As Millennials report that they feel lonelier than older generations, non-monogamous relationships among young people are also on the rise. These facts may appear unconnected on the surface, but they really aren’t. Open relationships have become an unhealthy response to Americans’ loss of community.
Civic life has almost totally eroded in America. Fewer Americans join civic organizations, volunteer, or go to church than ever before. We’re also transient and atomized — we’ve been sold the idea of a career as the most important thing, so we move miles away from our families to chase jobs in the cities.
Millennials and Gen Z are feeling the lack of social support, even if only unconsciously. Meanwhile, polyamory and open relationships are becoming more common. These non-traditional relationship structures are borne out of a deep, unconscious desire to replace the extended family, church networks, and ethnic community ties that Americans have lost — but it’s not healthy.
Armed with dating apps as the easiest way to meet new people, many Millennials and Gen Zers are trying to cobble together a sense of meaningful community through nontraditional relationships. Since it’s no longer “cool” to go to church or to volunteer, and it is “cool” to be non-traditional, young people are taking the only route that seems to be socially acceptable — and it’s a total disaster.
Open relationships are simply toxic. They’re corrosive to our mental, physical, and spiritual health — and they’re especially bad for women who want to have families one day. We can find better ways to forge meaningful communities and avoid taking this toxic route in our romantic relationships.
Lacking Community, Some Turn to Open Relationships
Communion with others is crucial for our mental and spiritual well-being. We aren’t built to be alone — that’s why putting prisoners in solitary confinement is the worst punishment you can give them.
Young people subconsciously know this, but we’re lacking the structures that used to provide us with a healthy community life. Most of the people we see regularly are our co-workers. In the past, churches, immigrant communities, civic organizations, and multi-generational families played a necessary role in fulfilling the human need for connection and support. These ties gave us a sense of identity and kept us healthy and fulfilled over time. Yet these communal structures have slowly eroded in America.
Today, more than 3 in 5 Americans say they feel lonely.
Today, more than 3 in 5 Americans say they feel lonely, and for decades there has been a declining number of Americans who are part of civic or volunteer organizations. Our families are getting smaller, and we often don’t live near them. That means we’re more likely to spend the evening scrolling through our phones or watching TV than going out to participate in community life.
Young people who are uprooted and living in our modern culture seem to inherently know they’re lacking an important element of connection and social support, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. The mental and spiritual support that traditional community structures used to bring is crucial to our well-being. Americans have done a horrible job of keeping those ties strong, and it’s causing young people to turn to toxic replacements, like non-monogamous arrangements.
But filling one’s life with multiple romantic and sexual partners is not the answer. It only hurts us in the long run.
Millennials Act Out of Loneliness
After spending many years in cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., I discovered countless Millennials were experimenting with open relationships. Something almost all of these people had in common was that they were atomized from the support networks they had when they were growing up or attending college. Most had moved to the city from hundreds or even thousands of miles away in order to pursue a career.
All of them were experiencing social atomization, but they didn’t really know it. Cities are transient places, and most people are there to get career experience, collect experiences in general, or to build wealth. It’s simply harder to form the deep, reliable, trusting relationships we all took for granted in high school and college.
Millennials exploring polyamorous lifestyles in major cities subconsciously know that something is lacking. But it’s easy to get on a dating app and start swiping to meet people for drinks. Couple this with a hookup culture that has totally eroded any standards of behavior around when it’s appropriate to have sex with someone, and the easiest way to forge a new network, it seems, is to just find multiple girlfriends or boyfriends. But it’s not healthy.
Why Open Relationships Hurt Us
Anyone who tells you that non-monogamy is more evolved, more ethical, more liberating, or more empowering is either very misguided or outright lying. The reality is that all the shiny promises of non-monogamy simply don’t hold up when it’s lived out in real life.
Non-monogamy sets women up for hurt, instability, and disappointment. It results in increased feelings of depression, anxiety, and despair, and totally eradicates the committed relationship structure that’s necessary to make us feel safe, protected, and to form healthy families. Often, men who say they value the “freedom” that non-monogamy gives them are just really looking for a way to avoid responsibility and pursue meaningless, hedonistic sex.
Non-monogamy sets women up for hurt, instability, and disappointment.
Women are hardwired for monogamy because it takes many years and lots of resources to raise a baby. We’re wired to want a man to commit to us and only us because it’s better for raising healthy children. The data is clear that children from two-parent families fare better on almost every metric.
And far from being some sort of primitive and unnecessary emotion, feelings of jealousy are meant to protect us. It’s a warning sign that your mate may be devoting his protection, time, and resources to another woman. Monogamy became society’s default because it’s most conducive to stable families, healthy children, and beneficial societies.
There are other downfalls to open relationships, too, like the obscene logistical and emotional overhead required, and the increased risk for contracting STDs. In short, women and men in non-traditional relationships are playing with fire. We need to find healthier ways to fulfill our need for community.
The Real Answer to Loneliness: Forging Community
The support for non-traditional relationship structures among young people is a troubling sign. We need a solution to social atomization that’s healthier than non-monogamy.
With the loss of extended communal networks, we’re not wrong to sense that something important is missing from our lives. But the solution is not to replace it with a bunch of romantic partners or people you sleep with. It’s to join civic institutions, stay rooted, and feel a duty to those around you, instead of moving to the next hot city chasing careerism and sexual novelty.
Get you off your phone and regularly in contact with local people in real life.
We need to reorient our priorities. Instead of placing numerous meaningless and noncommittal sexual relationships that are bound to fail us at the top, we need to prioritize meaningful interactions and relationships, proximity to extended family, and participation in civic organizations. This is how we can start to meet people who share our values and will actually be there when things get tough.
Some ideas: join a church or a choir, volunteer at a local festival, hold a weekly woman's hour at a coffee shop, host a salon, start a book club or game night, invite your neighbor over for dinner, join a local theatre, volunteer at a local nonprofit — anything that will get you off your phone and regularly in contact with local people. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your social calendar fills up.
People are turning to open relationships as an unconscious and unhealthy way to replace the communal networks that Americans have lost. But the solution to a loss of community isn’t to replace it with a lot of sexual and romantic partners — it’s to get better at forging community and sticking around in one place long enough for people to really get to know you. Our hearts will be better off as a result.
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