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The more the merrier
If love is what makes the world go ‘round, polyamory might be what’s keeping the world turning
By Paige Worthy
Thursday, February 24, 2005

It was a classic case of boy meets girl … meets girl.

When Rob Hamm, Catherine Glewwe and Shannon Henry met, each says it was infatuation at first sight. Rob and Cat met first, in 2000, at a gaming conference, and Cat eventually moved to Lawrence from Minnesota to live with Rob. She confessed to him that she’d always wanted to date other women but that she was already so deeply in love with him that she didn’t want a relationship that didn’t include him.

Rob says he jumped at the opportunity to be in a relationship with two women, so he agreed to keep on the lookout for a new woman who would mesh with both their personalities. Enter Shannon.

Rob first met Shan, who was living in Pennsylvania until early January 2005, through their online journals, but they met in person at another gaming conference, where they had arranged to share quarters, and the two immediately hit it off. Rob says that when the two women finally met in person last October, the chemistry was obvious.

Outwardly, the three seem more like a few friends hanging out than three people in love, but tiny nuances in their behavior give them away: playful slaps on the thigh at a sarcastic comment, sideways glances and shy smiles at an outsider’s mention of their relationship. Rob, though twice the girls’ age at 42, doesn’t look a day over 30, wears a leather jacket and sports short, spiky hair. Shan and Cat, both in their early 20s, sit together next to him — Shan has bright pink hair and silly socks, and Cat is soft-spoken and fair-skinned.

The three now live together in Lawrence and are what is known as a polyfidelitous triad, or “polyfi” triad for short. Polyfidelity is one of many divisions of polyamory, which literally means “many loves.” Polyfidelity differs from a monogamous relationship in that people form multiple romantic relationships with more than just a spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s not cheating because their partners always know about it. And it’s not swinging, where swinging involves sex exclusively, polyamory is more concerned with emotions and relationships. Robyn Trask, managing editor of Loving More magazine, which is dedicated to polyamory and poly issues, says poly can be hard to define because there are so many different combinations of people in poly relationships. Poly relationships need not include sex, but they often do. In a polyfi triad, all three people involved promise each other they will be committed within the triad. Members would only begin a relationship with another person if that new person were to be included in that commitment; the triad would then become a foursome. But it doesn’t have to stop at four: Poly relationships can grow to include as many people as its members can handle interacting with.

Hey, jealousy

Liz, Kansas City, Kan., senior, who asked that her last name not be used, is a secondary in an open poly relationship with a man, Chris, who has another girlfriend, his primary. Liz is romantically and sexually involved with Chris, but she doesn’t share financial or domestic responsibilities like his primary does. She’s only become involved with him recently, but he’s been with his other girlfriend for more than six years. He is the “V,” or center of the relationship, and Liz and his other girlfriend are not involved romantically in any way — though they are friendly with one another. Hers is an example of a more open poly relationship instead of a polyfidelitous one — the three of them are not exclusively “together,” which could potentially create an environment of jealousy.

Liz says that she entered into this relationship after a string of bad experiences in traditional two-person relationships. She says she searched herself for signs of jealousy but found none once she understood the nature of the poly lifestyle. She says people in poly relationships experience only “occasional pangs of jealousy,” and when they do, they work through it and get over it quickly. On her first date with Chris, Liz says he received text messages from his other girlfriend, who was acting as his wingman for the night. Ideally, poly people are all about “compersion,” being happy for their partners when they find a new way (or person, in this case) to make themselves happy. The term compersion — as well as the concept of polyfidelity —was coined by the Kerista Commune, a famous commune in San Francisco that was founded in the 1970s.

“In a polyamorous world, you say, ‘I love you, and I can’t be everything you need, nor can you be everything I need,’ so you have multiple loving relationships that balance out those neglected needs,” Liz says.

Jealously is never an issue within Rob, Cat and Shan’s triad, either Rob says, even though there are more people’s emotions to take into account. Jealousy can be avoided, he says, by keeping the lines of communication open at all times and always talking about their needs, desires and concerns.

We can work it out …

Dennis Dailey, professor of social welfare, says communicating in a poly relationship can be more difficult just because of the numbers. In a dyadic relationship – one with only two people – there is a simple back-and-forth exchange required.

But Dailey says there’s no reason communication should be more important in a triad setting than in a dyadic relationship. In fact, he argues that there are fewer differences between dyads and triads than people may think. He says the individuals within each relationship are what determine the success or failure of the connection. American society, particularly the more conservative, religious part of it, places a high value on dyadic relationships and marriage between two people, he says, but the success rate of American marriages is just about 50 percent.

The only real test of whether a relationship will survive, regardless of how many people are in it, is whether the people in it are differentiated enough, Dailey says. He describes a differentiated person as one who doesn’t need external affirmation to feel validated. Problems arise in a relationship when someone develops a dependency on others to build self-esteem. A high level of differentiation and the ability to communicate openly and honestly are important in creating healthy, stable relationships.

“It’s less about the numbers, less about who you’re fucking : It’s got a lot more to do with who you are as an individual and the context of that bond,” Dailey says.

Rob says he’s never been happier in a relationship. But other people’s misunderstandings and judgments, even those of family and close friends, have made it more complicated for the triad to live normally.

Shan’s sister back in Pennsylvania is the only one of their family members who knows about the triad. Shan says her sister doesn’t quite understand the situation, but she isn’t against their arrangement. Cat rarely speaks to her family and hasn’t since she left Minnesota to move in with Rob; things got messy when they found out she was dating and going to live with someone twice her age. Rob says he sees no point in corresponding with his family much anymore. They’re what he calls “conservative religious fanatics” who wouldn’t understand his relationship with his girlfriends.

Rob is not alone. Growing up in a Christian household, then breaking away from that upbringing is not an uncommon trend among polys nationwide. According to a survey of about 3,000 people who subscribe to Loving More, 87 percent of polyamorous people say they were raised in Christian households, but only 28 percent are still Christian in their independent adult lives.

Rob says he feels most vilified by conservatives trying to protect the institution of marriage and their ideals of heterosexual, monogamous relationships. He says their criticisms are based on ignorance and closed-mindedness – he says he thinks it’s funny that “the most rabid anti-poly people sling Bible quotes” at he and his girlfriends. The Bible, he says, often discusses polygamy and people with multiple partners in their relationships.

Paul Mirecki, chairman of religious studies, says the Bible does not contain endorsements of polygamous relationships, nor does it contain many straightforward rules on the ideal of monogamous relationships, but it does mention both. He says that people often interpret the Bible according to their cultural framework — for example, when people read of King Solomon’s hundreds of wives, they can claim it’s an exaggeration or make the judgment that Solomon was wrong, because while they want to defend the Bible’s writings, monogamy is the American cultural standard.

The pressures Liz has felt within her relationship don’t involve religion, but people close to her have told her to break away from it because they think she’s selling herself short or getting screwed over by a guy who just wants lots of sex. She says her friends want to stage a sort of “intervention,” saying she’s only kidding herself about not being jealous and not needing a monogamous relationship with a future of marriage and family. She says people can get uncomfortable when they don’t understand polyamory.

“I know my friends’ reactions are out of love for me, but they still make me not want to tell them what’s really going on in my life,” she says.

Cat and Shan say Rob mostly shrugs off people’s disapproval and goes about his life because he knows poly works for him and makes him happy. They say he acknowledges that he can’t fully explain his relationship to everyone or convince everyone that polyamory is a valid way of living.

As a heterosexual male, Rob will be able to live his life relatively normally in the United States, but he says he gets furious when he considers the same-sex marriage legislation under consideration by the government. “Fifty-one percent of the country has decided my girlfriends don’t deserve civil rights,” he says. Financial issues limit their mobility now, but they have considered moving to Holland, where polygamy and same-sex marriage are legal and more commonplace.

Love rollercoaster

Sexually, poly relationships are diverse. Even within Rob, Cat and Shan’s relationship, the questions of who will have sex, how much and to what extreme are up in the air on a nightly basis. Most nights, Rob says, one member of the triad is too tired, has a headache or doesn’t want sex, and because jealousy doesn’t play into their relationship, sex with just two of the three is completely acceptable and normal. It’s not a prerequisite for polys to be into kinky sex. Liz says a lot of people envision poly relationships as all “orgies and rampant badness.” Some relationships may include orgies, group sex or other alternative sexual practices, but not all do.

Rob, Cat and Shan say their sexual encounters are fairly normal about 90 percent of the time. But their openness to the poly lifestyle has also created openness to sexual experimentation, such as BDSM, a term for kinky sexual activity that includes bondage, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. Rob says it “adds spice every once in a while.” Shan says that sex involving BDSM requires a strong foundation of love, trust and respect to make it meaningful and that she had tried it in the past, in other relationships, and never enjoyed it as much as she does with Rob and Cat. As much as wild, involved sex can make a relationship healthier and more exciting, it can also be time-consuming and physically exhausting. For three people trying to pay the bills and carry on normal lives, it isn’t something that happens all the time.

“I love going to Worlds of Fun, but I don’t want to live on the Orient Express,” Rob says.

Three’s company

Rob says his relationship with his girlfriends is like most monogamous relationships he’s seen except that he has two people who say they want to spend the rest of their lives with him. Since Shan moved in with Rob and Cat, they’ve been making the normal adjustments to living with other people: shared space, leaving the seat up and squeezing toothpaste from the middle of the tube (the girls’ biggest pet peeve with Rob). But Cat says it’s nice to have shared financial responsibilities, another person to do things with and another person to cuddle on the couch with on late nights.

Rob says most nights are nothing out of the ordinary and consist of convincing one person to cook dinner, then settling back to do their own things: watching old episodes of Firefly on DVD, working on their Web comic “Blue Crash Kit,” reading, even going to bed early. To the three of them, the “alternative lifestyle” doesn’t seem exotic or foreign. It’s just life, and life is good.

“We’re like an old married trio,” he says.