(Image credit: Getty Images)
BBC.COM–By Jessica Klein
With no ‘primary partner’ and a potential for multiple meaningful relationships, solo polyamorists are hopping off the heteronormative “relationship escalator”.
After Chris, 35, came out as bisexual three years ago, he decided that he “didn’t necessarily want to live a heteronormative life”. “I wanted to be able to date men and women simultaneously for my whole life,” says Chris, who is withholding his surname for privacy. “I felt like monogamy would deny me something of myself.”
During the pandemic, Chris moved into an intentional, sex-positive community in Brooklyn, New York – a “safe space” where he could further explore his relationship with sex and sexuality. Through that community, he discovered a course called Open Smarter, which guided students through navigating various types of ethically non-monogamous relationships. That’s where he first heard the term ‘solo polyamory’. He quickly felt like it fit his dating style.
At its core, solo polyamory refers to people who are open to dating or engaging in multiple meaningful relationships without having a ‘primary partner’: one person to whom they’re committed above all other partners. Instead, the solo polyamorist might see themselves as their own primary partner, eschewing typical relationship goals, like merging finances or homes with a partner, and getting married and having children.
Solo polyamorists represent a small portion of polyamorists in general, many of whom tend to have or aim to have a primary partner, says Philadelphia-based sex educator and therapist Liz Powell, 39, so it’s inherently difficult to figure out what percentage of the overall population is engaging in relationships this way. However, some studies show younger generations are more likely to have entered into some kind of non-monogamous relationship than older generations.
Per a 2020 YouGov survey of 1,300 US adults, 43% of millennials said that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous, while just 30% of Gen X said the same. Overall, research from 2016 synthesising two different US studies showed 20% of respondents engaged in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point. But these studies don’t break down those numbers by specific types of non-monogamous relationships, so it’s impossible to say how many of those surveyed identify with solo polyamory.
Since solo polyamorists are a minority identity, misconceptions about their lifestyles abound. From people who equate solo polyamory to monogamists dating around until they find “the one”, to those who consider it a selfish or greedy move, like “having your cake and eating it, too”, there’s a tendency to overlook the term’s more nuanced definition. Ultimately, it boils down to stepping off what’s known as the heteronormative “relationship escalator”, and opting for an alternative way to engage in romantic and sexual partnerships.
For many solo polyamorists, the identity enables them to explore different sexual desires and experiences without adhering to heteronormative expectations (Credit: Getty Images)
The “relationship escalator”
The term solo polyamory gained popularity with the blog Solopoly.net, written by journalist Amy Gahran, under the pen name Aggie Sez. Her first blog post, published in 2012, was titled, “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)”. About five years later, she wrote a book on the subject, Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life.
Gahran defines this ‘escalator’ as “the default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships” – in other words, relationships that hit, or aim to hit, traditional life markers, like moving in with a partner, merging finances, getting engaged, getting married and having children.
“We have these normalised benchmarks or signs that a relationship is serious,” says California-based Rachel Krantz, 34, author of Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy – A Polyamory Memoir. “Solo polyamorous people tend to avoid intertwining their life in that way with someone else.”
Though the definition may seem narrow, there are plenty of ways to be ‘solo poly’. Solo polyamorous folks tend to be allosexual, says Colorado-based Elisabeth Sheff, author of books including The Polyamorists Next Door, meaning they tend to experience sexual desire – but some are asexual and maintain multiple, non-sexual relationships. They also tend to “value their independence”, adds Sheff, but some have very important, non-romantic relationships in their lives that they put first. “The single parent who prioritises their children over all other relationships could be solo poly,” says Sheff, as could someone who’s the caretaker of a person with a disability.
Solo polyamory also doesn’t have to be forever. One could identify as solo poly today, but still wind up entering a more traditional relationship with a shared home or finances in the future – it doesn’t have to be a fixed identity to be valid, says New York-based sex researcher and consultant Zhana Vrangalova.
Chris, in fact, expresses interest in one day finding a primary partner, but says in the meantime being solo poly “allows me to date, have experiences with people, get to know a lot of different people, and have some of my needs met”. It’s similar to when he was dating around monogamously, he adds, “except now I’ve put a label on it to communicate to people what my intentions are”.
I don’t like that heteronormative structure of marriage. I want to rebel against that – Chris
Vrangalova, who’s originally from Macedonia, teaches the Open Smarter course that Chris attended in New York. She estimates about two-thirds of her class are people in relationships, and slightly more than half of those are in monogamous relationships but “trying to figure out if some version of non-monogamy would be right for them”. The rest are either already exploring various forms of non-monogamy and seeking out more skills to help them better navigate those relationships, or they’re single and looking for relationships.
Solo polyamory is not right for everyone. Vrangalova has her students take personality quizzes to help them determine the relationship style(s) that might work best for them. These quizzes ask questions like “how much adventure and novelty” respondents need, or how much security they require in their relationships. Solo polyamorists, says Vrangalova, “usually don’t need a lot of relational security”.
However, just because someone who identifies as solo poly may not need the same level of security as someone in a long-term, monogamous partnership, this doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t form deep, lasting bonds with partners. To foster trusting relationships with her partners, sex-educator Powell, who identifies as solo poly, says they’re very upfront with potential partners about their wants and needs. “I’m not going to not ask for [what I want in a relationship] just because I’m worried that you’re going to say no,” they say. “If people say no, they say no, and we figure out where to go from there.”
The antidote to “couple privilege”?
A lot of the stigmas surrounding solo polyamory come from a general lack of understanding of why someone might not want a so-called “serious”, traditional relationship. Stereotypes of solo poly people include them being “selfish, avoidant or [messed] up in various ways”, says Vrangalova.
Furthermore, solo polyamory is marked by its lack of adherence to relationship benchmarks like marriage and children – which also serve as benchmarks of adulthood. “The people we consider to be ‘adults’ are married with kids, sharing houses, sharing finances,” says Powell. “Whereas ‘wayward adults’, like myself, who live alone, unmarried, are examples of everything wrong with society.”
Of course, adults can very successfully live on their own and be self-sufficient. For those who identify as solo poly, it also doesn’t mean they “don’t care about people”, says Sheff. “They just don’t want to organise their life centrally around a romantic partner.”
These prejudices exist alongside another societal force known as “couple privilege”. This wide-reaching phrase refers both to the advantages couples have in society over singles (like the financial benefits of marriage and couplehood) and the attitude that, for instance, in a polyamorous relationship, the success of the primary couple must be prioritised. All other partners’ actions must be taken with preserving that primary relationship in mind.
These stigmas and societal expectations can present roadblocks for people who identify as solo poly. When Powell was in a polyamorous relationship in Savannah, Georgia, US, around 2014, they tried to find a non-monogamy-affirming therapist, to no avail. That prompted them to fill the void, and Powell opened their own private practice targeting people who identified as non-monogamous, queer, kinky and/or trans.
Even in psychology circles, there remains a dearth of knowledge about polyamory, let alone solo polyamory. Sheff is part of Division 44, a subgroup of the American Psychological Association working to develop educational materials about polyamory for counsellors and therapists.
More than just dating around
Ultimately, solo polyamory is much more than a way to date multiple partners while living alone. It’s a rejection of heteronormative relationship standards.
“For me, a lot of solo polyamory has been about finding ways that I centre my own autonomy, the autonomy of others and genuinely question which things I want in a relationship, rather than assuming that every relationship was going to follow the escalator,” says Powell.
Chris was similarly attracted to the solo poly label because it let him think about and approach relationships differently. He says the relationship pathways he grew up with didn’t make sense for him; before gay marriage was legalised in the US, he was having sexual relationships with people he knew he’d never be able to wed.
Today, Chris says he wouldn’t 100% rule out the prospect of marriage, but he’s not exactly a fan of the institution. “As a queer, bisexual person, I don’t like that heteronormative structure of marriage,” he says. “I want to rebel against that.”