Louis Theroux’s Altered States asks: can polyamory really make couples happier?

Monogamy is difficult; desire waxes and wanes. Is “ethical non-monogamy” the answer?

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The better to find out if polyamory, aka “ethical non-monogamy”, really can make some couples happier, more sexually fulfilled and (who knows) less inclined to argue about how the dishwasher is loaded, Louis Theroux headed for the first film in his new series to Portland, Oregon – an alternative realm that remains, for now, blessedly untouched by the fat fingers of Donald Trump (9pm, 4 November). “Keep Portland Weird”, said a sign, a message some of his interviewees have possibly taken to heart. “We have our own blanket system,” said Amanda, who works in tech, showing him the double she shares with her husband, Nick, and her partner, Bob. Nick described the logistical advantages of their arrangement. “Bob lasts a really long time in bed,” he said. “[But] I don’t.” Wow. It was the orgasmic equivalent of a time-and-motion study. No waiting around for anyone!

Theroux, though, wasn’t buying all the smiles and insistence. Meeting the members of various emotional triangles (see also: rectangles, pentagons and hexagons), he would invariably alight on the person least content with the arrangement. Were they jealous? Lonely? Was welcoming their partner’s new lover simply a price they believed they must pay in order to remain in the relationship? Polyamorists talk of “compersion”, which is their made-up word for the joy they experience on seeing their beloved’s pleasure in a new body. But for those who are basically monogamous and who suddenly discover their lover is a polyamorist, this is often just a line to be parroted. Their faces tell a different story.

Matthias, a young man with – I pinch from the song – cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin, was expecting a baby with his girlfriend, AJ. But AJ was now in love with a guy called Q, too. Matthias was, he finally admitted, experiencing a lot of… feelings. Jerry, a middle-aged IT analyst whose therapist wife, Heidi, has her partner, Dan, round for a “sleepover” every week, talked determinedly of the happiness this arrangement had brought her. Yet when Theroux asked what would happen if, in the middle of the night, he needed to pass Heidi and Dan’s special flip-down bed in order to get a glass of water, his jaw clenched and his neck grew pink. Poor things. I felt for Matthias and Jerry. Though jealousy is an emotion of which I particularly disapprove, we all of us have our limits. To be in its vice-like grip is inordinately painful.

Still, at least it’s the women getting the extra action here, rather than only the men who are having their cake and eating it. Part of me, moreover, rather admired the fact that they were all at least ready to acknowledge that monogamy is difficult; that desire waxes and wanes; that the heart can have many chambers. Sometimes, one wonders if polyamory isn’t just a PC form of swinging, but these people were absolutely genuine – even if I was unconvinced by the motivation behind the “blindfolded sensual dinner” Theroux later attended, an event that combined massage with the slow-mo eating of various dips, strawberries, whipped cream and, er, cheese.

“This is an L2 event,” said its bearded organiser, of Sex Positive Portland. “Genitals remain covered.” How Theroux felt about having to sit there blind and bare-chested as people pushed room temperature buffet foodstuffs into his mouth, I do not know. He claimed the experience was as liberating as it was embarrassing, but his body language was definitely on the clenched side. I bet his glutes seriously ached by the time he got back to his hotel.

I’ll Get This (10pm, 6 November) is an execrable new game show, in which five “celebrities” sit around a restaurant table and play moronic games to avoid paying the bill (the loser picks it up). I didn’t know who three of the celebrities were in the first show – Rylan, the reality TV star, was among those I googled – but I can say for certain that a) this is possibly the most cretinous programme ever made by the BBC and b) Richard Madeley (a future competitor) appears to have gone the full David van Day-out-of-Dollar. I refer to his hair, of course – and on that note, I’ll get my coat. 

Louis Theroux’s Altered States (BBC Two)
I’ll Get This (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state