In February, Robert McGarey's partner of 24 years died. It was the most devastating loss McGarey had ever encountered, and yet, there was a silver lining: "I had this profound sadness, but I don't feel lonely," McGarey told me. "I'm not without support, I'm not without companionship."
That's because he has other partners: Jane, who he's been with for 16 years, and Mary, who he's been with for eight. (Those are not their real names.) And while his grief for Pam, the girlfriend who died, was still immense, polyamory helped him deal with it.
There's not a lot of research into how poly families cope with death—probably because there's not a lot of research about how poly families choose to live. By rough estimates, there are several million poly people in the United States. And while polyamory can bring people tremendous benefits in life and in death, our social and legal systems weren't designed to deal with people with more than one romantic partner—so when one person dies, it can usher in a slew of complicating legal and emotional problems.
"Whether people realize it or not, the partner to whom they are married will have more benefits and rights once a death happens," explained Diana Adams, who runs a boutique law firm that practices "traditional and non-traditional family law with support for positive beginnings and endings of family relationships."
Since married partners rights' trump everyone else's, the non-married partners don't automatically have a say in end-of-life decisions, funeral arrangements, or inheritance. That's true for non-married monogamous relationships, too, but the problem can be exacerbated in polyamorous relationships where partners are not disclosed or acknowledged by family members. In her work, Adams has seen poly partners get muscled out of hospital visits and hospice by family members who refused to recognize a poly partner as a legitimate partner.
McGarey and his girlfriend Pam weren't married, so the decision to take her off life support had to go through Pam's two sisters. The money Pam left behind—which McGarey would've inherited had they been married—went to her sisters too, who also organized Pam's funeral.
This kind of power struggle can also happen among multiple partners who have all been romantically involved with the deceased. The only real way to ensure that everything is doled out evenly is to draft up a detailed prenuptial agreement and estate plan. Adams works with clients to employ "creative estate planning" to ensure that other partners are each acknowledged and taken care of.
Adams is a big proponent of structured mediation as a way of minimizing post-mortem surprises, like when families discover the existence of mysterious extra-marital partners in someone's will. It's much better to have those conversations in life than on someone's deathbed, or after death.
But many poly people remain closeted in life and in death, according to sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, who has studied polyamorous families for 15 years and authored The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. A person might have a public primary partner—someone they're married to, for example—plus other private relationships. That can make it harder to grieve when one of the non-primary partners dies, because others don't recognize the relationship as "real" or legitimate in the way the death of a spouse might be.
Take, for example, something like an employee bereavement policy. Guidelines from the Society for Human Resource Management spell out the length of time off given in the event of the death of a loved one: a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, in-laws, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Unsurprisingly, extra-marital boyfriend or girlfriend is not on the list. (Actually, "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" aren't on the list at all.) It's possible for an employee to explain unique circumstances to an employer, but in her research, Sheff has found that some poly people prefer not to "out" themselves this way. People still disapprove of extra-marital affairs and some poly people, according to Sheff, have even lost their jobs from being outed, due to corporate "morality clauses."
It's similar, she says, to the experiences of same-sex couples who are closeted. "It's much less so now because they're more acknowledged and recognized, but 20 years ago, it was routine for [the family of the deceased] to muscle out the partner and ignore their wishes—even if [the deceased] hadn't seen their family for years and years," Sheff said. "They would come and descend on the funeral and take over. Or when the person was in the ICU. That same vulnerability that gays and lesbians have moved away from to some extent is still potentially very problematic for polyamorous people."
Legal recognition of polyamorous unions could provide some relief. After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, calls for legalizing plural marriage have only become louder. Adams noted that an argument put forth in Chief Justice John Roberts's 2015 dissent may provide a legal foothold for legalization advocates. "As Roberts points out, if there's going to be a rejection of some of the traditional man-woman elements of marriage… those same arguments could easily be applied to three or four-person unions," she said in an interview with US News & World Report earlier this year.
In 2006, Melissa Hall's husband Paul died at the age of 52. Both were polyamorous, but Paul's death presented "no special problems," since they were legally married and Hall had all the rights of a spouse. Instead, she found unexpected benefits in dealing with her husband's death: In particular, she told me that "being poly made it easier to love again." Since they had both dated other people during their life together, Hall knew her husband's death wouldn't stop her from dating again.
In traditional relationships, it's not uncommon for people to impose dating restrictions on themselves to honor the desires of their dead spouses, or to feel guilty when they start dating again. Of course, you don't win if you don't date either, as people eventually get on your case to "move on with your life." All this goes out the window when you're polyamorous, where dating doesn't necessarily signal the end of an arbitrary acceptable period of mourning.
More partners in a relationship can certainly mean more support. It can also mean more people dying, and with that comes more grief. In an article about loss among polys published in the polyamory magazine Loving More, one man wrote: "Those of us who have practiced polyamory through our lifetime must be grateful for the abundance of love in our lives. But having those wonderful other loves means we must accept a little more grieving as well, when our times come."
Is the trade off worth it? McGarey certainly seems to think so. "There is more grieving, but… we are held and cradled in the love of other people at the same time."
He compares his relationship to the Disney movie Up, which starts with a guy falling in love and marrying his childhood sweetheart. "And then [she] dies, and he turns into this grumpy old man because he lost his love," McGarey said. "I don't see myself turning into a grumpy old man. I don't know if I can attribute that to poly, but maybe that's why."
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