Polyamory: Limitless or Limiting?

Married households as the ideal is now being called into question.

Married households as the ideal is now being called into question. The latest debate is about whether it should be that marriage produces better outcomes. The argument is that with the right government policies, any conceivable family structure could be at least as good as marriage.

 

The Gottman Institute is one of the premiere organizations promoting evidence-based approaches to couple/marital relationships. The institute notes that it has” developed an approach that not only supports and repairs troubled marriages and committed relationships but strengthens happy ones.” The approach has been used with both opposite sex and same-sex couples, but the focus has always been on couples.

The institute has published a series of guest blog posts titled Real Relationships. The goal is to “understand and paint a more realistic, inclusive picture of relationships in the world today.” A recent post, titled, “I’m the Polyamorist Next Door,” presents the experiences of a woman, Ms. Winston, who longs for society to see polyamory in a new light: as “people caring for other people, people creating the family that they need, people being human, people being normal.”

There is the appropriate caveat that the guest blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gottman Institute. Still, the suggestion that polyamory be considered normal portends a seismic cultural shift.

There is little debate in the social sciences about the existing data on married households. On average, marriage achieves better outcomes than alternative family arrangements. There are exceptions; not all marriages function well. Many people in less than ideal situations are doing heroic work, particularly single parents who have found themselves in difficult situations, sometimes with no fault of their own.

And yet, married households as the ideal is now being called into question. The latest debate is about whether it should be that marriage produces better outcomes. The argument is that with the right government policies, any conceivable family structure could be at least as good as marriage.

Some social scientists go so far as to argue that traditional marriage is immoral. Sociologist Judith Stacey has written that is impossible for women to have a role equal to men in marriage given the “present conditions of political, economic, social, and sexual inequality.” Government policy should support cultural change that eliminates oppressive marriage.

In that light, some would argue, polyamorous relationships empower women. Women are free to have several romantic relationships simultaneously, to terminate romantic relationships, and begin new ones as they see fit. But is polyamory likely to be empowering for women over the long haul? Would it be best for households with children?

Ms. Winston was initially insecure with polyamory: “More than once my insecurities ran the show . . . I spent several years clawing at different romantic partners, insisting that they tell me I was their number one, the primary, the queen bee.”

After practicing polyamory for more than 10 years, she feels more secure and writes about feeling loved by the people in her complex social network: “It’s a web of other partners, family members, old flames, new crushes, exes, and close-knit friends. It’s never about just the person alone, but the interconnected network of other people that help to shape them. And that network interacts with my own, making a hodge-podge chosen family.”

Is the insecurity banished for good, or might it return?

Studies show that men prefer women who are youthful and attractive. While women value men’s physical appearance, research shows that they are attracted to men who have money and prestige. Thus, to new potential romantic interests, women become less attractive to men as they age. Men compensate for the effects of aging with higher salaries and wealth. As they grow older then, polyamorous men will have more options than their female ex-partners. Polyamory’s promise of simultaneous desirable romantic partners is likely to be a lie for aging women.

How will the complex web-like family handle children? I suppose DNA tests to determine paternity will be routine. Will the non-fathers want to be tied down by another man’s children, or will they move on to other women with no children? Hint: research shows that men typically resist being constrained by, or providing for, other men’s children.

Alternatively, can you imagine the confusing situations if multiple men are granted father status over the same child? Mom would be playing referee over all the details of a child’s life with two or more men. It is hard to imagine polyamorous women being better off than their married peers.

What happens to polyamorous men’s assets when they die? Perhaps the modern woman should not need the assets of a deceased partner, but married women know they inherit the assets with no tax consequences.

Commitment has been described as the choice to give up other choices. On average, married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their non-married peers (obviously, there are exceptions to the average). The foundation of these benefits is an exclusive relationship that is intended to last decades. Knowing that a spouse has promised to remain faithful frees people to face an uncertain future with confidence.

Could government possibly regulate such that those who eschew relationship limits have equivalent outcomes with those who freely limit themselves to one spouse? Polyamorous relationships are too complex to regulate into marital equivalence. The simple inclusiveness solution will be to reduce the status and advantages of marriage. Normalizing relationship limitlessness will in the end be limiting.

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.