For heterosexual, monogamous people, the path into old age is relatively established. We hold in our minds an image of what “growing old together” looks like, put there by a lifetime of movies, TV shows, novels, and real-life examples. That path is bolstered by legal and economic structures that shape, for example, medical decisions and inheritance; it’s also supported by a culture that centers a spouse and blood family in care and mourning.
Not everyone walks that path; I don’t. I’m polyamorous, which means that I don’t form exclusive emotional and sexual partnerships as monogamous people do. What does that look like? Right now, I have two committed partners, Michelle and Angela, and I spend part of every month caring for my son’s terminally ill mother. I love all three of them and all three make space for each other, just as I try to make space for the people they love.
As our bodies mature, our teenagers get ready to leave our nests, and retirement (distantly) beckons, we’re all asking ourselves: What’s next? For polyamorous people generally, what does aging together look like?
Two recent books try to answer that question. Fifty Years of Polyamory in America, by Glen W. Olson and Terry Lee Brussel-Rogers, is an idiosyncratic, hagiographic history of a movement that tracks organizations, ideas, and individual people over five decades. In Polyamorous Elders, therapist and nurse Kathy Labriola shares dozens and dozens of stories of Baby Boomers wrestling with issues related to retirement, grown children, illness, caring for multiple partners, mourning them, transitioning to senior living facilities, and more.
Both books try to make the life trajectories of outsiders like me visible to ourselves, first and foremost, illuminating the path that all of us must walk, if we’re lucky enough to not die young. However, for everyone else, they raise some very fundamental questions about well-being after our jobs are over, our children are grown, and time has worn down our minds and bodies: Should we walk the paths laid out for us? Do those really serve our well-being? What do we owe the people we love when they need our help? Do we need to be alone in helping them? How can we arrange our own lives so that we can age well and die well?
Birth of a movement
It’s not a coincidence that both books are extremely California-centric—but the roots of ethical non-monogamy run very deep in human history.
As Olson and Brussel-Rogers describe, non-monogamy has always been with us. In the past, it was heavily patriarchal, meaning that there are many, many examples throughout history of men marrying multiple women and blatantly carrying on sexual liaisons outside of marriage. There are examples, here and there, of polyandry, where women marry multiple men, often to keep wealth and land within families. In 19th-century America, we saw the first “free love” experiments in urban enclaves and on religious communes like the Oneida Community.
But in the wake of World War II, something very unusual happened in California. Sexual minorities started migrating to the San Francisco Bay Area, founding some of the very first openly gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. For heterosexuals, new forms of birth control separated sexual pleasure from reproduction, women became more economically empowered, and divorce rates skyrocketed. California-based countercultures, like the Beats and hippies, explicitly rejected sexual monogamy as an ideal. Cults and organizations proliferated that promoted personal growth and sexual liberation. Second-wave feminism cut through all these movements to undermine the male supremacy at their core and help them to evolve in a more egalitarian direction.
Perhaps most influentially, a handful of West Coast writers began to explore non-monogamous ideas and practices. Olson and Brussel-Rogers extensively discuss famed science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein—and in fact, the importance of Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land to the growth of polyamory can’t be overstated. (When Michelle and I joined households, one of the first things we needed to do was merge our Heinlein collections.)
In 1968, a motley collection of individuals came together and turned the language and ideas of the novel into an actual pagan religion called the Church of All Worlds. In 1990, Morning Glory Zell published an essay in the church’s magazine, Green Egg, that coined the word “polyamory.” It’s a word that stuck and spread around the globe, as marriage rates fell and families became increasingly diverse in structure and composition.
In telling these stories, Olson and Brussel-Rogers follow the life trajectories of the people who founded and ran the organizations. The founder of the Church of All Worlds, Oberon Zell, and Morning Glory were in a polyamorous triad with a woman named Diane for ten years. After the triad broke up as a romantic partnership, Oberon and Morning Glory stayed together and the three remained close friends until Morning Glory’s death. After that, Oberon became part of a group marriage of five that took the name Ravenheart. In this account, housing troubles and deaths physically broke the group apart, but the now-elderly surviving members remain close to this day.
Such stories are repeated throughout the book. Stan Dale was a driving force in the Human Awareness Institute (HAI), which was and still is an incubator for better relationships, with close ties to the poly community. Dale became part of a triad in 1979; the trio remained together until their wife Helen died in 2003 and he died in 2007.
Why is it important to be aware of this history? Because it reveals that polyamory has never been mainly about youth, beauty, and sex. People have always grown older with multiple partners; our culture just has trouble seeing both old people and alternatives to monogamy.
Seeing paths ahead
If, however, parts of that history sounds a little kooky to you, you’re not alone. Quite a few people these days who call themselves polyamorous are slightly embarrassed by the origins of the term in science fiction and groovy California cults. Even so, it’s an alternative that has been carving a larger place for itself in the rest of North America.
There’s no way of knowing for sure how many people consciously practice variants of ethical non-monogamy today, but in Polyamorous Elders, Labriola cites multiple studies that say one-fifth of North Americans have tried it and about 5% are actively practicing. In enclaves like the Bay Area, that percentage is dramatically higher, forming an ethnically and economically diverse counterculture with its own organizations and infrastructure.
In popular culture, polyamory is becoming more and more visible, featuring prominently in TV series like The Expanse, Outlander, and reality shows Seeking Brother Husband and The Ultimatum (which is pretty terrible, FYI). Perhaps for that reason, surveys are showing that more and more people say that monogamy is not their ideal relationship structure.
That’s why Labriola’s book is so important. Though some people might turn to ethical non-monogamy for more variety in their sex lives, they will find, if they fall in love with multiple partners, that it also entails responsibilities. As Polyamorous Elders suggests, those responsibilities only get heavier with age. Sex might fade, but love can live on, and that love might lead us to walk down some hard paths of suffering and grief. Indeed, part of Labriola’s purpose is to identify problems that need to be addressed by individuals and society at large, as the poly population ages.
For example, if one partner retires and finds a lot more time to date, the still-working partner may struggle with envy. Or as aging affects drive and ability to engage in sex, partners may seek younger companions, which can trigger insecurity and conflict—troubles that can come to seem moot over time, as everyone gets older. Senior living and nursing facilities can be openly hostile to people who don’t fit the monogamous and heterosexual mold. Her book contains heartbreaking stories of people who must care for multiple partners in decline—and then lose them within a few years of each other.
Embracing the logic of polyamory
Difficulties aside, this invaluable book reveals how polyamory can be a solution to problems everyone faces as they age. For example, Labriola identifies a trend that I myself have noticed: As men begin to die earlier than women and the number of viable partners shrinks (a statistical fact), some women will monogamously, cheerfully attach themselves to a man who is in multiple relationships.
One thing that really struck me is that when all parties consciously embrace the logic of polyamory, that can fuel well-being in elderhood. That logic entails looking for creative solutions that polyamory makes possible, and recognizing the benefits that can come from dumping monogamous expectations.
Some of these stories were incredibly moving. In one case, a woman resists an adult stepdaughter fresh out of jail moving in with them. This becomes a crisis in her relationship with her husband—but then her boyfriend steps in to offer a place to stay, which gives the stepdaughter the breathing room to get a job and her own place.
In another case, a woman resents her husband’s growing relationship with a younger woman—but when he falls ill, the two women become allies in taking care of him. The members of one polyamorous triad describe cooperatively taking care of all their mothers as the parents pass away, one by one. Labriola devotes an entire chapter to sketching how “polycules” (clusters of partners, who often form chosen family) helped each other emotionally and financially get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Through stories like those, Polyamorous Elders becomes a kind of roadmap on surviving hard times—and having more good times—when you’re older.
For these reasons and more, Polyamorous Elders is essential reading for people who hope to grow old with multiple partners, as well as for the therapists, social workers, hospital and nursing facility leaders, doctors, and nurses who will need to help them along. I can’t call Fifty Years of Polyamory in America a comprehensive or authoritative history—it’s shaped too much by the authors’ personal experiences—but it’s fun if you want to peek into the corners and margins where polyamory has grown.
Right now, that growth is inhibited by legal and cultural sanctions. But that is changing, thanks in part to advocacy groups like OPEN (Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy). In April, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts passed a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance covering all non-nuclear families, including polyamorous ones. The law prohibits housing discrimination, which would help polyamorous spouses stay together in senior housing and nursing facilities. Culturally, polyamory is so far following the same trajectory as the movement for gay and lesbian civil and human rights. As more people come out and as more polyamory become visible in popular culture, stigma should decline.
In the meantime, I routinely discuss issues like retirement, advanced medical directives, and disability with both my partners. I fly once a month to tend to my son’s mother as she enters the last stage of her life. For me, right now, this is what polyamory looks like: people taking care of each other and making the best of the rest of our lives. Books like these help people like us to understand what’s ahead—and to see what’s possible.