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Louis Theroux sheds a compelling light on polyamory in new series

Louis Theroux’s Altered States three-part mini-series kicked off with a thought-provoking insight into the world of polyamory, but it raised a whole lot of questions.

The first episode Love Without Limits took Theroux to Portland, Oregon where he explored polyamory—or ethical non-monogamy if you want a fancier term. The episode revolved around three different groups, each making you question polyamory further and further, but they all believed in ‘compersion’ which is where you enjoy seeing your significant other/partner happy in any way it takes, but all firmly believed that they were only in charge of their own individual happiness and they were not responsible for their partners. Confusing, right?

The first group was Joelle, Mattias, and AJ who all live together in a homestead, but all have other partners too. AJ is pregnant with Mattias’ child, and she takes on a ‘metamor’ (a non-hierarchical term used by the polyamory community) during filming, which was shown as testing for Mattias. He is evidently protective over AJ due to the fact she is pregnant with his child, and yet he has to allow her to build a foundation for her relationship with another man, a true test of compersion.

The second group was Bob, Nick, and Amanda who lived as a ‘thruple’. Nick and Amanda were college sweethearts, but as Amanda explained she started developing feelings for Bob. After telling Nick about her feelings and a year of discussion, he agreed to allow him into their relationship instead of breaking up with Amanda, however, he remains monogamous to her. Amanda is effectively shared between the two men—she’s having her cake and eating it too. Theroux questions the men asking them if they wish they could be enough for her, with Bob replying “A little part of me wishes I could make her completely happy”. If that doesn’t make you question polyamory then I don’t know what will. They want to be enough for her, but compersion is telling them they have to be fine with not being enough. How do these people do it?

The final group is married couple Jerry and Heidi; her lover, Joe and his wife, Gretchen. Heidi and Joe are engaged and both their partners seem completely fine with this, with Gretchen admitting she was happy for Heidi to have sex with Joe so that they could focus on their marital problems instead. Jerry seems incredibly lonely and sad throughout the whole time he is interviewed by Theroux but kept insisting that everything was fine and he was happy with the arrangement. He echoed the previous interviews, both Heidi and Jerry insisting they were both in control of their own happiness.

Compersion seemed to be a one-way street here, with Heidi happily spending as much time as she could with Joe, leaving Jerry to spend time with their daughter. Jerry is yet to find a partner, but he assures us when he does it’ll be “awesome”. It was tough to watch Heidi decline responsibility for Jerry’s loneliness, even though they are married. This made Heidi appear selfish. But, perhaps that’s what polyamory is all about, being selfish? Along with being selfish it also seems like a way for them to escape from their actual problems they have within their marriage, and it seems to be making Jerry miserable.

As ever, Theroux is a master of documentaries. He knows the right questions to ask, probing just enough to force his interviewees (and us, of course) to actually sit there and think. He allows for the pauses, however awkward they may be, so we can watch their facial expressions and body language. He never provides us with an answer but rather more questions to sit there and think about.

Polyamory still remains a mystery to me, but I’m trying to convince myself I know a bit more about it now. It makes me questions the foundations ‘normal’ relationships are built on, is the mindset of being in charge of your own happiness something we should adopt in our own society? Or does it just expose these people as selfish? Can people truly not feel jealous or betrayal or are they just suppressing it for the sake of compersion? Are these people truly happy?

I want to beg Theroux for these answers but I know he will just leave me with even more unanswered questions—a true master.

Featured image: Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock.com

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