The Case Against Polyamory

It’s not wrong so much as a waste of time.

“I need to find a girlfriend. How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours?”
~Elon Musk

Polyamory or non-monogamy is the practice of being in multiple emotionally and sexually intimate relationships at one time, without hiding these other relationships from one’s other partner(s). In other words, completely consensually.

Practitioners of polyamory frequently argue that this way of living is superior to monogamy, not only for them as unique individuals with peculiar tastes, but as a general way of life for human beings.

After all, most marriages end in divorce, many that don’t are unhappy, and people are frequently “cheating” on their monogamous partners. Cheating in particular causes problems in the view of the polyamorist primarily because it is done secretly, involving lying and manipulating.

There is no doubt as to these problems — the question is only whether polyamory is a good solution. In this article I will consider polyamory as ideology, the notion that monogamy is inherently flawed and polyamory is the solution, for all or most human beings (not to be confused with the notion of an individual sexually identifying as polyamorous, with no particular judgment towards the monogamous majority, or considering it a lifestyle that is not for everyone).

Monogamy Isn’t Natural?

One argument in favor of polyamory is that monogamy is unnatural for human beings. We see this sort of argument often bolstered by ideas from evolutionary psychology, comparisons with bonobos who live in a more “free love” community than most humans, or more insidiously with evolutionary adaptations that have taken place to ensure competitiveness amongst sperm from different men inside of one woman (so-called “sperm wars”).

This argument fails due to the naturalistic fallacy. Cyanide, war, and polio virus are all natural, but not good. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it is good.

Furthermore, humans have never lived polyamorously— in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, it’s monogamy with cheating, and this cheating causes a great deal of suffering such as in determining paternity.

Of course, just because it’s never existed before doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or that we shouldn’t pursue it — that would also be the naturalistic fallacy. All progress in human civilization depends on doing unnatural things. Perhaps polyamory is a radically new, but radically better way of living.

Because it Feels Good

One ethical case for polyamory lies in Hedonism. By Hedonism I don’t mean orgies and drugs and rock and roll, I mean the ethical philosophy that “what’s good is what feels good.” This can be more gross, as in the orgiastic pleasures of indulgence, or more subtle, as in weighing long term vs. short term pleasures and pursuing sustainable pleasures, seeking more subtle pleasures such as art and community, and considering the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of beings.

Most polyamorists are not gross hedonists. This is why practitioners of non-monogamy frequently talk about how it’s not about sex. But yet it is also definitely about sex, otherwise it would just be about monogamy + friendships, which monogamists already engage in. What they mean is that it’s not only about sex, it’s also about the intimacy surrounding sex.

But importantly, polyamory isn’t only about sex because polyamory requires much more time and energy investment than monogamy, or even monogamy with cheating. This time investment primarily occurs in the form of processing: talking about feelings, negotiating jealousy, creating rules, discussing safer sex, and so on.

In other words, hedonist polyamorists believe they receive a net balance of pleasure, mostly from the subtle pleasures of having deeply intimate (and yes sexual) connections with multiple people.

But is polyamory actually a net benefit in terms of pleasure?

It Often Feels Bad

Sex feels good, so an ethical Hedonist should aim to have a lot of it. Having multiple partners is a great way to increase pleasure from sex, due to novelty increasing pleasure. But doing this openly requires a lot more time having uncomfortable, emotional conversations. These conversations are very much not pleasurable, in fact they are often the most painful part of any relationship, monogamous or not.

As it turns out, most people do not naturally feel compersion, i.e. good feelings when hearing about your partner talk about being emotionally and sexually intimate with their other partner(s). Most people instead feel jealous, insecure, angry, sad, and so on.

Some polyamorists believe these unpleasant feelings are entirely culturally conditioned and unnatural or alternatively, unevolved. This complicates both compassion and self-compassion because these feelings are seen as “bad” and in need of removal. Others believe simply that these feelings, while completely natural, can be worked out with enough conversation.

Since maintaining a monogamous commitment is a lot of work for many people, given that their desires for sex and intimacy don’t necessarily line up with their commitments, polyamorists conclude that pursuing these desires openly will bring about more pleasure. But this pursuit of pleasure comes at a cost that might be greater than its benefits, especially if it is not possible to eliminate unpleasant feelings of insecurity, jealousy, anger, and so on in response to one’s partner having intimate relationships with others.

Because it’s Right

A different case for polyamory lies in moral duties. In this case the argument is conditional: if you are going to have emotional and sexual intimate relationships with multiple people at once, you ought to do so in a way that is consensual and open.

This is absolutely correct, except it bypasses the question as to whether one should engage in multiple intimate relationships simultaneously. So this moral rule is more an argument against cheating than an argument for polyamory.

For instance, there could be a similar rule for doing heroin: if you are going to use heroin, you ought to do so with a clean needle. This is not an argument for heroin being a part of the good life, but an argument against sharing of needles.

One Person Can’t Meet All Your Needs?

One argument for polyamory is that “one person can’t be expected to meet all your needs.” This is an argument against the current notion of monogamous marriage, that the standard for marriage is now too high.

Marriage used to be arranged for political, social, and economic reasons primarily, with no expectations of love or happiness. Today marriage is assumed to be for love, companionship, great sex, family, and much more.

No doubt the standard for marriage now is unreasonably high for most people precisely because they are unable to fulfill it. But this again is an argument against an unreasonably high standard rather than an argument for polyamory as a solution. There is no reason to assume a priori that polyamory will meet the needs not fulfilled by monogamy versus say marriage counseling or increased training in emotional or social skills.

For some but not all marriages, one partner is definitely enough. Whereas for others, the marriage lacks something and that something is traditionally filled by friendships, hobbies, community involvement, family, and so on.

If that something missing is sex, then polyamory becomes more appealing, despite polyamory ostensibly not being about sex. But sexual relationships are inherently complicated, as we’ll see in the next section.

Many Things Can Go Wrong

Polyamorists talk about how monogamous marriages usually end in divorce, but do not provide statistics about how often polyamorist relationships end in breakups. In clinical trials of drugs, you need a control group for comparison. To my knowledge, there is no such study yet of how frequently polyamorist relationships end up on the rocks as compared to monogamous relationships, so at best it is an untested new approach.

Polyamorist relationships are inherently more complex than monogamous ones. All complex systems are subject to more potential problems (dogs can get cancer, tardigrades cannot). So in the absence of data, it’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that polyamory would be less successful in general than monogamy.

Here are just some of the unusually complex things that can go wrong in polyamorist relationships:

  • You start liking one partner more than another.
  • You fall in love with a new partner and become obsessed with them, neglecting your other partner(s).
  • One partner is better in bed than your other(s), causing you to start comparing them when having sex with the less skilled partner.
  • One of your partner’s partner’s is better in bed than you, so your partner spends lots time having sex with them and loses interest in sleeping with you.
  • You get in a fight with one partner but not the others, leading your other partner(s) to take your side. They subconsciously hope you will break up with the other so they will get more time with you (after all, they have an agreement with you, not your other partner(s)).
  • One of your partners has no other partners, and thus is more attached to you than you are to them, frequently asking you to leave your other partner(s).
  • You get in a fight with all your partners at the same time, making your life a living hell at least temporarily.
  • Two or more of your partners meet up, decide they have similar grievances with you, and either confront you or decide to both leave you.
  • You get busy at work and have to prioritize which of your partners to spend your limited free time with causing problems with the other(s).
  • One of your partner’s partners catches an STI because they don’t have the same agreements you have about safe sex, or because they weren’t careful, or because of random chance, putting your partner, you, and perhaps dozens of other people at risk.
  • One of your partners finds a different partner with a more desirable physical shape than you, or much younger than you.
  • You have children with one of your partners, which means in practice you are babysitting while they are off having sex with someone else.
  • You have children with one of your partners, which means sometimes while they are having sex with someone else you have to call them up and tell them to come home because it’s an emergency.
  • You or one of your partners becomes unexpectedly pregnant. The father is unknown.
  • One person becomes pregnant, the father is unknown, the mother wants to keep the baby, and none of the men who could be the father want to have a child or pay child support.
  • One of your partners experiences very poor health and needs lots of care. If you help, you will neglect your other partner(s) and potentially lose them, but this person has few other people to turn to.
  • Your health takes a turn for the worst, perhaps contracting cancer or some other serious illness. You can’t work, you need 24 hour care. But another of your partner’s partners also has cancer and needs 24 hour care. They choose to care for the other person instead of you, because the other person has more money / they like them better / they were dating first.

You get the idea.

Any or all of these situations or any of a dozen more requires long, painful, emotional conversations (“processing”) to deal with if they are going to be dealt with honestly and consciously. Monogamous relationships are also complex and subject to problems, but polyamorous relationships multiply these problems due to more people involved.

Cheating is devastatingly painful, no doubt. Marriages often are lacking. But there remain serious doubts in my mind that non-monogamy is a much less painful solution than the challenges of remaining faithful within a monogamous commitment, at least for most people, most of the time.

Moral Exemplars

A different argument, more Stoic in nature, for or against polyamory would be to make a list of moral exemplars that we believe to have lived a good life, then examine whether we think they would have lived even better had they been polyamorous.

I think most people would agree that simply having sex with many partners would not lead someone to be a moral exemplar, an example of someone who had lived excellently. If this was the case, porn stars would be the height of moral excellence. So number of sexual partners by itself is clearly not a criteria.

In addition, I think most people would agree that the sheer number of partners a person had deep, intimate relationships with (whether sexual or not) would also not be an important criteria for a moral exemplar. One can live well with one partner, many, or none at all. It wouldn’t be a sign of wickedness, but neither would it be a sign of virtue. (And this is where conservatives are dead wrong IMO.)

So from a Stoic virtue ethics perspective, polyamory is an “indifferent” — it is irrelevant to whether one has lived well or poorly.

As a Stoic myself, this is my conclusion. Whether one is monogamous, polyamorous, or a lifelong virgin has no bearing whatsoever on whether they have lived well.

Sexual Relationships as Central to Life

On the other hand, one can easily waste time on “indifferents” by making them central to one’s life, and polyamory due to the inherently complexity usually requires the individual to make their multiple sexual relationships central to their life.

This is often because to balance having multiple relationships, pragmatically it works best if one has three or four going at once. If one is only dating two people, then one could leave at any time, breaking up or deciding to be monogamous with some other partner they are also dating. That would leave one immediately falling back into threat of monogamy, disrupting the balance of power if one’s partner is dating others.

If you are meeting your sexual and intimate needs through four nights of intimacy split evenly between two different people, if one drops off the radar suddenly you are not getting your needs met, and will likely seek to meet those needs with your remaining existing partner who is too busy with their other partners to do so.

Thus the minimum number of partners many successful polyamorists date concurrently is three. Five or six is too many, as once a week is a typical minimum frequency to meet up with a person, and having sex or other intimacy five nights a week starts to become a lot. More than 7 certainly is too many, as then each person must be seen less than once a week, or else you end up going on dates twice a day with different people, every single week. So the magic number for most becomes three, plus or minus one, and when one only has two partners to be actively seeking a third. This also means that in practice, one must have several people one is flirting with and not yet dating, so as to keep an available pool ready in case one partner drops off.

Polyamory Presents a Time Management Problem

To maintain three or four ongoing relationships at once, plus flirting with a half a dozen more, including all the extra processing that must take place to maintain these relationships in an open and consensual manner requires a significant time investment. If we assume Elon Musk’s quote from the top of the article as a guideline, to date 3–4 people requires approximately 30–40 hours a week, and even more for maintaining the ongoing flirting.

A polyamorist could object to this reasoning on four grounds:

  1. Polyamorists save a lot of time by being open and honest.
  2. Each relationship is more efficient because one’s partner’s needs are partially being met by someone else.
  3. Intimate relationships should be central to human life, and the more the better.
  4. Seeing relationships in terms of efficiency is morally abhorrent.

Regarding the first objection, certainly openness and honesty saves time, but there are no restrictions on openness or honesty in monogamous, non-cheating relationships. Because of the additional complexity of polyamorous relationships, truly committed monogamous relationships are likely more time-efficient. And since there is no evidence polyamorous relationships are more successful than monogamous ones, the case for struggling to remain faithful in a monogamous relationship is at least as compelling as openly and consensually having multiple partners.

Regarding the second objection, this is likely to be the case only to a certain extent. Let’s assume one can relate twice as efficiently to each of 3–4 partners because you aren’t spending as much time with each person. (3–4 times as efficiently is unlikely due to the additional time spent processing polyamory-specific issues.) Then you are still spending 15–20 hours a week, nearly double that of a monogamous relationship. In addition, there are built-in inefficiencies to dating multiple people, for instance recalling the same life events to more than one person. So the idea that polyamory would require less time than monogamy is unlikely.

Perhaps intimate relationships should be central to human life, and thus the more the better. Well even if intimate relationships should be central, more equals better does not follow from this. Most good things have a point where too much becomes a bad thing. There is no reason to suspect that for most people, most of the time, having 3 or 4 intimate, sexual relationships would be better than one. In some unique cases no doubt it works, but that is not enough to generalize to all people. And if the subtle pleasure of intimacy is the purpose of polyamory, there is reason to suspect that polyamorous relationships are less subtle and deep than monogamous ones, precisely because each partner gets less time and energy. Therefore having fewer partners would mean more depth of intimacy.

Seeing relationships in terms of efficiency does strike me as strange, if not abhorrent. Of course this estimate is based in a ridiculous quote from Musk — trying to quantify how much time a relationship requires is madness, one might object. A partner doesn’t want 10 hours a week of your time, they want you to be present and not watching the clock. In that case, 10 hours would likely be entirely too low of an estimate, which would just harm the case for polyamory even moreso. The more relationships one has, the more one has to consider time-management in order to balance them, and as we’ve already seen, 3 +/- 1 seems to be the magic number. So if seeing relationships in terms of time is abhorrent, then one ought to reduce the total number, not increase it!

It’s Not Wrong, It Just Takes Too Much Time

There’s a reason why most people I’ve seen who’ve been able to pull off polyamory for more than 6 months consistently have been underemployed or unemployed. It simply takes too much time.

And the time spent means less time doing other things, such as making a contribution to your community, or developing your career, learning new skills, volunteering, playing music or making art, spending time with family, and even deepening your existing relationships. By being polyamorist, people almost always make their intimate, sexual relationships central to their lives, at the cost of other things that they could be doing.

As a matter of personal values, if one values variety of sexual relationships as the most important thing, this would at least be congruent. But should we all have this as our primary value? I think the case is a clear “no.” Some people strongly prefer it and make it work, but ultimately there are too many drawbacks, too many complexities, and ultimately not enough value there to make multiple sexual relationships central in general to all human lives.

The case against polyamory is too strong to recommend it as a general solution to the problems of monogamy. Instead, most of us will have to continue to figure out how we can best navigate the challenges of monogamous commitments within the framework of faithfulness to one and only one partner at a time.