Is the Family of the Future Polyamorous?

Three men and a woman sleeping together in a bed

When it comes to marriage, three is still a crowd. But that might be changing sooner than we think. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, a small-yet-growing percentage of Americans report that they find the concept of plural marriage "morally acceptable," while polyamorous relationships are increasingly receiving mainstream media coverage. A 2014 Newsweek article even estimates that there are more than 500,000 openly polyamorous families living in the United States today. 

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of polyamory becoming more socially acceptable, particularly the remaining conservative jurists on the Supreme Court. Writing in dissent in the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex sexual activity legal throughout the United States, Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote that the legalization of same-sex marriage "would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage," echoing anti-same-sex marriage arguments Justice Antonin Scalia had made years before. 

The rise of polyamory (as well as the possibility of a more liberal replacement for Scalia, who passed away in February) begs the question: Will multiple-partner relationships eventually become the norm? And if so, what would actually change from a legal perspective? 

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When discussing plural relationships, it's important to note that polygamy (usually understood by to mean polygyny, or the taking of multiple simultaneous wives) is often conflated with polyamory, a term that refers to the practice of maintaining intimate, consensual relationships with two or more people. 

While there are many differences between the two — for starters, polygamy is usually religious in nature and refers to a man having multiple wives, while polyamory is secular and refers to people of all genders having multiple partners — both polygamists and polyamorists live on the fringes of society. In fact, despite increasingly visible activism and public recognition, individuals in polyamorous unions remain outside the mainstream of American life, in part thanks to cultural discrimination against alternative lifestyles. 

"Our entire system is geared toward the nuclear family model, two biological parents," Sandy Peace told Mic. Peace is a California psychologist and sex educator who has done extensive work with people involved in the polyamory community. "Many polyamorous families don't 'come out' to neighbors and school administrators because of concerns about prejudice and misunderstanding."

Yet there are also "real logistical problems" that are posed by polyamorous unions from a legal perspective. Peace said that issues related to divorce and custody in particular are complicated. 

"Lawyers who are motivated to secure a better custody arrangement for the non-poly parent could make an issue of poly relationships, stressing that they are having a negative impact on the child's development," she said. 

"Our entire system is geared toward the nuclear family model."

Although plural marriage is illegal, meaning that those in polyamorous unions do not receive the insurance or social security benefits that most spouses are entitled to, many polyamorous couples aren't particularly anxious for legal recognition. 

Whether or not plural marriage should be legalized is "debated within our own community, similar to the gay community — there are people who don't believe we should go after plural marriage, and there are those who do," Robyn Trask, the executive director of the polyamory support organization Loving More, told U.S. News & World Report in 2015. 

Dallas-based sex activist Golden Blayze, a genderqueer person who "nests" (i.e., resides) with another genderqueer partner but also maintains relationships with a cisgender man and two other genderqueer individuals, disagrees. For Blayze, who uses the pronouns "they" and "them," formal legal recognition matters. 

"I am a firm believer in the idea that sex is political, that the personal is political, and that my lifestyle is a challenge to heteronormativity," Blayze told Mic. "Yet to be open and speak my truth to power, when there are so many day-to-day difficulties ranging from insurance to social security benefits ... it's already not easy on the people who are important to me, but these hurdles make it so much harder for all of us to be together."

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Additionally, no state has anything close to a working model for securing child support for the same child from multiple poly caregivers. In other words, there's no way for a judge to order two or more non-biological, non-custodial parents to make simultaneous payments for a single child, short of committing paternity fraud. As such, polyamorous partners have to cobble together custom-made custodial arrangements, without getting the courts involved at all. 

In fact, state and local government intervention in polyamorous relationships, when it occurs at all, can sometimes prove quite damaging. In 1998, Tennessee resident April Divilbiss, who had gained modest fame by discussing her polyamorous triad on MTV's Sex in the '90s: It's a Group Thing, found herself on the receiving end of a third-party custody petition from the paternal grandmother of her daughter, Alana. Alana's grandmother alleged that her granddaughter's welfare was being endangered by the "depravity" of April's three-person relationship, and a judge ordered that Alana be removed from the home. 

After nearly two years of litigation, a near penniless April ultimately decided that Alana's grandparents were able to provide her daughter with a better standard of living, and gave up the custody fight.

"In part because of the Divilbiss case, which ultimately ended at April's behest, the possibility of child protective services taking children away is one that lingers in the background of many poly people's minds," Peace explained. "While there is no reason this would happen per se, there are also no specific legal protections for poly people from such measures, so angry exes, disapproving relatives, and nosy neighbors can all report 'child maltreatment.'"

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While legal recognition of polyamorous relationships might indeed be on the horizon, as some pundits have claimed, securing the rights of individuals practicing such lifestyles will require far more than the LGBT fight for marriage equality did. That's simply because true legal acceptance of poly families will require new rights and privileges in different areas of our legal system, from inheritance to child custody.

The road from recognition to tolerance to full and complete acceptance for polyamorous families is likely to be long and harrowing. In spite of these challenges, many in the community stress the lifestyle's inherent advantages.  

"The dominant cultural ideal of the 'nuclear family' can be very isolating and is not normative for many families and cultures," Peace said. "Multi-generational households and extended family caring for children allows for a diversity of connection and support. Polyamorous families and social networks mirror this extended family structure even though they are not related by blood."

"Having three parents when you have a toddler is the best thing that ever happened," remarked one of the participants in Sandy Peace's 2012 study of polyamorous identity development, adding how "the great thing now is that one couple stays home to babysit and the other couple goes out for the evening and then we switch off."

"I've heard many heart-wrenching stories of children being socially ostracized after coming out as having multiple parents to their peers."

Yet despite these advantages, some people in the poly community are resistant to formally "coming out." Over three-quarters of the respondents interviewed by Peace cited instances of social and familial rejection or having negative rumors spread about them as a result of coming out. Others mentioned losing job opportunities or important business connections when their polyamorous identity became public knowledge.  

"Trying to explain the potential social ramifications of coming out as poly to grade school aged children is challenging," said Peace. "I've heard many heart-wrenching stories of children being socially ostracized after coming out as having multiple parents to their peers. Not by the peers, but by parents who disapproved of the friendship once they learned of the family situation."

Golden Blayze argues that the eventual mainstreaming of polyamory could have an unprecedented ripple effect, liberating Americans who feel lost, lonely and unsatisfied by traditional monogamy.

"I personally don't want to be chained to one partner or one way of living, and I think it's important for people to see this example being set, that this is a way you can be," they said. "I don't want to force any particular mode of existence on anybody. However you live, it should be up to you."