The rise of the polyamorous relationship

I like to think of myself as quite a forward-thinking kind of person. But one thing I only discovered last week was that of the polyamorous relationship.

For those unaware, a polyamorous relationship is one in which an individual is committed to more than one person, with the knowledge of all partners involved. While similar, it’s not to be confused with an open relationship, in which both partners are allowed to have sexual relations with other people, but still remain ‘committed’ to each other. Polyamorous relationships, that is, the practice of polyamory, is not illegal in the UK. However, bigamy, the practice of marrying someone while already married to another person, is illegal under English law.

As you can probably tell, the specifics of it all are rather complicated. But despite its confusing nature, polyamorous relationships have seen a surge of popularity in recent years, and as such have emerged into the public sphere, to mixed opinions to say the least.

Like all things to do with relationships, humankind has always been slow to accept change. Black people fought tooth and nail for equal rights, including the right to marry a white woman or man. Many countries around the world now legally recognise that a man can love a man and get married if they so wish, and the same applies to a woman that loves a woman. And while we still have a way to go, people have slowly become more accepting of trans rights in that a man can become a woman and still choose to love who they want, and vice versa.

All these changes took a long amount of time and effort to break down old fears and stereotypes. Are polyamorous relationships not just the next step in our understanding and acceptance of what a relationship can actually be, and who can love who?

Perhaps they are, and deep down, I do want to believe so. But there is something fundamentally different between those fighting for recognition and acceptance of polyamory, compared to all those who have come before. Be you black, gay, lesbian or trans, people have often been united in their belief of monogamy in that they could choose to love who they want, but that commitment was only to one person.

Finding someone who reciprocates your love is difficult because relationships are not meant to be easy. They are a complicated mix of joy, happiness, pain and heartbreak. Yet we go through many in order to find the person we want to spend our lives with. Polyamorous relationships takes this idea and throws it out the window.

That’s not to say they don’t come with their own share of complications. Jealousy is one of humanity's nastier traits, yet it is perhaps one of the traits that really defines us as humans. Jealousy is an issue in monogamous relationships – to pretend they aren’t an even bigger issue in polyamorous relationships is just foolish.  

In a recent BBC Scotland documentary titled ‘Love Unlimited’, a number of people in polyamorous relationships were interviewed. One of these people is a young man called Oliver. Oliver explains he is in a polyamorous relationship with Noni and Morgan. Oliver and Morgan are not in love, yet they both love Noni. Their relationship is spent around taking turns seeing her.

"It wasn't that it was a problem, it was more the idea 'could this become a problem?," he says.

"Because when you start off seeing someone it is one thing but as it gets increasingly serious there was the question of 'I'm fine with it now but could I become jealous? Could I start seeing this differently?

"But then I just decided I liked Noni and to just go with it.”

I’m all for taking a leap of faith in the name of love, but Oliver, you just jumped into the lion’s den.

It may appear strange to many of us, but polyamory is actually a relatively common practice globally. It’s actually legal in 58 countries around the world. However, many of these countries are Muslim-majority countries.

While not all of Islam practices or encourages polyamory, it is still prevalent in many places such as Morocco, Afghanistan and Iran. It is also taken one step further, in that polygyny is permitted – the act of having more than one wife at a time. According to the Channel 4 documentary ‘The Man With Many Wives’, it is believed that there are up to 20,000 polygamous marriages in the Muslim community of the UK. 

However, just because Islam permits it, doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable. Are women allowed the same rights in that they can have multiple husbands? No, because polyandry is strictly forbidden in Islamic culture.

While polyamorous relationships in Islamic countries are unlikely to change, the future of them in the UK remains uncertain. Perhaps in time, they will become as acceptable as everything else that we have come to accept. Until that time though, I’ll stick with monogamy.