Sexual Revolutions

As a child Franklin Veaux recalls hearing his school teacher read a story about a princess who had a tantalising dilemma. Two male suitors had been wooing her and she had to choose between them. Franklin wondered why she could not choose both.

This early insight was revealing. Franklin has to this day never stuck to one relationship at a time. “I have never been in a monogamous relationship in my life. When I was in high school I took two dates to my senior prom. I lost my virginity as a threesome.”

Today he lives with his long-term girlfriend in a home he shares with her other boyfriend. Occasionally his partner’s teenage daughter also stays over. He is also in four other long-distance relationships, people he sees with varying degrees of frequency.

Franklin and his girlfriends are what’s called polyamorous or “poly” as the community tends to call it. Being poly simply means you can be in more than one relationship, with the full support and trust of however many partners they choose to have. 

Polyamory does not feature in any census tick box but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is on the rise. Some are even calling for it to be recognised by law following the legalisation of gay marriage in the UK and the US. All this raises of the question of whether the future of love may be very different from our current conceptions of romance.

But love has always been the same, right? A man falls for a woman, they get married, pop out a few children and stay together in a harmonious and monogamous relationship for life.

Sorry romantics. This wasn’t, and still isn’t, always the picture of love. Polygamy – where more than one spouse is allowed – was the norm for many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Monogamy started flourishing when our ancestors began to settle down. A preference for it then appears to have arisen, among many other reasons, for economic purposes.

As many as 83% of societies around the world allow polygamy

It made it easier for fathers to divide and share valuable commodities such as land with their children. Monogamy later got hijacked by romantic love by idealistic 19th Century Victorians. “The idea of sexual exclusivity started emerging fairly late in the game,” says professor of law Hadar Aviram at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, US.

Even today monogamy is the minority relationship style around the world. Cultural estimates suggest that as many as 83% of societies around the world allow polygamy.

True romance

Now there is a fairly new player in the relationship game, at least as far as the public are concerned. In the last two decades, sociologists, legal scholars and the public have shown great interest towards polyamory and it’s making them reassess the very nature of romance.

The word polyamory was first coined in the 1960s and literally means “many loves” in Latin. That’s exactly what it is, but talking to poly individuals makes it quickly apparent that there is no one way to be poly. There are no immediate rules. Some people, like Franklin have live-in partners with additional liaisons outside the home. Others have a mixture of short and long-term relationships.

Some live in a big group with their partners and their partner’s other partner(s), so called “family style polyamory”. You get the idea. The one thing they all have in common is openness, understanding, trust and acceptance from all involved. 

As you might imagine these kinds of relationships take a lot of work to maintain, so being poly is far from an easy option. For starters, to keep more than one relationship going, small logistical matters require a lot of communication. “Our relationships are a lot more challenging,” says Eve Rickert, one of Franklin’s long distance partners and co-author of their polyamory book More than Two.

It took several decades for published research to appear into this way of life. “It called into question people’s core values,” says Terri Conley from the University of Michigan, who initially struggled to get her research published due what she felt was a pervasive bias in favour of monogamy. Her research is revealing – there are some clear benefits to polyamory.

To start with, in a 2014 review paper Conley found that polyamorous people tend to maintain more friendships as they keep a wider social network. They are also less likely to cut off contact after a break-up.

Monogamous couples on the other hand, often withdraw from their friends in the first, loved-up stages of their relationship.

Conley also found that individuals in poly relationships are better at communicating and that jealousy is often lower. In new research, not yet published, she even discovered that overall relationship satisfaction can be higher in poly relationships, though another earlier 2015 review found that satisfaction was similar among monogamous and “consensual non-monogamous” relationships.

Nor do they seem more likely to spread sexually transmitted diseases. Indeed, an anonymous online study revealed that openly non-monogamous people are more likely to practice safe sex than cheating individuals in seemingly monogamous relationships.  

Taking all her findings into consideration, Conley says that married monogamous couples could learn from a poly way of life. They could use using similar ways to communicate and resolve conflict for example. “The idea is that we put too much stress on marriage and need to give it more oxygen by giving people more resources,” she says. “A lot of the strategies used in poly relationships can map onto suggestions of how we improve marriage.”

Social stigmas

Unfortunately, these positive experiences portrayed by the research do not always translate to positive perceptions of polyamorous people. In fact, poly individuals face many stigmas and one of the biggest misconceptions is that it's all about sex. More partners means more bed-hopping, right? This is a common view, much to Franklin and Eve’s despair.

“I have been in committed long-term relationships that span decades,” Franklin explains. “There are easier ways to find sex if sex is what you’re interested in.”

Eve agrees. “Poly is a lot of work. Having a lifestyle where you enjoy casual sex and hook-ups is a lot less work than maintaining five current long-term relationships.” In poly relationships people aren’t simply after a romp in the dark, but they make emotional and loving commitments to each other, taking in the good and the bad.

In her research Conley also came across other more subtle stigmas. “People have the sense that monogamous individuals are seen as better, that people are more committed to each other,” she says. People even perceived monogamous individuals as being better at very arbitrary things, such as walking their dogs, paying taxes on time and that they are more likely to floss their teeth.

‘Poly’ people face the same kinds of stigmas that singletons might face

These are similar to the kind of stigmas single people face. This all points to the fact that there is an intense “pressure to pair”. Monogamy is surrounded by a glowing halo and anyone who deviates from this norm seems to be viewed negatively, says Conley. “Even people who are in non-monogamous relationships rate monogamous relationships as higher quality. They have internalised this sense that this is not the best thing to be doing – which is kind of sad.”

The problem is that these judgements do not only affect the adults in polyamorous relationships, but it seeps into their children. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli of Deakin University in Australia, has done extensive research looking into the well-being of children in poly families, and says the main issue is what’s referred to as “the deficit model”. This simply means outsiders believe that children are affected by their parents’ lifestyle in a negative way, which is not necessarily the case.

“Research shows that most children are really happy growing up with lots of adults, in fact most kids love it,” Pallotta-Chiarolli says. They benefit from added support and time from any additional parental role within their family unit. “These children are more insightful and wise, and open to understanding diversity and many forms of religion and culture.”

“The children see parents organising employment, health care, making lunch,” she continues. “For them they see the whole gamut of living in a family, but externally, [many] think polyamory is all about orgies, and that’s really hard for the kids.”

None of which is to say poly families are always perfect – they face similar struggles that any family might face. Eve, for instance, still lives with her husband as a life partner, but is no longer romantically involved with him. Then, as well as Franklin, she has been dating another woman for four years. Franklin also divorced his first wife of 18 years. Like any relationship, break-ups can be difficult, and they are even more complicated if children are involved.

These types of stigmas will be difficult to overcome, in part because these family units are not supported by any legal recognition

Regardless, any type of judgement from the outside world can put an unwelcome strain on polyamorous families. If the children underperform at school it’s often attributed to the fact that their parents are living in a non-monogamous relationship. The children in turn try to “compensate by being perfect poster kids”, Pallotta-Chiarolli explains.

These types of stigmas will be difficult to overcome, in part because these family units are not supported by any legal recognition, such as marriage and child custody. The appetite is there though, Aviram discovered. She spoke to numerous poly activists in research looking into whether polyamorous marriage might ever legally be possible

A 2012 survey of 4,000 polyamorous people revealed that about 76% of the respondents would be interested in legal marriage if it were available, while 92% agreed that “consensual, multiparty marriages among adults” should enjoy the same legal status as marriage between two people.

This appetite for legal poly marriage may have arisen as a result of the support given to same-sex marriage, which is now a legal right in the UK and in the US, Aviram says. “It galvanized the poly activists.” (The comparison has not always been welcomed by LGBT advocates, however, who felt like it muddied the case for marriage equality.) The question many people asked was why polyamory could not receive similar treatment? 

The truth is that implementing poly marriage would be complicated, in part because there are so many different types of poly relationships. “No poly family is like the others,” Aviram says. That being said, the family style units – where everyone is a member of the household with no relationships outside – should work remarkably like a conventional marriage, she says.

She plotted through how it might work. Parental responsibilities and home ownership could be legally divided and the biological status of any potential parent could also be taken into consideration. While these may be complicated cases they echo many of the hurdles adoptive parents face. Relationships outside the main home might introduce further complications but again, there are similar legal solutions for divorce and foster care.

In fact, Aviram says that a key challenge for now comes from the lack of legal protection – such as laws that prevent discrimination – for poly relationships. In the US Army for instance, adultery is even seen as a crime, meaning a person cannot be ‘out’ as poly if they are married.

For polyamory to be protected by law it will first have to be considered an orientation in the way that homosexually is. If, legally speaking, it is seen as an orientation, then the reasoning goes that poly individuals would be protected by similar anti-discriminatory laws.

Legal researcher Ann Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law recently laid out an argument for why it should be considered an orientation. Sexual orientation, she says, is defined as attraction to either the same sex, the opposite sex or both sexes – but it could be broadened to include other sexual preferences that are entwined with identity.

This echoes what many poly activists say, Aviram found. “They tell you they have an innate sense that they are wired this way. That this is a natural way of being for them.” If that is the case, these groups should receive special anti-discriminatory protection under law as well, she says.

However, even poly people say it is not clear cut. In small 2005 survey Meg-John Barker of the Open University in the UK, asked 30 polyamorous people how they identify to find that about half saw it as “a fairly fixed identity”, while the other half saw as a choice, as “an ethical alternative to infidelity”. Eve and Franklin also suggest it can be a bit of both.

Promiscuous apes

That some people choose polyamory in order not to cheat on their partner brings to light a striking contradiction about monogamy in the west: adultery is rife. Pallotta-Chiarolli points out the irony that mainstream media almost accept affairs as a social norm. “But when it comes to ethical non-monogamous relationships… this is considered [abnormal].”

Aside from that, most people are not monogamous in the true sense of the word: staying with one partner for life. You only need to look at divorce rates to see that about one-third of us practice what is referred to as “serial monogamy”, where we change partners over time.

Monogamy is also extremely rare in the animal kingdom, as BBC Earth explored in detail. Even among apparently monogamous animals there are many “extra-pair copulations”, or cheating. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos and even orangutans all live in highly promiscuous societies, which suggests our common ancestor with chimps did so too.

In this view, “the idea that monogamy is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ in human beings is hard to sustain”, says Barker. “As with so many things, there is a lot of diversity in this area.”

This all points the fact that just as there’s not one set way for love between individuals to be expressed. What works for one person or society may not work for another.

Relationships are eclectic and diverse, and while legal recognition for polyamory may be a long way off, with greater awareness of our differences, love in all its many forms is surely set to change.

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This story is part of our Sexual Revolutions series on our evolving understanding of sex and gender.

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter. Olivia Howitt is BBC Future’s picture editor. She Tweets as @OliviaHowitt.

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