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Polyamory in the UK: Is an end to marriage near?

With an increase in polyamory subscribers in the United Kingdom, the question arises – how has the happily ever after changed?

To have a wedded soulmate, for better or worse, for richer or poorer and in sickness and health is an idea of romance many grow up with. Who hasn’t thought of hot celebrities, massive crushes leading to daydreaming of happily ever-afters?

Well, not Kate Smurthwaite. “Brad Pitt could offer me monogamy and I’d be like no, just No. Even if I lived in a town where there was only one guy, still no. My sense of freedom is more important than being in a relationship.”

Polyamorous and a comedian by profession, 45-year-old Kate Smurthwaite feels that it’s wrong to expect everything from one partner. Back in her 20s, Kate Smurthwaite was breaking up with actually nice people because she didn’t like the idea of settling down. She liked the idea of seeing other people. “I tried to get into monogamous relationships because I thought that’s what you had to do but I didn’t really like it. It wasn’t for me.”

There is a case for marriage being an obsolete institution that has run its course for reasons of it being sexist and no longer being functional.

Previously married and now separated, she can see herself married again to somebody who is open and wants to be chill. Marriage itself she finds as an outdated, patriarchal institution. “But given the opportunity to legally have some kind of formal relationship that is recognised in terms of carrying responsibilities, I would love to be able to have that with more than one person.”

Russell, who is 54 and polyamorous since 1992, also feels that the whole idea of traditional marriage where a father gives the bride to her husband is patriarchal.

He is married but said that if the concept of civil partnership for heterosexual couples was available back when he got married, he would have chosen it. His wife agrees he said.

Polyamorous and bisexual, 24-year-old Mariel doesn’t write off marriage completely either. She said she will get married to the person who is the father of her child, if that ever happens.

Why is there an increase in Polyamorous peoples in the UK:

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“If I have found the person, I want to have kids with, I’ll marry the person. The other people would become uncles and aunts in that case.”

Senior Lecturer from Centre of Law, Gender, Race and Sexuality of the University of Westminster, Dr. Victoria Brooks said, “A lot of insecurity about polyamory is about insecurity around marriage.

“But I don’t think it’s a fight between polyamory and monogamy. I think people are naturally inclined towards one or the other in terms of relationship orientation. And, some people are always going to want to get married. There are always going to be monogamous people. I don’t think everyone is suddenly going to be polyamorous.

Think of extramarital relationships and how long they have existed for. Strangely, the institution of marriage still persists.”

To some extent, statistics seem to agree with Dr. Brooks. In 2021, a poll on 635,000 married people in the United Kingdom showed that 25.4% of men and 18.3% of women engaged in adultery. The number of people here is equivalent to 3% of all married British people, notes Insight, a private investigator agency in the country.

Kate Smurthwaite, who hasn’t written off marriage completely but has a problem with monogamous relationships says: “I think monogamous relationships can get very toxic. My parents were and remain in a monogamous relationship that I don’t think is particularly healthy.”

She explains that in a monogamous relationship, all your needs will either be met by that partner or will go unmet: “It’s asking a lot of one person to meet all of your needs.

“In a monogamous relationship, if your partner says that there is one thing I really want to do and it doesn’t appeal to you, you feel like this is your job to provide this. Whereas I don’t have any of that burden upon me. I just go – no, not for me. And they then can go and get that from whoever they like.”

It is worth noting here that in a poll by Superdrug Online Doctor (online platform that connects people with UK registered doctors in a discreet way, free of cost), among the top five reasons that Europeans cheated on their partner were that they stopped paying attention to them and they weren’t having sex with them. Another two were that they found the other person hot or that they were really there for them.

About 20% people who took the survey said they might convert to monogamy

In the polyamory community, there is some clamour by people for the right to marry all their partners. In a Daily Mail article, Mary Crumpton, a polyamorous woman who was walked down the aisle during her second wedding by her first husband, said that she wants the law to change so that both her marriages are considered legal.

She said to the DailyMail, “It’s lovely to be able to feel that I’ve made the commitment to John (second husband) so he is not in a second place anymore.”

She is now preparing to lobby for new marriage rules. In the survey on Polyamory that I conducted among Polyamorous peoples in the United Kingdom for the story, around 50% of participants said they want a better legal framework for marriage in the United Kingdom, allowing marriage to all partners.

Jonathan Herring, Professor of Law at Oxford University said that currently the United Kingdom law looks at polyamory partners as roommates or strangers living together and that leads to the problem of people in polyamory marriages as not having the same rights as people with a married status in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Brooks said, “I think there is room to alter the institution of marriage to make room for kind of different constellations of couples. It’s about protecting people and making room within a system for everyone.”

She said that the fact that the dominant message that people receive is the heteronormative (straight sexual orientation) monogamous relationships are the only way.

“It’s sometimes even toxic monogamy which is based around kind of possessiveness and jealousy and romantic notions of owning one another.”

Psychotherapist Sara Hagerman said that the thing that most people find challenging is that polyamory opens the idea that love is not finite.

Dr. Brooks explains that monogamy is not always bad though. “It’s important to learn how to have healthy relationships, whatever way you choose to have your relationship. Perhaps, there needs to be more emphasis on our relationship with ourselves before we talk of relationships with others.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Herring said that polyamorous people who want to have similar rights as married people when “there is no way for people to get married to multiple partners and have those recognized” is for them to get many of the legal consequences of marriage by means of getting contracts drawn for financial distribution in case of a relationship break down, child custody, and inheritance of property if one of the partner’s dies. In a marriage, some of these things, normally, are automatic and go to the other partner.

BBC Bitesize in its GCSE (equivalent of class 10th or high school in other countries) syllabus says that that the United Kingdom society traditionally values marriage. However, Reader in Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., Dr. Christian Klesse said that gradual acceptance happens in a society for anything from LGBTQ to feminist politics as a result of the struggles of “social movements.”

“These play a significant role because from my point of view social movements such as lesbian-gay liberation, feminist politics, transgender politics, very often have raised important questions about structures which govern society. So, they have made suggestions about how things could work differently – hopefully in a more egalitarian way.”

He said that legal change also plays a role.

“In many countries, LGBTQ politics only emerged after decriminalisation. Decriminalisation allows people to become politically active, without risking their livelihoods.”

People in the U.K. may have lost their jobs due to their polyamorous lifestyle choice/orientation

He also explained that sometimes economic changes lead to such changes and improved acceptance.

“Women’s participation in the labour force and women being able to make their own living has strengthened in principle women’s autonomy, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m thinking that wage labour is the only problem of patriarchy but all these issues play into each other.”

He also explains that there is a need for society to not ignore the lifestyle of a significant portion of society through censorship and preventing people from voicing their concerns is that it is injustice.

“It works towards sustaining practices and structures of inequality which cause harm. For example, if polyamorous parents can’t disclose their identity and must ask their kids to not disclose their status at school, that instils shame within children. It ruins family lives.”

However, there is also a case against polyamory in terms of monogamy being the better, more functional form of relationship for rearing kids. Dr. Karen Ruskin, who has worked as a Relationship Expert/Family Therapist for about two decades now said in her personal blog that it is not healthy for children.

“It has been my ongoing experience that Polyamory is not the ideal scenario for children to experience as their parents’ lifestyle. It is my assertion that it is less than ideal with potentially traumatic affects.”

Klesse, however, pointed out some of the benefits of raising children in a polyamorous set-up.

“You very often have (in a polyamorous set-up) other partners taking responsibility for children. And, in a society which has insufficient affordable childcare facilities, couples are very often overwhelmed.”

In an article by BBC, British Psychotherapist Dr. Meg-John Barker said, “There’s no reason to believe that monogamy is any better [or worse] than other family structures – of which poly families are just one.”

“Structures with more adults involved, and more community support around them, may well work better for many people. Of course, conscious non-monogamy isn’t necessarily any better than other models: there are problematic parenting behaviours across all relationship styles.”

Kate Smurthwaite has a stepson from one of her partners and the son is in a monogamous relationship. They have conflicts – around who has the TV remote and the temperature of the room. But as far as the parents being in polyamorous relationships is considered, Kate Smurthwaite says:

“We are not even the first people in his family to be non-monogamous. His grandparents lived an alternative lifestyle. It was never a question of him accepting it. He’s a lovely guy and he is just happy if I am happy, and his dad is happy.”

So the question arises – from romantic relationship with the one partner, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer to polyamory with the multiple love interests, has the happily-ever after changed?

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