HAVE YOU EVER — FINALLY, AND AT LONG LAST — connected with a lover you adored, and your world suddenly lit with passion beaming back from every face… but you couldn’t do a thing about it because of the threat to your relationship?
Or have you ever been out and exchanged eye contact with a really cute guy who smiled at you, then felt your boyfriend wince, shut down and become pissy for the rest of the evening and half of the next day? Have you got a crush on your best friend’s girlfriend, or your girlfriend’s best friend, and you both want to meet for an afternoon of browsing art galleries or whatever, no offense to anyone please, but it’s just simply impossible because everyone else will freak?
Have you ever had the faintest glimmering in some remote crease of consciousness that there are happier possibilities for getting together than the ones we were taught by our parents, Father Timothy and “The Days of Our Lives”?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, or all of them, for that matter, I have a word for you, and it ain’t in the dictionary: “polyamory.” It is the way of life, or “lovestyle,” to use another word that would make our lives easier, of people who choose to consciously, openly and honestly have more than one lover. Not a wood-preservative. Not the folks who sneak about and meet their secretary at that godforsaken motel at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, nor those who type feverous gigabytes of instant messages on America Online with their secret friend in Omaha, then come sheepishly up to bed. Not swingers, who practice lurid sex with almost anyone, and share a bizarre thing called “emotional monogamy” with their husband or wife. No no no.
Polyamory. The word means “many loves,” which is hopefully true for all of us in some respect, but is based on a conscious commitment to living intimate partnerships differently, more honestly, with greater freedom, trust and just basically hanging looser-in-the-belly. Such commitment – and that is the keyword – is less an abstract, empty pledge to stick around forever, and more a concrete recognition of the other as an individual. If “polyamory” sounds like some synthetic cooked up in a DuPont research lab, perhaps that’s because in theory, anyway, it combines the properties of strength, durability and flexibility, all while exponentially increasing your chances of getting a date on Saturday night.
At its core, the idea is based on the reality that telling one’s truth in relationships is the first step to living one’s truth both in relationships and the rest of the time. Radical enough, though for people who call themselves polyamorous, it includes having designed and constructed their lives to accommodate more than one intimate partner about whom everybody else knows. In other words, out in the open air, not a secret, like maybe it was just fine.
They used to write about this in science fiction books, like Stranger in a Strange Land or The Harrad Experiment, and millions of people thought it was really cool.
Labels suck, and yet names for concepts help us apprehend their reality. I use the term “polyamory” guardedly and with some reservation, knowing it’s risky to tag anything, purely for utility and strongly urging that it be counted among the many things disposable in the sweet land of liberty. The new term needs to be something like “conscious relationship” or “intimate friendship,” or how about “life.”
But words have power. Many people hear about polyamory and it dawns on them that there’s actually a word for what they’ve been needing, feeling or doing all these years or all these decades, or heaven knows, all these lifetimes, which means maybe there are other people like them, and naturally this comes as a great relief. The air is always better in a normal room or outside the house than it is stuffed in with the winter coats, sweaters, old shoes, mothballs, tennis rackets and the ancient Ker-Plunk game. And if you have to hide what you want, you’re in the closet.
Other people react like it was one more pathetic permutation of sexual psychosis being paraded across Jerry Springer: “Ladies and gentlemen, seated before you are the polyamorous people” – you know, like the show with, “Wives/ boyfriends who open their husband’s/ girlfriend’s mail, screen their calls and follow them everywhere to absolutely, positively prevent cheating,” while the audience cheers and screams in righteous, gleeful empathy. Only this is the opposite, a kind of Tourettes Syndrome of the emotions – people who cannot contain themselves or their relationships into all the “appropriate” boxes and definitions, and who blurt out “I love you” whether they’re supposed to or not.
We all have our little gripes with monogamy. The most common one is that what at first seems like a guaranteed, permanent dream vacation for two in Maui can end up more like, well, the experience of being a cow, owned and milked daily by the kind and devoted farmer, but never quite getting off the yoke. Sociologists, meanwhile, are collecting studies exposing the state of Marriage, the Social Institution, as being somewhere between Dresden after World War II and Waco, Texas after the feds went home. We already know that half of all marriages end in divorce, though this figure is somewhat inflated by people who attempt it nine times. Recent studies expose that cheating – that is, having outside secret relationships and secret sex – occurs in anywhere from 25% to 75% of these holy and allegedly exclusive bonds.
If that’s true, so much for the notion that marriage, or any form of supposed monogamy, protects you from AIDS, syphilis or whatever. Medical science has long known it’s not just unprotected sex that spreads HIV in particular, but rather the combination of sex and lying. More than anything, this starkly distinguishes the “sense of security” our monogamous relationships were made to create, with the actual security of knowing that you and your partner are on the level. Telling your unabridged sexual history and revealing all present desires may at first seem like being a high-performance test pilot pushing the envelope of human potential. Usually the exercise turns out to be pretty sexy.
Of the many cosmic energies blitzing the romantic notion of pure devotion to one person is good old juicy desire. Every now and then you read about one of those new studies which again concludes people think about sex once every nine-point-two seconds, women included, and please, it’s not the same person popping up in those fantasies 391.3 times an hour. We are lusty. We are hot. We have spent sixteen years getting good in bed. Most of us are walking high-voltage electrodes of desire, and many of us are orgasms on two feet, assuming we stay upright. I will ask you the same duhhhhhh question my therapist once asked me: Why lose sleep over it?
The notion of a “biological imperative” for monogamy is somewhat weakened by the fact that, according to new genetic testing, 98% to 99% (depending on who you ask) of species are not monogamous, including our closest primate cousins, the Bonobo chimpanzees – not to mention the chickens, sheep, cows, cats, dogs and pigs who live around me. I have been watching them all closely. The finding, published recently in Helen Fisher’s The Anatomy of Love, that 86% of world cultures sanction some form of polygamy or polyandry (marriage to more than one partner) seems to weaken the spiritual or social imperative for the incredible pressure we are under to maintain one partner. Is it really so superior?
Yet still it’s tortuous. I have a very good friend who had a long-term “monogamous” lover whom she dearly wanted to marry, plus a female lover and another male lover on the side, a “friend in Oregon” whom she would visit and have sex with and with whom she experienced an profound, life-changing love affair that lasted years – yet she does not consider herself “polyamorous.” I think for her, the problem is halfway between resisting the label and denying the basic fact. And while labels do indeed suck, basic facts are basic facts. And the person whom she genuinely wanted to marry doesn’t trust her any more. Perhaps he would have, had the truth been known from the beginning. As it turned out, she had nothing to lose.
FOR SOME REASON it’s still controversial to openly admit to having or wanting more than one long-term intimate partner. It has sizzle. The idea can make you angry and nervous, or hot and curious, or both. Jealousy can arise like a reflex, or more accurately, reflux. Eyebrows go up. Your credibility is on the line. You’d better have a good explanation.
“You may be in a conversation with a seemingly rational person when the topic of non-monogamy comes up,” says Brett Hill, co-editor of the quarterly Loving More magazine, a Colorado-based central information point and philosophical forum for the polyamorous community.
“Your friend’s demeanor changes. What was a decent conversation suddenly becomes a verbal assault, and it’s personal. It’s as if there was a military unit that trained each U.S. citizen in the defense of monogamy to bring out the big guns and annihilate discussion of anything else.”
Hill sees part of his mission as keeping that discussion going, and debunking the myth that monogamy is the only moral or spiritually legitimate way of life. It’s fine, he says, if that’s what you want, and if that’s what you’re really doing, but quite often it is neither.
“In many ways, people function in two separate and often contradictory spheres,” says Hill. “One consists of a set of proscriptions concerning what behavior ought to occur. The other consists of what people actually do in concrete instances when overt behavior is observed. The two are in direct conflict in most every aspect of sex, marriage and family life.” Hill agrees with the position of some anthropologists that cultural norms, that is, the rules themselves, serve the function of obscuring the actual behavior.
The taboo around even discussing polyamory appears to be a veil drawn not over polyamory itself, but rather what it exposes about the way we were taught to have our monogamous relationships, and what really happens within them. To discuss one is to drag up the other. Honest talk about polyamory quickly transmogrifies into investigating the sticky wicket of what it really means to think you possess another human being. A lot of people have been waiting a long time to cut loose on that subject. Or it means exploring the idea of being a diverse person with several distinct sides that could relate to several different intimate partners – a discussion that might need to happen, perhaps, with your lover sitting right there. Exploring the mere idea of opening your life to other partners involves honestly investigating what our real needs are, and admitting how they might not be being met in our current situation.
Yet almost by accident, polyamory exposes one little problem with monogamy the way it’s frequently practiced. Often, one-to-one pairing implies not just exclusivity with one lover, but also curtailing other freedoms and friendships that “threaten” your partner, cutting off ties with old flames, not going to art school, not taking vacations by yourself, not masturbating, not moving to Europe, not sharing your authentic life goals because in some way they conflict with your current reality structure, and moreover, not mentioning anything that might threaten the tenuous state of the partnership – silent needs, unspoken resentments, unanswered questions and so on. Such failures-to-mention could be called withholds, and these withholds are the boards and beams out of which our houses of bullshit are built. And Lord knows, they are lonely dwellings.
Even discussing this thing called polyamory blows the doors off that kind of house. At the same time, another question is addressed: polyamory conveniently provides a legitimate way to expand our idea of partnership, recognizing that humans have legitimate needs for variety and community. It’s healthy for us. Sometimes I think we are all just waiting for somebody to give us permission.
Of course, there is always jealousy. Well, what about jealousy? This thing that kills us a thousand times, and still we come back for more, never asking the question. I haven’t seen polyamory answer the question, but I’ve seen it asked with heart-felt meaning, and I have seen many people make progress not just escaping from its ravages, but also opening up to the much deeper spiritual questions involved. In most relationships where the partners are any less neurotic than Woody Allen, discussing jealousy honestly, speaking about our quite legitimate fear of abandonment, of the relationship changing or ending, of opening up about how we feel about the people in our lives, all bring us closer. Barriers vanish. Bonding becomes deeper and more clear. Honesty, practiced as a daily yoga, creates shared lives based on authentic understandings.
And herein may lie the heart of the controversy. If there is something about the way we are currently taught to relate that so often causes us to keep secrets, withhold our feelings, deny our desires, want to own and control our partners and blatantly lie about what we actually do – then frequently split up – perhaps this new thing called polyamory is dangerous because it makes us face each other. We have to look straight within and be who we are, and see our partners for who they, in actual, fact truly are. In that environment, intimacy is a very hard thing to escape.
And well you know, love, it isn’t just fun. It makes you run.
IN THE CURRENT SOCIAL CLIMATE around polyamory, there is still that air of, “Wow, she admits it,” but it’s not quite yet, “Wow, she admits it and more power to her.” Slut and womanizer are still derogatory terms that sting. I was not gay in the early ’60s, but I bet it’s a lot like that: at a certain point some people decided they were going to do their relationships differently and not hide it, no matter what anyone else thought.
Progress shot forward like one of those Japanese bullet trains, and the medical establishment soon figured out that gay people did not need psychiatrists or electro-shock therapy just because they were who they were, and even, not long ago, repealed being gay as an official mental disease. A bunch of old doctors on some board of directors took a vote one day, and that was that. Queerness was listed as a mental disease! Ellen would have had to check into a mental hospital! Then at some point, I think it was last week, society finally agreed it was fine for everyone else to have them as friends and not worry about what “other people” would think.
Polyamorous people frequently speak of “coming out of the closet” and discovering that they were normal in ways that are often as touching and inspiring as any queer story I’ve ever heard, complete with the sense of elation and relief and admissions and introductions to parents. Jenny is standing in her family’s living room. “Dad, this is Bill, and he is my lover, and this is Jim, and he is my lover.” Dad, being very observant, notices that neither Jim nor Bill are about to haul off and deck the other. Everyone is friends. And Jenny is standing there wondering whether Dad still loves her, waiting for an approving word. Dad may be perplexed, but it’s not the most twisted thing he’s ever come across in his life. I can hear him say, “If you’re happy? Then good.” But who knows? And if you ask me, who cares? Dad has his own life.
In the coming-out process, there can be the stunned reactions from friends who are die-hard romantics, and the victory of deciding not to hide it at work. Dealing with the subject on first dates is sticky for a while, then it becomes pretty much routine, definitely something to dispense with in the first twenty minutes. The most difficult thing is dealing with the issue in existing partnerships, which the subject will most definitely shake up. But once you’ve made up your mind, the step between knowing who you are and being who you are becomes a survival instinct, an imperative, inwardly driven thing. Plenty of relationships survive this revelation, and plenty of other partners, the ones who didn’t bring it up first, turn out to have had the same desire for a long time. It makes an interesting exercise in trusting that you ended up with this person you’re with for the right reasons.
Sunny had spent 19 genuinely monogamous years with his partner Devra, whom he married in the seventh year of their live-in relationship. Since their first days together, the couple had discussed their desire to share a non-monogamous life, but they did not act on it for a very long time.
Says Sunny, now 43, “The ideas of polyamory had been with me for something like 25 years” before he finally acted on them in 1996. A soft-spoken researcher at a federal facility near Boston, his views on relationships were inspired by growing up in the ’60s, and by Robert A. Heinlein’s legendary novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, which was taken quite seriously as a social philosophy by teachers in his high school.
When he was ready for things to change, the experience grew out of an agreement with his partner rather than a clandestine affair with his gym partner or a secret friend. And while not quite on a sci-fi scale, the couple’s choices definitely qualify as bold. Tina, his new lover, “Had been in an actively open marriage for two decades,” he explains, and he and Devra had decided that “it would be wise for me to get involved with someone who knew the ropes.”
Sunny sees Tina one weekend a month at the home she shares with her husband; he says his marriage is fulfilling and solid as ever. Sometimes both couples get together. Occasionally there are bouts with jealousy, but what else is new on the planet. Because they live al fresco, with a conscious commitment to not withholding feelings or keeping secrets, they work it out. Sunny says he enjoys the company and the sexual variety of another partner and feels less shy the rest of the time. While he is not yet “out” at work, he takes part in polyamorous conferences and is well known in the poly community, which gives him a basis for making new friends with similar values.
When designed from scratch, there are many possibilities that the shape of relationships can take, ranging from various forms of extended households, to “intimate networks” – circles of friends in which there are many cross-relationships, yet where everything is out in the open. The poet and novelist Marge Piercy never used the word, but called polyamory “the pattern for enduring relationship in the late twentieth century” in her 1977 poem, “A New Constellation.” Piercy shares a striking image of these experiences of love:
All the rings shine gold as wedding bands
but they are the hoops magicians use
that seem solid and unbroken, yet can slip
into chains of other rings and out.
They are strong enough to hold houses on,
strong enough to serve as cranes, yet
they are open. We fall through each other,
we catch each other, we cling, we flip on.
Hill, the co-editor of Loving More magazine, watches and studies many relationships in “the dancing family,” as well as living in a trio with a female and male partner beside himself. The three are raising a child, plus co-editing the magazine and developing related businesses. He has seen, based on years of observation, that stable, loving relationships are good places to raise kids, regardless of how many people are involved. And that unstable relationships, even supposedly “monogamous” ones, are not so healthy. And he takes a sober view of the polyamorous lifestyle.
“At Loving More, we know many multi-partner relationships that have lasted decades. We know many that lasted weeks. We know many monogamous relationships that lasted decades. We know many that lasted only weeks. In our experience, the number of partners is not a determinant in how long a relationship will last. What are determinants are holding the value of staying together in sight and how you treat each other. To one or more, doesn’t seem to matter.”
In terms of the world’s acceptance of polyamory, “There are signs of progress,” says Hill. “Not too long ago monogamy meant remarriage was not possible after divorce or death of a spouse. That would have been ‘adultery’, according to Christian sacred text. Somehow that very rigid standard has been relaxed over time to fit the ‘new monogamy’, which today we call serial monogamy. This shows that standards change over time.
“Doubtless, those who believed in the old monogamy would be as aghast at serial monogamists as today’s culture is at polyamory. We view the movement toward more open relationships in this light. A natural evolutionary shift of cultural standards. Like a big ship on the ocean, you turn the wheel and wait a while.”