Forget monogamy and swinging. We're seriously polyamorous
By Paul Harris
Originally Published November 13, 2005
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Sometimes Nan Wise's in-laws pop round on Sunday afternoons. They settle down with Nan, a psychotherapist, her husband John, a lawyer, and their two children to watch American football on TV.

So far, so all-American: a slice of suburban life on the outskirts of New York. But sometimes John's long-term girlfriend drops by, as does Nan's boyfriend. The Wises are not divorced. In fact, Nan says her marriage to John is as strong as ever. 'We are very normal, well-adjusted people,' she said.

Well, sort of normal. Welcome to the world of the polyamorous, where the family is bigger than you might expect. Polyamorists do not limit themselves to one relationship but maintain numerous relationships, straight or gay. A key element is that they are all serious emotional commitments, not just casual sex.

And polyamorists are coming out of the closet across America. Several groups have sprung up. In New York, Polyamorous NYC holds monthly meetings, has an email list of about 800 and holds a Poly Pride day each year in Central Park. A documentary, Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family, has opened at cinemas in the city, chronicling a 13-year relationship between three people living together in a relationship that produced two children.

Many polyamorous people, who call themselves 'polys', liken their emergence to the struggle by gays and lesbians for equal rights, 'coming out' as poly in a society prejudiced against their lifestyle. 'Most people in the poly community are very closeted. The community is where gays and lesbians were in the Sixties,' said Justen Bennett-MacCubbin, the founder of Polyamorous NYC.

Bennett-MacCubbin, who is in two serious gay relationships, says he has had to come out of the closet twice: first as a homosexual at 16 and three years later as polyamorous too. 'I realised I enjoyed being with two people in two relationships. Monogamy has no interest for me at all,' he said.

Polys face deep prejudice, he says. The most common reaction from non-polys is that polys have chosen their lifestyle to have lots of sex with different people.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he says.'It is extremely important that people realise it is not just about sexual encounters. What distinguishes the poly community from swingers is that we want to make multiple emotional bonds. Most people in the poly community won't have casual sex,' he said.

It does result in complicated sexual and emotional patterns. Some polys are in 'triangles', where each person in a threesome has a relationship with the other. Or they can be in a 'vee', where one is involved with two others who are not involved with each other. Or polys can be in 'primary relationships', such as with a spouse or partner, and have one or more 'secondary' relationships. Through it all the sexes can be mixed, as polys can be straight, gay or bisexual.

But being a poly can be tough. Brigitte Philippides, an artist in Greenwich Village, has a primary relationship with a boyfriend, a serious relationship with a secondary girlfriend and several secondary relationships with other men.

To bored husbands or wives who might think being a poly means uncomplicated, carefree sex with multiple partners, Philippides has a stern warning. 'If you can't manage one relationship healthily, you are not going to be able to manage two. For polys, relationships are like a consuming hobby: they take up a tremendous amount of time,' she said.

Polys say that for many people, monogamy is unnatural. They point to spiralling divorce rates and widespread infidelity among monogamous couples. Polys, they say, are honest about the human condition. It is monogamists, they say, who live in a fantasy land.

'People divorce often not because of the cheating, but because of the issue of trust being broken. For polys, everything is open and it's all about honesty. All my relationships are working,' Philippides said.

Jealousy is the key emotional issue to be overcome. 'We are taught that jealousy is hardwired into us and people can then justify their jealous rages at their partner's need for others. Polys move beyond that,' said Wise.

Philippides was even more frank. 'We talk about jealousy openly. It is not a taboo word for us,' she said. In fact, polys have a term, called 'compersion'. This is the opposite of jealousy and involves taking pleasure from the success of your partner's other relationships. A hefty dose of compersion helps make polyamory work. That and a deft hand at scheduling so that no partner in a poly set-up feels unfairly treated.

'We want a change in perception of what's possible. By and large people are not naturally monogamous, and we should be able to talk about it without prejudice,' said Bennett-MacCubbin.

Certainly some polys have changed the perceptions of those nearest and dearest to them. Wise tells of her in-laws' shocked reaction when she and her husband came out as polys 11 years ago.

There were concerns for their marriage and their children. Now those concerns are gone. 'They see that our kids have grown up great and that our marriage is great, and that's all they really cared about in the end,' she said.

And the secret of success? 'Communicate, communicate, communicate,' Wise enthused. 'It is just honesty and working on being a better person. When we first started we took very slow and deliberate steps towards being poly. And you know what? The world did not implode.'