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A Quick Look at Polyamory

by Naomi Darvell
(5/17/00)

"Polyamory" comes from the Greek word for "multiple" and the Latin word for "love." We use it to refer to amorous relationships which deliberately and openly involve more than two partners. Beyond this extremely minimalist definition, there are endless variations and flavors to poly relationships, as many as there are participants. Today, seven people who are currently involved in some form of polyamory tell us about their lives.

Participants*:

Mary Anne, female, 28. Born in Sri Lanka, raised in the U.S., currently living in Salt Lake City. No children; two partners. Editor-in-chief for Clean Sheets.

Domino, female, 41. Living in London though not of English nationality. One child. Runs a computer consultancy.

Stephen, male, 46. American. Married with a junior wife and a senior wife (existing legal marriage), plus one serious girlfriend and very occasional casual ones. Two kids. Self-employed computer consultant in web design.

Judith, female. "I'm 46, with 2 kids (one of them living with me). Unlike many poly folks, I'm not bi, pagan, or a computer geek!"

Nancy, female "I'm 39, married with six kids (4 are mine, 2 are his). I am involved with another man who is married to another lovely lady."

Charles, male, 34. Marriage includes one wife and two husbands. Two kids.

Hawkwind, female, age 38, is legally married with 2 kids (this seems to be a trend). She currently has one Other Significant Other, a male primary partner who is working on moving in and joining the marriage as a full partner, tho unfortunately not able to be married. All of us have various other partners at various times, with varying degrees of priority.

*Some names have been changed.


Q. How did you get into polyamory? Invited, planned, just happened that way?

Charles: The simplest solution to an insurmountable problem. My best friend and I met this girl at the same time in high school and both fell in love with her. Years later, after I married her, the best friend came back to the area and the attraction was just as strong. It turned out to be easier, overall, to just add another husband into the mix.

Judith: I don't think of myself as naturally poly. I got involved with my SO knowing that he had an "open marriage." I really didn't intend to get as seriously involved as it turned out. Now I'm part of a triad and I like that, it feels very comfortable, but I still struggle to be relaxed about my SO's secondary relationships.

Nancy: It was planned to happen. I am in a great relationship with Chuck. But with my divorce earlier I lost almost all my friends. A co-worker, Steve, had showed interest in developing a romantic relationship. I asked him to be my friend first. Chuck agreed that after six months, if Steve and I still felt attraction, we would take the next step. The three of us are now very good friends. We know about each other.

Mary Anne: Ever since I read Robert A. Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" at age ten or so, I've been intrigued by the idea of multiple partner relationships. They felt right to me, in a way that monogamy never did.

Stephen: Definitely planned. Very intentional; poly by conviction since "Stranger in a Strange Land" (at 13 years old, this pre-dated any personal relationship! (<g>) and later part of the "Open Marriage" days.

Hawkwind: My dad had been handing me Science Fiction books, Heinlein in particular, for years; I was in high school when he handed me "Stranger in a Strange Land", with a comment that he didn't agree with everything in it, but he thought I would like it very much. It was my first all nighter -- I stayed up reading it.

[I don't think] that poly is something one chooses, like hairstyle or clothing or lovers, rather than something that is inherent, like gender-preference or metabolism or ... I want to say DNA, but the metaphor won't stretch that far. Just as it seems that it isn't the case that one chooses which gender one is attracted to. Just as being gay is a lifestyle for many people, being poly is also - it isn't just something you do on weekends.

Mary Anne: When I first started dating at 18, it was a monogamous relationship, but I felt uncomfortable with that. Then with my next relationship, my discomfort with monogamy grew, and eventually caused the end of the relationship. I knew then that I didn't have any desire to try monogamy again. Since then (at age 20 or so), I've been practicing polyamorous; I'm not sure when I learned the term, but I was doing it before I knew what to call it, and I'll be surprised if I ever go back to monogamy.

Domino: I was raised in a Catholic country, by Catholic parents and educated in a convent school. We all *knew* exactly what constituted a sin, and sex of any sort except within a marriage was most definitely sinful. However this was the mid to late 70s, and the people I hung out with were avant-garde [...] and in the process of challenging all the ideals and beliefs we had been brought up with, we challenged all the sexual rules we had been taught. Over the years, though, my ideals have refined [but] I still believe in free love, because I believe absolutely in the individual's rights over his or her own person.

Stephen: Poly convictions shared by senior wife since we first met in the mid-70's. I'm her 2nd marriage; she's my 3rd. We've been married 17 years. Reunited with old college girlfriend in mid-90's after a whole lifetime apart. Took us about a year to get serious and another two to get her moved in with us. She's had to adapt a lot to become junior wife -- she's not poly by nature. Still struggles with it, sometimes. I met my serious other girlfriend at a "PWP" or "Poly Wanna Potluck," in Kentucky. A connection that started out casual, and grew to the point where it's surprised us both. But again, we were both poly from the beginning.

Q. Is a poly relationship easier or harder to maintain than the "normal" type?

Hawkwind: This so much depends on how the person is wired, and what they need in a relationship, and how well they can communicate, that it almost doesn't make sense as a question. I've tried twice to do monogamy [...] I find it impossible to exist in a condition of being emotionally and physically intimate with only one other person and be happy and mentally healthy and emotionally functional.

Mary Anne: It's true that poly often takes more talking, more emotional work, and sometimes more relationship angst (especially when you're working through the poly aspects of it) than monogamous relationships generally do. It's a truism in the poly community that some people think they're signing up for a lot more sex, but what they actually get is a lot more talking about sex (and love). But since a monogamous relationship is impossibly difficult for me (I feel as if there's a sword hanging over my head, waiting to fall down and slice through me if I cross over whatever often invisible and arbitrary line my partner has placed), poly is by definition easier for me.

Stephen: I would say that all of the problems of maintaining a "normal" long-term relationship are usually present in poly, in my experience, plus lots of new ones. This makes it more of a challenge.

Nancy: Definitely harder. But only to keep totally honest in what is happening. My life with Chuck is priority #1 and Steve knows this. He has another life outside also. By being honest with each other we stop petty thoughts and squabbles.

Judith: Easier *and* harder, I think. I felt claustrophobic in my previous mono marriage because I don't think one person could ever have enough (attention, energy) to give my ex. However, as I watch my SO struggle to spend time and attention with two "wives," a long-distance love, and still have some solitude, I see that this model is not ideal, either.

Charles: Both. Neither. More emotions and insecurities to keep track of, more feelings to hurt, but there's also more security and more shoulders to cry on. More viewpoints in discussions.

Domino: Way way harder. In a couple relationship there are problems. In a poly relationship you get problems with each couple subset. Not to mention all the extra pitfalls with which a polyamorous relationship is fraught. Like taking sides in an argument.

Q.Do you tell family, friends?

Mary Anne: All my friends know; my family does too, but I don't really talk about it with my folks. They want me to settle down and be what they think of as stable. Of course, they'd also like me to stop writing erotica...

Charles: Our closest friends know -- some from being told, some figured it out. We've never made much of an effort to hide it among people we trusted. Some of the family might suspect, my mom certainly does not or we'd be deluged with Christian pamphlets.

Domino: Some friends yes. Family definitely not. The friends are ok -- most of them live the same kinda lifestyle we do. [If I told her] my mother would purse her lips and "tut." Then I would get a lecture. Then the emotional blackmail...

Stephen: We tend to tell people whom we think can "handle the truth." Meaning my siblings, for example, but not any of our parent-generation family. Likewise, some of our local social group knows the truth, but not our employers or work associates. My senior wife's brother had an outright bad reaction when we told him about it -- he judged her pretty harshly. I suspect one or two of my sisters think I'm a Bad Influence, not to be trusted around their families , but fortunately most of them are very non-judgmental.

We just don't think it's worthwhile to confront people who very obviously couldn't deal with polyamory at all. It's really none of their business, and could cause lots of bad interactions and ill-will.

Judith: All my family and close friends know about my arrangement. I'm not out to co-workers and neighbors. My family has been supportive, if skeptical or confused. Some friends have been okay with my decision to live in this triad, while others have been judgmental and negative.

Nancy: No, my private life is private. My family and friends (most of them) would never understand. Because work is involved I must be extra careful. They would be extremely judgmental. I would be ridiculed and ostracized. The problems [disclosure] would create are not worth it.

Hawkwind: Lots of friends know. Mostly our lovers come from our collection of friends, or becoming-friends. I don't know of anyone I would consider a friend who does *not* know. I'm not sure about family. We haven't told anyone... I think [my dad] would have disapproved, but let it be. My mother would create a large scene about it, and possibly get nasty with regards to parentage of my children.

Q. Do you live with all of your lovers, or do they live separately?

Mary Anne: I currently live alone, though I have lived with my primary partner before, and may again. I have lived with two partners at once in the past, and loved it (though we needed more bedrooms!)

Domino: I live separately from all my lovers except my Master who is my primary partner.

Stephen: Both wives live on this same town lot. Junior wife has her own small house across the driveway -- what's usually called a "mother-in-law" house around these parts. My other serious love lives [several hours away.] Too darn far.

Judith: I have only one lover, my SO, although he is involved with others, and my triad wife has other lovers, too. I now live in a renovated garage apartment on the same property as my triad loves. I think of us as living together, although we have some separate spaces.

Nancy: I live with Chuck. Together we have six children. Steve lives with his wife.

Hawkwind: There have been times in the past when a lover of mine has moved in with us -- usually as a "rescuing a stray" situation more than a "lover moving in with us as family" situation. Now my OSO is trying to move in with us as "moving in to be part of the family," and it's surprisingly different. I think all in good ways.

Charles: We live together. Great for the household income, tricky to keep smooth at times. It's not a big house :)

Q. Does sex ever include everybody, or do you keep distinct sexual relationships?

Mary Anne: Depends on the relationship. My primary and I were in a threesome with another woman for three years; that was wonderful, and often involved all of us in bed together. I've had a few other more short-term relationships like that, and in many ways they're my favorite part of poly. But right now I'm involved with two people who aren't involved with each other, so no, we don't end up all in bed together. And that's great too, in very different ways.

Charles: It's almost as if my wife has two separate husbands. We can all be affectionate around each other, but intimate encounters are usually just her and one of us. We have all gotten together before but it didn't work for a long-term thing. Now it's more of an annual special occasion.

Domino: Well, there's one couple we've been friends with for several years, and although mostly the sex is separate, we do occasionally cavort together. None of us are hung up about our sexualities, so there's never the situation where if the two men touch each other they act like they've been burned. And although I'm het, I'm not averse to touching or being touched by another woman in the right circumstances. My Master also has another relationship in which I am no longer involved.

Hawkwind: Neither my husband nor I are averse to threesomes; it depends on the people involved. The current OSO is not interested, but I'm not even sure a threesome would be possible -- the dynamics of the sexual styles are too dissimilar.

Stephen: We have tried once or twice to all play together, but to date it has never worked out worth a damn. Some seem to find it all too hard to handle, once it's right in their face. And to others it's just distracting -- they have trouble focusing on physically getting off with different people swarming around. And then you have that whole het-homo-bi thing going on... !

Very occasionally both wives and I will do sex together... Or my senior wife likes to get together with one of her guys and their other girlfriend. They've done a number of 4-ways. That sort of thing. Other folks in our bunch seem to have only very clearly defined one-to-one relationships. But that's their choice, too.

Judith: We occasionally indulge in a triad puppy pile, or enlist an extra partner, but most sex is between couples only.

Hawkwind: Hey, how about asking us about the emotional and practical aspects, in addition to the prurient sexual interest? Polyamory is not solely a sexual arrangement, and I don't want to leave people with that false impression, even if the mainstream of the world thinks that us weirdoes are only doing this cause we can't control our sex drives...

Nancy: So far the sex has been exclusive. But we are discussing moving it to a next level. Both Chuck and Steve are bi-curious and I would love to have both together.

Q. What's the biggest hurdle to a successful poly relationship?

Mary Anne: People who come in thinking they can cope with it, start to realize that it's really not for them, but at that point are so much in love that they try to hang in there anyway, causing much angst all around. This is the most distressing thing I've had to deal with in poly, and it's come up a few times. I know others who just won't become involved with people who haven't done poly before, just because they're afraid of that dynamic... but that seems limiting to me. After all, everyone doing it was doing it for the first time once.

Domino: Jealousy caused by lack of communication leading to feelings of exclusion and inadequacy.

Charles: Jealousy. Seeing firsthand that someone can provide your SO with something you cannot, whether it be emotional, sexual or practical. The fact that you can provide something the other guy can't isn't always as apparent to you.

Judith: Shortage of time and energy.

Nancy: Possessiveness and ego. Wanting to own the others time exclusively or to have say in every aspect of their lives. Must learn to share.

Hawkwind: [Not] being willing and able to put your emotional cards on the table.. Be honest, be up-front, be able to hear 'no' *and* accept it, not as a refusal/denial of all you are, but as an instance of "no, I can't give you that... " Get a life....

Stephen: ...I think the biggest obstacles to doing poly successfully are usually our own personal demons. First, you've got to be a grown-up. You've got to be content with yourself, at least to the extent that your world isn't shattered by somebody you Want wanting somebody else tonight. You've got to have some resources of your own to fall back on. In short, you've got to have A LIFE: by itself. Poly is no substitute.

Q. What's the biggest benefit?

Mary Anne: There's a word, compersion, that basically means the joy you feel when your lover is joyous. I think what I like best about poly is that when I can do poly right -- with generosity, affection, and an open heart -- I feel that I'm at my own personal best too, that I'm being a better person than I perhaps normally am. I think love often does this for people; the generosity they find in themselves for their lover raises them above their everyday lives. For me, that happens most strongly with polyamory, perhaps because jealousy and insecurity can sometimes be so hard to handle that it's a real triumph to get past them, to not let them rule your life.

Domino: A warm happy snuggly loving feeling towards the people with whom you are poly. And great sex :-)

Stephen: Knowing several individuals intimately, seriously, and over some extended period of time. I like the freedom of not being "forbidden" to get to know new people, naturally. Whether or not I take advantage of such freedom, it's good to feel like I can, without being dishonest. But the biggest benefit has just turned out to be my being a significant part of the private life of some amazing women.

Judith: Having support and company from my sister-wife.

Charles: Emotional comfort. Household security. Someone to cast deciding votes. And, in a weird way, having a backup around has helped be become a much better husband. I mean, I hear what bothers her about him so I can correct my own bad habits, and there's nothing like healthy competition to produce better quality.

Nancy: I love two distinctly different men. They interact differently with me. They give me unique experiences. What one is lacking the other makes up for it. I have never been so lucky! I know I am so loved.

Hawkwind: If we have another adult living with us, some tasks become easier -- renovating the house... adjusting the water level in the radiators... But that is the case whether the person is part of our "family" or just a functional housemate.

Q. From your experience, or the experiences of friends, what would say kills most poly relationships?

Mary Anne: Lack of communication -- sometimes due to lack of willingness to communicate (perhaps caused by fear of what will be revealed in that communication), sometimes due to simple lack of effort. Of course, that kills most mono relationships too.

Domino: Jealousy

Charles: Jealousy, lack of communication, the problems of really defining the relationship.

Stephen: Jealousy, first of all. Second would be things like time-distance-money-reality stuff. Even with the best will in the world [...] sometimes people end up getting too little from poly relationships. In the best of all possible worlds, everybody would have alternative relationships they could fall back on, but in the real world, it rarely seems to work out so evenly. I really have been having trouble lately finding enough time to satisfy all the demands of time and attention that others expect of me, while reserving enough "me time" to stay sane.

Judith: It can be too easy to focus on the shiny, new, easy relationship, instead of doing the hard work of maintaining the long-term union. I've watched several long-standing marriages crumble when one or both spouses decided that new loves were more rewarding and exciting than fixing problems in the marriage.

Nancy: Jealousy is the hardest. I still feel extreme envy when either guy chats up any female, though I know it is only platonic. Lack of time to devote to both men is very frustrating. I must always remind myself that I don't own these men, I just love them. And they love me in return.

Hawkwind: Jealousy. Anger... Insecurity. Dishonesty. On the other hand, these are the same things that kill most relationships, regardless of whether the people involved are open to the concept of having more than one intimate relationship at a time.

Q. Finally, would you recommend poly relationships? Why?

Mary Anne: Not really. I think it's a little like writing fiction -- they both have really tough aspects, and if you can be happy doing something else, you probably should, because they're going to ask a hell of a lot from you, and there are plenty of other satisfying ways to be in this life. But if poly (or writing) is what you truly want in your heart, then you won't rest easy until you find it, and you'll work as hard as you need to in order to make it work. And then, I think the rewards can be truly wonderful.

Hawkwind: A friend of mine is an artist -- a painter. I was present when someone asked her if she would recommend it as a profession. The gist of her reply was 'Hell no. Go do something else. Anything is easier than this. Especially if you are capable of being happy doing anything else...'

Domino: A very cautious Yes. Cautious because it's difficult to get right and very easy to get wrong. When I was married, after a couple of years of monogamy, we discussed having an open relationship (hubby was all in favour of it both for personal and political reasons). It worked fine [until] he began to get jealous of one particular person, and he eventually left because of it.

In my current life, I find myself insanely jealous of my Master's other relationship. I've read everything I can lay my hands on about jealousy... but none of that makes the jealousy any better.

Nevertheless, with all the potential problems it can cause, I still think that polyamory is not only possible, but that it can be a very rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Stephen: I would recommend poly to people who have some strong sense of who they are; some essential security and honesty. You have to be a grown-up! If you are an insecure, dishonest, immature, or fundamentally conventional person, you're going to have a very difficult time with it. Poly will assuredly not fix problems you've had with other relationships!

Judith: No, I wouldn't recommend poly to other people. I think that few people can handle the emotional stresses from jealousy and time-management problems. In my limited experience, it seems that poly relationships have less chance of surviving than monogamous ones.

Nancy: Yes I would recommend poly relationships. If one man cannot fill a certain need, whether it be intellectual, spiritual or sexual, the other man usually can. I have the best of both men.

Please note that maturity is a must for a successful poly relationship. I am now 38. Even five years ago I would not have been successful in this. I was not adult enough to handle the extra pressure and emotions that go along hand in hand.

Charles: If I thought the people asking were up to the task. It takes a high level of self-awareness and responsibility. I'd probably just describe the ups and downs of my relationship and let them decide for themselves.

Hawkwind: I dont know if I would recommend it without knowing a particular person's situation, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it wtih a broad brush-stroke... I've been with my husband for 18 years; we've been non-monogamous the entire time, polyamorous before the word existed. By the same token, there are people who are wired monogamous - and no matter how hard they try, no matter how much they agree with the concepts, and want to make it work - they can't deal with it. Each person is different - different needs, different metabolisms, different emotional baggage - and what works for one person, [whether it's in their] eating habits or emotional attachments, is not likely to work for another. You can take ideas from another person's experiences, and opinions, you can try to apply concepts. But "recommending poly", in the offhand way one would recommend a good book, say, or a good restaurant, to someone who isn't already trying to do it, consciously or unconsciously, is irresponsible at the very least.

[If I suggested it to someone,] I would make sure they know about the concept, that it is possible to be open and honest and have more than one lover, more than one life-partner, more than one other adult in your chosen family, to have and to hold and to love with all your heart.


For more information on the subject, several of the participants recommended The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Lizst, and the Usenet group alt.polyamory.

Are you, were you, would you like to be in a polyamorous relationship? We're planning more articles about this fascinating subject and we'd love to hear from you. Please contact us. Your privacy is assured.

© 2000 by Naomi Darvell

Naomi Darvell lives in Chicago, where she goes to graduate school, writes and designs jewelry. She recently joined Clean Sheets as an Articles Editor.

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