Ethical Non-Monogamy

I suppose we should be getting used to changes in marriage by now. Fifty years ago (when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began) ideas like “living in sin” were taken very seriously. Homosexuality was punishable by prison, single mothers had their children forcibly adopted, and sexual liberation was pretty much confined to the aristocracy.

In the twenty-first century, gay marriage is about to become real, the ratio of births outside marriage is about to cross the 50% line, and nobody blinks an eye at casual sex.

But taboos remain. Incest and polygamy are still viewed with horror across the board. I’m not going to say anything here about incest (except, having children with someone you share a grandparent with is a really bad idea), but polyamory is a more pressing issue.

During the parliamentary debates on same-sex marriage, the Labour  MP Jonathan Reynolds, supporting the bill, said said:

Some people have raised the prospect of “polymarriage” between three or more people if this change goes through. I find that objection quite offensive. Comments of that kind degrade the loving relationships of many of my constituents, and I feel that they make a poor contribution to the debate.


while Matthew Offord, opposing the bill, said:

The unintended consequence of the Bill will be allowing the introduction of polygamous marriages, as advocated last night on television by Peter Tatchell. Therefore, I will vote against the Bill on behalf of almost 1,000 of my constituents who have made clear their opposition.


So it’s clear, I think, that ‘polymarriage’ raises hackles all round.

Why is that?

  1. Some of the commentary I’ve seen focuses on polygamy – i.e. one man, several wives. I think it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t what I’m talking about. Rather, polymarriage (to take Jonathan Reynold’s charming coinage) is about a group of people, of whatever mix of genders, who want to enter into a loving relationship, who want their commitment to each other to be recognised, and who want to form a family unit together.
  2. A second, and better, objection is about the legal minefield that awaits when a polymarriage breaks up. I would say this will be a genuine problem – one person leaving a household of three will inevitably be more fraught than two people breaking up. But, if we do ever go down this road, I suspect we will use something like a pre-nup or some dissolution contract to head-off the risks.
  3. On that point, I think it’s very likely that polymarriages will be less stable than monomarriages. In a marriage of four people there are six pairs of relationships going on (not all of them will be sexual or romantic). That’s six times the number of ways for a marriage to break down. Again, we have to look this stuff full in the face and not shirk it. What happens to kids? What happens to joint property and pensions and bank accounts and inheritance? Who gets to stay in the house and who has to move out? But of course, this is just a bigger version of exactly the same issues that plague traditional monogamous relationships when they fall apart. And sometimes it will be cordial and sometimes it will be the war of the Roses.

I declare myself to be prejudiced in favour of poly relationships and their recognition by society. I really don’t care about marriage as such, but it functions as a seal of approval on a choice of life; the fact that person A can marry person B is the legal recognition of the OK-ness of these people loving each other and of them raising children together.

It also allows the law to have some say in how they divide up responsibility for their children, who gets to make medical decisions for whom, who has to (or doesn’t have to) testify against whom in court and lots of other things.

But for me, the reason I want polymarriage is, to stop people treating my relationships as being unimportant. I want ward sisters and police officers and immigration officials and my children’s teachers to accept that these people go together and can’t be arbitrarily broken up and treated separately.

So when the person I love is sick or in trouble I can’t be sent away and told it’s none of my business.

Further Reading:

Why Is Polygamy Illegal? by Wendy Kaminer

Good reasons why polygamy is a bad idea. by John Durant

The Secular Case For Plural Marriage. by Bret Alan

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