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The Future of Marriage and Non-Traditional Relationships

The Future of Marriage and Non-Traditional Relationships
From an early age, society teaches that monogamy is the only option for having a family and living a long, happy life. But does society have room for those who do not fit this mold? What are the legal, individual and social ramifications for those who seek non-monogamous relationships? We speak with a law professor, marriage and family therapist and a pioneer in the polyamory community about the future of relationships.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The big news about marriage recently is how many more people want to give it a try. Many gay and lesbian couples are working hard to achieve the right to marry in California, a right same sex couples have already achieved in five states and the District of Columbia. In addition to being part of a struggle for equal rights, the move toward same sex marriage might also be seen as a validation of monogamous relationships. But not everyone agrees. At the same time that some are working for marriage, the polyamory movement is gaining strength in some urban areas and on the internet. Polyamorists believe in ethical non-monogomy by openly engaging in intimate relationships with more than one person at a time. And if that sounds like old fashioned hippie free love to you, you may not be so far off the mark. Joining me to discuss what place polyamory may have in the future of relationships are my guests. David Peters, marriage and family therapist. David, welcome back to These Days.

DAVID PETERS (Marriage and Family Therapist): Good to see you again, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: Janet Bowermaster is professor of law at California Western School of Law, specializing in children and family law. And, Janet, good morning.

JANET BOWERMASTER (Professor of Children and Family Law, California Western School of Law): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Dossie Easton is a marriage and family therapist. She’s coauthor of a book called "The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures." Dossie, good morning and welcome to These Days.

DOSSIE EASTON (Marriage and Family Therapist): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think open relationships can be healthy? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number here is 1-888-895-5727. Dossie, I’d like to start with you, if I may, and “The Ethical Slut” is a provocative name for a book. I wonder why you chose it and what does it have to say about polyamory?


EASTON: Well, I guess it started almost – while we were writing it. Our friends would say what are you guys writing and we’d say the “Ethical Slut” because it seemed to say it all in two words. And when it came time to actually pick a title for the book, we, with some trepidation, actually we said, well, you know, we’ve been calling it this for a long time and it kind of says it all. Because the question is, is the person who celebrates a kind of expansive or explorative sexuality a slut? Can that person be ethical? And what it’s like, can you be a slut and be ethical.

CAVANAUGH: And how did you answer that question in the book?

EASTON: Of course you can.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Well, how did you become acquainted with the polyamorous lifestyles, Dossie?

EASTON: It was a decision that I made in 1969, believe it or not, a long time ago. So – And it wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t actually part of the free love movement, that’s the interesting thing, back in the hippie days. But the place came for me, it came partly out of my feminism and partly out of my decision of wanting to know who I was, kind of independent from my relationships, and partly because I wanted to enjoy a sexual expansiveness in my life. I wanted to be able to explore all the people I liked, all the people I cared about, all the people I loved, if you will, all the people that intrigued me, and have this kind of diverse, open, rich world that polyamory provides.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I, in the opening, I gave a sort of a definition for polyamory about it being non-monogamous and by openly engaging in intimate relationships with more than one person at a time. Does that basically cover it or is there something you’d like to add?

EASTON: That is, to me, the most important set of definitions. Other people might want to tighten that down some. And I have to admit I take the position that if we’re sitting around saying that somehow sex is only okay if this, that or the other conditions are met, that what polyamory is saying is – or ethical sluttery anyway, is that sex is okay when the condition of ethics is met in the sense of respecting the feelings of everybody concerned.

CAVANAUGH: David Peters, what is – what do we know about human monogamy. Is it something that we’re pressured into or does it seem natural for most of us?

PETERS: Well, monogamy in human history is the dominant form of bonding. Most of the animal world does not pair bond monogamously, 90% does not. But humans, through almost all of human history, have had a proclivity to monogamy and pair bonding. You have exceptions, of course, with some Muslim cultures. There’s references in the Old Testament, early Judaic culture allowed polygamy which isn’t quite the same as what we’re talking about today. And, of course, there’s a sprinkle here and there of polygamist Mormons, which is also not what we’re talking about today in the same way. And so it’s really in a very small minority of people.

CAVANAUGH: And many people live, in a sense, polyamorous lifestyles without being honest about it. I mean, spouses cheat and…

PETERS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …couples are unfaithful to each other. David, does that sort of knock down the idea that monogamy is what most people sort of go towards?

PETERS: Well, we, as a species, attempt monogamy and then because we have emotions and drives that lead us by our nose sometimes, we fail at monogamy. And we say fail at it because people overtly attempt it and they say they’re attempting it. And they keep secret the affairs they have on the side when they do. Now, of course, affairs are not rare. Affairs in marriage, you know, some 30% of men and women, statistics vary depending upon what you read, but most of those people who do have affairs would also say, well, they’re not happy about it, they would prefer that they had one love in their life and – or one love at a time and that they could be open with that one love. So many people who are having affairs feel caught. They want to stay with one partner for one reason or another but they’ve fallen into an affair with another.

CAVANAUGH: What, if any, roll do affairs have in polyamory, Dossie?

EASTON: A perfectly regular role, I guess, once you have things out in the open. There’s no reason to think that having an affair or a relationship with another person needs to detract from a life partnership or any other relationship that you have. You don’t have to kind of subtract the one from another, if that makes sense.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I understand exactly what you’re saying. And we are taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. And our subject is polyamory. On the line right now with us is Clayton calling from Grossmont. Good morning, Clayton. Welcome to These Days.

CLAYTON (Caller, Grossmont): Morning, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great, thank you.

CLAYTON: Well, my comment is for everyone there today. I’m currently in a relationship that’s been going on for over two years now and by definition, we are polyamorous. The biggest thing for us was the fact that we set up, when we came to understand that we were polyamorous, we set up a series of rules so that there would be no breaking of boundaries. We are spiritually—or emotionally—monogamous but our entire, I guess you could say, sex life is polyamorous.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let me ask Dossie. Dossie, does that sound like – I guess – I don’t know if I should even say typical but is that something that follows along the lines of what some polyamorous couples do?

EASTON: Yeah, absolutely. That is one of the ways. There are many, many ways to be polyamorous, and it’s one way that’s worked for a lot of couples to feel that they have certainly many, many, many couples who are involved in this feel that they share a particularly special bond with a life partner, perhaps the person they’re raising children with and that they don’t want that interfered with. Other people are perhaps more open to the kinds of emotional connections. Some people – people have very different boundaries. They choose what boundaries work for them.

CAVANAUGH: And, David, this brings us to the idea of what people are seeking from relationships. I suppose in – if you’re looking at multiple partners or an open relationship, it’s different forms of intimacy with different people.

PETERS: Yes, and they’re very different events in terms of what’s going on psychologically. I’m going to quote a little bit from the work of a well known anthropologist, a Dr. Helen Fisher, who is out of Rutgers State University. And she’s done some remarkable research on the level of brain neurology and brain chemistry in terms of studying love, lust, attachment, and romance. And she’s pointed out that we actually have three different brain systems within our heads here that promote the mating and reproductive behavior among humans. The first one is commonly known as lust. It’s the sex drive. It’s merely that urge to have sex with someone. It’s impersonal, it’s common with other mammals, it doesn’t require love, it doesn’t require attraction even. And we all know, we’ve seen in the movies and some have practiced those moments where you’re just having sex for sex’s self or for sex’s sake. The other brain system, though, is romantic love, and this is the very familiar human trait which is that attraction. You get this euphoric feeling. That’s marked by a rise in dopamine levels in the brain and it causes the sense of excitement, and then a lowering of serotonin in the brain which causes the obsessive love where you just can’t get the person out of your mind. And we really enjoy this romantic love. You know, poetry’s written about it, movies are written about it, you know, music is composed about it. We celebrate it, and this is really uniquely human and it makes our mating and partnerships so wonderful. A third brain system in this full human behavior here is attachment, though. And with attachment, you see the longterm bond between humans. This is the marriage that’s lasted for years. You have your best friend there. It may not be hotly romantic anymore but it’s very comfortable. You’re good friends. You trust one another. You stick together. You may not have great lust for that partner anymore but you still stick together. You’re attached to them. What’s interesting here is that these brain systems can act independent from one another and they can act together. You can have lust for someone without having romance for them. You can have a romantic relationship without feeling too lusty for them. And in an affair, in an illicit affair, you have an attachment to one person but you’ve given in to lust with another or maybe given in to romance with another. And notice how it’s common that if an affair occurs, the partner who’s left behind here is often wondering, well, is it just sex or are you in love with this new partner? And it matters a lot. If it’s just sex, they say, well, okay, I’ll try and forgive this. If it’s romance, it’s a catastrophe because it means you don’t love me anymore. You want somebody else. So these systems can work independent of one another and cause confusion if your goal is monogamy. You have to really work to manage it. What’s interesting here is that the – in the polyamorous community, they’re attempting to have a primary attachment with one partner or sometimes two partners while allowing romantic love or allowing lust to be explored with others. And this is all by open agreement. Everybody has to know what’s going on. Most people would not prefer this but this is what’s being attempted.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Dossie, I want to get back to you.

EASTON: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: This all sounds very complicated. How do you have time for all this?

EASTON: Well, there’s probably the biggest boundary anyone will tell you is how much time there is in the day, and you know what that means to people’s schedules. Some people – and when my daughter was young, this was what I was doing and sort of still do, see their polyamorous connections as one kind of big, extended family, the equivalent of a neighborhood or a village. And extend – So extend things out like, you know, sharing raising kids and keeping houses going and all that kind of stuff in one larger system that distributes a lot of the work in that system. What was being said before, I would simply add that there is room for attachment as well as lust and romance. I tend to more call it connection (audio dropout) my own sort of experience or hit on that is that sexual connection is kind of an amazing intimacy and a wonderful – I think of it really as sacred, a wonderful way of connecting, so I don’t think of it as just lust or just romance. I think of it as a truly profound connection and I want to honor that connection. I think that if we – about the only kind of sexual connection I have questions about is when people deliberately withhold connections and don’t want to get connected. And, you know, that doesn’t have to be unethical if both people have made that choice, or all the people involved have made that choice, but to me sex is an intimacy that extends, that tends to deepen intimacy. So I sort of expect people who are present in my and my partner’s lives as lovers to, you know, have profound connections.


EASTON: I don’t find it surprising.

CAVANAUGH: Let me – Dossie brings up a point. I want to bring Janet Bowermaster into the conversation. She’s professor of law at California Western School of Law, specializing in children and family law. Dossie spoke about this extended family with children involved.


CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, what legal status, if any, would people have in a multi-partner relationship?

BOWERMASTER: It depends on whether there’s a marriage involved, okay? But with regard to just children, the biological ties will be defining for the most part. On occasion, in California and some other states, they’ve recognized what they call de facto parents but we’re not going to do that at the expense of the primary biological connections. And, you know, there’s only so much time in a child’s day and if you, you know, have more than one or two parent figures, the court, if it breaks up, doesn’t have the opportunity to arrange for all of those people to keep their connections.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Janet, even in a monogamous relationship, in a marriage relationship, divorce can be very messy and very complicated. I wonder what the legal hazards are in this kind of an open relationship that we’ve been talking about?

BOWERMASTER: Well, if we’re talking about a married couple that’s in the constellation, they may agree at the time but even polyamorous relationships go south, I’m sure, just like every other characterization of a relationship, and then there are some legal possibilities that come up that can be dangerous. For example, we may have agreed at the time but now I’m really angry and it seems to me that I didn’t really agree and, therefore, you were committing adultery and I am going to file for a fault-based divorce—in most states it’s available—and then I get certain benefits for property, for usually not custody anymore but for property and for alimony. Or we can talk about child custody, and we don’t usually take fault into account but we look at what’s best for the children and to the extent that there are those in society who think, you know, that this polyamory effort is immoral, they would then have a bias against putting the child in the care of a person who remained in the relationship and tend to favor the one who had left.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to talk more about the social, emotional and legal implications of polyamory. We do have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue our conversation and take your calls. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our subject for this segment is polyamory, that is ethical nonmonogamy by an – openly engaging in intimate relationships with more than one person at a time. My guests are David Peters. He is a marriage and family therapist here in San Diego. Janet Bowermaster is professor of law at California Western School of Law, specializing in children and family law. And Dossie Easton is a marriage and family therapist. She is co-author of a book called "The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures." We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call. Christian is calling us from Del Mar. Good morning, Christian. Welcome to These Days.

CHRISTIAN (Caller, Del Mar): Hi.


CHRISTIAN: I had a question for the author of “The Ethical Slut.” You know, I know that at least Christianity and Catholicism believe that when a couple get married and have intimacy, there’s a bond, a divine bond that’s created there. I know they were talking a little bit about spirituality before but in terms of that religious morality and divine connection between married people, monogamous married people, what is the polyamorous perspective on that?

EASTON: I think that the polyamorous perspective is largely that spiritual connection can exist beyond marriage and that the connections, that the love connections that we make are sacred, whatever rituals or whatever commitments involved in those relationships are. Certainly, marriage is a very special relationship, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the notion that love can only occur in marriage or that that kind of – or that sexual love can only occur between two people in one particular kind of relationship, is, in my experience, really just plain not true. And that the kind of love that indicates a spiritual connection, loving, caring, concerned about each other’s wellbeing, all that other good stuff, is something that can be more widespread.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dossie, did the columnist Andrew Sullivan – has commented on the polyamory movement. He – And what he says is the difference between polyamory and homosexuality is that people have a choice about the number of partners that they take but they have no choice about being gay. I wonder, do you agree with that statement? Do you believe that polyamory is a choice or is it something innate in the individual?

EASTON: I don’t tend to believe that it’s something innate in the individual. I think that people have choices and that many of the polyamorous choices are really valid choices. I think when people say, well, they have no choice, they can’t help themselves, then that sort of takes the factor of how could you make a choice that I disapprove of out of it, right?


EASTON: But for me, it’s like saying, well, I have a lot of different ways I can run my life and have love and affection and connection and mutual support and sex and intimacy and all that good stuff and so in my lifetime—and I’m 66 years old—I have chosen a lot of different lifestyles, a lot of things to explore, and I’ve been enriched, and spiritually enriched, I think by all of it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Mark is calling from Carmel Valley. And, Mark, welcome to These Days. Hi, Mark, are you there?

MARK (Caller, Carmel Valley): Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I certainly can.

MARK: Okay. Yeah, my question is that I’ve always been attracted to this lifestyle in the physical sense, sensually speaking, but I think that I would become emotionally jealous, as they refered to earlier about a person perhaps wondering if the sexual encounter or the sexual engagement, you know, evolved into something romantic, and then I would feel as though I’m getting short shrift or that I’m not really having the full romantic life that I’d like to have with that person. I don’t know that a person can really have the – has the capacity to be fully romantic with a lot of different people. I don’t know. So I’d like some feedback on that.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, Mark, and I want to ask both David and Dossie this question. Let me ask you first, David. What do we know about this emotion of jealousy in human beings?

PETERS: Well, jealousy is certainly going to be the biggest challenge if you’re attempting a polyamorous relationship. And, you know, when you hear people casually talk about this, they’ll say, oh, these people just want it easy to just get whatever they want. And, in fact, it’s not quite easy. What they’re attempting does require a lot of work because one has to take full responsibility for one’s position. You go in consciously knowing what’s going on, no one’s being fooled, and so if you do have feelings of jealousy or insecurity then you’re responsible for them. You can’t blame anybody for them. So there’s a deep personal challenge to own up to, you know, what you’re doing there. And that can be growth enhancing, one could say, but clearly the majority of people, you know, are not wanting to be challenged in that way. We want the security of marriage. And so, you know, this is certainly not a route for everybody; this is a route for people who have really thought about it very seriously. And I wouldn’t recommend anybody get into such a thing casually. In my practice, I’ve had some couples come in in great trouble because someone got talked into it and they really weren’t wanting to and they came away feeling very betrayed, very empty, and very unloved themselves. And so this is something that you have to really think about before you go in, and take responsibility for.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dossie, how have you and the people you’ve known handled jealousy in open relationships with different partners?

EASTON: Yeah, and I want to agree with David. I could not agree more that this is the work of it, that it’s very serious work. I do find the work to be healing. I have to speak like a therapist here. Jealousy by definition is a projection. We take fears, our own insecurities, whatever they might be, and they’re very different when I ask different people. Some people experience terrible anger, other people get very frightened, other people go into grief and loss, other people feel less than, other people go into how much they hate themselves. You know, it’s kind of a scary, scary place. Deborah Anapol, who wrote “Love Without Limits” says, I think very eloquently, that the only way out of jealousy is through it. The real myth about jealousy is that it is an emotion that is unmanageable, that it’s not negotiable, that it’s intolerable, that it’s somehow magically more terrible than any other more difficult emotion we deal with in life. It isn’t. It is a difficult emotion, it is our own worst fears coming to face us. But in polyamorous situations where people are honoring the contracts they made, these are fears that have no – that don’t necessarily have a basis in reality. They’re fears in our mind. And so we can look at those fears and decide what we want to do with them. Mostly what I recommend to my clients, and I’ve worked with people for 20 years on these kinds of issues, is that they learn to take care of themselves very well when jealousy is frightening and unnerving them, when something’s showing up in their life that is – that leaves them feeling uncertain, that it’s a good idea to just, you know, be willing to feel what you feel, honor your feelings and treat yourself like you had the flu. Cuddle up with something really nice, you know, get comfort food, whatever.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Janet, David has pointed out, and very accurately, that we are not talking about what is traditionally understood as polygamy. But I’m wondering, would it be possible for some sort of multi-partner marriage relationship to gain legal acceptance?

BOWERMASTER: It would be a real uphill battle but I do have to mention that one European country, the Netherlands, has five or so years ago recognized the opportunities for multiple partner civil unions that give, you know, most of the same legal rights as marriage without the actual status change. And as far as I’m aware, it was one – one time that it’s been done so far. There may have been more that I’m unaware of. And that was one man and two women, which takes us back to this notion of polygamy. And polygamy is, you know, the Muslim – there are a billion Muslims in the world but they have a very different status for women than we do. The women wear the burkas, they’re into forced marriages, they’re not allowed to drive cars, they’re discouraged from going to school…

CAVANAUGH: In some Muslim communities.



BOWERMASTER: In some. Yes, and Afghanistan, and some of those are very radical in that regard. But, well, and even in our Mormon polygamist groups, they have forced marriages. That’s where some of the legal action has come, you know, because they don’t actually try to get married so it’s not bigamist but they’re having sex with 12-year-olds or 15-year-olds that don’t want to and…

CAVANAUGH: And so what you’re saying basically is that is where at least some of the resistance comes from to open up any kind of a multiple partner marriage, I understand. And David?

PETERS: Yeah, and what’s important to point out here is that if you read much of the polyamorous literature, it is not male-centered. Much more of it is female-centered. In what we think of as polygamist relationships, frequently it is a man owning women or a male-dominated family and women being told what to do. And that is not at all the case in the polyamorous community in terms of what’s usually going on. They tend to, you know, Dossie has mentioned several times the spirituality of sex and there tends to be – you can kind of find it in the literature as you read around a certain feminine-feminist-spirituality-sexuality, you know, flow here where sex is celebrated in a spiritual encounter and that’s definitely the trend in the polyamorous community rather than the traditional polygamist community.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s try to take another call. Nancy is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Nancy, and welcome to These Days.

NANCY (Caller, La Jolla): Hi. Thank you. I was – I just wanted to comment on the author. She had stated that she doesn’t believe that polyamorous lifestyle – or that she believes that it’s more of a choice. And I’d just like to respectfully disagree based on my family history. My father is a gay man and he’s married to my stepmother, you know, they were married to have the romantic relationship and at one point he realized and came to accept that he was a gay man. They’re, however, still married, they’re best friends. They are completely attached. They want to live together always. They want to die together. And my – but my dad does – he is involved with other men and does see them and, you know, has sexual relations and it works for them. And I, you know, I’m very close with my father and as he puts it, you know, it’s not really his choice, it’s just he doesn’t find that monogamous relationships work for him. And I’m sure a lot of factors go into it like social factors, him being a gay man…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

NANCY: …biological factors, and – but, you know, just personally I disagree with that because, you know, I see it otherwise. I think that if he could, if he really could, you know, he would choose to be with someone himself because, you know, that is his personal ideal and, you know, I know it’s not for everyone. You know, I know it because I – I’m in a monogamous relationship and I’ve been always monogamous, however, you know, my father hasn’t always been and my sister hasn’t been so, you know, I don’t – I think it’s just more of not so much a choice as to how a person is…

CAVANAUGH: Nancy, thank you so much for your call. I appreciate it. And, Dossie, I’d like to get your response.

EASTON: Yeah, to my mind, that seems like a perfectly wonderful family. You know, that someone in a marriage discovers that they have needs that cannot be met within the marriage and yet as householders they have what biologists call among birds social monogamy where the issue is that we like to – we love being households together, we love raising children together, we love spending our time together. There’s enormous love in a relationship where sex may not be the primary bonding factor.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you know, we only have about 60 seconds left, Dossie, but I was just going to ask you is there anything you think that perhaps you’ve lost in not committing exclusively to one person?

EASTON: I guess I’ll never know that. The decision I made, I was 25 years old. I don’t see how I will ever know what I might have lost or what my life might have been like had I been monogamous with one person. This was my path and I am sort of here supporting other people on similar paths and saying there’s a lot of different ways you can live a life. And whatever fits for you, whether it’s defined by exigencies or it’s defined by necessities of some sort or whether it’s defined by your own explorative spirit, that you get to make a lot of choices that are valid. There’s not only one way to live, there are many ways.

CAVANAUGH: Dossie, that’s a very fair answer, and I really appreciate you being on the show.

EASTON: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: That’s Dossie Easton, and my other guests, David Peters, marriage and family therapist. Thank you, David.

PETERS: Good to be here again, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Janet Bowermaster, professor of law at California Western School of Law, thanks for speaking with us.

BOWERMASTER: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment on this segment or anything you hear on These Days, go online, Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a moment here on KPBS.