Monotony and poly-agony

PolyamoryA couple of months ago, Elizabeth looked at a big Newsweek piece on polyamory and criticized it for its lack of depth, neglect of religious angles, and its unrealistic portrayal of poly communities. Well, compared to this CNN story with an attention-grabbing headline of “Mate debate: Is monogamy realistic?,” that Newsweek article was a masterpiece. Apparently the premise of this article is that in oldentimes, people were monogamous but in these complicated modern times, it’s a completely unrealistic virtue and should be dropped post haste.

First off, contra the headline, there’s absolutely no debate in this story. The first 33 — yes, 33 — paragraphs of the story are all about how irrelevant and old-fashioned monogamy is and the final five include a psychologist saying that “nature” has provided powerful incentives for monogamy that are still valid. But even if you make it to the nether reaches of the story, there’s no debate in the sense of two sides rebutting each other. Here, in fact, are the story “highlights” (their term) as described by CNN:

–Changing social mores, growing life expectancy prompt new questions about monogamy
–Mating for life is within the realm of human potential, but it’s not easy, evolutionary biologist says
–Some people try polyamory, or having relationships with several partners at the same time
–Americans are too surprised by infidelity when it happens, author says

Now, I don’t know what version of history they’re teaching A. Pawlowski and the story’s editors at CNN, but I’m pretty sure that fidelity in monogamy was never something achieved with perfection by any group of people at any point in history. Monogamy isn’t something that has been valued because it is easy or ubiquitous. In fact, it might be valued precisely because it goes against human nature.

The top of the story uses celebrity infidelities as an example of how “the realities of modern life” work before suggesting that serial monogamy — changing partners as your life changes — might be the way to go. And then:

For some, even serial monogamy seems too restrictive.

The 1970s introduced the concept of “open marriage” in which couples stayed married but were free to date other people.

More recently, polyamory — the practice of having romantic relationships with multiple people at the same time with the full knowledge and consent of all involved — has been getting a lot of attention.

“We found the expectation that one person should be our everything seemed unrealistic given our day and age. … It’s oddly pressuring to set up that scenario,” said Mark, who lives in Springfield, Missouri, and is in a polyamorous relationship. (He asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons.)

So “some” reject monogamy. Some practiced “open marriage” (no stats on how that worked out on marriage success rates). And polyamory has “recently” “been getting a lot of attention.” This is less journalism than a poorly written freshman composition.

Mark, from the anecdote above, says that he and his wife both have partners and that they all get together to have dinner time-to-time:

“People describe polyamory as ‘poly-agony’ because of all the work you have to do to maintain things,” Mark said. “It’s just not normal to look over and see your wife with another man. I know a lot of people would have a real problem with that. I really don’t.”

Great quote. Now let’s ask some more questions. How does the addition of partners affect child-rearing, the avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases, obligations to spouse(s)? No room for that in this story. Instead we get a positive mention of a dating Web site that encourages married people to have an affair and a quote from a French author contending that monogamy, “which is really no more than a useful social convention,” will not survive. If that’s not enough, we get an entire section on how zee French are so much more sopheesticated about zis silly little monogamy. There’s this quote, which could launch into an interesting discussion:

“Americans are too surprised by infidelity when it happens. I think we go into marriage with perhaps unrealistically high expectations about human nature,” said Pamela Druckerman, author of “Lust in Translation.”

Unfortunately, the quote is just used to justify infidelity. The thing is that people do go into marriage with ridiculous expectations. I read this Michelle Obama quote in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story about her marriage that I just loved:

“The strengths and challenges of our marriage don’t change because we move to a different address,” she said. Mrs. Obama said “the bumps” happen to everybody all the time “and they are continuous.”

“The last thing we want to project,” she said, is the image of a flawless relationship.

You notice, when you’re married, that pop culture tends to obsess about relationships outside of marriage and pay very little attention to relationships during marriage. Sandra Tsing Loh may get published in The Atlantic regaling readers with her infidelity, divorce and rejection of marriage — but you don’t read too many articles about successful marriages. And when the media do discuss marriage, we get all sorts of absolutely childish characterizations — such as the idea that monogamy used to be easy and now isn’t.

And how big a role does religion play in marriage? For my husband and me, it’s everything. Even in our very short marriage of three years and two children, we probably wouldn’t have made it out of our first year without our faith in God. We pray, we use the Ephesians 5 model of marriage, we ask for forgiveness daily.

How big a role does religion play in this story about monogamy? It’s literally not mentioned. There is no discussion on either side of the aisle about religion, nothing about the sacrament of marriage, its spiritual components, or any role that religion might play.

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  • kristy

    … I … think that this tone of ‘hey, whatever’ is used to get responses and advertising. People read/watch/surf things that are novel and slightly outrageous.

  • Stephen A.

    This REEKS of the media bias (and the liberal mantra) that “This is the 21st century” is some kind of answer in an argument that forces acceptance of actions previously believed to be “perverted” lifestyle choices. …

  • Lymis

    Okay, so you disapprove.

    But I’m unclear about what it is that you are saying is the journalistic issue with the article. It goes into some detail later that there are still plenty of people who find that monogamy works for them, is a better choice, and is something that people continue to choose.

    You’re right that religion is left out of the article, but it is left out in both directions. While nothing is said about why people might choose or value monogamy for religious reasons, it also does not quote anyone saying that religion is outdated or repressive or obsolete, or that religious people are stupid, dull, or behind the times.

    Yes, there are people out there saying such things, but not in this article. Regardless of one’s religious convictions, it’s hard to argue the main point – that people are openly discussing and choosing relationship choices other than lifelong monogamy with a single partner.

    The author makes no religious claims why people choose or reject monogamy. Despite your interpretation, the author hardly claims that monogamy IS irrelevant or old-fashioned, just that a more visible group is saying that THEY find it to be in their lives.

    Where’s the “GetReligion” angle in this?

  • taijiya

    I would have been interested to hear about how many of the polyamorists are also practitioners of alternative spiritualities. As a long-time pagan in a long-term monogamous marriage, I’ve many times come up against the perception that there’s something inherently “non-pagan” about remaining committed to one partner. That’s an angle I think is ripe for exploration.

  • Mollie


    I’m not sure it’s debatable whether a discussion of monogamy being outdated for the purpose of marriage has a religious angle.

    This is about a classic “GetReligion” post as you’re going to find.

    Huge, unreported ghosts. That’s what we look at.

  • JD

    Asking for internal balance is fair; asking for a conservative religious viewpoint to be brought into every piece on every subject is not. Let me explain.

    Journalists start with a choice, which person or groups of person to portray. (That implies a positioning, but as long as all kinds get their turn, it’s not a problem.) They should they then strive to make that portray an honest one. Show the attractive and expansive aspects, but also the difficult and conflicted parts. If that isn’t done, the portrait isn’t in the round, then something has gone wrong. That’s what I call internal balance.

    Yet a portrait is not a survey, and a requirement to bring in a rider of “by the way there are also these religious types who believe such-and-such” would ruin the integrity of portraying the poly movement – since these are people most of whom evidently are not very religious, or at least not in conservative ways.

    People have every right not to give a damn about traditional religion, and journalists an obligation to portray them as such – as long as, on some other day, they or their publications also makes space for equally sympathetic portrayals of people who do care about religion.

  • Mollie

    If you’re going to ask if monogamy is an outdated concept, that’s pretty much going to require a solid inclusion of perspectives from the pro-monogamy crowd.

    That’s not even necessarily religious or even necessarily conservatively religious, obviously, but they would have to be included in the discussion.

    The CNN story isn’t news or journalism — it’s just a train wreck of a story. It’s also not a portrait of polygamy — it’s a scattershot assault on monogamy.

  • dalea

    Researchers studying polyamory estimate there are more than half a million polyamorous families in the United States, according to Newsweek.

    That would be upwards of 1.5 million people, or more than 1/2 of 1% of the population. Does this sound plausible? No source is given for the figure, just anonymous ‘experts’.

    What I find puzzling here is the focus on people who are consciously polyamorous as against those who fool around on th side. I suspect there are many more relationships where one person is monogamous and one is polyamorous. But the media has chosen New Age Fluff Bunnies instead of looking at the actual situation.

  • dalea

    I agree with taijiya that there should have been questions about the religion or spirituality of the people quoted. There are religions that are tolerant of polyamory, NeoPaganism and some Unitarians being examples.

  • dalea

    Researchers studying polyamory estimate there are more than half a million polyamorous families in the United States, according to Newsweek.

    This works out to upwards of 1.5 million people. Which is about 1/2 of 1% of the population. Which does not strike me as particularly plausible. A figure like this requires more than the vague ‘researchers’ attribution.

    What bothers me here, is that the story focuses the very best presentation of the subject. I suspect that included in this subject are a great many people who fool around on the side. There are many relationships where one person is monogamous and the other is polyamorous. The journalistic approach looks to be New Age Fluff Bunny style.

  • Jerry


    There are some stories that are so bad that they remind me of Halloween nightmares where something slimy emerges from a sulfurous swamp and shambles down the street dropping bits of ooze on all those who are unfortunate enough to be close to it.

    So, did you feel like you had to take a shower after reading this story in detail?

  • Erin

    Now wait. .. if they HAD discussed all the ways in which poly people practice safe sex, deal with poly parenting issues, etc., then it would not only be a much longer article, but would be even more in support of polyamory.

    And I believe god wasn’t mentioned because CNN and most public magazines/news stations aren’t allowed to be religiously based. Perhaps that’s your point? That CNN can apparently take sides when it comes to sexual choices, but not religious ones?

  • Mollie

    Commenting reminder: be civil and back up assertions with links or quotes. I’m doing some editing and deleting of comments that fail to meet guidelines. Also, some comments that are responding to these comments that fail to meet guidelines are being deleted in the crossfire.

    Remember, it’s fine to disagree with any point, but make your case civilly.

  • Rhonda Bulmer

    People have an unromantic view of marriage because they have an overly romantic view of courtship. They’ve watched too many movies. Once two people get married, the story is over. A story you read over and over again gets boring after awhile.People want to be perpetually in courtship and never advance, mature, give unselfishly or sacrifice. Unfortunately, they miss the many rewards that unconditional love brings when it proves itself over and over again.

  • Lymis

    Mollie, I didn’t say that the issue doesn’t have some real religious aspects to it. Of course it does.

    But the article doesn’t mention these people’s opinions on being vegetarian, or what they watch on TV, or any of thousands of other things that are no doubt very important in their day to day lives. That’s not what the article was about.

    It also was not about their religious take on whether or not to be monogamous. No doubt, many of them have strong opinions.

    It isn’t a ghost in the story, and it certainly wasn’t reported irresponsibly. It just wasn’t the point of the report.

  • Lymis

    dalea, I’d say that the numbers are plausible.

    I think it is a valid distinction to make between people who are openly polyamorous and those who are having relationships on the side. In the one case, everyone involved is consenting. In the other, not so much.

    There’s a valid distinction between “I’m breaking the vows or agreements I made” and “I am not making the same agreements, so they aren’t being broken.”

  • Bill

    Marriage involves not just a private oath, but a public one. The couple promises not just to be faithful to each other, but to forsake all others. That means that when I married my wife, well before Mollie (whom I have never met) was even conceived, I promised her, too, I would behave in a certain way. The tone of this article seems to paint polyamory as just another option.

    I am over 60 and have seen quite a few people engage in polyamorous, promiscuous and adulterous behavior. I have not yet seen one who has not hurt and been hurt. Such behavior was destructive a thousand years ago, it is destructive still. Human nature has not changed because we have iPods and busy lives.

    What is sad about this article is not so much what is written, but what is assumed.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It’s a sad day when CNN (is the first “N” for “News” anymore?) cites Newsweek as a data source. Of course, “sad” is a pretty good descriptor for this CNN story.

  • Bern

    Well, counting the headers this “story” does devote 30+ paragraphs to either describing or supporting polyamory. But these “paragraphs” are mostly single sentences–what does that tell you about depth and seriousness here? A lot–and it ain’t good. And, as Mollie posts, the pro-monogramy paragraphs (again, single sentences) do all come at the end, which in traditional media terms means “cuttable” for space–i.e., not as important as the anti-monogamy quotes. This convention doesn’t really apply on-line, particularly when the dang thing is so short.

    Headline is off too: for a “debate” the two sides need to be juxtaposed and/or the “journalist” should have gone back and forth with them. The religion angle is WAY too big so they chose not to go there at all–fair enough. Train wreck yes but big liberal media attack on the sacred traditional institution of marriage–of which I mayself am a 25-year-plus practioner?


  • Dave

    Just for the record, the original concept of “open marriage” in the 1970s was not about polyamory. It was about being open to your spouse’s needs being satisfied by people other than yourself, without being threatened. If your wife gardens and you don’t, let her join a gardening club. If your husband wants to go out in the woods with the guys and shoot at deer, let him do it.

    Sounds sort of ordinary today, but it was coming off a much more restrictive standard in which spouses were supposed to be the be-all and end-all for each other, and you were implicitly supposed to let an interest your spouse couldn’t fulfill atrophy.

  • Paul Mx

    Given how much the article flogged “alternatives”, I was surprised that it closed with such a strong statement of “Monagamy’s Payoffs”, saying “Those consequences can be huge, in many ways. Nature has provided powerful incentives to stay faithful that are still valid.”There are a lot of reasons why sexual monogamy is in people’s interests,” Lipton said.”

  • Dave G.

    Interesting to see where things go.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, that’s a very sanitized view of “open marriage.” I’ve always heard of it meaning, not that one is ‘open’ to one’s spouse joining a club, but rather one is open to allowing them to hop in bed with someone else, sometimes with “permission” and awareness of the other spouse, but not always.

    The concept, like the article, seems like a direct assault on traditional marriage as practiced by Christians, Jews, Muslims and many others.

  • Jasmine

    From the article:

    but you don’t read too many articles about successful marriages.

    True. You don’t read much about successful open marriages or polyamorous relationships either. It’s the major disasters that make the news.

    taijiya says:

    I would have been interested to hear about how many of the polyamorists are also practitioners of alternative spiritualities

    I did an Internet survey of polyamorists for a sociology class in 1999. The responses of 426 respondents to questions about religion preference:

    Current Upbringing

    1%………..1%……Eastern religions
    65%………8%……Non-traditional spirituality

    Compare this to the General Social Survey Religious Preference:

    88.0%…..Judeo Christian
    0.3%…….Eastern religions

    Note that my 1999 survey was NOT a representative sample, and was limited to Internet users.
    The General Social Survey uses a representative Sample

    JD says:

    since these are people most of whom evidently are not very religious, or at least not in conservative ways.

    Some polyamorists are highly religious. Some of us attend church services every week, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, preach sermons, serve on church service committees and governing boards, and serve as delegates to our national assemblies.

    JD says:

    People have every right not to give a damn about traditional religion

    People have that right. At the same time, some polyamorists care a great deal about religion, both traditional and alternative, and its intersection with relationships.

  • Cat

    In post 17 Bill says: “The couple promises not just to be faithful to each other, but to forsake all others.”

    Bill, not all couples make the “forsaking all others” promise.

    And for some of us, being “faithful” means that we honor our agreements with each other…and our agreements may not include a clause about being sexually exclusive.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I’m going by the book “Open Marriage” by O’Neill & O’Neill that originally introduced the concept to the public. They had a section on sexual “openness” and they were actually very dour about it. Later on, iirc, they opened up, and later still they broke up.

  • Julia

    A close relative of mine married in 1970 with the intent to have an “open marriage”. It definitely meant that having sex with others was OK. Sounded good and they meant it when they got married – they were so hip and with it. However, my relative decided he liked the sexy younger woman on the side better than his wife. Marriage with new sexy wife is a traditional one, as far as I can tell. The ex-wife has sworn off men.

    I also knew some folks who were in a wife-swapping type group. Everybody in the group had sex with everybody else. Whoops, one woman forgot to take the pill and ended up pregnant. The entire group treated the child as their own. Everybody went to the child’s birthday parties and chipped in. But mom lost her job and applied for state assistance. The state wanted to know the name of the father. I got involved when possible dad #3 was served with a paternity suit by the state. It wasn’t him. So I guess the state is still going down the list of possibles.

    Life is messy.

    There’s a reason marriage ceremonies are public and published in the newspaper. It’s a declaration to society that the bride and groom are responsible for each other and the children that may come. There are many laws on the books making marriage partners financially responsible for each other. There is also the legal concept of necessities – the other spouse may be held liable for grocery bills, rent and such. The concept of marriage definitely includes the public at large – particularly creditors – it is not just for the marriage partners.

  • Bartholomew

    you don’t read too many articles about successful marriages.

    Line one of Anna Karenina comes to mind…

  • Stephen A.

    While Polyamory (sleeping around with permission) and Polygamy (more than 2 in the marriage) shouldn’t be confused, I wonder whether there are as many heartbroken wives that could be the subject of interviews like the poor polygamist women were in that cult recently. The stories Julia tell (27 above) are likely more indicative of – or at least as common as – the carefree description of how “great” it is, like Jasmine’s post.

    I’d LOVE to see a reporter ask how the Judeo-Christian values of those 76% of polyamorous people informed their sexual mores. I’d also love to see a denominational breakdown of those numbers.

    For the record, I’ve never known anyone to take a partner’s dalliances with others casually. Even if they put on a brave front, they were internally devastated to be “sharing.”

    To normalize this lifestyle choice seems just another in a long list of compromises we’re seeing in the last 30 years.

    And I wonder how long it will be before someone decides that publicly expressed opposition to sleeping with multiple partners at once is “bigotry” and is perhaps “hate speech?”

  • Lymis

    For the record, I’ve never known anyone to take a partner’s dalliances with others casually. Even if they put on a brave front, they were internally devastated to be “sharing.”

    Again, though, that assumes that one person is doing the dallying, rather than the couple BOTH agreeing that they want to include someone else in their relationship. Different thing entirely.

    I think that the article was far more sloppy in not making some of those distinctions than it was about religious issues.

  • Stephen A.

    Lymis, I believe most people would be repulsed by what you said here and while this isn’t the place to debate the merits of it, I totally agree that this phenomenon should be fully and accurately exposed by reporters so people can make their own judgments.

    I suspect most couples would be horrified at the suggestion from their partner that instead of giving monogamy a chance, that they simply sleep around by mutual consent. Frankly, I don’t see the difference between that and being single, and wonder if there’s a psychological component to it, i.e. the inability to grow up, commit and take responsibility for making a 1-on-1 relationship work. Which makes me wonder what psychological studies have been done on this.

  • Lymis

    Stephen A,

    This blog does a wonderful job making that point that when people are reporting on religion, sweeping statements are often completely off the mark, and that what is a fundamental belief for one branch or tradition may be completely inapplicable to another.

    I think that is extremely admirable, and very important. If someone is going to talk about religion in terms of what its adherents believe, they need to get the details and distinctions right.

    At the same time, the same needs to be done in reverse, or this becomes an exercise in something other than truth. There is something wrong with taking great pride in parsing the distinctions between Anglican belief and Episcopalian belief, or the differences between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical, only to turn around and lump together everyone with beliefs or practices at odds with your own, or with whatever you choose to call traditional Christianity.

    Making valid distinctions between viewpoints is not the same as approving of them. You can feel that sneaking around behind the back of an unsuspecting spouse is as much adultery as openly having a relationship with the spouse’s full knowledge, and condemn both, but it is disingenuous for anyone to claim that they are doing the same thing.

    Similarly, you are welcome to believe that “most people” would be repulsed by whatever, but this is a discussion of a set of articles in the media about at least some people who aren’t repulsed by this particular idea. You seem to feel that the only valid media coverage is “exposing” it for condemnation. That hardly seems to be the balanced coverage people here seem to require for religious issues.

    There is a great deal of variety in the types of relationships and the experience of them that you seem to be lumping together. If you wouldn’t allow someone to condemn Baptists for something a Catholic official says or does, then you should at least be prepared to understand the distinctions between an unfaithful monogamous relationship, an open relationship and a polyamorous relationship.

    Then you can condemn them all if you choose.

  • Stephen A.

    Lymis, If I can be blunt, the media is often a battleground. This article was obviously written by someone who a) either was biased against traditional relationships and/or was biased in favor of the bed-hopping variety or b) by someone who spoke with a poly enthusiast like yourself and didn’t bother to get the “other” side(s) of the story.

    Either way, this lifestyle was glamorized, popularized and made to seem mainstream, when in fact, it’s completely aberrant, not taught by any major traditional religion, and has SEVERE downsides (psychological, physical, emotional and medical) that were totally ignored or covered-up.

    That, and only that, is the point here. Obviously you love the concept and I hate it. The “win” in this story goes to your side because this was a rather despicable hit piece on monogamy, when it should have been a balanced look of which we both could say “hmmm, very fair and informative article.” It did not, and we can’t say that. That’s the point of this blog.

    Oh, and there is NO question this practice is inconsistent with traditional Christianity. Woman caught in adultery? Hello?

  • Lymis

    Actually, I’ve been very careful to avoid including my personal opinion of the issue in my posts here. We’re supposed to be discussing the media coverage, not the merits. What in the world I’ve posted that made you conclude that I “love the concept” evades me. I do think discussing both the article and the issue accurately is important.

    Acknowledging that there are people who don’t live a monogamous lifestyle and are increasingly willing to say so publicly is hardly a “despicable hit piece” any more than an article about Universalist Unitarians that says its members find being in the denomination valuable or an article on the growing numbers of self-identified Protestant Evangelicals would be a hit piece on Catholicism.

    I won’t deny that there are such hit pieces out there. This wasn’t one of them.

    As far as your comment that polyamory is inconsistent with traditional Christianity, I don’t disagree. But so is civil divorce. So, for that matter is being a Muslim. On the other hand, polyamory is certainly consistent with Old Testament rules for marriage. Check out Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, for example. For that matter, polygamy is allowed by some modern religious traditions, such as parts of Hindu and Islamic faiths.

    I didn’t see the article claiming that anyone felt that an openly polyamorous relationship WAS consistent with traditional Christianity. But not all religion is traditional Christianity, and not all people live their lives according to it. Some people don’t even acknowledge any traditional religion in their lives.

    GetReligion is perfectly correct in insisting that reporting on religion and religious issues should be accurate, and that leaving out the “ghosts” is a disservice to truth. That does not mean that the only accurate inclusion of religion is forcing everything to be seen through a specifically traditional Christian lens, whatever that might be.

  • Stephen A.

    Lymis, this was a grossly unbalanced article, in favor of poly and against mono.

    Polyamory is not the same as polygamy. I’m sure advocates for both would say the same, and want the two to NOT be confused, esp. given the horrendous stories coming out about polygamists and their wives.

    As for the Traditional Christianity statement, I probably didn’t mean to send that one YOUR way. Jasmine wrote that “Some polyamorists are highly religious. Some of us attend church services every week, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, preach sermons…” and I find it very, very hard to believe that a Sunday School teacher would casually mention to a church friend that “Oh, yes, Bill picked up a woman in a bar last night and slept with her and I’m just fine with that, because he had my permission.”

    Again, reporters would need to be cautious of anecdotal stories like that – and like the ones in THIS article – and wary of portraying them as universally accepted fact.

  • Brigid

    Let me start by saying that I am polyamorous. I am also an atheist, though I was raised in a Christian household by two very happy monogamous parents. Of the many polyamorous people I know (no, I haven’t slept with all of them) I see no correlation to organized religion and polyamory. There are Jews, pagans, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists who all embrace polyamory. So it wasn’t so much missing as it is non-consequential to the point of the articles, though religion plays a major part in the lives of many poly people.

    That being said, I also don’t find the articles to be much help. I figure that some people are mono and some are poly. The CNN article was especially awkward because I don’t see poly as the result of a biological drive, so about 75% of it was gibberish to me. Relationships are emotional, so if you’re with someone just to have sex, I don’t think it will be a very successful relationship. (Success being measured by what you get out of a relationship rather than how long you endure it.)

    And I think Stephen A is right on the money when he says that the examples they give are anecdotal. However, the stats may be right because chances are that you all know someone who is poly but won’t come out about it. I know I don’t random people know that I am poly because there is a lot of knee-jerk rejection out there.