Polyamory is great

On Season 1 of HBO’s “Succession,” the telecom heiress Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) shocked her social-climber partner, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen), by sharing her misgivings about monogamy—on their wedding night. “I’m just wondering if there’s an opportunity for something different from the whole boxed-set death march,” she confesses, still in her gown. Committed to marrying up, Tom pretends to be down with the whole thing, but, a season later, he backs out of a threesome aboard the family yacht, and out of the arrangement altogether, claiming that Shiv “shanghaied” him “into an open-borders free-fuck trade deal.”

Polyamory is great

A brief scan of popular culture will tell you that Tom, save for his critique of laissez-faire capitalism, is behind the times. Marriage has been drafty lately. Everywhere you turn, the door couples close behind them when they enter the sanctum of matrimony is being left ajar. Bored with the old-fashioned affair, prestige TV has traded in adultery for a newer, younger model, mining open relationships for drama. In fiction, consensual non-monogamy has appeared in a spate of recent books, including “Luster” (2020), by Raven Leilani, “Acts of Service” (2022), by Lillian Fishman, and Maggie Millner’s “Couplets” (2023), a novel whose title plays with the overlapping nature of coupledom among polyamorous young Brooklynites. In cinema, the couple has been made passé by the au-courant throuple, with films like “Passages” (2023) and next year’s “Challengers” chasing the thrill of the third. In March of 2023, Gucci premièred a perfume ad featuring Julia Garner, Elliot Page, and A$AP Rocky all staring amorously into one another’s eyes to the fifties doo-wop tune “Life Is But a Dream.” The video is captioned “Co-create a world of openhearted bliss in the new Gucci Guilty campaign.” The ménage à trois has become so trendy that, in the fifth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Princess Diana’s famous quip to Martin Bashir regarding her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” misses the sting of the original. If anything, by today’s standards three’s not enough company. “Riverdale,” the CW’s adaptation of the classic Archie Comics, ended its series run by revealing that Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Betty were all in a romantic “quad.”

What are all these open couples, throuples, and polycules suddenly doing in the culture, besides one another? To some extent, art is catching up with life. Fifty-one per cent of adults younger than thirty told Pew Research, in 2023, that open marriage was “acceptable,” and twenty per cent of all Americans report experimenting with some form of non-monogamy. The extramarital “entanglements” of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have been tabloid fodder for the past two years. (Pinkett Smith once clarified that their marriage is not “open”; rather, it is a “relationship of transparency.”) In 2020, the reality show “House Hunters,” on HGTV, saw a throuple trying to find their dream home—one with a triple-sink vanity. The same year, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, allowed domestic partnerships to be made up of “two or more” people.

Some, like the sex therapist (and author of “Open Monogamy, A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement,” 2021), Tammy Nelson, have attributed the acceptance of a greater number of partners to pandemic-born domestic ennui; after being stuck with one person all day every day, the thinking goes, couples are ready to open up more than their pods. Nelson is part of a cohort of therapists, counsellors, and advice writers, including Esther Perel and the “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage, who are encouraging married couples to think more flexibly about monogamy. Their advice has found an eager audience among the well-heeled attendees of the “ideas festival” circuit, featured in talks at Google, SXSW, and the Aspen Institute.

The new monogamy skepticism of the moneyed gets some screen time in the pandemic-era breakout hit “The White Lotus.” The show mocks the leisure class as they mope around five-star resorts in Hawaii and Sicily, stewing over love, money, and the impossibility, for people in their tax bracket, of separating the two. In the latest season, Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) are an attractive young couple stuck in a sexless marriage—until, that is, they go on vacation with the monogamish Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). After Cameron and Harper have some unaccounted-for time together in a hotel room, Ethan tracks down an unbothered Daphne, lounging on the beach, to share his suspicion that something has happened between their spouses. Some momentary concern on Daphne’s face quickly morphs—in a devastatingly subtle performance by Fahy—into a sly smile. “A little mystery? It’s kinda sexy,” she assures Ethan, before luring him into a seaside cove. That night Ethan and Harper have sex, the wounds of their marriage having been healed by a little something on the side.

“The White Lotus” is not the only recent cultural offering that shows the rich using non-monogamy as a vaccine against an expensive divorce. In the 2021 HBO remake of “Scenes from a Marriage,” Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), a high-powered executive for a tech company and a professor, respectively, are having dinner with their friends Peter (Corey Stoll) and Kate (Nicole Beharie), who are in an open marriage. When they were monogamous, Kate tells Mira, they barely made love, and now—“I wore him out,” Kate brags.

These shows, with their well-off couples ready to experiment with open relationships as a marital pick-me-up, depict the surprising fate of a radical social proposal. Non-monogamy, once the province of utopian communities like Oneida, which maligned matrimony as just another form of private ownership, is increasingly being presented not as a threat to bourgeois marriage but, rather, as a way to save the institution and all that it affords.

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