The concept of nonmonogomous, consensual, structured relationships is an old idea. From King David’s harem and the Mahabharata’s princess with five husbands to the early Mormons to turn-of-the-century free-love communities, people have looked for workable alternatives to monogamy and cheating.
People exploring nonmonogamy these days use a lot of different terms to describe their lifestyles, including “polyfidelity” and “polyamory”.
The two words are more-or-less interchangeable, though the former is more likely to be used by people who consider their current multi-partner setups more or less stable and who aren’t taking or looking for other mates.
I had a long, boistrous chat with 14 “polys” I met through a computer bulletin board. They came from a variety of backgrounds, although the plurality were middle-aged hippies who hadn’t stopped questioning society’s norms. There were heteros, lesbians, gays, and a few bi males. (One man said he got into the poly world because he’d fallen in love with a woman but didn’t want to give up men.) They were currently and/or formerly in a variety of nontraditional partnerships–triads, quads, “Vs” (one person who sleeps with two other people who don’t sleep with each other). Some were in closed relationships; some had “primary” partners plus other lovers.
They met me after their regular Polyfidelity Potluck, where they’d dined with fellow polys (and people interested in becoming polys) and discussed issues relating to their lifestyle. Some of them also meet regularly for group massage and hot-tub parties. Some were raising children, conceived with present or previous partners.
(Everybody here is identified by a fake name unless otherwise noted. Some of them say that in their particular workplaces or social situations, it’s easier to come out as gay or bisexual than as having multiple lovers.)
How they got into it
Several said they’d found their way into the poly life after unsatisfying experiences with impersonal promiscuity, either on their own or in the swinger underground. That lifestyle delivered sexual variety but left the spirit very unfulfilled. George, one of the over-40s in the group, said, “What I found in this community was a way to fall in love again. I spent 15 years after my divorce fucking my brains out, keeping loving relationships at arms length.”
George, 50, has had “lovers who were significantly younger than I. It wasn’t like we were bonded in some perverse monogamous way. They weren’t going to be caring for me when I was 80 or anything.”
Carol had been in a longterm relationship with Mark, when she began to have affairs in secret. “He found out. We went to a polyfidelity workshop. I was amazed by the integrity, the quality of the people I’ve found. It seemed like a workable model. It’s forced us to be honest in a way I’d never dreamed we could be.”
Mark, Carol’s lover, said he found people in the poly subculture seemed to be “much more vulnerable and open. That’s helped me relax a lot.”
Kathy and her lover had been involved in the swinger subculture. “There was a lot of free sex, but a taboo on being lovers.” She longed to share hearts with more than one person, not just orgasms. She said she’s found this in the poly subculture. “I never felt much jealousy, any reason any relationship should do away with any other relationship.”
Gina originally was “with a partner, sort of by chance monogomous. He was getting restless, concerned about being stuck in a relationship. He broached the subject of being with other people. I said, `It sounds like fun. Sure. Now what do we do?’ Nothing happened for a while. We answered ads in Fantasies (a swinger magazine). They were swinger or cruiser types, just in it for sex. It didn’t work out. But from one step after another, we found a community. This community, this family, is very important to me.”
Scott came to the meeting with his female lover; both have spouses. “This is a community of people who understand open sexuality, the possibilities of nonmonogamy. They can pull together in understanding, better than a monogamous group can. My wife wanted to leave me 10 years ago. Our lovers came to us; they offered consolation and love in a non-judgemental way. They gave us the support to stay together.
“I haven’t been in a committed relationship, because I didn’t want the baggage of coupledom. The group gave me a new vision of coupledom: of giving each relationship its full potential, the full open range of what each particular relationship has.”
Melanie, Scott’s lover, was one of the founders of the potlucks. She said she was initally surprised at the degree of bisexual affection she found when she joined the polyfi community, even among the men. “Sexuality among the same sex is always there. You won’t do it with someone of the same sex necessarily, but when you remove the artificial barriers to it, it all opens up.”
George believes some people are destined to be in love with more than one person at a time. “Most cupids have a few bows and arrows; some have submachine guns.” George also differentiates between the poly subculture, with its emphasis on safe sex and mutual support, and unthinking promiscuity. “What we’re doing has some basic tenets; honesty and consensuality especially. Adultery is a part of monogamy. What we’re doing is different from that. People in this group are interested in sexuality and expanding it. We push the boundaries of sex, the whole gradation between shaking hands and fucking one’s brains out.”
How they work it out
Gene, one of the younger potluck members at age 29, came to the group interview with his lover and her three children. His wife was out of town that week. “We agreed to this when we got married over 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s unreasonable to assume that one person would be your be-all and end-all for the rest of your life.”
Still, he noted that “you trade one set of problems for another when you’re willing to let your partner look at other people naked and want to touch them.”
Janet agreed that with a consensual poly life you get rid of the dishonesty that comes with cheating, as well as the frustrations that come with unrequited desires, but you still have to deal with the natural jealousy. “You shouldn’t expect the jealousy to ever go away, but you learn to live with it.”
Scott has “a primary partner who has a wife; but her wife doesn’t do boys.” He said every nonmonogamous relationship sets up its own boundaries: “Just about everyone’s negotiated their comfort level with their partners.”
Another problem, and the main reason everyone in the interview wanted fake names, was outside intolerance. “We get targeted by the religious right just like any other sexual minority,” Scott added. “We sometimes call it `dysphilia,’ the inability to love or the fear of love.”
Outside intolerance is especially tough when partners in an open or multiple relationship are raising children; neighbors, school officials, and government agencies have been known to interfere in nontraditional households with kids. Marianne, 42, has been in one nonmonogamous relationship or another her whole adult life. She believes children can get more care and attention in non-nuclear families. “Groups are a wonderful way to raise children. Children really benefit when there are more adults around.”
One woman’s story
After two “triads,” Marianne fell in love with a UW researcher four years ago. “He hadn’t done multiple relationships before. He said `Let’s be open to it in the future.’ Then in grad school, he began studying with a woman. We all became friends.
“Then we got a national newsletter about multiples. He was reading it, came to bed, and said he’d like a `secondary’ relationship with this woman. We finally figured out the thing that would be most comfortable for me is that they’d see each other every Wednesday. It wasn’t strict, but it was a framework. We tried a threesome once, but she was uncomfortable with it. That relationship went on for over a year. She went on to other things. It just faded. We’re still open to other intimate relationships in our life. He again has a woman he sees once a week. I don’t think they’re sexual and I don’t care.”
Differences of interest
Professional counselor Kathy Severson (her real name) recently advertised in the Stranger Bulletin Board for a nonmonogamy discussion group she wanted to start. She got 26 responses from men and only one from a woman. She placed a similar ad in the Lesbian Resource Center’s paper and got no responses. Severson, herself a participant in a lesbian poly relationship, believes women (gay or straight) are more hesitant than men (gay or straight) about expressing a desire for multiple partnerships–even though women can be about as likely as men to cheat on their lovers. “My perception is that gay men have an easier time accepting nonmonogamy; while lesbians resist the idea. It’s more how we’re socialized as men and as women.”
Severson says she’s sometimes “astounded” by some people’s lack of curiosity about alternate relationships. “It threatens what they’re doing. You talk about it and they give you this stony-faced look. Lifelong monogamy is an ideal some people don’t want to give up, even people who’ve come out as lesbians and gays….The nuclear family model has been so destructive. It isolates people. The ownership issue in monogamy still needs to be questioned, the notion that `I own your body.’ We want to control, to define everything, including our most intimate relationships. There’s all that angst going on, with all the divorces and unhappy couples out there, but when you suggest alternatives you get such resistance….We have knowledge of how to live without fear, scarcity or ownership. But here we are, bound in structures and contracts that bind us. To heal that dichotomy is the challenge.”
In her work, Severson has found two main ways people come into non-couples.
“There are some people who discover nonmonogamy consciously, on their own or with a partner, try to consciously come to a new way to relate. The other group are those like me who almost accidentally find our way into questioning the dominant relationship structures. I fell in love two years ago with a woman who had another lover. Since then, nonmonogamy has been my group and counseling focus for about two years.”
One of her favorite aspects of nonmonogamy is its opportunity for what counselors like to call `personal growth.’ “Each relationship calls forth different aspects of your being. If we are secure enough to say `I know I’m special to you,’ why set up road blocks to people’s energies?”
Still, Severson is the first to admit a nonmonogamous life creates as many challenges as opportunities. “It’s about being completely present to whoever I’m with. There are questions of time, space, and energy when you’re trying to be a real intimate partner with even one person, let alone two. If you bring a level of consciousness to a relationship, it’ll do well.”