Polyamory, Mental Health, and Marriage Equality

The psychological and physiological benefits of marriage are well known and well documented. The support and recognition for marriage offered by family, friends, organizations and society as a whole, help each individual in the relationship to feel more secure and less anxious. The recognition and support also helps stabilize the relationship to last longer and persevere through the tragedies and struggles of life.

Prior to marriage equality, same sex couples employed a number of strategies to counter (as much as possible) the detrimental influences of discrimination. They employed lawyers to create legal contracts in an attempt to protect their rights to make medical decisions for loved ones, share child custody, and inherit property. They created ways of socially communicating their relationship status and commitment with “commitment ceremonies,” exchanging rings, traveling to locations where same sex marriage was legal and getting married, using words such as “partner” and “spouse” until words like husband and wife became available. Still, the detrimental effects of discrimination were clear with higher rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and relationship dissolution. Even LGBT friends implicitly questioned the stability of long term relationships with the common inquiry, “Are they still together?” Couples routinely counted and announced the number of years they had together as a public measurement of their success.

With same sex marriage now recognized as the law of the land (in the remaining 13 states that did not recognize it before June 26, 2015), previously comfortable polyamorous relationships may be experiencing new discomfort. An FFF (female, female, female) triad or V or a MMM triad or V, suddenly have a new level of inequality interjected into their relationship from the outside. Two of the three can consider legal marriage, while the other cannot. A FMM or MFF grouping may experience the same added stressors. In the past, the MF pair had the legal right to marry, while the FF and MM pairs did not. It may have been easier to accept that inequality when legal same sex marriage was not an option. But after marriage equality, the only thing blocking such a marriage is the marriage of other members of the poly family. JJ Vincent discussed the subtle and not so subtle responses of friends and family to his other two partners getting married in “Six Things I Learned When I Catered My Partners' Wedding.” Some assumed his relationship was over, that the marriage of two precluded the existence of three. Others were concerned for the “third” person who was not getting married. Others communicated unexpected monogamist assumptions.

We have known for some time that these kinds of stressors have a detrimental effect on same sex relationships and contribute to their instability. It's important that we recognize similar consequences for polyamorous relationships. Recognizing the real, detrimental effects of inequality is the first step in countering those effects. The partners unable to marry may need to grieve their losses or perceived losses. They may need to process their jealousy or envy of others who can marry, even others whom they love dearly. They may choose to counter some of the anxiety producing instabilities by creating legal bonds for emergency situations. They may want to actively work to redefine marriage and commitment and seek social recognition and support by having non-legally binding ceremonies, exchanging rings and nurturing circles of friends that understand, recognize and support their relationships.

And finally, working toward social and political change can be empowering. People may choose to get involved in seeking equality for poly marriages. While others, such as Postmodern Woman, claim that many poly folk are turning to Relationship Anarchy in an attempt to shed the hierarchical assumptions of a monogamist culture. Either way, the tools of reframing oppressive and discriminatory societal messages is important to helping individuals and poly-families to cope with and reduce the potentially damaging effects of a predominantly monogamist culture.

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