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Why Many Young People See Polyamory as a Reasonable Strategy

Consensual nonmonogamy as an adaptive strategy.

Key points

  • Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) has become increasingly popular, not just among young people but also among older generations.
  • Young people might choose CNM because of dramatically shifting life circumstances, such as longer life spans and many job changes.
  • When nothing else is stable, why should relationships remain static?

There are a lot of discussions—among older people—about how millennials are “ruining” various things. One of the many things millennials are accused of ruining is monogamy. What is missing from these conversations is an appreciation of why younger people are doing the things they do and how their changing attitudes might be a survival skill for a world that no longer works the way it did for baby boomers.

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) lifestyles—like polyamory, swinging, monogamish relationships, and relationship anarchy—have dramatically increased in public awareness and popularity in the past 20 years. While CNM is in its third wave in the United States, having started with the anarchists of the 1880s and enjoyed a robust resurgence in the 1960s, its current wave is the most socially significant and widespread by far. A range of reasons are responsible for this social shift, and this article explores some of the ways in which CNM may work as an adaptive response for young people in the United States today

Longer Life Spans

Classical monogamy—in which two very young people marry as virgins and remain exclusive until one of them dies—began when life spans were much shorter. It was much easier to remain married and sexually exclusive when people had to walk or ride a horse or boat to get anywhere, were related to half of the people they met on a daily basis, and could reasonably expect to be dead by 40 years old.

Now that social media puts Internet users in touch with potentially thousands of people each day, we can easily move or talk daily with people thousands of miles away. Add that to the fact that we typically live decades longer than we used to, it can be much more challenging to remain sexually exclusive with a single partner for an entire lifetime. Most people have dealt with this by turning to serial monogamy, a form in which people partner with one person for a period of time, break up, re-partner with someone else, break up, and re-partner again as many times as works for them.

Others, however, deal with this expanded life span and huge array of choices by maintaining multiple concurrent partners. Some of these folks are in long-term partnerships with one person and date multiple others, while others have multiple ongoing relationships of varying length and depth. When people openly negotiate the parameters of these multiple partnerships with everyone involved, they are engaged in what scholars term consensual nonmonogamy (CNM).

People in CNM relationships do not have to break up when one or more of them become attracted to someone new, which means that these relationships can be far more durable than monogamy for some people. For others, they are a complete disaster, and those folks who experience CNM as heartbreaking generally do not find those relationships to be a positive adaptation.

So why is it that more young people fall into the former category of people for whom CNM can be a good adaptation to an increasingly fluid life?

Employment Transitions

People in the baby boomer generation, and their parents, could reasonably expect to graduate with a high school diploma, get a job, and work in the same company or at least the same type of industry for the rest of their lives. Generation X realized that a college degree had become the equivalent of a high school diploma when seeking employment and that corporations hold no loyalty to their employees, whom they lay off whenever the corporation wants to restructure or “improve” the bottom line of profits.

Millennials and Generation Z (zoomers) generally have no illusions that a college degree will get them much more than thousands of dollars of student loan debt and a job as a barista, or that they will have one job for 10 years—much less their entire adult lives. Many of these younger folks have had more jobs by the time they are 25 than their parents or grandparents had in their entire lives, in part because young people often have multiple jobs at the same time.

Clearly, jobs—and their associated living conditions and housing placement—are transient for millennials and zoomers. New jobs mean meeting new people, and sometimes moving to new places.

Relationship Transitions

Monogamy has been the hallmark of “real love” for many past generations, and even when they could not sustain permanent sexual exclusivity with one partner, they still espoused it for themselves and everyone else. Yet many millennials and zoomers have seen that marriage is not all it has been cracked up to be. They have watched their parents cheat on each other and divorce, stay in miserable marriages “for the kids,” and abandon each other when family life becomes inconvenient.

Some of them have also seen wonderful, fulfilling, happy marriages where both of their parents loved each other deeply for decades—but in the eyes of many, that seems to be the minority. Even with marriage delayed until their 30s, people can expect up to 70 years of partnership if the standard for a successful relationship is “till death do us part.” The idea of never having sex with a different person for 70 years seems suffocating to some people, who might prefer never to marry if it means never divorcing or to maintain an open marriage to avoid divorce if one or both partners have sex outside of the marriage.

Nothing else in these young people’s lives seems particularly stable—they will have 12 jobs before they are 40 and then change careers yet again, live in five different cities by the time they turn 60 and then still need to start a new job when they “retire” because they won’t have enough money to live without working. Unaddressed climate change means that young people might expect a hotter world filled with too many people and too little clean water that is unable to sustain future generations.

All of these elements of fluidity mean that the majority of millennials and zoomers will almost certainly have lives of constant change. Why should their relationships be the only thing that takes one form and remains that way for the rest of their lives?

Even if they desire it, that kind of fairytale family life seems unattainable to many younger people. Choosing a relationship style that flexes with their changing circumstances makes a lot of sense for millennials and zoomers, and the various forms of consensual nonmonogamies offer exactly that.

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