In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we get a glimpse into the life of Dr. William Moulton Marston, the man who created Wonder Woman. Part of that life? A polyamorous relationship with two women: Marston's wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and his student Olivia Byrne. Together, Marston, Holloway, and Byrne engaged in a relationship that not only produced Wonder Woman, but four children — two from Holloway, two from Byrne, all fathered by Marston.
In fact, the movie's portrayal of the relationship (which, according to Marston's personal letters, seems to be accurate) is a great example of how successful polyamorous relationships can be. "A common misconception is that polyamorous relationships are about sex," says Rena McDaniel, MEd, a clinical sexologist and licensed therapist. The stereotype of how these relationships form usually goes like this: One partner badgers another partner to include a third into the mix, with one or more of them reluctantly agreeing to a situation they're ultimately uncomfortable with. And while those situations do exist, they don't tend to be the relationships that last, McDaniel says. According to McDaniel, a healthy polyamorous relationship needs the same basic building blocks as any healthy relationship: communication and consent.
In other words, those who end up in successful polyamorous relationships have to actively choose them, as Elisabeth A. Sheff, PhD, wrote last month in Psychology Today. It's highly unlikely that someone would just stumble into a polyamorous relationship without talking about it extensively with their partners, and have everything run smoothly. For a poly relationship to work, all parties have to be consenting and able to effectively communicate needs and boundaries, so that they're happy in the relationship — and that takes a lot of self-responsibility, according to Dr. Sheff. "Self-responsibility comes about not only when people consider what they want and ultimately choose polyamory, but in how they handle their relationships," Dr. Sheff wrote. "Everyone has an ultimate personal responsibility in their relationships — monogamous, polyamorous, or otherwise. Making choices and living with the consequences is part of being self-responsible."
A common misconception is that polyamorous relationships are about sex.
Rena McDaniel, MEd
For Marston, Holloway, and Byrne, that choice looked like a blended family living under one roof. (Though they were all private about this arrangement. In fact, Byrne's sons didn't know that Marston was their father until 1963 — nearly 20 years after his death.) What's more is that Holloway and Byrne continued to live together after Marston's death in 1947, giving even more credence to the idea that this relationship was something both of them chose — not something the man in their lives hoisted upon them.
And in that way, poly relationships are not all that different from monogamous ones. "The idea of choice in relationships is key in any relationship structure," McDaniel says. "Monogamy is considered automatic and the 'normal' way of being in a relationship. But I believe all relationships would benefit from actively choosing to be with one another within whatever relationship structure works for those particular partners."
In a monogamous relationship, that looks like occasional check-ins to see how the other partner feels, listening when the other partner brings up concerns, and having what McDaniel calls emotional intelligence: "The ability to accurately understand and communicate your feelings with your partner." In a poly relationship, that means doing all of that, but involving one or more additional partners.
Sure, polyamorous relationships may not be for everyone, but they aren't doomed to failure, either. Just like any relationship, they take work. And in some cases, thinking outside the bounds of a "normal" relationship can even inspire people to conceive of iconic, badass female comic book heroes. (Hey, it happened at least once.)