Sara was at a salsa dance event in Durham, North Carolina, when she saw her married friend talking intimately with a man she didn’t recognize. “And then she kissed him,” she recalled.
She knew her friend’s husband was sitting across the room from her. “So I asked her about it,” she remembered.
“She explained the basics of what polyamory was and I was just completely overwhelmed,” Sara told me. “I’d always had crushes on so many people and had thought that when I finally found someone that that would go away, and it never had.”
That night, the 32-year-old went home and told her husband about the revelation. “He said that it sounded neat,” she said. The couple, who lives in Durham, went online, “did a bunch of research and…we decided that it sounded like a good fit for us.” They opened their relationship. After that, she met her girlfriend of five years, who introduced her to another partner, a man “married to me in everything except name.”
He has since moved in with them, and “both of my husbands are also in relationships with my girlfriend."
The ethos behind Sara’s relationships is becoming more common, and less stigmatized. Forms of sexual consensual nonmonogamy have been popular — or at least openly visible among gay men — for a long time. But more kinds of relationships outside the monogamous norm — from polyamory to relationship anarchy — are becoming less stigmatized in general, according to many people who are nonmonogamous.
“I have noticed a huge difference in the way that it is perceived from when I started this over 20 years ago,” said Lynn, a 45-year-old woman from Broward, Florida, who’s been polyamorous since she was 18 and open about it on dating apps. “The past 5 to 10 years…it has become much more accepted… You would not believe the abusive messages I used to get from men. So much less now.”
Just in the past half-decade, ethical nonmonogamy’s pop cultural imprint has grown, especially around polyamory. There’s been celebrity coming-outs, podcasts, and TED Talks. “It’s really increased,” Jessica Fern, author of Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy, told BuzzFeed News. “And I don’t think it’s just a fad.”
Since starting her practice as a couples therapist around 2009, Fern said the number of couples coming to her for guidance as they consider ethical nonmonogamy led her to focus on them, and publish her book in 2020. “It’s showing up more in the mainstream,” she said. “Even though it’s still an alternative culture, it’s giving people permission for what they always felt.”
Online resources and apps that facilitate the process of naming these orientations have contributed to demystifying them. Bess, a 38-year-old from Milton, Massachusetts, who has been ethically nonmonogamous for 14 years, said “we always wanted to be nonmonogamous but we never had a way of meeting other couples (or singles) like us. And then we found the app Feeld. We’ve gone from ENM [ethically nonmonogamous], to polyamorous.”
Statistics about the number of Americans engaged in nonmonogamous relationships are hard to pin down. Some studies have shown that 1 in 9 adults have been polyamorous, or that 4% to 5 % of US adults currently are.
Yet every time such studies come out, there’s surprise that women often identify as ethically nonmonogamous more than men. Fern isn’t surprised anymore. She says they’re often the ones who initiate conversations about moving away from monogamy. “It’s funny, ‘cause you would think, the way we sort of stereotype cis men, that they would bring it up ‘cause they want more sex,” she said. “And often they’re not the ones that bring it up.”
BuzzFeed News wanted to hear directly from women, femmes, and/or nonbinary people about their relationships. And we heard back from hundreds of people: some who opened up longtime monogamous relationships, and some in relationships that started as polyamorous.
The replies highlighted the myriad reasons why people turn to ethical nonmonogamy: incompatible libido levels, maintaining a queer identity in relational forms that are often not queer-friendly, emotional enrichment, and deeper self-knowledge.
It became clear that ethical nonmonogamy isn’t just about sex and romance, but about fundamentally reconsidering the way people relate to and exist in relationships.
In her own life and in her practice, Fern has witnessed how the “opening up process” of polyamory “creates this awakening of the self, where you suddenly realize, like, ‘Ooh, I’ve been compromising. I’ve been saying yes when I mean no. I didn’t even know I could say no, right? I’ve been contorting myself as a half person and now I’m a full person.’”
There have been endless studies about the ways that gendered inequities sneak into the privacy of the home, family, and relationships, through everything from housework to the emotional labor of maintaining a healthy relationship.
Many women wrote about how nonmonogamy helped them break the kinds of patterns they inherited from monogamy. “I’m an older millennial and I grew up in a time that did not engender healthy relationship roles,” said Allie, a 36-year-old from Chicago. “I tended to be the dominant partner and also tried to be everything my partner needed.”
She shared a story about her current partner to reflect on how she’s changed: They had planned a date after not seeing each other in weeks because of traveling. “But I had a terrible day at work that day, and when I got home, I just collapsed on my couch and started crying. My partner came over to see me. It was clear that I was not going out, so he stayed with me for a bit, then went out on his own.”
“Had we been monogamous,” she added, “I would have felt a lot of pressure to perform for him, be sexy and fun, put my feelings aside so that I would give him the right impression and he wouldn’t think I was lame or whiny. But instead, I just got to feel my feelings and I didn’t have to worry that my partner would find someone else. It was really freeing. Not having to be someone’s everything, or have them be your everything means you can just be yourself."
Lindsay, a 44-year-old from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, echoed that feeling. She said she and her partner always “had ethical nonmonogamy on the table.” Seven years into their relationship, they opened it up. Lindsay highlighted “the joy of having different needs met by different people who match with that set of needs.” For instance, she likes gaming and one partner doesn’t; she doesn’t like biking, and another partner loves long bike rides. (“Sharing the load. SHARING THE LOAD!!!" she wrote.)
We also heard from women who were initially reticent when their partners suggested opening up their relationships. Kat, a 42-year-old from Berlin, had been married for 16 years when her husband first revealed that he had been “struggling his whole life with feeling like there’s more to relationships than just one man, one woman,” she recalled.
She was initially upset and taken aback, but she agreed to go to therapy to consider it. “I felt that we couldn’t engage healthily with other people until we fixed our own issues with communication and expectations,” she said. Since then, she has ended up exploring even more than her husband. “I’m bisexual, but growing up Catholic, never got to date women,” she said. “This gives me the freedom to date whoever I want, and build relationships with people who I wouldn’t have been able to before.
“Watching my husband try to figure out scheduling and planning has been amazing,” she added. “Seriously though, the improvement in communication with my husband has been one of the biggest benefits. Another great one is having more than one person to do things with. If my husband isn’t interested in going to a movie or exhibition, there are other people I can go with on a date night. Also sex is amazing when you’re with people who are all super into communication.”
Nonmonogamy has not only helped people to understand themselves better in relationships, but it has also expanded the way people think about their emotional habits.
Laurel, a 33-year-old from Ontario, Canada, said all her relationships start out with ethical nonmonogamy as the baseline, so she doesn’t force relationships into boxes or timelines from the beginning. “When the pressure of labeling your feelings for someone else is gone, there is more freedom to explore how you actually feel and what you want,” she wrote. “It forces you to examine your own flaws and needs a lot more closely and work through things most people don't even consider to be an issue.”
This has all helped her define and understand her “needs and how they align with others. Working through past traumas so they don’t play out in my relationships. Trusting others, recognizing when I’ve broken someone’s trust, and knowing how to repair that."
Many of the respondents emphasized that after initially struggling with feelings of mistrust or jealousy, they were free to establish a new relationship to seeing their partners with other people. Many explained they were able to reach what they called compersion, or the joy of seeing their partner happy with someone else.
Charli, a 24-year-old from Stirling, Scotland, said she loves how nonmonogamy has challenged her feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. “I’ve been able to transform my jealousy into ‘compersion’ and instead feel genuine joy at other people’s happiness,” she said. “That feeling has permeated into all other facets of my life.”
“It was a beautiful thing to watch my former partner have fun and flirt with other people,” said Joy, a 38-year-old woman from Seattle. “It was delightful to watch him get nervous and excited about meeting someone new. I also really enjoyed hearing about the sexual experiences he was having with other people — it was a great way for me to learn about new things that he was into, and to incorporate new activities into our relationship.”
Janee, a 32-year-old woman from New York, said that her relationship to her own desire has been affected in an interesting way by removing the boundary of monogamy. “I think when I was monogamous, being with other people seemed more thrilling because it was ‘wrong,’ but in a situation where me having a crush isn’t ‘wrong,’ I am much less tempted by forbidden fruit,” she said, adding that she can now make better decisions about who to let into her life and why.
Based on the hundreds of responses we received, it’s clear that the changes that have led to the rise of ethical nonmonogamy are partly generational. Millennials and Gen Z-ers either came of age or are growing up with more nuanced language for naming their desires and orientations.
There’s careful attention to the spectrum of genders, and of libidos and sexual levels, from people who are highly romantic or sexual to those who identify as aromantic or asexual. We heard from many women, like Kat, who discovered their queerness after opening up.
Amee, a 30-year-old from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, was engaged to her long-term partner for 10 years before she approached him about opening up. “I came to him with the information that I have realised through therapy I am more suited to an open relationship,” she said.
She and her husband both explored their “own identities and sexualities… He has come out as asexual.” She realized she had an interest in BDSM.
The freedom from the gendered expectations and conventions seemingly baked into marriage and monogamy helps people come into their identities. Others want to feel recognized and seen in their relationships from the beginning in ways that can’t be captured by monogamous relationships.
As Rhi, a 33-year-old from Pocatello, Idaho, said, “I’m…able to be true to my sexuality as a pan nonbinary femme person. In monogamy I wasn’t allowed to really grasp those parts of me. I hated when partners would say, I made you go straight for me, or I made you gay all the way."
“I am asexual, and rarely have sex with my partners,” said Dana, a 38-year-old from the Netherlands. Yet she enjoys the intimacy and “the support of having two people who are there for me…Knowing that two people have my back. Having multiple sources of income under one roof. Having two best friends who are friends with each other. It might not be the ‘norm’ as far as families go, but it's my family.”
Sara, the 32-year-old from North Carolina, said one of her partners moved in, in part, because he wanted to save on rent to help pay off his student loans. Natalie, a 44-year-old from Williamsburg, Virginia, who has been polyamorous since 2019, really values “the logistical support in which sometimes we rely on our partners to help with transportation for our kids or help around the house.”
Kyrie, an agender 34-year-old from California, also said, “My favorite part is having a larger support network. That includes not only romantic partners, but also metamours (partners’ partners), former metas with whom I’m still close, and other platonic friends made through nonmonogamy meetups. There’s always someone to turn to or confide in when needed."
Nonmonogamy has to exist within a majority monogamous society that emphasizes what many in the community call mono-normative values. Perhaps that’s why the most perceptive critiques of the problems posed by ethical nonmonogamy as an institution come from inside the house.
For instance, many people pointed out that the ways centering a primary couple — known as hierarchical polyamory or nonmonogamy — leads to unicorn hunting. The Polyamory For Us website points out the gendered power imbalance of the scenario, including the fact that it’s often a straight couple looking for a bisexual femme, who is then set up less as a full person than an extension of a relationship, “expected to fit in to their relationship without changing the existing relationship with the couple, and if they feel that she’s not following any rule, she’s out, to protect The Couple.”
Many if not most of the people we heard from — and it might be self-selection bias — were in hierarchical relationships with a primary partner. Leslie, a 36-year-old woman from Rotterdam, Netherlands, who has been polyamorous for 12 years, said, “I hate how couple-centric ALL ENM relationships are seen as, and how so many people reinforce that when they decide to ‘try’ it, from the safety net of an established couple that they can then retract to if something doesn’t go the way they want it to.
“People aren’t toys or playthings,” she added. “Even OkCupid, the first and largest ENM-friendly dating site, will only let you link to one partner. Swingers and hierarchical relationships are valid as long as everyone involved is on board and that’s clearly communicated, but that isn’t everyone and I don’t think it’s even close to the majority.
“There are so many different kinds of ENM,” she said. “But people seem resistant to differentiating (and to hearing about the differences) and will often lump everyone into whichever one they’re most familiar with, usually…swinging.”
She’s a nonhierarchical polyamorist, which means no relationship takes precedence over any other, “yet so many people think there’s some sort of seniority system, where the ‘oldest’ relationship is the ‘most real’ one,” she said.
Still, many people are aware of these pitfalls. Saraa, a 40-year-old DC resident, said that it has been a struggle “maintaining balance and equity between genders as well as between primary and secondary relationships, making the time for a second relationship outside of [the] primary one, [and] not being able to be open about the secondary relationship with others due to stigma.”
It’s not surprising, given the long history of organizing cis-heterosexual relationships around marriage and monogamy, that ethical nonmonogamy still has to grapple with the remnants of those institutions.
Fern sees couples who believe that opening up a monogamous relationship is a “fix” for their struggles. But it’s the opposite. “The opening up process from monogamy exposes all the cracks in the foundation of your relationship,” she said.
Yet when people decide to end a relationship after opening it up, they focus on power differentials or codependency issues that existed even while a couple was monogamous. “They just blame polyamory, [saying] that’s why it doesn’t work, that’s why they got divorced,” she said. “It’s the same thing when people are like, ‘Let’s have a kid.’”
Contemporary society still stigmatizes ethical nonmonogamy. Some people wrote about losing their jobs when employers found out about their relationship orientation. When we put out our call for responses, the comments section immediately filled up with attacks on ethical nonmonogamy.
It’s “just code for ‘I want to cheat on my partner because I don’t know how to have a real relationship,’” one commenter wrote. Another person chimed in: “I’m incredibly open minded when it comes to how people live their lives, But this just is one thing I cannot stand behind.” Another said that ethical nonmonogamists are “insecure, unconfident people. Each and every one of them has had this glaring personality issue.”
Yet the virulence of people’s feelings about it points perhaps to anxieties about the very state of monogamy and marriage. It’s the very evolution of contemporary capitalism, gender, and gender roles that has allowed for nonmonogamy to go mainstream, as the institutions of monogamous marriage and partnerships lose cultural centrality.
They continue sputtering into their flop eras, taken down by their own contradictory mores, and their patriarchal-capitalist origins, to the point that many people no longer invest in them.
Lizz, a 35-year-old from Brooklyn, said she has “always been nonmonogamous, but I didn’t have the language for it until after college when it became more common.”
Beccy, for instance, doesn’t even see nonmonogamy as “a choice… I know people who could be happy in either relationship style and choose one or the other,” she said. “But for others, including myself, polyamory feels like an orientation of sorts.”
She’s resolute that “I could not have a healthy monogamous relationship.” Reading the passionate responses from hundreds of women, it’s clear that there’s no turning back for many of them, either. ❤