Are Young People Really More Open to Polyamory or Do We Just Like to Cheat?
Some have said hookup culture is muddying the waters of what it means to be in a monogamous relationship. But is that necessarily true?
Image by Zoë Ligon
"We live in the generation of not being in love, and not being together. But it sure feels like we're together, 'cause we're scared to see each other with somebody else."
Drake said that nearly five years ago. He was right then, and the wisdom holds up today. The lyric is especially relevant to my life and the lives of my peers who like to post Instagram photos with sappy Tumblr captions, because my generation's defining romantic issue is simple: we all hate to be heartbroken, yet we're all probably breaking somebody else's heart in the process.
This age of youth—the blasted millennials—have been tagged by the media as "polyamorous": a compulsion for sleeping with and/or dating multiple people. Some people swear by it—they like to say that it's about "returning to human nature," to a time before the image of Western marriage came along and suckered us all into believing in true love and De Beers diamonds. Others think it's just an excuse to cheat, a byproduct of a generation too gung-ho on fucking on the first date.
There aren't good numbers (or really any data at all) that supports a correlation between the rise in poly relationships with the birth of the oh-so-loathed millennial generation, but it's hard to argue that the popularity of apps like Tinder and Grindr aren't a sign of the times. What isn't totally accepted yet, however, is how to deal with the jealousy that comes along with that rabid desire for multiple partners, or how that carries over into an actual relationship.
VICE reached out to Jillian Deri, a sex sociologist and professor at Simon Fraser University. Deri authored a book called Love's Refraction, which focuses on how polyamorous couples deal with jealousy and learn to love their partner loving other people. We talked about why my peers seem so compelled to cheat, and whether whippersnappers like myself are truly ready to take the plunge into open relationships.
VICE: How would you describe what polyamory is?
Jillian Deri: It's useful to distinguish between a poly relationship and a non-monogamous relationship. People who are poly tend to have emotional connections to more than one person, as opposed to people who are just dating around. People who are generally monogamous in their heart and are just dating around until they settle down are not necessarily poly, because poly people tend to want friendships, deep connections, or potentially love with multiple people.
Is there any evidence that shows there are people who are able to turn off their jealousy alarms off and have open relationships without the conflicting emotions we associate with monogamy?
Definitely, there's lots of people who've done so, we just don't have any studies to really back it up. In my [research], jealousy can range from a slight tinge of uneasiness to full on emotional upset. The theory that I particularly honed in was a word called "compersion," a word coined by polyamorous people to mean the opposite of jealousy. It's when a partner actually feels pleasure by their partner's other love. It's interesting that the English dictionary doesn't have an official word for this—the only potential outcome that we know of in Western society of you being with somebody else is jealous.
A good way to understand it is when your sibling or your parent does really well, you feel happy for them—probably, unless you feel jealous! [laughs] That's what compersion is. I studied how poly people make compersion possible in relationships.
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This idea of compersion: Is it something that is learned or are some people more prone to have less jealous personalities?
Who knows? It could be based upon individual relationships and how secure you feel. You might be with somebody who makes you fiery with jealousy, and another person who just makes you feel secure. Often it has to do with the power dynamic and where the relationship is going or if there's potential for growth. There's also a range of how people feel jealousy—some people can work through it and feel compersion more than they were accustomed to. At the start of a relationship or at the end of relationship, we tend to be more jealous because we wonder how the other person feels or if they've lost interest.
A lot of talk around people my age is that monogamy is unnatural because it's so difficult to maintain. It almost takes a higher level of commitment and self-awareness to stay with one person. Would you say being non-monogamous is closer to human nature?
That's an interesting question. I think it's very individual. A lot of times, when we say monogamy, we make a lot of assumptions about the boundary of that. You know, things like: you will never fantasize about anybody else, you will never look at anybody else, you will never be attracted to anybody but your partner. I don't think that monogamous relationships work like that—where one person fills all those categories.
What's more natural? I'm really not sure, it wouldn't be fair to say that we're not socialized from birth. If you grow up with a strict religious background, it can change what your truth is for romance and sex. There's no exact nature or nurture that applies to everybody. With that said, the fact that a majority of humanity has not been monogamous and, even in the animal kingdom, we see the same thing, makes me inclined to think that we're not meant to be strictly monogamous.
Do you find that those who attempt to transition to or try poly/open relationships feel that their relationships are healthier because cheating is no longer a huge issue?
I think the dialogue of exactly what you're feeling and where those boundaries are is useful for any relationship. If an attraction is taboo, it's only going to get bigger. If you can say or admit to and talk about it, you can actually neutralize that. A lot of monogamous relationships break up because somebody gets attracted to somebody else and they can't find a way to deal with it, so they grow resentful. The person their tied to becomes the issue.
People think that if you look elsewhere [in monogamy], it represents your lack of love for that person. That's dangerous, because it can ruin a real connection and bond. I'd think you'd be less tempted to cheat if you could be open with others about your attractions. In poly, cheating is breaking a rule, it's not necessarily sexual exclusivity.
Almost everybody I know that's tried an open relationship has failed because somebody starts getting jealous of how many people their partner is hooking up with compared to them. Is that a common trend in poly relationships?
Not necessarily, it's something that requires planning and maturity. One partner might want to have three dates a week, and the other might just want have one a month. It usually causes more problems when you set a default, because then they feel like they have to move at a pace that's either too slow or fast for one person. There can be a difference as long as both people are pleased with.
There are a lot of things that can come up in poly relationships, but I think time and jealousy are the hardest things poly people deal with. It takes a lot of time: not only the dates, but the communication around it.
Do you think that aspect is what scares people away from trying to be in an open relationship?
Certainly. It takes more time and forethought, which comes with some anxiety, but that's not new territory. There's so many benefits. It takes off a lot of the stress that comes with worrying about serial monogamy and labels, and it satisfies that curiosity that millennials, as you mentioned, tend to have. It's an option that works, especially in a culture with so many options, so much availability, so much Tindering. It can be really hard to focus, and we like to be able to have control.
Zoë is a sex educator and visual artist residing in Detroit, MI. Check out her website.
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