Polyamory and Divorce – What is consensual non-monogamy, and what does it mean for your marriage?

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“Polyamorous marriage is having a moment,” reported Brides Magazine in 2021.

Aside from how you may feel about the concept or its impact on a marriage, many people aren’t even sure what polyamory means. If you look around the Internet, you’ll find many shades of meaning and nuances of the lifestyle, as well as a wide variety of statistics on how it works out.

What is polyamory?

The term originated from the Greek root word polloi, from which we get poly, meaning many, and the Latin amor, meaning love—so polyamory means many lovers.

Polyamory is an umbrella term that includes many forms and variations of consensual nonmonogamy. Although the definitions of what it is are somewhat fluid, as used by researchers and people who practice it, polyamory is not the same as:

  • Cheating. Infidelity happens when one partner sneaks around and has an illicit, extramarital affair behind their spouse’s back. Polyamory implies the knowledge and consent of both/all partners.
  • Swinging. Typically, this refers to committed monogamous couples who have casual sex with other married couples.
  • Polygamy(including polygyny – the man has multiple wives or polyandry – the woman has multiple husbands) because these terms involve marriage to numerous partners. Polygamy and polyamory are both types of nonmonogamy, but while polygamy is a form of polyamory, not all polyamory (by far) is polygamy.
  • It’s not (necessarily) an open relationship. An open marriage/relationship is one in which both partners agree that they may have sexual relationships with people outside the marriage. Still, they don’t necessarily pursue other deep relationships. Polyamory tends to focus on intimacy, love, sex, and/or commitment with more than one person (whether they are legally married to each other or not).

In the United States, polyamory has roots in the “free love” movement of the 1960s and 70s in California, where people practiced communal living and group marriage. Today some polyamorists are in committed group relationships where they essentially consider themselves all married to each other and live as such in terms of emotional, sexual, and financial ties, dwelling, etc.

If you’re in a traditional marriage, expanding or redefining your relationship to polyamorous might mean that you both agree to have other sexual partners, or you could pursue dating, emotional intimacy, and even love with others while preserving ties with your spouse. It may mean that you keep the marriage relationship as your “primary” (high involvement and commitment) but that you also have “secondary” (close and intimate but less time, involvement, etc.) or even “tertiary” (fleeting or intermittent) relationships.

Says Brides Magazine, “The spike in this alternative marriage arrangement is happening with young, married couples who have been married for a few years, yet long for ‘something more’…. this growing lifestyle is about mutually changing your monogamous agreement.”

Partners may have different sexual needs, styles, or desires. They may want to experience sex, romance, or emotional intimacy with someone of a different gender than their partner. Some couples feel attracted to other people even though they’re still attracted to or in love with each other. They may feel confined by monogamy, curious about other possibilities, or feel that traditional marriage is outdated. The lengthy pandemic lockdown also seems to have spurred an uptick in these arrangements.

In some cases, spouses on the brink of divorce pursue polyamorous relationships to save the marriage—they feel it helps them stay together because they can get specific needs met outside the partnership their spouse doesn’t fulfill. They may even hope it will rejuvenate the marital relationship.

As for how consensual non-monogamy impacts a marriage, various studies have produced mixed findings. There is little scientific research on how well it works. It’s also challenging to distill results because of fluidity/lack of clarity in the studies’ terminology.

Statistics show open marriages account for anywhere from 1.9-9% of total marriages. While some studies show that 92% of open relationships end in divorce, another survey reported 70% of people in open marriages reported a better-than-average relationship. In one survey, 67% of female participants said they would leave a spouse who requested an open relationship, compared to 46% of men—yet some studies indicate that women are more likely to request the arrangement.

What’s clear is that nonmonogamy only works if there is high-level communication, total transparency, deep trust, and consent from both partners. They must both have a say in setting the ground rules and boundaries. When jealousy and imbalance become factors, it can create distrust and hurt that lead to the dissolution of the relationship.

Because California is a no-fault divorce state, polyamory plays no role in the distribution of assets.  However, if you’re ending your polyamorous marriage or your relationship has fallen apart due to misunderstandings surrounding consensual nonmonogamy, you need expert, compassionate, nonjudgmental legal advice. The veteran family law attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate the nuances of your case.

By Debra Schoenberg



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