Polyamory and the American mainstream

In a May episode of the TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress,” a young bride-to-be walked in to Kleinfeld Bridal in Manhattan with her fiancé, Peter — and his wife. The “throuple” marked the show’s first time in 16 seasons to feature a polyamorous arrangement.

On the show, Ellen, the wife, explained that she had developed a revulsion to touch after the birth of her and her husband’s first child, but she thought her husband of 10 years still deserved physical intimacy with someone. So she gave him the option to add someone else to their relationship. And he did: Jennifer.

Sitting on a couch, the three held hands as they described their situation for the camera. Peter added that their decision to become polygamists didn’t have to do with religion; he said they we all raised Catholic. “Clearly, [this is] pretty far from the religion in which we were raised,” he said.

Polyamory has long been flirting on the edges of mainstream culture; the book that popularized the term “open marriage” was published in 1972. TLC’s “Sister Wives” launched in 2010, four years after HBO premiered “Big Love” — shows that linked contemporary polygamy with the Mormon faith. However, the arrangement seems to be gaining traction in the wider culture, at least as a thought experiment. In May, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on polyamory, asking, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?,” suggesting that the practice might not just be for eccentrics, but that it has wider application in society. It was followed a week later with online excerpts from readers describing their own “open-marriage stories.”

The cultural curiosity “is a symptom of the continued unraveling of people’s understanding of marriage that’s out there in the culture,” said John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Our culture has lost the concept of what marriage is and what it’s meant to be.”

Not who we are

Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and human relationship expert, said she sees a certain irony in the increasing cultural hype surrounding polyamorous relationships, because recent developments in what she calls “the science of love” can teach people how to have long-lasting, fulfilling relationships with their spouse. From the research, she’s convinced that men and women are “hardwired” to want to feel special and unique to someone — and not in a shared sort of way.

“According to all of our research ... we’re bonding, attachment animals,” said Johnson, who addressed polyamory in her book “Love Sense” (Little, Brown and Company, $27). “Bottom line is, you want to know that if you call, and you’re vulnerable, you’re special enough to somebody that they will come.”

Sharing intimate partners doesn’t foster that security, she said. Practicing polyamory is very difficult, and in her counseling experience, people do not find the thrill in it that they were seeking.

That research affirms the Church’s teaching on marriage as a monogamous institution, and while there are theological arguments that serve as the basis of that teaching, Grabowski is quick to point to the biology. Sex releases a flood of oxytocin, a bonding hormone.

“It’s the wisdom of God’s design for marriage and for the way we are,” Grabowski said. “When we engage in practices outside of marriage like the hook-up culture, when we jump from relationship to relationship to relationship, or now, with polyamorous so-called ‘marriages,’ what we’re doing is we’re working against the way we’re made. We’re training ourselves to disassociate sexual union with the emotional and physical bond that it creates. We’re wreaking havoc in our own selves and relationships when we do that.”

A member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Grabowski said he thinks polyamory is “the perfect manifestation” of the throwaway culture so despised by Pope Francis.

“[Pope Francis] talks about in Amoris Laetitia that we think we can kind of move from one affective relationship to another, and one sexual relationship to another, and we can simply block each other and our connection to each other the way people block each other on social media,” he said. “But we can’t block our hearts; we can’t block the way we’re designed. We’re creating wounds in ourselves when we operate in this way.”

A multitude of scenarios

As a term, “polyamory” simply means having more than one romantic partner at the same time. It covers a multitude of scenarios, including polygamy or plural marriage, group marriage, one or both spouses having long-term relationships outside of the marriage, or engaging — with the primary partner’s consent — in a string of extramarital sex encounters. Even among practitioners, labels are controversial. However, for them, honesty and transparency are generally the core values defining a relationship, not faithfulness or sexual exclusivity. Because of this, their concept of adultery is altered.

Johnson points out that despite its buzz, there’s nothing new about polyamory — history is rife with people taking lovers outside of marriage. Many people, including Christians, would consider it adultery by another name, its transparency notwithstanding.

Couples engaged in polyamory give varying reasons for entering into the relationship. Many say they’re looking for “new relationship energy” that they say can even elevate their primary relationship. They set rules and parameters of who can spend time with whom and how often, in an effort to avoid misunderstanding, jealousy and a loss of trust.

In Johnson’s experience, people who practice polyamory are looking for sexual variety, or they’re afraid to depend on one person. For the first group, research shows that people in long-term, happy, committed relationships have the best sex. As for the second group, they’re not going to find the safety they’re looking for in polyamory, she said.

Emily Reimer-Barry, a moral theologian who teaches at the University of San Diego, said that it’s important for Catholics to discuss the issue of polyamory and the issues within a marriage that, for some couples, make it a palatable or desirable option.

She also pointed to Amoris Laetitia, in which Pope Francis reminds the world that there is no perfect family and that it’s important to have realistic expectations for one’s spouse. He also said that God alone can fully fulfill people’s desires.

“We need to have much more open dialogues in church settings where people feel free to be open about their struggles in their marriage, but in a setting where the answer is not necessarily divorce or polyamory,” she said.

“Maybe there are other, more satisfying answers that ultimately respond to people both in a theological sense [and] respond to people’s ongoing spiritual restlessness, but also recognize the limits of the human person within whom you’re in a long-term relationship.”

Writing in the journal First Things in response to the May New York Times Magazine story, assistant editor Alexi Sargeant suggested that instead of considering polyamory, couples aim to fall in love again via having more children.

“The couples Dominus profiles all seem to have zero, one or two children, cleaving to bourgeois norms of family size if not of erotic arrangement,” he wrote. “Perhaps they should rebel not against marital fidelity, but against filial parsimony.”

He explained that in his experience of growing up amid large families, “a thrill much like [new relationship energy] accompanied the arrival of each new child, by birth or by adoption,” and it “swept through the community,” transforming all relationships.

Emergent issue

Although many people would point to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage as the turning point for marriage redefinition, Grabowski said it happened more than 50 years ago by removing from marriage, first, fertility, through contraceptives, and second, permanence, with no-fault divorce.

“Marriage just became a public declaration of love between adults that promise to love each other for a period of time,” he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ Obergefell dissent, however, said that by the court’s definition of marriage, there’s no legal argument against polygamous marriage, illegal in the United States. Polyamorists sometimes consider themselves “spiritually” married to more than one partner, but at least one polygamist family has filed for a concurrent marriage license, citing Obergefell. Only time will tell whether or not this case is a harbinger.

Some polyamory advocates argue that monogamy isn’t a natural state. Others say people who are polyamorous are genetically predisposed to the practice, or that they’re more socially advanced, as they can manage the complicated communications and emotions intrinsic to the situation.

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Grabowski expects those arguments to become more pronounced if poly-marriage becomes a political issue. That people have different predilections isn’t something he disputes, but he frames it as virtue and vice.

“Some people find it easy to develop some virtues and others hard. We’re all made that way,” he said. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, we all have assets and liabilities, but we are all fulfilled in the same way, in a singular and exclusive love.”

That’s the message he says the Church can share.

“What the Church needs to tell the culture ... is, ‘We know what you’re looking for, but you’re not going to find it there,” he said. “There’s something deeper, [a] more beautiful kind of love that you’re created for, and you can rediscover encountering Christ and in encountering and rediscovering a more authentic understanding of marriage.”

Maria Wiering writes from Minnesota.