[Editor’s note: Whoops, accidentally hit ‘publish’ instead of ‘schedule.’ Enjoy having two today!]
1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?
My basic reason for thinking polyamory is a bad idea is that it’s tense and stressful and distances you from your partner. This problem has a few different causes.
First, polyamory is the extension of hookup culture to relationships.
Currently, some people make an effort to look cool and attractive at parties or in their online dating profile. While that’s not for me, it’s probably fine for others in low doses. But this kind of superficiality and the pressure to be appealing to strangers is corrosive to one’s character if done often. Instead of doing what you like and thinking for yourself alone, or connecting deeply and authentically with another in a way that builds trust, you wear the mask that gets an attractive stranger into your bed. In the moment, it doesn’t matter how much it hides or misrepresents, since you’ll probably never see them again. But it ultimately does matter, because the more you do something, the more you shape yourself into the kind of person who keeps doing it – and here, some of your own will would be replaced with serving the superficial expectations of others.
At least now, when you want a break from that pressure, you can skip some parties, turn off your phone, and relax and be yourself. But with polyamory, it follows you home and gives you no rest. Your partner’s eyes continue to wander, so you have to continue performing to keep their attention. You’re always “on”. Since committed monogamous relationships are based on the template of marriage, they have some expectation of “for better or worse”, so it’s okay to sometimes be vulnerable or weird, and ideally, the couple accepts each other as they are and learns to deal with each other’s problems. Without that expectation, you have to suppress what your partner might not like, and always wear the mask – many overlapping masks if you have multiple partners. And your partner is doing the same, so you don’t know how much of what you believe about them corresponds to what they’re really like.
Second, much of what’s good about romantic relationships comes from them being a unique focus.
We get a lot out of our different interpersonal relationships: friendship, support, the ability to work on long-term projects together and make plans for the future, and much else. While those things may all be good when gotten separately from different people, they’re even better from through the same source, because they contribute to and enhance each other. A romantic partner is the ultimate culmination of that: a friend, but not just a friend; someone who supports you, and someone you get to support; you make long- and short-term plans together; and all of those kinds of things combine to make something much more than the sum of its parts. For example, you trust them more because you understand them from having supported them with their troubles, which helps you plan for the future with them, which gives you more in common to share together, and so on.
If you have two or three partners, everything good you’ve done with one of them will only benefit half or a third of your relationships. If they have other partners as well, your relationships are only getting a fraction of their attention. But if you’re monogamous, you and your partner see all the fruits and positive spillovers of the efforts you both put in – and the better it gets, the more you like it, so contributing to it is even more appealing. This virtuous cycle of investing yourself means that one relationship that gets both partners’ full attention is better than two that get half attention.
Third, polyamory increases your risks of getting and spreading diseases.
You know that your partners take good precautions to avoid STDs and that they were clean last time they got tested. But do you trust all the people you’re connected to through them? You know that your partner saw another one of their partners last night, and you heard they were clean some time ago, but is that still true? Not everyone is careful, and accidents happen. You can’t ask your partner to get tested all the time, nor do you want to go through that yourself, so you worry about getting and spreading something potentially really bad. (“Is [partner] going to get me seriously sick? I already asked them to get tested last month, is it okay to ask this month? Or am I annoying them too much? What if I already caught something and I gave it to [other partner] yesterday? I think I was careful, but I can’t be sure. I’d feel terrible if I hurt them through my negligence…”) Or you have to use condoms forever with all of your partners and every time obsessively check that nothing has gone wrong. Monogamous people worry about infection risk when their partner cheats, but polyamorous people are rolling the dice all the time.
And STDs aren’t the only worry. Today, your partner could meet up with and kiss another of their partners, a presymptomatic COVID carrier, then come home and kiss you. A few months later, you all have lung scarring.
What would change my mind? I can imagine evidence that could persuade me that STDs aren’t that big of a deal, such as if they become easily curable, or if I’m wrong about how bad it is to have one. As for my other objections, I’m not sure what the evidence would look like, but it would have to convince me that polyamory doesn’t push a relationship further away from being like the monogamous ideal, with its associated trust, affection, emotional openness, ability to depend on each other, etc. Of course, actual monogamy sometimes doesn’t live up to that ideal, but it seems to me that polyamory is in tension with a relationship being good in that way.
2. A polyamorous person hates their partner’s other partner (their metamour). What typically happens next?
The polyamorous person doesn’t want to make an issue out of it because it would make them look controlling or demanding, and thus less desirable. They’d like to avoid even the appearance of any conflict that their partner would have to manage, because they don’t want to be thought of as difficult or unaccommodating. So not only can they not say “It’s them or me”, they’re reluctant to even ask to not be around the metamour. That leaves them with two options. The first is to keep quiet and let it gnaw away at them inside, while hoping their partner and metamour eventually break up. The second is to talk negatively about the metamour without making it sound like there’s anything personal about it. I expect some combination of the two is common.
I know this makes polyamorous people sound dishonest, but they’re in an unenviable position that punishes honesty. While we rightly condemn deception in otherwise healthy relationships, we should sympathize when it happens in a dysfunctional relationship – and this is a dysfunctional aspect of polyamory.
3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)
Most of them would be pretty unhappy. Their relationships would be worse and they’d have to work harder to keep them. They’d be under constant pressure to compete for their partners’ attention, and each relationship would suffer from having less of that attention. Some would resent everything they have to do and blame their partner for not trying as much, something like “I work hard to be someone you like, why don’t you work to be someone I like?”.
There’d be long-term effects as well, since less stability would make it harder to plan for the future – who’d want to have children if they can’t depend on their partner being around in a few years? And if 90% of the population has to think this way, that’s not just a lot of personal costs, but a problem for society.
Finally, there’s the simple opportunity cost of polyamory. Time spent worrying about relationships is time not spent doing something enjoyable or productive. Instead of taking your second partner on an expensive vacation, you could’ve invested that money or given it to charity. If now some guy might take a day off work because his girlfriend broke up with him, how often would he do that if he had three or four girlfriends? I know this concern sounds weird, but if 90% of the population were polyamorous, it’s worth thinking about.
A few people might rediscover monogamy and happily opt out of mainstream polyamorous dating, just like some young people today opt out of party/hookup culture (and are looked at strangely for it). Hopefully others would see how much better it is and switch, but it might take a while because some of the advantages aren’t obvious.