to bathing the kids, to walking the dog, were — by court order — divided fairly. The pandemic may have exposed another option to lighten one's load: inviting another person in to carry some of it. Sometimes, in love as in life, more is simply more.
*Last names withheld for privacy.