I did an interview via email with the lovely Pamela Cortez-Roemer on polyamory for Marie Claire Latin America. Below is my edited transcript of the interview in English. You can read the interview in Spanish here.
Marie Claire: Why does polyamory work for some people and not for others? Do individuals who opt for this type of relationships share some common psychological traits?
Diana: Unlike many people who endorse polyamory, I don’t think polyamory can work for everyone. People who are polyamorous tend to be high on “openness to experience”, a personality characteristic that means you are interested in new and interesting ideas challenging the status quo. Openness to experience is high in people who are artists, writers or philosophers; these are the kinds of people who often practice polyamory. Openness to experience can also manifest in that you desire the freedom to explore many different kinds of relationships with a variety of people and that you don’t feel like you have to adhere to established relationship types. I don’t want to make openness to experience sound like it’s always great. Going against tradition, inventing new ways of living and accepting many new ideas have serious pitfalls- oftentimes the status quo is there because it works better for most people than the alternatives. I also know people who are very high in openness to experience who engage in more traditional relationships because they believe in the wisdom of tradition.
On average people who are polyamorous are more sexually motivated or interested in sexual variety than the average person. This doesn’t mean everyone is. For example I know people who are polyamorous precisely because they’re not that interested in sex (e.g. Slate Star Codex here) and want their partners to be able to have their needs fulfilled elsewhere.
In order to be successfully polyamorous, you have to be committed to communicating openly and honestly with everyone you’re involved with. You should also try to have an objective perspective on your own feelings. You have to be able to reflect on why you feel the way you do in order to understand or change your feelings. Overall, I think there are different characteristics that might make people want to try polyamory versus people who can actually make it work while maintaining a stable long-term relationship.
MC: Why is it important that we talk about alternatives to monogamy now?
Diana: Monogamy has been the default relationship structure in Western societies for hundreds of years. Many people are happily monogamous and there is a “technology of monogamy” – books, wisdom from parents and relatives, movies and other places where people talk about how to make monogamy work. Now, more and more people are trying alternatives to monogamy. This could be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps religion has a weaker hold on society. Perhaps people live longer than ever making committing to one person for a lifetime seem less realistic. Regardless of the reasons it seems that over 5% of people are now trying some kind of alternative to monogamy. There’s also evidence that people who are in nonmonogamous relationships are as happy and fulfilled as people in monogamous relationships. Sexual and romantic relationships are central to happiness and life satisfaction and are often the greatest cause of distress and suffering. It’s important to talk about alternatives to monogamy now so that people can be informed about the kinds of relationships they could engage in and how to make them work. At the moment people who are not monogamous are navigating all the possible ways of having relationships without much guidance. By talking about alternatives to monogamy we can discover what kinds of relationship structures are most stable, happy and successful for the people involved.
MC: What’s the explanation that evolutionary psychology gives to polyamory, as it goes against some evolved emotions like jealousy and territoriality that humans developed as adaptive functions?
Diana: The most common mating pattern throughout the world and over time actually isn’t monogamy, it’s polygyny. In polygynous societies a few men will have multiple wives whereas most men will only have one wife. It looks like women have been sharing men with other women for thousands of years. If you look back further at other primates, very few of them are monogamous and our closest primate relatives are either polygynous (gorillas) or promiscuous (bonobos). Looking at cultures around the world and nonhuman animals you don’t find one “natural” form of mating but many different ways of having sexual relationships. Most alternatives to monogamy can be found in some human culture. Polyamory is natural in the sense that many humans throughout evolutionary history have had more than one love or lovers at the same time. What makes polyamory different is honesty, openness and consent – modern moral ideals are being applied to one natural form of human mating.
Jealousy is a serious problem to overcome- the common evolutionary explanation for emotional jealousy is that it evolved to prevent partners from leaving us or diverting their attention and resources to someone else. This diversion of resources has been a greater problem for women, and thus we see somewhat more emotional jealousy in women. Sexual jealousy is more pronounced in men because it means another man could get his partner pregnant and he would be using his attention and resources to foster another man’s genes. You see that both forms of jealousy really come down to resources and offspring investment.
I know a few people who are naturally never jealous but most people experience jealousy at least some of the time. Overcoming most of your jealousy is difficult and it’s impossible to overcome jealousy completely. However, I believe most people are capable of overcoming some of their jealousy and making it less painful.. Consider a similar change in society- societies now are more peaceful and less violent than ever before when violence and aggression have always been part of our primate and human history.
Why would it be more difficult to overcome jealousy than the motivation to aggress against others? There are many reasons- jealousy is a more private emotion, many people consider jealousy a virtue and perhaps jealousy is harder to circumvent than other emotions. But I think that understanding it from an evolutionary perspective can help. In my personal life, an evolutionary perspective has been the best way for me to overcome my own jealousy.
MC: Polyamory is nothing new. Still, in western cultures so-called monogamy with sporadic infidelities has prevailed. Tell us a bit about the growth tendency of polyamory and your expectations for the future.
Diana: Figures on the percentage of people who are in consensually non monogamous relationships are not known for certain but this study showed around 5% were willing to say they were nonmonogamous. In my view, the books about consensual nonmonogamy thus far haven’t really delved into the evolutionary psychology of hindrances to polyamory like jealousy or what kinds of relationship structures tend to be the most stable. I expect that more people are going to try alternative relationship structures to monogamy but I don’t expect nonmonogamous people are going to become a majority.
MC: How does polyamory usually work? Is there a primary partner and different lovers or people integrate new elements to the relationship on the same level?
Diana: There haven’t really been studies about how polyamory works for most people [note: please let me know if there has been any update on this] but there are types of polyamory or open relationships that seem more common. Hierarchical polyamory is where a person has a partner that is central to their lives often known as a “primary” and then other partners sometimes known as “secondary” or “tertiary” partners. If you were moving to a different city and you told your different partners your primary partner would say “when are we moving?” your secondary partner would say “when can I visit?” and your tertiary partner might say “I’ll miss you!”. Some people don’t like the idea of a hierarchical structure defining one partner as more important or central than another.
Nonhierarchical polyamory and relationship anarchy are other models that span a wide range of approaches from having rules but not labeling any one relationship as more important or central to any other all the way to totally rejecting rules, hierarchy or definitions for your relationships. In my view hierarchical polyamory is more stable and secure than nonhierarchical poly or relationship anarchy. I think hierarchical polyamory is a better choice for people who are engaging in serious relationships or who have families.
There are also people who call themselves “solo poly” who are uninterested in a primary relationship and prefer to date a few people while being honest with all those involved. Solo poly is more honest than just “dating around” and is probably the easiest way to make poly work since it’s just being single and honest. I also think it’s solo poly is more mature, healthy and emotionally nurturing than hooking up.
MC: What are the typical myths of polyamory?
Diana: Most commonly people say you can’t really love someone if you want to be involved sexually or romantically with others. Or they might say real love means that one person isn’t enough. This idea might come from the notion that you have to sacrifice other relationship opportunities in order to demonstrate your commitment. People see romantic relationships and sexual relationships as fundamentally different from other kinds of relationships. I would never expect someone to be “friend monogamous” with me and not have lunch with anyone else. Nor would I think that a friend of mine who decided to have other friends didn’t love me or value their relationship with me. It’s difficult to say how much of this is cultural and how much of this comes from our evolved psychology. It makes sense that we are more interested in monopolizing someone in a sexual/romantic relationship, the stakes of reproduction and care for offspring are much higher. There is some preliminary evidence that consensually non monogamous people are as happy as those who are monogamous. Evidence also shows that nonmonogamous people are more likely to have safe sex and not more likely to have sexually transmitted infections.
MC: How has technology —from search engines to apps like Tinder and OKCupid— helped to promote polyamory?
Diana: Meeting people who might be interested in you has become a lot easier with the advent of online dating. Tinder makes it easy to meet people who you might find attractive but doesn’t give you much more information about them so I don’t think Tinder is more useful for people who are polyamorous than it is for regular single people. OKCupid on the other hand will tell you directly if someone is in an existing relationship and has many questions that can inform you about whether someone is open to open relationships. Polyamorous people tend to introduce their partners to each other and their friends which makes social networks possible that have different and more open norms and standards than your average friend group.
MC: What are the main challenges that polyamorous individuals face (in terms of family, society and their relationships)?
Diana: Some people, especially those in small towns and cities, have difficulty with others’ accepting their relationship choices. There are polyamorous people who live in conservative areas or who are in professional and political circles who are closeted. The public who display moral outrage about cheating often have similar feelings about people who are not monogamous. More rarely, someone polyamorous can have their children removed by the state or in a bitter divorce dispute polyamory can be used as evidence for the case that one parent is “unfit”. In less cosmopolitan areas it can be difficult to find a partner who doesn’t mind dating someone who is already dating someone else. In terms of relationships, as I said before, there is a technology of monogamy and people have some idea of what works and what doesn’t. At the moment people are finding their own way through navigating polyamorous relationships without much guidance and often without knowing very many other polyamorous people. There are websites, online forums and other places where people can share their experiences and solutions but, in my opinion, these kinds of places usually give you more options than answers.
MC: Now, what are the benefits of polyamory?
Diana: Engaging with people romantically and sexually is thrilling and a great source of pleasure, satisfaction and adventure in most people’s lives. One of the things I love about being polyamorous is learning new things from people I date who I get to know better and spend more time with than friends. People in monogamous relationships often see their social networks shrink both because they have less time to spend with their friends but also because jealousy reduces the freedom they have to spend time with opposite sex friends or in places where they could meet other people who might threaten their relationship. In my experience, polyamorous people have larger social networks both because they have more freedom but also because they connect with the social networks of people that they date. In monogamous relationships people often take their partner for granted and forget why they felt attracted to them and fell in love. In polyamorous relationships you are reminded of how desirable your partner is and can even learn new things about your partner to love by seeing them interact with their other partners. Finally, strategies that need to be employed to do polyamory successfully like honest and open communication, being physically and psychologically attractive to others and self awareness about jealousy and other negative emotions can make your relationships and other aspects of your life better.
MC: Each case is different, but how would parenthood work in a polyamorous relationship? Would it be ok to openly talk about it with the kid and make it part of his/her daily life?
Diana: I’ve talked about how having multiple partners and monogamy are both “natural” mating strategies. Isolated nuclear families, on the other hand, are profoundly unnatural compared to a long history in which children interacted with a variety of other adults and other children. Polyamory can create a more natural form of raising children than an isolated nuclear family since people have closer relationships with their lovers and see them more frequently than ordinary friends. Polyamory can facilitate more shared childcare and friendships between children whose parents are dating.
Most polyamorous parents I know they are open and honest; without outside moralizing, most children have no problems with this. In places where open relationships are accepted this honesty about polyamory can work well but in more conservative areas children can be teased or shamed about their parents. When I was a kid, I didn’t know any other kids whose parents were polyamorous, but I definitely heard kids say lots of mean things to other kids about their parents being gay or promiscuous. In the worst case scenarios the stigmatization of polyamory and open relationships can cause bullying or even discrimination from authorities or school systems.
Look at the anthropological literature and you can see that there are many different ways that children grow up. In some cultures, children interact with dozens of unrelated adults who serve as caregivers, in others, children after weaning are mostly left with other children with very little adult supervision and in our culture, children are expected to form a special or even exclusively attached relationship with their parents. In our culture, like in many other cultures, many people think children can’t grow up healthy unless they are raised within narrow traditional parameters. Popular psychology tells us that if children don’t form a solid attachment to their parents or develop attachments to other adults that are unstable, it will somehow damage them. I don’t think this holds up to scrutiny when we know that children are resilient to many different forms of upbringing worldwide. It doesn’t even hold up to scrutiny if we think about how many children are in daycare or living in blended families. Moreover, behavioral genetics has shown that so long as a child isn’t neglected or abused, parenting style doesn’t really influence outcomes. Right now there are perhaps millions of kids growing up in polygynous families throughout Africa and the Middle East and I don’t imagine that having the attention of more than one maternal figure is traumatizing them in any way. “What about the children?” is a dumb way that people try to score political points against everyone from neotraditionalists to polyamorists.
MC: Gay men are more likely than heterosexual couples, lesbians, or bisexuals to practice consensual non-monogamy. What can you tell us about it?
Diana: Men tend to be more interested in sexual variety than women are. This is apparent in apps like Grindr. Evolutionary psychologists see men’s desire for sexual variety as limited by women and when men have sex with other men this desire is not curtailed in the same way. Because men understand the desire for sexual variety they often make arrangements for open or polyamorous relationships. Since the HIV epidemic of the 80s, open and honest communication about sexual contact also became more important. It’s much better for a man to be honest with his partner about outside sexual contacts, especially if they involve unprotected sex, than lying to his partner because of a monogamous commitment.
MC: Tell us a bit about your own experience
note:I wrote this when I was still in a long distance relationship with Geoffrey Miller and living in the UK. We’re married and live in the same house now.
Diana: I’ve been in monogamous, open and polyamorous relationships throughout my life. I’ve always tried to make relationships that will work well for me where I am in life. I never saw every person I dated as a serious romantic possibility or thought that being in a serious relationship was necessary to spend time with someone (see also, relationship escalator). Just like you can have friends who play specific roles in your life so too can you have lovers who enrich your life in specific ways. Studying psychology I learned a lot about jealousy and its evolutionary function, to help you hold on to a mate. When you understand jealousy you can become desensitized to it. When you don’t feel strong jealousy strict monogamy doesn’t seem necessary and you can begin to see all the benefits that come from opening up, benefits that jealousy made you unable to see. While I could be monogamous again for a few months or years I could never see myself being exclusive with one other person for the rest of my life. I date men and women and really enjoy my personal life including all the friendships and knowledge I’ve gained through my romantic partners. At the moment I’m polyamorous and have a primary partner. We are incredibly compatible and deeply in love. Because I love him so much I want him to be able to enjoy spending time with other people, especially when I can’t be with him . Because we’re so compatible I don’t worry that I’ll be “replaced” by anyone else because I know our connection is incredibly unique. In my view we often expect the one person we are in a relationship with to provide us with everything romantically and sexually that we could possibly need or want. This puts a lot of pressure on the relationship and stress on your partner. For me polyamory means I get more pleasure and fulfillment in my social life. In turn, my partners have the freedom to express themselves and enjoy themselves with others. In polyamorous networks there is incredible closeness and intimacy because of open and honest communication but also through affection for “metamours” the partners of your partner who bring them pleasure and love.