A quiet, gray sunday morning in Mexico City. The metropolitan frenzy is still asleep, but maybe it always is in a pretty gated community like this. Soren* and Tonatiuh*, a married couple, sit on a leather couch, close to each other. Big cozy bookshelves take up the entire wall behind them. Across the table, there is another man, Julio, equally relaxed, offering me a glass of water. Cats are meowing, the faint ticking of a clock. Is this supposed to be the place where wild orgies take place?
It might be the first connotation for some, if they hear that all three of them live in a polyamorous relationship. Julio is not only a casual guest on a sunday morning, but Soren’s boyfriend of eight months, while she has been married to Tonatiuh for fourteen years. Having been brought up with monogamy as the ultimate relationship dogma, the married couple decided to ditch it about one and a half years ago. Since then they allow themselves to have romantic relationships with more than one partner at a time – with the consent and even support of everyone involved. “Actually”, Soren says, “we’ve been polyamorous for way longer. We just did not know a specific word for it existed so we just called them lovers.” Tonatiuh and Soren look at each other and laugh.
The implementation of rights like the one that permits same-sex marriage or the adoption by parents of the same gender and social networks could open the discourse even more. Facebook groups like “Poliamor Valle de México“, administrated by Julio, count more than 1000 members, create events and connect people. With casual sex being only one Tinder swipe away and sex becoming less of a taboo in many societies, polyamory does not seem as absurd anymore. A recent article published by the BBC even titles that “polyamorous relationships may be the future of love“.
Although monogamy still sounds like the unshakeable status-quo, globally speaking, it is not. In 57 of around 200 countries around the world, polygamy is legal. This refers mostly to African and Asian nations with Muslim majorities. In countries like India, Nigeria or South Africa, the legal status of polygamy is at least granted to Muslims – although it is necessary to say that this kind of non-monogamous bounds differs vastly from the concept I was told about in Soren’s and Tonatiuh’s living room. In all of the countries, polygamy is a male business: One man, multiple women. Soren being with two men? Unthinkable. However, the former numbers refer to the possibility of having multiple wives. According to a 1985 publication by the American psychologist F.G. Frayser, only 5-10% of the men legally permitted to live in polygamy actually have multiple wives.
While nowadays polygamy is mostly linked to religious beliefs which might sound strange to people living in Western countries, it has not always been like this. Polygamy – especially polygyny, the version in which the man has various wives – is considered crucial for evolutionary purposes and the development of the human species. Early progressive societies like the Ancient Romans and Greeks, however, elevated monogamy to the ideal; polygamy was strictly forbidden. This attitude was quickly adapted during the European Enlightenment in the 19th century, closely linked to the Romantic movement in the arts and the glorification of the family ideal we know today.
Nevertheless, this narrative lacks two crucial details. Although monogamy was the norm in Ancient Rome and Greece, this referred mostly to the legal status and inheritance matters. As frowned upon as multiple wives were, as accepted and appreciated were concubines. Extramarital relationships were not considered betrayal, but part of the social life and a signal of power. But this privilege was – you guessed it – mostly limited to men. The second restriction refers to the Romantic ideal of the family in enlightened Europe. It is not a coincidence that ideas of monogamy became practically compulsory during the Industrial Revolution: Monogamy was not only an emotional, but most of all an economic matter. Men simply could not afford multiple wives anymore.
Over time, the institution of monogamy turned into a condition of marriage, catalyzed by economic crises and increasingly more present media. This development brought another rather infamous element into the equation: infidelity. Due to the literally touchy nature of the topic, statistics vary greatly. According to a 2006 study by the researchers Allen and Baucom, 70% of US-American couples report an incidence of infidelity in their relationship. While various studies show that men cheat more, the difference is not significant. Most researchers focus on the United States or on Europe, but there is some insight about fidelity – or in this case, its absence – in Mexico.
In 2013, the dating portal Second Love conducted a survey with more than 1,100 Mexican users, asking them about adulterous behaviour in their past. 57% admitted to have had a sexual relation outside their partnership. Of those, 31% had been married for more than 10 years by the time it happened, in 68% of the cases the couple in which at least one of the involved cheated the couple had children. The reasons for the infidelity varied: 31% stated to have done it because the opportunity was just too tempting, around 24% felt unsatisfied by their sex life within their relationship. Only 10% cheated because of a perceived lack of love. Another survey by the portal AshleyMadison revealed a Mexican peculiarity. In comparison to 35 other countries, Mexico ranks first in female infidelity with 44% of users admitting to have been unfaithful. The global average in the survey was 33%.
Back to a slightly less gray late morning in Mexico City. Non-monogamous relationships and kinky casual flings while the husband is busy might have a long tradition, but none of those sound anything like the bond Soren has with Tonatiuh and Julio. It is neither linked to economic needs nor to religious beliefs nor to the saving of the species and not even to the excitement of doing something forbidden. So why do they practice polyamory? While exploring one’s sexuality without limits might sound tempting, the social depreciation and the emotional exhaustion appear rather less appealing. All of them agree that the downsides of polyamory still outweigh every positive aspect of monogamy.
To the two psychologists Soren and Tonatiuh, opening their marriage was just the next logical step to how they have been living their lives anyways. “I am surrounded by so many critical, intellectual people. They question the establishment, politics, economy, everything. But when it comes to something as intimate as relationships and sex, they get very conservative. We wanted our relationship model to be a conscious decision, whatever it might be”, Tonatiuh remembers. After a while of having sexual encounters on the side, both of them realized that relationships to others did not affect the love they felt for each other, that working on their love to others would even benefit how they treat each other. Julio, who has been living the polyamorous lifestyle since his youth, describes his decision like that: “It is about acknowledging their freedom to love and to love others. [In our society] we do not question monogamy and do not realize how much it is based on the idea of exclusivity, commitment and – especially in Mexico – of sacrifice. It is the idea of ‘we are together and we are not happy together, but we have to do this’. Polyamory is about getting away from this, of realizing there are other ways to love. That love is not linked to that kind of suffering.”
For most of the time during the interview, polyamory and monogamy sound like polar opposites. Freedom versus confinement. Conscious decision versus social pressure. Trust versus control. Appreciation and kindness instead of rabid claims of ownership. But polyamory is not always the fulfilling paradise lonely middle class citizens might dream of on another sexless night. “It was a long, hard process”, Tonatiuh remembers. “I struggled with my self-esteem, had to reaffirm it regardless of Soren’s involvement with another man. At the beginning, it was hard to always keep in mind that her love for another person does not diminish her feelings for me.” Also: “If a couple makes the conscious decision to live in monogamy, if it’s the best thing for them I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Currently, Soren is the only one of the three to have more than one relationship. The hardest thing about it? “It is an incredible logistic effort”, she laughs and throws back her red hair. When Julio came into her life, he entered circumstances that could have been Hollywood material: a loving husband, a good relationship with their son, a nice house in a quiet neighbourhood, fulfilling careers. And then there’s this new exciting person that does what Soren and Tonatiuh have been doing for years – questioning the established. For Soren, a time of constant negotiating began. Who will I spend the night with? Who will I take to that event? How will I find the time for myself?
Luckily, in a polyamorous relationship “there are no rules, just individual agreements. You have to sit down together, talk it through and see what everyone wants”, she says. This sounds sensible, indeed, but is it really inherent to polyamorous relationships? Julio laughs. “That’s what should happen in every relationship. In poly relationships you just have to consider more people.” A lot of work, personal insight and re-evaluation of values. Julio, Soren and Tonatiuh do not exactly represent the cliché of wild orgies and sexual overkill. Instead, I encounter a lot of self-reflection, the desire to improve one’s own empathy and emotional commitment on another level. Still, society’s perception differs a lot from these ideas.
“Whoring” and “commitment phobia” are the first two concepts they utter when I ask Julio, Soren and Tonatiuh about the stereotypes they are most commonly confronted with. It is no coincidence that Julio – activist and openly poly – is the only one to use his real name for this story. Although not completely covert about their way of love, Soren and Tonatiuh still fear the social stigma they have been experiencing for years. Mexico, along with every other country in the Americas and Europe, does not grant any legal status to polygamy. The character of marriage being a matter between two people was first manifested in the “Ley de Matrimonio Civil” (Law of Civil Marriage) in 1853. Translated into English, it says: “Civil marriage cannot be contracted between more than one man and one woman involved. Bigamy and polygamy remain forbidden and subjected to the known penalties.” However, the document is not valid anymore – in that version, divorces were not allowed and girls could be married from the age of 12.
The current “Código Civil Federal” (Federal Civil Code) is less direct. Chapter VII of the code – “De las Actas de Matrimonio” (Concerning Records of Marriage) – does not specify the gender anymore and refers to the amount of spouses in less obvious ways. It is merely visible in the conditions for marriage and possible previous divorces, Article 97, where it says: “Cuando alguno de los pretendientes o los dos hayan sido casados […]” (“If one of the candidates or both of them have been married before […]”, emphasis added). Unlike in 21 states of the US where adultery is still a felony (though this law is almost never used), Mexican polies are not confronted with this kind of struggle. Still, there have been no organized intents to legalize polyamorous relationships explicitly in Mexico. In the US and in Canada, activist have tried to get polyamory recognized as sexual orientation – not always appreciated by members of the LGBT community. And indeed, in recent studies, only about half of the poly people inquired stated to see their polyamory as fixed part of their sexual identity. The others consider it a preferred way of life.
There is, however, an option for people who live the poly lifestyle to bring more legal recognition into their love lives. In 2007, the federal government of Mexico City implemented the “Ley de Sociedad de Convivencia” (Cohabitation Law). It allows adults who are not married and not related to each other to create an official bond by living in a common space. Actually, the even excepts life partners. Polies setting up a cohabitation, taking mutual care of each other and enjoying official benefits like the right to inherit, are acting in a grey zone here. Before same-sex marriages, it was a possibility for gay couples to obtain more rights.
Whenever I told someone about my research on this story, I was inevitably asked one question by everyone: “But why are they not jealous?” The truth is: They are. “It’s incredibly hard to get rid of it”, says Toniatuh, “and I think it’s normal. What is not normal is to normalize it.” Toniatuh is not only a psychologist, but also a couple therapist. “I am basically determined to think about my love life a lot”, he laughs. “When people come to me, they often see jealousy and the fear of loss as the ultimate proof of love. To me, this appears compulsive. You have to be aware of your own feelings” Soren and Julio nod. The sun paves its way into the living room. All three of them are joking around, like a well-atuned group of friends. So, is the BBC right? Is polyamory the future of love? If you listen to Toniatuh, Julio and Soren – perhaps. But if they really hope for one thing in the future of love, it’s consciousness.
*The married couple preferred to remain anonymous, so the names used in this story are not their real ones. They are known to the author.
Header Picture: Polyamory Pride 2004, Wikimedia Commons