Updated Feb 15, 2024 - Health

Polyamory gets more attention and legal protection

Illustration of three single red roses, each with a red ribbon tied in a bow.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When it comes to love, more people are considering options other than monogamy.

Why it matters: Media coverage, a buzzy new memoir and shows like "Couple to Throuple" are bringing polyamory into mainstream conversations, but limited laws are only beginning to protect people from the stigma that can come with being in relationships with more than one person.

  • One major factor that led to this moment: the pandemic.
  • An already increased interest in nonmonogomy grew during lockdown, when people had more time to consider their sexual identities and what they wanted out of relationships, says Ana Kirova, CEO of sex-positive dating app Feeld.

Daters more open to polyamory

By the numbers: Data is limited on the prevalence of polyamory — and surveys differ in how they ask about relationship preferences — but there seems to be an uptick in openness to polyamory.

  • About one-third of polled American singles say they've had a consensually nonmonogamous relationship, according to Match's 2024 Singles in America study — and a slightly higher proportion described their ideal relationship as something other than complete monogamy in a 2023 YouGov survey.
  • Feeld's seen a 500% increase over the last three years in the number of app users including the terms "ethically nonmonogamous" and "polyamorous" in their profiles, Kirova says.
  • 33% of current OkCupid users said they'd consider an open relationship, up from 27% in 2014. And there was a 45% increase in profile mentions of terms relating to nonmonogamy between 2021 and 2023, the company tells Axios.

Meanwhile, infidelity is a leading cause of divorce for monogamous couples.

Polyamory isn't polygamy

Be smart: Polyamory is not the same as polygamy.

  • Polygamy is a relationship structure in which one person is married to multiple spouses, and the relationships are often patriarchal and rooted in religious fundamentalism. Meanwhile, polyamory is a relationship structure in which there are multiple partners, and typically the relationships are non-hierarchical and consensual.
  • "Ethical nonmonogamy" is more of an umbrella term for sex or relationships in which there's consent with multiple partners.

Stigma and challenges

Yes, but: There's harmful stigma that can be associated with consensual nonmonogamy and also limited laws protecting and supporting people in these relationships.

Zoom in: Mary Anne Mohanraj, a clinical associate professor and writer who identifies as poly, says she considered getting married — and also divorced — primarily to use benefits reserved for monogamous married couples.

  • Mohanraj says she and her primary partner were in a "threesome" with an Australian woman for years, and thought that, were they married, they might need to divorce for visa reasons: for the third partner to be brought into the country, Mohanraj or her primary partner would have to marry her.
  • Later, more than 20 years into their relationship, Mohanraj's primary partner did become her husband for health reasons: She had breast cancer and wanted him to be able to legally make decisions regarding her care.

Misconceptions about polyamory

Zoom out: Perceptions about polyamory have evolved, but there are still many misconceptions about it in a society that has long prioritized monogamous marriage.

  • As care communities have gotten smaller and marriages have evolved from being primarily an economic contract to a relationship more about love and even the pursuit of self-actualization, more people are recognizing that one spouse can't meet all of their needs, says Heath Schechinger, co-founder of Modern Family Institute and the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. Some of those people are turning to polyamory.
  • For the record: Polyamorous relationships are typically not just about sex. "[It's] multiple loving relationships with the consent and understanding of everyone involved," says Kitty Chambliss, a relationship coach who specializes in the polyamorous community and identifies as poly.
  • That said, polyamory isn't the answer for everyone, particularly not for those trying to "save" their primary relationship, says sex educator Emily Nagoski.

Polyamory laws

What happening: Massachusetts leads the way when it comes to adopting laws acknowledging and protecting polyamorous relationships.

  • Somerville, Cambridge and Arlington allow for more than two people to be in domestic partnerships.
  • Somerville and Cambridge also have laws protecting polyamorous and other non-nuclear family relationships from discrimination in employment and more.

What's next: There's emerging legal progress for nontraditional families elsewhere in the U.S.

  • Last year, a New York City judge broke legal precedent to protect the rights of polyamorous partners in an eviction court case.
  • And this week, California cities Berkeley and Oakland are introducing family and relationship structure nondiscrimination bills, representatives from PLAC tell Axios.

What they're saying: "As a millennial living in Oakland … I know plenty of people who are polyamorous but wouldn't say that out loud," says Oakland councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who says she's the first LGBTQ woman of color to serve on the council.

  • Ramachandran plans to introduce the nondiscrimination ordinance protecting diverse family and relationship structures to the rules committee Thursday, she tells Axios.
  • She hopes it could lead to a "waterfall effect" and encourage school districts and even the state legislation to protect all kinds of families.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say Mary Anne Mohanraj and her primary partner (not yet her husband) were in a long-term relationship with an Australian woman.

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