Polyamory: Deviancy Embraced

Mar 2nd, 2024 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In 1978, the historian Christopher Lasch published a profoundly important book, entitled The Culture of Narcissism, in which he argued that this culture “assumes that psychic health and personal liberation are synonymous with an absence of inner restraints, inhibitions, and ‘hangups.’” And what could offer more liberation than throwing off the constraints of one of humanity’s oldest institutions, monogamous marriage?  Polyamory is the most recent manifestation of this narcissistic penchant.


Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler of Christianity Today clarify that: “Polyamory—from the Greek poly, meaning ‘many,’ and the Latin amor, meaning ‘love’—refers to ‘the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.’ A defining element of polyamorous relationships is that they are honest and consensual—cheating and lying are frowned upon in the poly community.  Unlike polygamy, polyamory does not always involve a marriage commitment, and it is much more egalitarian. Polyamory is also different from swinging or open relationships, though they do overlap. Open relationships are polyamorous, but not every polyamorous relationship is an open relationship. Sex and relationship therapist Renee Divine says, “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimateloving relationships with multiple people.” Notice again that polyamory is not just about sex. It includes love, romance, and emotional commitment among three or more people.


How prevalent is polyamory?  Christianity Today recently summarized the results of several studies on this growing cultural phenomenon:

  • According to one estimate, “as many as 5 percent of Americans are currently in relationships involving consensual nonmonogamy,” which is about the same percentage as those who identify as LGBTQ.
  • A recent study, published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that 20 percent of Americans have been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship at least once in their life.
  • Another survey showed that nearly 70 percent of non-religious Americans between the ages of 24 and 35 believe that polyamory is okay, even if it’s not their cup of tea.
  • And perhaps most shocking of all, according to sociologist Mark Regnerus in Cheap Sex, roughly 24 percent of church-going people believe that consensual polyamorous relationships are morally permissible.

Tyler Austin Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, recently published an article in The Atlantic, which places this penchant for polyamory into context.  Harper specifically builds his article around More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage, by Molly Roden Winter, “an unsparing account of a polyamorous life—at least, a polyamorous life as lived by a white, wealthy, heterosexual Brooklynite.”  Here are a few of the salient observations from the article:

  • “Molly’s polyamorous journey toward self-actualization does not seem to bring her much happiness. It seems to make her miserable . . . Her attempt at finding a ‘deeper truth’ through sexual enlightenment not only provides little truth or enlightenment; it keeps her from seeing her problems clearly.  In this way, More is a near-perfect time capsule of the banal pleasure-seeking of wealthy, elite culture in the 2020s, and a neat encapsulation of its flaws. This culture would have us believe that interminable self-improvement projects, navel-gazing, and sexual peccadilloes are the new face of progress. The climate warms, wars rage, and our country lurches toward a perilous election—all problems that require real action, real progress. And somehow ’you do you’ has become the American ruling class’s three-word bible.”
  • “The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that, since at least the late 20th century, Western societies have been defined by ‘a generalized culture of authenticity,’ or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing’. . . We might call this turbocharged version of authenticity culture ‘therapeutic libertarianism’: the belief that self-improvement is the ultimate goal of life, and that no formal or informal constraints—whether imposed by states, faith systems, or other people—should impede each of us from achieving personal growth. This attitude is therapeutic because it is invariably couched in self-help babble. And it is libertarian not only because it makes a cult out of personal freedom, but because it applies market logic to human beings. We are all our own start-ups. We must all adopt a pro-growth mindset for our personhood and deregulate our desires. We must all assess and reassess our own “fulfillment,” a kind of psychological Gross Domestic Product, on a near-constant basis. And like the GDP, our fulfillment must always increase.”
  • “Polyamory, as More demonstrates, entangles many of these tendencies at once. Early on in More, Molly is given homework by her therapist: to create a list of things she wants freedom from (‘pressure to be punctual,’ ‘self-imposed obligations,’ ‘guilt,’ ‘pleasing others’) and lists of things she wants freedom to be or freedom to do (‘spontaneous,’ ‘imperfect,’ ‘my own priority,’ ‘things that are fun and just for me’). Molly carries these lists around with her everywhere, tucked safely in a pocket, as she navigates the at times fiery and frigid waters of ethical non-monogamy. What the author is trying to find in her open relationship is not sex, but self-understanding—what it means, how we get it, whether sex can provide it. And although the answers Molly arrives at are not cheaply won, they are cheap all the same.”
  • “But though Molly may tell herself and her readers that she is on a journey of learning and growth, the ugly truth is that More feels like a 290-page cry for help. Molly does not come off as a woman boldly finding herself, but rather as someone who is vulnerable to psychological manipulation and does not enjoy her open marriage . . . But for all the unpleasantness she endures, Molly spends most of the book deluding herself that she’s in charge and having a grand old time . . . Winter is trapped in her therapeutic worldview, one imposed on her by an American culture that has made narcissism into not simply a virtue, but a quasi-religion that turns external obstacles into opportunities for internal self-improvement.”
  • “In his 1978 best seller, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argued that American narcissism should not be understood as simple self-obsession. Narcissism is a survival strategy: If we are fixated on finding fulfillment and endless self-reinvention, it is because our own inner lives feel like the only thing most of us have control over. The therapeutic cult of personal growth is a response to external problems that feel insoluble, a future that feels shorn of causes for hope.  In an earlier book, Lasch wrote about open marriage as the logical end point of a narcissistic, survivalist culture. ‘The fear and rejection of parenthood, the tendency to view the family as nothing more than marriage, and the perception of marriage as merely one in a series of nonbinding commitments, reflect a growing distrust of the future and a reluctance to make provisions for it,’ Lasch claimed . . . a quick tour through the voluminous polyamory Reddit forums, for example, also reveals the downsides of applying therapeutic libertarianism to our personal lives: Beautiful souls seeking absolute freedom may find only abjection. Look no further than Molly herself, who nods and breaks down into tears when her therapist asks whether she worries that ‘open marriage is giving you an illusion of freedom’ rather than actual freedom. It is one of those fleeting moments when Molly seems on the verge of a breakthrough, only to have it slip away.”

So, how does genuine, biblical Christianity view this fad called polyamory?  Scripture clearly connects sex, marriage, and monogamy in ways that are violated in polyamorous relationships.  The Bible also has a clear and distinct answer to the “therapeutic libertarianism” that Harper identifies as central to our culture.  We must begin with the Creation Ordinance of God in Genesis 2.  Here we see there that marriage is a divinely ordained institution, now marred by sin, but which can only reach its God-ordained purposes through the Spirit, who empowers and regenerates.  Moreover, throughout Scripture, marriage is a central metaphor for the covenant relationship between God with His people, both Israel and the church.  From that Creation Ordinance, we reach the following conclusions:


  1. Marriage is between a man and a woman, giving the divine vocation of procreation and dominion rule over God’s world.  There is a clear differentiation between the man and the woman in every sense, but they are to function as a perfect complementary whole.  Where the one is weak, the other is strong, and vice versa.
  2. Kynes writes:  “This Genesis account points to the primacy of the marriage relationship above all other human bonds and to a profound sense of personal attachment symbolized, celebrated and nourished in the sexual union they [are] to enjoy with one another.”
  3. From Ephesians 5:32, we learn that marriage is a symbol, an archetype of how Christ relates to His church and vice versa.  Marriage is a powerful metaphor for something supernatural!


Finally, there are clear benefits that current social science evidence provides for marriage as detailed in the Creation Ordinance:


  1. Married men and women live significantly longer, healthier and happier lives and recover more quickly from illness.
  2. Married men and women are less likely to suffer from mental illness or commit suicide.
  3. Married women are less likely to experience domestic violence than cohabiting or dating women.
  4. Marriage reduces child poverty.
  5. Children in single-parent families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school.
  6. Children from intact married homes have lower rates of drug abuse.
  7. Boys growing up without fathers are twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison, and girls raised without a father in the home are five times more likely to become unwed teenage mothers.


So compelling is the evidence for the social benefits of marriage, that Princeton sociologist, Sara McLanahan, has argued:  “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. . . . Marriage is more than a private emotional relationship.  It is also a social good.  Not every person can or should marry.  And not every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result.  But communities where good-enough marriages are common have better outcomes for children, women and men than do communities suffering from high rates of divorce, unmarried child-bearing, and high conflict or violent marriages.”


William Kynes concludes:  “While it is true that in its civil dimensions, marriage is a creation of the state, a Christian theology of marriage contends that the social legitimacy of marriage has a deeper foundation within a natural moral order.  Marriage and family, economic life, cultural life, and religion, all represent separate but intersecting and overlapping spheres of social life.  Though all are now regulated by the state in some sense, they are also all pre-political, having a genesis and continuing life of their own apart from the action of the state and from the actions of others.  The state must respect this order.  The mandating of same-sex marriage is seen by many as such a gross violation of that order that it threatens to make marriage only a civil creation, with devastating social effects.  For its flourishing, marriage requires a deeper foundation in the minds of those who enter it and who hope to be sustained in it.  This is what the Christian theology of marriage can provide.”


The intersection of theology and the public interest must be maintained because the survival of human society itself demands this.  The renewal of civilization begins, not with “therapeutic libertarianism” as manifested in polyamory, but with the renewal of Ephesians 5:32 marriages.

See Joshua Bote, “What you need to know about polyamory — including throuples — but were too afraid to ask,” USA Today (14 February 2020); Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler, “Polyamory: Pastors’ Next Sexual Frontier” www.Christianitytoday.com (18 February 2020); and Colin M. Wright an Emma N. Hilton in the Wall Street Journal (14 February 2020); Tyler Austin Harper “Polyamory, the Ruling Class’s Latest Fad” in One Story, The Atlantic (1 February 2024); Stephanie Coontz in the New York Times (26 November 2007) and William L. Kynes, “The Marriage Debate: A Public Theology of Marriage,” Trinity Journal 28NS (2007): 187-203

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