Humanism and Polyamory

Humanist celebrants in the UK have been performing same sex affirmation ceremonies since 1987, but should humanist organisations offer affirmation ceremonies for relationships with multiple partners?

The Polyamory communities in the UK and the USA have been open and vocal for many years now. Polyamorists believe that it is possible to have healthy and loving relationships outside of the traditional view of monogamy. Polyamorists vary widely in the relationships they participate in and how they approach them. Some may be fairly flexible arrangements involving complex arrangements of a group of individuals whose lovers and interests overlap. Other polyamorous groups may consist of a stable arrangement of people all committed to each other. A group may even raise children together, with each partner equally committed to raising their child in a loving community. Polyamorous relationships grow and change with individuals, just like monogamous relationships.

Is there any reason why Humanists should oppose multiple partnerships? Under law in the UK, polygamy is illegal, but so was homosexual marriage! If we can accept that marriage law concerning homosexuality is outdated and inappropriate, maybe it’s worth taking a second look at the issue of monogamy. Here’s what american polyamorous activists Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt have to say about the subject:

*”We see marriage laws imposed by the government as a blatant violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state, […].”

So what are the arguments against multiple partners? Like the bar on homosexuality, this piece of legislation probably has roots in societal views heavily influenced by the bible. Is there any evidence which shows that being in a committed, consensual, shared relationship harms the individuals involved? Or anyone else for that matter? Arguing nowadays that raising a child outside of a traditional, monogamous relationship is inferior and harmful would be outrageous and highly insulting to single parents, guardians and all those who care for children outside of the nuclear family arrangement. Can anyone argue that polyamorous relationships are less stable when divorce is a common occurrence in today’s society and without reliable data on this topic? Finally, trying to look to nature for some ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ behaviour concerning relationships ‘in the wild’ is simply ridiculous. Observing the relationship behaviour of other primates is interesting, but irrelevant: humans should be compared with humans. There is no natural marital order to the world; as long as we’re not breaking the laws of physics nobody’s going to get hurt.

As far as I can see, there’s no reason not to award the same respect and consideration to relationships with multiple partners. If people are in love and want to share their commitment to each other with their community and have it recognised, I wish them good luck and many happy times.

*Easton, D. & Liszt, C. A. (1997). The Ethical Slut. Greenery Press, San Francisco. p.209.

10 Responses to “Humanism and Polyamory”

  1. 1 Hugh May 7, 2008 at 8:45 am

    Hmm, aren’t your arguments here not so much about polyamory as recognising any relationship people choose to have?
    It seems like the main point you make is that society has no right to say anything about how people live, but in that case I’m not clear what ‘affirmation’ here means? Does society have any more right to affirm relationships than it does to condemn them?

    I’m wondering too about what you say about marriage – would you equate respecting and showing consideration for a relationship with including it in the definition of marriage?
    And if we recognise polygamy in this way, are we not denying the same respect and consideration to, say, single people? Or people who choose to avoid committed relationships?
    I’d suggest that perhaps a more natural conclusion to come to from this might be that (traditional, monogamous) marriage should not be given a special privileged status, rather than broadening the definition of marriage further?

    Happy humanisting!

  2. 2 Clare May 7, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    You’re right, I am indeed talking about accepting other people’s relationships that they have chosen for themselves. Society doesn’t have a ‘right’ to condone or affirm relationships, but those in a relationship may wish to share their relationship with their friends, family and community. In which case, why shouldn’t polyamorists want equal access or opportunities to celebrate and share their relationship? I should also add that I don’t say that society has no right to say anything about how people live, that would mean proposing a society with no laws, but I do think that society has no right to say anything about the consenting relationships of adults.

    The institution of marriage is a whole other topic for another day, but I’ll try my best to touch upon it. Marriage is an official legal recognition of a relationship which brings with it a host of legal rights and entitlements. These can be property rights, parenting rights or the authority to make healthcare decisions. For example, if your partner dies, you might not be able to keep raising the child you were co-parenting if they came from a previous relationship and your relationship to the deceased parent is not recognised.

    You are right that we should show respect and consideration for all people regardless of marital status. We should respect and recognise everyone’s lifestyle choices, whether they choose to live as a single person, in a relationship or to change their relationship status. However, I don’t see how accepting and respecting polyamorous relationships lessens respect for those who are single or not in committed relationships. If anything, accepting polyamory should encourage the idea that there are many ways of relating to others and these are all normal and deserving of respect.

  3. 3 Hugh May 9, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Then would it not make more sense to perform a ceremony for anyone who asks for one, regardless of what the details of the relationship involved are(with the usual caveat of not hurting others)?

    I’m concerned that the arguments you’re using to support polyamory go really quite a lot further, and particularly that just affirming polyamorous relatiohsips isn’t really consistent if there are other (non-harmful) relationships which are still being excluded.

    And sorry, I’m perhaps getting a bit ahead of myself with the marriage thing. What I’m trying to say is, while, as you say, polygamy is illegal, this isn’t necessarily a judgement on the validity of these relationships, so much as what constitutes ‘marriage’ in a legal sense.
    As you say, there are many privileges which go with marriage, and it is perhaps unfair that these privileges aren’t available to people in other kinds of relationships(or no relationship at all), but that simply extending marriage to include polyamorous relationships(which I *think* is what you were arguing for in, umm, your third paragraph up there?) is really only a stopgap measure?
    I should say, if you’d prefer not to get into this here, feel free. I know it’s a bit of a touchy subject that fundamentalist types and right-wingers love to jump on given the opportunity.

    And thanks!

  4. 4 Clare May 9, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    That’s my point exactly: any consenting adults should be allowed to ask for a ceremony celebrating their relationship if they want one. There are already ceremonies for those partnerships with two people of the same sex or different, so why not offer them to multiple partners too, whether they be same sex, different sex or unspecified?

    Looking at marriage in legal terms, it can be seen as an agreement whereby the state agrees to recognise a stated relationship and that those within this relationship are entitled to certain rights and treatment. When you choose to recognise and uphold the rights of only one type of relationship, the heterosexual couple, then you are by default choosing to omit or disregard other forms of relationship. That is a judgement. Are these other relationships considered less valid? Why not? Is it because a same sex couple are less likely to have (biological) children? Is it because a relationship involving several partners is assumed to be less serious? I have no desire to get into a discussion on the pros and cons of marriage, but I am advocating equal access for all those who want it.

    Could you please specify which relationships you think I might be excluding? I certainly don’t mean to exclude anyone or their chosen family. Many people choose not to get married and choose to raise families as committed partners, and I agree wholeheartedly that the law should be compatible with this. However, I do not see how advocating wider access to the institution of marriage necessarily undermines the rights of those who wish to stay partners.

    You mention rights being excluded from those in certain relationships and those outside relationships. Would you like to elaborate on that? I am reluctant to get into a discussion of legal rights as I am no expert in that area, but I presume you are talking about possible property, childrearing and inheritance rights? I presume partnerships would fall into this category? Commonlaw marriage laws already cover some of this, I suspect. I know that in one european country they have property laws where a group of unrelated people can register a property and have certain rights – is that the sort of thing you would be referring to for single people? My blog post makes no argument as to the rights and entitlements within marriage or without, I only make the argument that polyamorous relationships could be given access to this also.

    One other option could be to change the marriage rights agreement to a family rights agreement that any specified group of individuals could sign up to in order to obtain family rights, and that this would be entirely separate to any relationship ceremony. In this way, a couple could get married and then go to sign a family agreement to register their rights, but a single parent could also sign a family agreement with selected individuals that they weren’t in a romantic relationship with.

    If there are any questions or issues I haven’t addressed here that you were hoping I would cover, feel free to just ask me outright or be a bit more specific. 🙂

  5. 5 Hugh May 12, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Yay, that sounds good. I particularly like the idea of having seperate marriage agreements and family agreements.

    And I must admit, I don’t have a specific situation in mind when I talk about other relationships being excluded, but in a way I think that’s the point I’m trying to make – however broadly you stretch your definition of marriage, there will always be some situations which are excluded. You mention towards the end a single parent who wants to have a family agreement with someone but is not in a romantic relationship with them, which I think is a great example.
    The problem is that there will always be exceptions, so while it might be good to broaden the definition of marriage to include as many people as possible, this will always exclude some. I’m suggesting approaches like your idea of family agreements would make sure noone is left out, as well as avoiding needing particular arrangements to be ‘validated’ by being individually discussed and approved, however freely and liberally that approval is given.

    I’m not quite sure where or what I said about rights being excluded from some relationships. I’m quite satisfied that you’ve answered this point though, but if you particularly want to know what I was trying to say, could you point it out to me?

    So yay, and thanks again :o)

    (Completely unrelatedly, have you noticed the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill is being debated in parliament today? I thought this might interest you.)

  6. 6 Clare May 13, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    I keep hearing things about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, but I haven’t been following it too closely. I really need to get round to doing some reading to understand some of the implications and details of it.

  7. 7 Jon May 17, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    That’s a very interesting thought Clare, and you make a convincing point (convinced me). You know, I often find that humanism teaches me to reexamine cultural norms.

    We so often just go with the flow (or at least, I do), not thinking to look at that which is so natural to us. Natural because it’s been taught throughout our lives (“Cultural inertia” as they say) not that it’s the “truth” in any meaningful way.

  8. 8 cath September 23, 2008 at 6:20 pm


    an absurdly belated contribution to this discussion, but since we were talking about it today …

    I was struck by your comment that, “any consenting adults should be allowed to ask for a ceremony celebrating their relationship if they want one.” If there was a clash between the organisation that was being asked to provide a ceremony and the adults in whatever consenting relationship it might be, for example in terms of it being incompatible with the constitution of the organisation to recognise some particular kind of relationship, how would you balance (i) the putative right of the consenting adults to have a ceremony with (ii) the right of the organisation to act in accordance with its constitution?

    (When you first posted this, I have a vague memory of being on the point of querying whether polyamorous relationships are always/necessarily as benign as is assumed in the original post, esp in contrast with the known benefits of raising children in stable heterogeneous traditional marriages (one man one woman for life) – but that’s a different kind of issue i suppose!)

    Anyway – no rush to reply, hope you have a lovely relaxing evening (you deserve it!)


  9. 9 Clare September 23, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    I think there’s a distinction between people being allowed to celebrate and recognise their relationships and an organisation being forced to recognise it. For example, the state should allow people to have their relationships officially recognised and a humanist organisation could offer ceremonies, but a Christian/Islamic/Jewish/etc organisation wouldn’t be forced to approve or offer ceremonies unless that’s what the members of the organisation decided for themselves.

    I agree that not all polyamorous relationships are benign because not all relationships are benign regardless of type. A socially recognised heterosexual relationship is no less likely to become abusive or negative than a polyamorous one.

  1. 1 Humanist Symposium #25 « FreeThought Fort Wayne Trackback on September 14, 2008 at 6:30 pm

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