Why are we so obsessed with polyamory?

Polyamory is everywhere.

It permeates society at every turn: from fictional shows, like "Bojack Horseman" and "Riverdale," to reality TV, with "Couple to Throuple." There's been recent legislation aimed at recognizing polyamorous couples, and publications (including this one!) have been writing article after article about non-monogamy for years now, too.

Why, exactly? Many factors are at play, according to experts, including changing attitudes toward monogamy as a result of the pandemic and increasing, unfettered access to information online about different relationship styles. Not to mention that finding that once-in-a-lifetime-love doesn't happen for everyone.

"People are recognizing that perhaps this societal invention of one person meets another person, they fall in love, they're only in love with one another, they marry and they move into a house, they have 2.5 kids, that's not an achievable dream for a lot of folks," says Shanna Kattari, associate professor at the School of Social Work and in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Michigan.

Polyamory means "multiple loves" – a word coined in the late 20th century, with Greek and Latin roots.
Polyamory means "multiple loves" – a word coined in the late 20th century, with Greek and Latin roots.

'You set yourself up for disappointment'

Polyamory means "multiple loves" – a word coined in the late 20th century, with Greek and Latin roots.

"It usually describes a particular approach to (consensual non-monogamy) that prioritizes ongoing emotional and sexual connections with multiple partners," Sheila Addison, a family and marriage therapist, previously told USA TODAY. It's not to be confused with polygamy, aka "multiple wives" – something typically associated with religious or cultural practices, she said. According to a 2016 study that sampled U.S. Census data from single adults, 20% of participants reported engaging in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lifetime.

"When you put so much on one relationship, and you have really high expectations, you set yourself up for disappointment inevitably," says Leanne Yau, polyamory expert.

'I don't want to choose'

Typically, interest in polyamory waxes and wanes over years. During times of political strife and unease – war, climate change, economic turbulence (and of course, a pandemic) – people tend to question other institutions as well. That includes marriage and primary relationship structures.

"COVID forced us to confront so many different aspects of our lives that hadn't been working or weren't completely satisfying to us – especially within relationships," says psychotherapist Madison McCullough. For some people, it meant addressing problems within their existing relationship. For others, it meant FaceTime dates up the wazoo.

"It seems like we've always had some understanding of it being OK to be non-monogamous in some context, so long as the happily ever after or the ending involves just this one person," says Justin Clardy, assistant professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, referencing TV shows like "The Bachelor."

But falling in love with one person forever? "What if I've been dating multiple people, like most people do before you find somebody to settle down with, and I don't want to choose between two of them, or three of them?" Kattari says.

Elisabeth Sheff, an expert on consensual non-monogamy, adds: "That's just totally unrealistic to expect that level of glowing perfection from someone else for the rest of your life."

What is polyamory? What to know about poly relationships.

Is polyamory right for you?

If you are curious about polyamory, here are things to consider:

  • Don't let it be a last resort. If you've been fighting with your partner, and you think opening up your relationship could solve all your problems, think again. "That's not going to work well for most folks," Kattari says. "That's a recipe for disaster."

  • Educate yourself. Listen to podcasts, read books, give polyamorous creators a follow on social media. Find out if this is legitimately something you want to pursue – and especially before bringing up with your partner, if you're in a monogamous relationship. Remember that many TV and film portrayals might not portray polyamory or non-monogamy in a successful light.

  • Overcome stigma and accept not everyone will understand. "The central stigma that polyamory holds is that it exists for those who 'can't be satisfied' or 'don't want to settle down,' McCullough says. "There's also a belief that people who engage in polyamory simply 'couldn't hack it' in a monogamous context without cheating." Ignore this, but be prepared for others to never quite get it.

  • Communicate effectively. "The biggest most important piece of being successful with polyamory is good and frequent communication," Kattari adds. "Because if you are not prepared to communicate with one partner, you are certainly not prepared to communicate and hold all of those feelings and needs and wants with another or multiple other partners."

  • Consider therapy. It couldn't hurt to air out your issues with an outside third party.

Watch: Polyamory has hit reality TV with 'Couple to Throuple.' Expect to challenge your misconceptions.

Will consensual non-monogamy ever take the place of serial monogamy? No one knows. But we're likely headed for some wiggle room around what traditional monogamy looks like. Exclusivity after a period of dating is no longer assumed – you have to have a conversation about it.

Experts hope we get to a point where many kinds of relationships are recognized between consensual adults. But it's important to remember that while monogamy won't work for everyone, neither will non-monogamy.

Also, you don't have to be even remotely interested in polyamory to read up on it. Kattari adds: "The more that even monogamous people are willing to learn and educate themselves about polyamory, the better it is for everyone."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is polyamory? Definition, and why you're seeing it everywhere