By Laura Vladimirova
Polyamory is an alternative to the monogamous norm. Not to be confused with swinger’s sex parties or illegal brides in a polygamous union, it’s a commitment to intimacy and brutal honesty with several consenting partners at once. For those dedicated to the practice, the poly-lifestyle can offer sexual fulfilment, growth, love and support.
Alan, 58, publisher of the poly media watch blog www.polyamoryinthenews.com, says he’s been polyamorous since he was 17. He came to polyamory during the time of the ‘free-love’ movement. Once he experienced polyamory, though it wasn’t called that then, he was hooked. “I had been a conventional, conservative person up to then. I ended up feeling that I had a life mission to spread awareness of this wonderful and almost totally unknown possibility.
>Alan is a poly-mono switch. A lot of polys feel that it is their innate orientation is to be in open relationships, and some, like Alan, go back and forth depending on their changing needs.
“I’m not involved in a [polyamouros relationship] now… [In the past] I lived happily in open relationships and in an equilateral triad,” says Alan. “Later, [I was] in a wonderful poly household run by a lady in an open marriage. But I never found the utopian polyamorous commune I longed for, and eventually drifted into middle-class normalcy.”
Presently, Alan is a speaker and educator on polyamory. He’s involved in local groups and on the advisory board of Loving More, a national poly-themed publication. He is also involved with the Polyamory Leadership Network, and Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness and has been a public speaker twice at Poly Pride NYC, a mass gathering for poly supporters.
Poly relationships have several distinctions. Considering all the possible combinations of lovers at any given time, distinctions help characterize family structures and personal boundaries.
There’s the network poly model—a lot of people dating each other, many of whom may consider themselves single—and the family formation model, a household of people living together.
There is also the primary-secondary model, in which there's usually a core, life-committed couple or group who have additional partners that are more than friends but less than spouses”, “the non-hierarchical model, in which people try to avoid such distinctions”, and “polyfidelity, a closed poly group.”
Valerie, 64, another long term poly participant knew monogamy was not for her since she was 19. “I've been poly since before we had a word for it,” she says.
Her “coming out moment” occurred when her first husband suggested that she have sex with his best friend. Instead of being offended by the idea, Valerie embraced and says that she felt a great sense of liberation when her marriage opened-up to include new people. She maintained an open marriage for a while and after that had multiple long-term lovers who were all aware of each other.
Since then, Valerie and her partners, Ken and Judy, have built a life as “out” polys. They’ve been in their triad for 15 years and have two seven year old twins that they consider belong to all three of them.
“We've been remarkably fortunate,” she says of their many not always enthusiastic, but generally accepting parents and siblings. “My mother was essentially poly, too,” says Valerie, and Ken’s nephew is also “out as poly as well.”
Their status as “an intentional family of three adults” is well-known in their community. They’ve attended faculty parties as a triad, Valerie ran for city office, their various doctors are in the know, and their children’s school is well-aware of their household status.
“Funny story,” recalls Valerie, “I was doing an activity with my son's first grade class last year when one of the kids asked me, ‘What are you to Perry?’ I explained that Perry had three parents and I was one of his mommies. A girl from our church (UU) piped up in with, ‘I have three mommies.’ Her lesbian moms divorced and one has a new partner.”
“Of course, I live in a highly multicultural, wealthy suburb in Massachusetts,” she adds. “If I lived in backwoods Georgia things might be different.”
“A poly lifestyle is not something couples should jump into," says Sharyn Wolf, CSW, psychotherapist, relationship counselor, and author of five books, including Guerrilla Dating Tactics and This Old Spouse. “It must be carefully discussed over months... Poly goes bad when one person in the couple is more into it and it is a purely sexual decision rather than a lifestyle choice. Couples need to discuss the positives and the downsides—such as, what if one person is having a great time when the other person in the couple is having a bad emotional reaction he or she did not expect.
“But some couples make this choice,” she continues, “talk it over and don't jump in to it and find the rewards of polyamory are great for them. Even when you make this choice, the discussions must be ongoing…In the end, couples who do make the polyamory choice come from all lifestyles; doctors, contractors, secretaries. A slow consensual exploration is recommended with continual dialoguing along the way. For couples who live the polyamory lifestyle in a mindful fashion—well, they wouldn't have it any other way.”
For young or new polys, since it’s not just a path of finding the right one, unconventional issues come up that may not have simple solutions. With the first few poly relationships, there is a sense of relationship trial and error. Figuring out the best couple dynamics, sexual or otherwise, can be challenging.
“It’s hard to conceive of poly marriage or family dynamics, because we have few examples,” says Elke, a 25-year-old jewelry designer http://tinyurl.com/elkemi, environmental activist, aspiring yoga instructor.
Elke is a 25 year-old-female who has been with her primary male partner, Mariah for three years. During that time they’ve been in two separate poly relationships. Their first try at polyamory was as a triad, with Niki, 23, a female, at Mariah’s suggestion.
Before meeting Mariah, Elke had never thought of dating several people at once. However, she considers herself to be open to ideas society may consider strange. She meditates, chants, and believes in healing powers. She is works on evolving herself and boundaries; this includes blurring the lines of her sexuality.
Elke describes the triad as both satisfying and problematic. “I was getting needs met that were not being met in my monogamous relationship…I was finally not jealous of my partner’s desires or trying to control him to fill my needs.”
She admits that the triad’s sexual encounters made her uneasy. She didn’t enjoy having sex with two people at once. “It felt like I was acting,” she says.
For Elke, other challenges occurred because Niki was a long-distance lover. This presented a separate set of problems for the trio. Their limited face-to-face contact often placed Elke in the role of middle man communicator. She found it stressful facilitating the communication between Niki and Mariah.
Maintaining poly dynamics requires a whole lot of talking. If the communication breaks down, there’s a good chance the dynamic goes with it. The trio eventually had a falling out after Niki was unable to move to Seattle to be closer to Elke and Mariah.
"Mariah and Niki didn’t have good communication after [Niki] didn’t move with us. But she is still our amazing friend.”
In general, Niki, 23, a behavior analyst also studying to be a yoga instructor, always felt that monogamy was not her only choice. “…Monogamy doesn’t make sense and is mostly obsolete relative to current human needs…[it is] at a cost to our happiness," she says. "We still hold onto this notion that 'special someones' and perfect partners are available to us when really, they are not. Exceptions are real of course.”
While dating Mariah and Elke, she maintained a separate boyfriend at home. Her involvement in polyamory didn’t take much as she and her boyfriend were open to the idea of expanding on their ideas of love and sex.
“The agreed dynamic between my partner and I was settled on the grounds that we would commit to honesty and exploration. The poly began in a casual group sex fashion, but within that experience, undeniable romantic connections sparked,” recalls Niki.
Niki remembers that, unexpectedly, she and Elke developed strong feelings for each other. This caused certain tensions between the rest of the group, especially during sexual interactions. “Elke and I considered each other girlfriends. So, she had a boyfriend, and I had a boyfriend, and we were each other’s girlfriend.
“[Sexually] there was turn taking, group interaction, two on one interaction, sometimes three on one interaction, or tandum couple interaction. Like in a typical relationship, the poly sexual aspect evolved by its own means, dependant on the mood, setting, and comfort level of those involved. Sometimes, the group sex was too chaotic given the deeply intimate connection that myself and my girlfriend felt, which became threatening to our male partners.”
Overall, Niki describes it as a good experience with lots of affection, open communication, learning, cuddling and support.
After Niki, Mariah and Elke continued their search for a dually fulfilling poly. Mariah had thought that a couple dynamic rather than a single girl would help each of them find their balance. They began dating Geo and Geo’s girlfriend as a cross couple quad.
The quad didn’t work out. Elke and Geo fell in love and Geo and his girlfriend eventually broke up. Currently, Elke is dating the two men simultaneously.
“For me, polyamory is an ongoing and complex subject in my life,” says Elke.
So I am in two different relationships, which wasn’t my goal and is hard to balance. We have come a long way over the last four or five months,” says Elke
Elke’s relationships with Geo and Mariah is teaching her how to spread her needs out to both partners. She says learning this has directly contributed to strengthening her feelings for Mariah and herself. “I think my connection with Mariah improved by my connection with Geo. [I] feel less clingy and more empowered,” she asserts.
Elke is also cautious of the people Mariah wishes to be involved with. She wants to ensure that they are considerate towards her. “I have felt jealous when Mariah pursued people who didn’t have my best interest at heart and were acting in a way that didn’t respect me. More than jealousy, I feel energy leaks. I don’t want to waste my energy having these things in my life.”
Mariah, Elke and Geo’s current relationship status isn’t cemented. Everyone is still discovering what works for them. Jealousy, frustration, and confusion are a part of the search.
For Mariah, a triad with two women is still something he is interested in working on. “He is often challenged because my connection [with Geo] stands between that. I try to explain to him that it wasn’t really working for me anyway. Mariah isn’t interested in being with a guy without a girl, I’m sure I want that either.”
If it seems that poly relationships have more intricate issues than their monogamous counterparts, Alan has a few ideas as to why.
Growing up in a mono-friendly world makes it difficult for those who don’t fit into that box. “People like sex. People fall in love. This drives a lot of people into [monogamy] or non-monogamy that aren’t suited for it,” he says.
Valerie agrees that people may confuse their poly or mono orientations to the detriment of their relationships. “…An enormous number of people have the capacity to be non-monogamous—witness the millions who swing and cheat.”
Another obstacle to successful polyamory is the lack of common knowledge that one gets just by learning from parents and others. Like Elke, growing up surrounded by monogamy, people who may pursue polyamory don’t learn helpful behaviors and poly-problem solving techniques until much later.
Also, since there is a greater strain placed on couples that feel their practices are socially shunned, some may choose to keep their relationships hidden from families, which creates thorny issues in the long-run.
“Poly groups simply have more moving parts that can break,” adds Alan.
Even after their break-up and relationship complexities, both Elke and Niki are still open to trying various forms of commitment.
Niki’s poly experience helped her become more aware of her behaviours, good and bad, and define her needs better. She’d be happy to try another committed poly. As for Elke, she’s looking for a relationship where she feels sexually comfortable and can communicate openly. If that develops into a poly, well she’s fine with it either way.
“For me,” says Valerie, “polyamory is about options, about the freedom to choose. People are poly for a lot of different reasons: sometimes they want more sex, sometimes less. Sometimes they like variety; sometimes they're bisexual. You don't have to find everything you want in just one person, and you don't have to try to be ´everything´ to somebody else. For many poly parents, polyamory is a way of making a ´village´ to raise a child.”
The poly-life isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires work and dedication. And yet, those who participate don’t seem to mind. The effort is worth the result: freely living on their own relationship terms.
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