Illustration by David McAllister / Prospect

From open relationships to polycules: is monogamy over?

Young people are trying out new kinds of relationships. Is it time to abandon a one-size-fits-all approach to romantic love?
July 17, 2023

Last year, I went on a date with a man who had a girlfriend. I knew he had a girlfriend—it said so on his profile on the app where we matched. Apparently, he was in an “ethically non-monogamous relationship”. I hadn’t dated someone who had a partner before, but after becoming single for the first time in six years, it seemed like an arrangement that might work for me. At the time, the last thing I wanted was to be someone’s girlfriend. So why not date someone who already had one?

We met for coffee near where we both live. He seemed a little flustered and later, once we had both warmed up a bit, he told me that this was because he and his girlfriend were potentially about to break up. In fact, it might happen in just a few hours, when he went to see her straight after our date.

He explained that while they had started out with the agreement that they would be together but not exclusive, in practice, this had been working better for him than for her. They’d talked about it a lot, shared their desires and concerns, and he thought that splitting up would probably be what she wanted. I commiserated with him, and explained the position I was in vis-à-vis not wanting a relationship at all. None of this felt weird. It felt honest.

We didn’t see each other again—he was sweet and interesting, but we weren’t attracted to each other in real life. But I thought about the date afterwards and decided that while it was more complicated than just meeting up with someone and finding out down the line whether they wanted the same kind of relationship, it was also more genuine.

I soon realised that my experience, though new to me, was part of a growing shift towards non-monogamous dating. In 2022, the most popular dating app, Hinge, launched a new feature called Relationship Type, where users can indicate on their profile whether they are looking for something serious, casual, monogamous, polyamorous, “ethically non-monogamous” (i.e. sleeping with more than one person in a mutually consensual way), and so on. At the pub, I heard more people than ever talking about opening up their relationships or embarking on new ones that didn’t begin with the premise of a shared sexual and emotional connection with only one person forever.

Newly single, post-pandemic, I wondered what had changed in the last few years: was monogamy on the wane? And will it be replaced with something better?

Society is still overwhelmingly set up to favour the monogamous couple as a unit

Monogamy as the default

I am speaking over Zoom to Luke Brunning, a philosopher at the University of Leeds whose research focuses on relationships. He is explaining an idea he called the “paradox of prevalence”. “It's such a common experience to feel attraction to more than one person at a time romantically, it's something that perhaps most people have experienced,” he tells me. “And yet there's a kind of social taboo on that. It’s something that's very easy for people to be interested in and to be outraged by and to be afraid of.” The shame and guilt that we are encouraged to feel about desire for others is perhaps one of the reasons that monogamy has remained the default form of relationship for so long. Plus of course, the socioeconomic factors: society is still overwhelmingly set up to favour the monogamous couple as a unit: in housing, in legal rights, right down to getting cheaper train tickets as a pair.

The problem is, monogamy doesn’t seem to be offering a fulfilling relationship to everybody. It’s difficult to collect data on infidelity, so great is the stigma around it—but one recent YouGov poll from the US suggested that 34 per cent of people know that they have been cheated on in a monogamous relationship—and anecdotally, we all know it happens all the time. Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge, tells me that young people are questioning monogamy as default. “Gen Z daters are increasingly unsure of the type of relationship they want and are open to non-monogamous relationships,” he says.  

Non-monogamous relationships are not anything terribly new, in certain corners. They’ve have long been prevalent in the gay community, particularly among gay men. A spokesperson for Hinge told me that recent research they carried out indicated that at least 15 per cent of queer Hinge users were interested in exploring relationship types other than traditional monogamy. 

It may be that the pandemic is also responsible for people talking more openly about what they want out of a relationship. All that time locked down with another person caused lots of people to take stock. I found that my 20-something friends in relationships seemed to either split up in the wake of the pandemic, or get married shortly after. It was make or break. The question on everyone’s mind was: is this what I really want?

 The pros and the pitfalls

“If I decide to start a family with whoever, and I plan on being with them for the next 40 years, I'd like the other person to be happy, and I'd like myself to be happy,” says Laura, a single woman in her late twenties. “Sometimes people are attractive, maybe you have a fling or whatever. I can't really imagine how that could seriously tarnish the relationship.”

Hannah, a woman of the same age who recently opened up her long-term relationship, says she and her boyfriend started questioning monogamy at the same time. “I like casual sex and realised it doesn't really interact with or pose a threat to my relationship,” she tells me. “I think the idea of enhanced privacy and independence has been good for our relationship, and it affords me the feeling of independence I'd missed in every relationship I'd been in.”  

Like any affair of the heart, it’s not without its pitfalls. Part of the resistance some people feel to the influx of people looking for “ethically non-monogamous” relationships on dating apps is the suspicion that some of those people are using the term as a “get out of jail free” card to mess people around. Maya, who has been single for a while, decided that while she doesn’t have room in her life for a boyfriend, she’d be interested in forming a non-monogamous, consistent connection—but found that the men she was dating took that as an excuse to treat her worse. “As soon as you say, ‘I'm looking for something that feels a bit more casual,’ then suddenly, that seems like a green light for people to start not respecting you as a person. Just because I don't want a boyfriend, it doesn't mean that I don't want to sleep with people who respect me.”

My friend Paula who lives in London and is looking for a long-term girlfriend, is also sick of seeing “ethically non-monogamous” on people’s dating profiles. “How I feel with poly stuff is like: do I have to? I find it hard enough to find attraction to someone without having to think, it is not just you I’m going to have to build a connection with, it’s your other partners,” she says. 

Polyamorous people looking to start a family run into all kinds of legal barriers

While non-monogamy is about casual sexual connections with people outside your core relationship, polyamory means multiple longer-term relationships. There’s no real data to suggest that polyamory is on the rise—in fact it’s difficult to find data on it at all—but there has been an increase in awareness of the practice, according to Eunice Hung. She’s a trustee of the UK Polyamory Association, which was set up in 2002 by Giulia Smith in response to a lack of reliable information about polyamory.

It’s much misunderstood, Smith and Hung tell me. Maybe that’s not surprising, as there’s a lot of terminology to get your head around. In a triad, three people are all dating each other. There’s a hierarchical or nested model, in which a central couple each independently have relationships with other people outside that couple. And there’s a polycule: an extended network of people practicing polyamory who are connected to each other by being in some kind of relationship with at least one other person in the group. (Apparently, the notorious Sam Bankman-Fried and others involved in the defunct FTX cryptocurrency exchange were part of a polycule.) Hung cautions against the common misconceptions about polyamory. “It's not just cheating,” she says, “and it's not just all triads with two females and a male.

Polyamory is also stigmatised, Smith says; it’s assumed that polyamorous men are failing at being a “good family man”. “For women—I'm gonna use a slur here—you're a slut.” Hung says that some queer polyamorous people she knows had a harder time coming out as polyamorous than as queer. “I've talked to plenty of people who said, ‘I came out as gay and my parents were fine with it. And then I came out as polyamorous, and they were horrified.’”

No doubt this is partly because the general public are still inclined to think of polyamory as primarily about sex, “in the same way that a lot of people assumed that being queer was just about sex,” Hung says. “Polyamory is firstly about love,” Smith puts it, “it's about connection, and it can be about families, it can be about building lives together.” Polyamorous people looking to start a family run into all kinds of legal barriers to do with shared property ownership, which is mostly to do with societal sense of propriety. Instinctively we feel that a child ought to have two parents—but with the insane cost of childcare in this country, three adults raising a baby might well be better than two. “We refer to polyamorous lifestyles and all of these different models of family structures as alternative: mixed families, when you have multiple step parents living together, or co-ops,” Hung says, “but actually, the nuclear family is the outlier, historically. We used to have the village to bring up the children. It wasn't until the 1950s when that nuclear family model got pushed quite hard.”

Another misconception about polyamory is that it is somehow an easy option: less commitment, a way of escaping the risk inherent in devoting yourself to one person. But if anything, the amount of attention demanded by having more than one partner can mean quite the opposite. “Paradoxically, polyamory can end up being more rigid because you start needing to put in more rules in place to keep everybody safe,” psychotherapist, Marianne Johnson tells me. “In a monogamous relationship, even if there’s a tacit contract, you don’t necessarily go to a partner: ‘Well, it's OK if you flirt, but only putting a hand on their arm not by giving them a long hug.’”

The future

Non-monogamy is being talked about more, but, Johnson says, it might be more talking about it than practising it. “A lot of my clients are questioning the status quo, and the values around monogamy,” she says. “People pursue non-monogamy for all kinds of different reasons, successfully and unsuccessfully, depending on their needs and desires as an individual.”

Monogamy is far from over—it will persist, and continue to be pursued by the majority of people. But Amy Key, author of the memoir Arrangements in Blue, about living without a partner, says she’s been inspired by the open way that polyamorous people negotiate their arrangements. “I think it can help us all maintain better quality relationships, more honest relationships, than heteronormative monogamous relationships impose on people.”

We ought to celebrate the freedom that we have to talk more about different styles of relationship—if nothing else, it encourages everybody to scrutinise their relationships a little more closely, to ask themselves more honestly: is this working for me? And to find other people asking the same questions when they’re ready to face the answers.