Could polyamorous relationships mitigate the shortcomings of the nuclear family?

The standard picture of the American nuclear family comes with predetermined roles for each of its members: a male father serves as the breadwinner and head of the family, a female mother tends to the homestead and produces offspring and the children obey the rules of the household that their parents set until they grow up, find their own monogamous, heterosexual marriages and pop out babies, completing the cycle. 

It hardly needs to be said that this “standard” does not represent a huge number of modern American families. Because the nuclear family is inextricably linked to patriarchy and heteronormativity, it follows that non-heterosexual relationships do not fit into the mold. The same could be said for families in which a woman is the primary source of income, single-parent families, families that include unmarried parents and about a million other common deviations from the classic depiction of what family looks like.

As social norms change, representations of families in the media have diversified along certain axes. The television show “Modern Family,” for example, depicts the story of a white gay couple who adopts an Asian child. Although I do not mean to undermine the importance of representations of queer parents, adopted children, mixed-race families and so on, these depictions still conform to a particular parameter which begs inquiry: monogamy. 

In her book “What Love Is: And What It Could Be,” philosopher Carrie Jenkins notes that changes in society occur against a foundation of the pre-existing conventions. She considers monogamy a principal characteristic of romantic love’s social role, that role being to curtail love between grown adults and force it into the mold of the stable nuclear family.

Jenkins is spot on in this right — monogamy remains a static means of controlling society by providing limits to what love is, despite the vaguely steady increase in acceptance for nontraditional relationships. In terms of media depictions, there is certainly less stigma around love between two men, for example, as compared to love between a woman and two boyfriends. I do not mean to imply that polyamorous relationships are “more” oppressed than LGBTQ+ couples, as oppression is neither quantifiable nor finite. Also, these two identities are not mutually exclusive. Rather, I mean to reassert Jenkins’ point that as society has adopted a more inclusive attitude towards same-sex couples, that very inclusion has dependended upon the exclusion of polyamorous love. 

Thus it has been established that the conventional social conception of love has historically been limited to only two people, which directly contributes to the dominance of the nuclear family in American society. Facing this conclusion, we must ask ourselves a number of questions: does the stigma of polyamory actually harm society? What would we have to gain from a society in which polyamorous relationships are accepted and considered equally as valid as monogamous relationships? Are polyamorous relationships something we should even accept, or is there a reason for the stigma? 

To answer the first question, I believe that the stigma surrounding polyamory absolutely harms society. To me, there is a simple logic to the concept that polyamorous relationships involve loving more than one person, and loving more people is good; therefore polyamory is, at least conceptually, good. Moreover, monogamy has historically been used as a vehicle of patriarchal oppression, especially through the financial dependence of classic “housewives” on their husbands. In addition, women who are sexually active with more than one partner — regardless of if they are in relationships or not — are disproportionately subjected to slut-shaming, whereas men are praised for the same exact expressions of sexuality.

Regarding whether or not polyamorous relationships are something that we should accept in our society, I direct your attention to what we’ve got to gain from destigmatizing polyamorous relationships: most concisely, freedom. I argue merely that polyamory can provide an alternative to monogamy, not a replacement. I certainly do not think society would benefit from adopting a standard of Bacchanalian romantic and sexual anarchism; structure yields order, and this much I must concede to monogamists. Still, there is no singular blueprint of love that will apply to everyone, and that should not necessarily entail that love is not for everyone. 

Envisioning radical alterations of the foundations of our world is not easy, but in order to bring to fruition a society that has learned from its failures and progressed as a result, we must conceive of futures beyond the scope of the institutions and structures with which we are most familiar. The possibilities are always endless.

I imagine a society in which children whose two parents are fighting can go stay the night with a third parent until the home environment is peaceful again. I imagine women in abusive relationships finding solace, and eventually escape, with the support and assurance of their other husbands. I imagine teenagers with qualms about their rapidly developing identities having more than two parental figures whom they can consult and with whom they can relate. I imagine a man leaving for his third shift job as a partner returns from first shift, both equally comforted to know that their wife will not be alone in the burden of childcare. I see no issue with broadening what constitutes as a family in order to strengthen a sense of community. 

I also imagine that traditionally monogamous, heterosexual relationships will continue to create nuclear family units, a possibility by which I am unbothered. The society for which I yearn is simply one in which love is unfettered by the strains of convention, and people give and receive affection in whatever multifarious fashions they desire. Until some supreme being tells humanity precisely what love looks like in the metaphysical ether, I believe this greater fabric of human connection that underpins tangible relationships should be unbounded in its manifestations.