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'Alternative' Relationships: The New Way of Doing Old Things

Polyamory and ethical non-monogamy seem "trendy"—but how new are they?

 Eberhard Grossgasteiger/Unsplash
Source: Eberhard Grossgasteiger/Unsplash

Growing up, my grandparents were great friends with the lady who lived across the street. They were all of similar age and socialized together frequently. The neighbor lady never failed to wave when our car passed by, was invited to family barbeques, and attended my various grade school concerts and pageants. She seemed like a fixture—not only in the neighborhood, but in my family’s life. It wasn’t until I had reached adulthood and all three of them had passed away that it was mentioned in passing that the neighbor lady wasn’t just a friend—she was my grandfather’s mistress. My grandmother knew—everyone knew—and the family managed to balance kindness, inclusion, tact, and discretion for close to 50 years.

Often, when my clients bring up the topic of exploring “alternative” relationship models, they feel as if they are stepping out into an uncharted world that few have dared to brave before. They don’t realize that non-monogamy was the norm for most of human history: One of the greatest love stories in the Bible involves Jacob’s efforts to marry his beloved Rachel—a process that involved 14 years of unpaid labor and marrying her sister Leah first—and even after that, Jacob’s wives offered him two concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah) as well. Historically, the royal mistresses of Europe often had greater power and influence than did their lawfully wed counterparts, the queens. There has been polyandry (taking multiple husbands) among the Massai and Irigwe of Africa, in parts of Tibet, India, and China, and among several South American and Oceanic tribal groups. This is to say nothing of the ever-so-tactful “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships that existed throughout the United States for much of the last 200 years.

 Helena Lopes/Unsplash
Source: Helena Lopes/Unsplash

Which is to say that what many of my clients think of as a rather modern way to approach relationships—one that they feel must be shielded from the prying eyes of disapproving neighbors and older relatives who simply would not understand—is often less modern than it seems. And yet? As home DNA tests and online family tree research proliferates, more and more people are discovering that perhaps our forebears were a little more accommodating of what we would now term polyamory than we might have otherwise expected. Story after story exists of folks who were curious about their genetic or ethnic ancestry, only to discover an entire branch of the family tree that they were not previously aware of. Geneticists are already working to navigate the ethics of these discoveries and how this new knowledge is addressed.

What seems to be genuinely new about the practice of ethical/consensual non-monogamy is the degree of openness that folks are now comfortable bringing to the equation. Sure, Rachel and Leah were the ones who first suggested that Jacob take Zilpah and Bilhah “into his tent,” such as it were; but the notion of actually being cordial to or even friends with our partner's other partners (our “metamours”) is the thing that truly puts a modern spin on this ancient habit. Zilpah and Bilhah were slaves owned by Rachel and Leah. And the queens of 500 years ago had every reason to be wary of the degree of influence and freedom their husband’s illicit lovers held. Today? Kitchen table poly is gaining not only acceptance but cultural momentum. Kitchen table poly describes a form of polyamory in which everyone involved is so comfortable with one another that it’s easy to envision sitting together around the table, sharing a meal, and enjoying one another’s company. For some? This is an idealistic notion that seems impossible. For others? It’s what happens every morning at breakfast.

I suppose it could be argued that my grandparents practiced a form of kitchen table poly. My grandmother and the neighbor lady considered each other friends, and genuinely enjoyed one another’s company. This dynamic has been replicated within some polygamous LDS relationships (though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints officially disavows polygamy and threatens its practitioners with excommunication) as well as within the many modern partnerships that practice polyamory outside of a religious context. What has changed over time is not our practice of non-monogamy, it’s our level and degree of communication about these practices between partners.

We like to say that “everything old is new again,” but alternative relationship structures aren’t so new. It’s our attitudes around them, our willingness to openly negotiate them with our partners, and the level of secrecy expected from those involved that have modernized a practice that’s existed across time, geography, and culture.