In this episode of Mating Matters, Dr Wendy Walsh discusses Polyamory. Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved. Dr. Wendy Walsh interviews people who have explored Polyamory and also discusses the idea that polyamory is in some ways supported by our human evolution and in another way, is not adaptive at all.
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Dani Shapiro: My name is Dani Shapiro, and I’m the host of Family Secrets, a podcast about the secrets kept from us, secrets we keep from others and the secrets we keep from ourselves. Family Secrets is a show where you can hear powerful stories of heartbreak, healing and hope. Listen to season two of Family Secrets on Apple Podcasts, the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: It’s no secret that many human beings struggle with monogamy. Two people sexually committed for decades and some for life? It made me wonder, is monogamy natural? And what about the growing trend of polyamory or its cousin conscious non-monogamy? Could that work? Turns out evolution is perfectly designed once again with a multi-party system. This is Mating Matters.
Welcome to Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh with producer Brooke Peterson. On this week’s episode, which I have teasingly called Poly Wanna Cracker, we explore the evolutionary science behind those who have multiple love partners at the same time.
[School Bell Ringing 00:01:25]
Yes, that was a school bell ringing. Time for me to put on my professor hat and school you on some relationship definitions.
Polyamory is often used as a catch word for all kinds of non-monogamous relationships. That might involve dating, sex, love, commitment, marriage or combinations of those things. But there are four kinds of relationships I want to define here.
First up, polygamy. It can mean a man or a woman with multiple spouses at the same time. It’s often used in the United States to describe a man with multiple wives. Although the proper word there is polygyny. To be clear, polygyny – a man married to multiple women is illegal in all 50 States, but you wouldn’t know that. If you watched TLC’s reality show – Sister Wives, the story of Cody Brown, a man with four wives.
[Sister Wives Clip Playing 00:02:22]
Female: Cody and I met, I guess I was just young and in love. He and I both knew that we would take another wife or wives into the family.
Cody: I just fell in love and then I fell in love again and then I fell in love again.
Female: This is Cody’s 13th child.
Cody: She’s a sister from the same mister, and he’s a brother from another mother.
Female: Some people think, how do you feel when he’s off with another woman and you know they’re having sex? Well, gosh darn it, they better.
[End of Clip 00:02:49]
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Okay, back to the lesson kids. Next comes polyandry. That’s one woman with multiple husbands. Polyandry, as you can imagine, is much more rare, though anthropologists have found nearly 50 societies that practice it (lucky ladies).
Then there’s extra pair bonding. That includes anything from an illicit affair to an open marriage that allows partners to have extracurricular friends with benefits. But true polyamory is a relationship where more than two people are bonded together.
[Video Clip Playing 00:03:30]
Male: A person is most happy when they are submissive to a loving authority.
Male: I want to study her.
Female: She’ll break your heart.
Male: Don’t be jealous.
Female: I’m your wife, not your Jayla.
Female: I think you long for an unconventional life.
Female: Maybe I just want her because you do. Do you think it’s possible to love two people at the same time?
Female: Why not?
Male: What is normal?
Female: It can never happen.
Female: The world won’t let it.
Male: The world can’t stop us.
[End of Clip 00:04:11]
Dr. Wendy Walsh: That is the 2017 biographical movie about William Moulton Marston, also known as Charles Moulton. The movie is called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Marston was a psychologist, Harvard professor, the inventor of the lie detector. Oh, and the author of the historically successful comic books called Wonder Woman.
In his personal life, he lived with two women; a wife and a polyamorous partner. Both of whom influenced the character of Wonder Woman. And who, long after his death, continued to live together and raise their children. Fun fact, Wonder Woman’s golden cuffs, the ones that repelled bullets were inspired by the bracelets the professor and his wife gave to their poly lover in place of wedding rings when the three made the decision to be a family.
As the fictional Wonder Woman, those bracelets became symbols of peace and protection as depicted in also the 2017 movie – Wonder Woman.
[Wonder Woman Clip Playing 00:05:13]
Male: Who’s this woman?
Male: She’s my secretary, sir. She’s a very good secretary.
Female: It is our sacred duty to defend the world and it’s what I’m going to do.
[End of Clip 00:05:32]
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But most people aren’t Wonder Woman nor an eccentric professor with secret predications. Most people are just regular people living regular lives, and they have all kinds of versions of so-called poly sex lives.
Female: On this episode of Mating Matters, to protect their privacy, we’ve altered the voices of some of the people we’ve interviewed.
Amy: I was raised Christian, so it was straight is the only thing there is and gay people are just acting on their whims, and it’s not actually a sexuality. It’s not who you are. And of course, you know one man, one woman marriage, bam!
Dr. Wendy Walsh: That’s Amy. She told me she is cisgender, meaning her gender identity corresponds with the gender assigned to her at birth. She’s female all the way. She lives in a small town in what’s known as a Bible Belt state of the United States. Meaning it has a dominant Christian culture. And now, at the age of 27, she’s about to move in with her romantic partner living together, outside of marriage. To complicate things, her romantic partner isn’t a man and it isn’t a woman. It’s a couple.
Amy: When I realized that I was bisexual, then I was like, “Okay, what do I do with this?” Especially whenever I realized I really needed to have the male experience and the female experience to be satisfied. Like if I just had a male partner, it wouldn’t work. And if I just had a female partner, it wouldn’t work. So I was like, “Okay, what do I do with this?” So that’s how I ended up going for couples.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Her first experience dating a couple happened in high school when her boyfriend confided to her that he was thinking of getting back with his ex-girlfriend.
Amy: Me and her were good friends. And one day, I just had a random daydream about being in bed with both of them. And then I texted her, I was like, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” And she went, “That’s an interesting one.” And so we both went to him and he’s like, “Are you serious?” So it just kind of became a thing.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And in your experience because you need both the male representation and the female representation, do you normally have group sex together or separately?
Amy: Well, that depends on the couple because perfectly, personally, I had a lot of experience with being the unicorn, being the girlfriend with the established couple. So I was perfectly happy to add my hands in and then if they were going at it, then I just kind of help out here and there with the scratch your nip or whatever. And I didn’t really mind if I got solo time with him, solo time with her or not.
With my current relationship, we do all the combinations. Me and him will do stuff, me and her will do stuff. She and him will do stuff. We’ll all three do stuff together. But I must say sex between three people can get complicated. So if it’s always a, all three of us have to do something – thing, that can get stressful.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Do the math; one penis, four breasts, two clitoris, three potential orgasms. The sexual mechanics alone of polyamory can be decidedly complicated. But there’s an even greater evolutionary complication that I’ll explain in a few moments. But first, meet Justin.
Justin: I’m 42, I’m an engineer and I’m currently dating – I’d say single.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Justin is a modern version of a poly person. A guy who likes to have more than one woman and is honest about it.
Justin: For me, it’s hard to say whether I’ve actually been in a polyamorous relationship as some people might define it. I’ve certainly been in situations where I’ve had multiple relationships at the same time. And so it sort of blurs the line between open relationship and polyamory, I would say.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Well, when you were in multiple relationships at the same time, were your partners aware and consenting?
Justin: Yeah, absolutely. And I would say that I had a primary partner at that time. I think in order to have it work, there really has to be solid communication. Everybody has to be aware of what’s going on. Now, there’s certainly a case of too much information, and my partner may not want to know all the details of what’s going on. But she definitely wants to know that I’m communicating with her and I’m not trying to hide anything from her.
I think the thing to watch out for is when people feel like they’re not getting the attention that the relationship merits. So I think that for me has been the biggest challenge, is just trying to make sure that everybody feels like they’re getting the attention that they deserve.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Now meet Lynette, she considers herself to be polyamorous too.
Lynette: I grew up in a Mormon household and we were very observant Mormons. And I don’t want to be criticizing too much fundamentalist religions, but just the message I personally got about sex growing up, was very shame-based and so I didn’t have much of a sexual education. I knew that sex was a sin next to murder in severity. And I very much learned to associate any sexual feelings that I had with guilt and shame and that kind of nature.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Keeping with her religious teaching, Lynette got married as a virgin at the age of 19 and quickly had two children. They settled into a suburban lifestyle outside of Midwest City. She says the relationship she has with her husband has always been strong, committed, emotionally and intellectually. But it’s missing one thing.
Lynette: Well, my husband and I, we’ve been married for almost 15 years now and we never had a very strong sexual dynamic. I didn’t really fall in love with him because I was like passionately in love with him. It was much more, I knew he would be a good partner and a good husband, so we didn’t have a lot of sex early on. And whenever we did, I felt like it was more like an obligation because I was really his only outlet, because it’s a sin to masturbate as well.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Wow! So he got to masturbate with a body and you cooperated because you felt it was your duty.
Lynette: Exactly, yes.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Nearly a decade into their marriage, something changed.
Lynette: About, I guess it would be six years now, we both decided that we did not want to be in Mormon anymore. And what came with that was liberation, because there’s a lot of restrictions with being Mormon. And so part of that was sort of a sexual liberation.
So I almost had an affair with somebody I met, and it was the first time in my life that my sex drive was so strong. It was like distracting me. I’d never experienced that before. But my husband’s my best friend, so I never kept anything from him. I just told him everything I was feeling and he was very kind and supportive and just tried to help me through it all.
But I didn’t have the affair. I kind of just distanced myself from that person. But it started a bunch of discussions about us wanting to explore sexuality more. And we tried that with each other, but it was very complicated for a lot of reasons. Our Mormon upbringing, yes, but other reasons too. And then I really wasn’t exposed to the idea of polyamory. I just kind of thought, “Well, what if we tried to have sex with other people, or tried to have relationships outside our marriage?”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And that’s what they did. Even though she was the first one to broach the subject with her husband, he was the first one to have extra marital sexual relations. And she followed soon after with a single man who was doing construction on their home. Now that wasn’t a metaphor, but it could be.
Lynette: So the construction worker, like the man who owned the construction business, the head guy, I kind of kicked it off with him really well.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Oh, the man with the tool belt, always.
Lynette: Exactly, it’s like total fantasy. And so he was kind of over at our house all summer and my husband really liked him too. We just had kind of a cool dynamic. And then he had someone at work that he had been kind of crushing on for a while, and I really liked her. She was super nice. And so I was like, “Well, you could pause the idea to her, see what her reaction is.” And then he had to have a few more conversations before she was like really believing this was like a real opportunity.
But the thing that was nice about these opportunities is that both people were in a place where they were not looking for serious committed relationships. But they also weren’t really just wanting to kind of – it wasn’t like a Tinder thing, just kind of sleep around. So it was like they were very open to what we had to offer and it was going to work in their life.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Lynette says that jealousy wasn’t a big issue for them. She says that she and her husband have emotional intimacy, and there are no secrets between them, and they’re both committed to each other and raising their children. After flirting with her construction worker for some time, that flirtation advanced to sexy texts and eventually he offered to relieve her sexual frustration.
Lynette: So when I got that text, I sent the whole conversation to my husband and he was like, “Woo-woo! That’s so exciting!”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Wait, what? A husband cheering about the idea of another man gaining access to his wife’s eggs? This doesn’t seem to favor reproductive fitness. Oh man! We need an evolutionary biologist here!
Dr. David Barash: Hello, I am David Barash. I am a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at University of Washington, where I taught for 43 years before finally graduating. I am trained as an evolutionary biologist, a specialist in animal behavior where I spent literally decades studying the sexual reproductive behavior of animals.
I’ve done some work on humans, although frankly, I find humans really very confusing. It’s interesting to make implications from animal behavior and try to establish rules and principles that to a large extent apply to human beings. And I have spent a great deal of time doing that as well.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Dr. Barash is being humble. He’s author of the books – The Myth of Monogamy and Out of Eden: The surprising consequences of polygamy. He says, to help understand what’s natural to our species, it’s always interesting to look at our closest primate cousins. Dr. Barash has been studying them for decades.
Dr. David Barash: The icon, poster child of polyamory among primates are the Bonobos, used to be called the pygmy chimps. But we now recognize they’re not particularly pygmy and they are an independent species. They’re largely a female-oriented society. The female Bonobos are essentially dominant over the males. They engage in a great deal of sexual behavior. A lot of it homoerotic as well as heterosexual.
They do fight some, not nearly as much as the – if you want to call them the sort regular chimpanzees. It does remain something of a mystery how it is that Bonobos have evolved to be so sexually open, polyamorous perhaps, in some ways. The contrast between them and chimpanzees is rather dramatic.
Chimpanzees are really highly aggressive. They do an awful lot of murdering of each other. In fact, the individual males will have more than one female partner, and individual females will have more than one male partner. However, there’s a great deal of sexual jealousy and sexually-based violence among chimps. Not nearly so much among Bonobos.
In fact, Bonobos actually use their own sexuality in establishing sexual relationships as a way of making peace. So in that sense, make love, not war is very accurate in describing them.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But Dr. Barash cautions us to avoid thinking that either one of those species is an appropriate model for human beings or just too different. And we have too much variety in our human behavior. After all, there are 7 billion homo-sapiens on the planet.
Dr. David Barash: When you have a huge population, the likelihood is that you’re going to have a huge level of variety when it comes to almost anything. Now, admittedly, it’s not true of our anatomy. For instance, we all have one head. But when it comes to our behavior, there is an enormous variation in variety and the kinds of things we do. And of course, that not surprisingly would include our sexual inclinations and behavior.
And in fact, if you look at the evidence, you do find that human beings may well be … I haven’t actually tried to do this. It’s an interesting issue – how human beings may well be the most sexually diverse of any other species. On the other hand, there certainly are majoritarian practices, if you will, within our species. And polyamory almost, I regret to say, is not one of them.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: He says “regret” because the Bonobos use of sex for peacemaking may well be something humans could benefit from. However, polyamory he says, is not good for human evolution. That’s where monogamy trumps.
Dr. David Barash: Evolution by natural selection favors those individuals for instance, who invest in their own genes, which is to say their own children. From the male perspective in particular, if you’re going to, I hesitate to use the word “have.” But if you’re going to “have” one wife, it’s very much in your interest that that one wife be producing offsprings that are yours. And if you know at some level that that female with whom you are invested and involved has been having sex with other males, that substantially increases the probability that the offspring in question will not be yours.
Now, if that’s true, in so far as that’s true, then there will be a very definite evolutionary cost to investing in those offsprings. We know it’s possible for single parents to rear offsprings, there’s no question about that, but it’s hard. And it’s particularly hard in homo-sapiens where our offspring are so helpless at birth. They really need or certainly benefit dramatically by the assistance of two committed parents.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Indeed, the statistics support this idea. Research shows that children of single parents are more at risk for lower academic achievement, higher rates of substance abuse, earlier onset of sexual behavior. And single parents themselves are also at risk for more mental and physical health risks than married parents. But not every sexual encounter is aimed at reproduction.
On the other hand, if women are past their childbearing or they don’t want to have kids and they have control of birth control, so men aren’t worried about paternity uncertainty, is there any reason to have monogamy if it’s not about reproduction?
Dr. David Barash: Well, if it’s not about reproduction, there’s significantly less reason to worry about it, absolutely. Except that I think there’s very good reason to think that we have been endowed by our evolutionary biology with certain characteristics, certain psychological traits that go beyond the literality of whether we’re reproducing. That is to say when a man wants to have sexual intercourse with a woman who he finds attractive, it’s not necessarily because he wants to make children with her. In fact, in most cases, he doesn’t. But we’re stuck with that phenomenon of arousal as a result of our evolutionary heritage.
By the same token, I suspect that the problem that many people, and I think that the overwhelming majority have and will have and would have with non-monogamy, is not directly a result of issues of reproduction. But rather the issues of sexual jealousy, which we’re stuck with. And we’re stuck with it because in the past, we didn’t have very effective means of birth control.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Negative emotions are sneaky things. Sometimes, they slowly creep into our awareness and we can catch them, process them, and maybe even manage them before they turn into fight or flight behaviors. But other times, we are less like loving Bonobos and more like fierce chimpanzees. Sexual jealousy can flare up seemingly out of nowhere, and can be treacherous.
[News Report Playing 00:23:58 to 00:24:46]
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In evolutionary terms, there’s an interesting paradox that has created the ugly green monster of sexual jealousy. More partners mean more genetic diversity. That’s good, but when your partner has extra mates, it causes non-biologically related parents to waste time investing in raising somebody else’s genes instead of their own. To reduce the chances of that, we have evolved to have sexual jealousy.
Dr. David Barash: If you look at the human population, you do find a small proportion of people who are committed to polyamory. Even among that small proportion, those who are strongly, intellectually, emotionally committed, if you look over time, you find that they will ultimately confess. And often, it really is a painful and confession on their part, that they were also, if not overcome, they certainly felt inclinations of sexual jealousy, which emerged as a really unpleasant, unwanted perception on their part. But one that’s almost unavoidable because of our own evolutionary biology.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Remember Lynette from earlier in our podcast, the perky suburban wife with the sexy construction worker boyfriend and the many other lovers since? The one whose husband cheered on her affairs? Well, here’s what happened the first time he stepped out of their marriage with her permission.
Lynette: So the next morning I was like, “So what happened?” And he said, “Yeah, it went down.” And it was pretty shocking for me at first. I was a little surprised how sort of, it felt like it was an intense feeling. So I kind of sat with the feeling. I think it was some jealousy, maybe just kind of the newness of this idea. It was kind of scary, but I kind of sat with it for about a day and a half and then it kind of passed and we had some conversations, and then after that, I was fine with it.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: I want to stress this isn’t the experience of the vast majority of humans, and even Lynette knows that.
Who do you think would not be a good candidate for this kind of lifestyle or relationship?
Lynette: Well, I think one of the thing that comes to my mind immediately is just how difficult it is to deal with the feelings of jealousy. I mean, we’re human, we feel jealous feelings, but they’re very manageable for us and they always have been. Even when we were young and very much doing the Mormon thing, we never felt jealous. We would have crushes on other people all the time and we would talk about it openly.
And that’s never been a huge issue for us. But I found that that’s something that’s very difficult for a lot of people to cope with. And if that’s the case, then it may not be worth it.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So if polyamory has so many drawbacks, like unexpected sexual jealousy, increased risks of STDs, and a mating strategy where you could end up raising another person’s genes instead of your own, why would people ever do it?
Partly, it’s because most of us are wired to enjoy sexual variety. That’s designed to get us out of the tribe and increased genetic diversity. But that’s not all. Remember, all human behaviors have a biological, psychological, and social motivation. As far as social factors go, right now, we have an oversupply of successful women in modern Western culture. With many women surging ahead in education and their careers, there is a shortage of corresponding young men who these women deem datable.
Unconsciously or consciously, women have anxiety about this. It’s a mate crunch. And, since men have evolved to want more sex than women in general, some women are being subtly coerced into polyamory. For those women, the fear of losing one’s mate is greater than the fear of sharing one’s mate. That’s what Amy (bisexual woman about to move in with a couple) suspect’s happened in a relationship she had with a previous couple.
Amy: He went fishing. She kind of said she was a little bit by and he ran with that and they were looking for a girl. She wasn’t really sure if she wanted to be looking, but she kind of let him do whatever he was doing. He misled me into thinking that she was totally okay with things, and she was like sitting at the table while he told me things that weren’t necessarily true. So by the time I moved in, it was too late when I realized that she really didn’t want me moved in, and she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to have a girlfriend in the house. She was even doubting her bisexuality.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And our sex lives can also be hotbeds for psychological trauma. If we suffered abuse or abandonment in our early lives, this blueprint for relationships that we carry in our heads can lead us to walk right back into the fire. For some, the poly life is rife with feelings of loss. And then, there are the men who wave the polyamorous flag as a convenient way to cheat on spouses. Listen to this listener. We’ll call her Nanette.
Nanette: I had a lot of like trauma with past relationships, a lot of abuse and neglect. And even before then in my lineage, unfortunately, like my family is unfortunately predisposed to a lot of abuse. And I think that carries on in my lineage too.
So I came from a pretty hard place with relationships and I decided, well, what if I tried something nontraditional? Like what if I tried polyamory? And so I tried it. Basically what I did, the way I did my polyamory was I just kind of hooked up with different men. I had different dates almost every night or most days of the week, I had like a different person,
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But then, she met a married man who told her he was polyamorous.
You found your first partner and he was in a marriage, did you have sex with only him and on the side, so you were an extra pair bond? Or did you have sex with him and his wife?
Nanette: Just with him.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Did you meet the wife?
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Did you know that she was consenting to his behavior?
Nanette: I don’t know, but I got the sense he wasn’t being dishonest with me or hiding anything. I mean he even like sent me pictures of like his family and his pets, which was just his like pets and his wife.
And he was really nice. I wouldn’t say he was manipulative or maniacal, and he was very kind to me. However, even though when I was dating polyamory, I noticed that my trauma or my paranoia did not like subside. And so I kept having a lot of flare ups of like, “Is this person going to neglect me? Is this person going to like abuse me like my past exes? Like does this person actually mean what he says when he like is affectionate to me and does give me like a lot of love? Like is that being reciprocated correctly?”
But after the first person I just told you about, I did go into a polyamory with a second person and he abandoned me, he ghosted me just like that. And so that compiled on the trauma. And so like after that second partner, I stopped completely with polyamory.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Today, Nanette says she’s in a monogamous relationship with a supportive, comforting man who gives her all of himself. And this, she says, is healing. But she says there was a positive side to her experience with her version of polyamory.
Nanette: Like honestly, straight up, I think I learned a lot. I learned a lot of different lifestyles. I learned to be more sexually liberated with myself. I kind of learned to be empowered in a lot of ways, more than one. I learned sort of to take back just discovering myself as far as sexually and also, discovering kind of who I like as far as what I want in a relationship both in the person, in the relationship itself.
But I wouldn’t recommend polyamory for people who don’t really know how to investigate their trauma. I think they need to do deep investigation and deep deconstruction first before going into something as complicated and multi-dimensional as polyamory.
Dr. David Barash: As an evolutionary biologist, I see lots of problems with polyamory. And it’s not because I perceive polyamory as necessarily unethical or immoral or contrary to God’s recommendations or judgment. But rather because we are stuck and I literally mean stuck with evolution’s very strong whisperings within us that says, well, what’s good for us on an evolutionary level is not necessarily good for us. In fact, it’s probably bad for us if an intimate partner of ours does the same thing.
And even among those who practice polyamory and are very committed to it, a very large number will say, “After a while, I can’t get it out of my head that I don’t like it when so-and-so has sex with someone else.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In other words, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. Aaaw! Thanks for listening to Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh.
Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeart Media. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson.
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