Posts Tagged ‘polyamory’

Links for February 9th, 2008

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 9, 2008 at 6:17 pm

A Bouquet of Lovers

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 9, 2008 at 11:00 am

Let us begin with the a priori assumption that the reader is either currently practicing or firmly committed to the concept of Open Relationships as a conscious and loving lifestyle. If you are not in that category then this article will probably not be of interest to you. If you are full of curiosity about the potentials of Open Relationships, there are resources which deal with such soul-searching issues as jealousy management and theories about why the whole lifestyle is healthy and positive. Some of these resources will be given at the end and herein there will also be found considerable points of interest.

The goal of a responsible Open Relationship is to cultivate ongoing, long-term, complex relationships which are rooted in deep mutual friendships.

What elements enable an Open Relationship to be successful? Having been involved all my adult life in one or the other Open Marriages (the current Primary being [at the time the article was written] 16 years long), I have seen a lot of ideas come and go and experimented with plans and rules to make these relationships work for everyone involved. There is as much variety in what different people require in a relationship as there are people involved in them. However, there are some sure-fire elements that must be present for the system to function at all and there are other elements that are strongly recommended on the basis that they have a very good track record. Let us refer to them collectively as the "Rules of the Road."

Rules of the Road

The first two are essential. I have never met anyone who has had a serious and healthy Open Marriage that omitted these first two principles. They are: Honesty and Openness about the polyamorous lifestyle. Having multiple sexual relations while lying to your partners or trying to pretend that each one is the "one true love" is a very superficial and selfishly destructive way to live.

There are marriages in which one of the partners will state: "If you ever have an affair, I never want to find out about it." I suppose some folks take that as tacit permission the same way a child will connive when the parent tells them "Don't ever let me catch you doing such-and-so!" Without complete honesty, especially about sexual issues, the relationship is doomed. Some Open Relations have an agreement not to discuss the details of their satellite relations with their Primary partner or vice-versa, but there still must be the fundamental honesty and agreement that other relations do exist and are important to maintain.

The next principle mentioned is equally fundamental:

All partners involved in the Multiple Relations must fully and willingly embrace the basic commitment to a polyamorous lifestyle. A situation where one partner seeks polygamy and the other one insists upon monogamy or strongly politics for it will not w work, for this is too much of a fundamental disagreement to allow the relationship to prosper. Sooner or later someone has got to give in and have it one way or the other. The truth is that people usually do have a strong preference.

Hogamus, Higamus, Men Are Polygamous
Higamus, Hogamus, Women Monogamous

The only reason such mixed marriages have actually worked has been because there was an all powerful church/state taboo enforced on options other than monogamy. In a patriarchy, men's deviation from that norm is ignored and women's is punished, often by death. The first recorded gender-specific law, in the ancient code of Urukagina from 2400 BCE, was directed against women who practiced polyandry, specifying that their teeth be bashed in with bricks. Now that the social codes are being challenged, even though the state maintains laws against legal plural marriage, both men and women are more free to explore alternative preferences and relationships are conspicuously in a period of flux.

When I first met and fell in love with my present Primary partner, I roused myself sufficiently from my bedazzled emotional state to say: "I love you, but I hope that we can somehow have an Open Relationship because I am not really suited to monogamy and would be very unhappy in a monogamous relationship." Fortunately, Otter was delighted to hear this as he had been too afraid of losing the new-found bliss to broach the subject first.

Many a relationship has foundered on the rock of Higamus-Hogamus. Nevertheless, the sooner it gets dealt with the better chance for the relationship to survive. It also means a quicker and kinder death to a romance if this basic agreement cannot be reached. Honesty and willing Polyamorous Commitment are the basic building blocks all partners must use to build a lasting Open Relationship.

Once over that hurdle, next comes a set of ground rules for conducting the relationships. Any relationship profits by ground rules, even a one night stand. Nowadays, the state of sexuality being risky, such considerations are more than a politeness; they can be a lifesaver.

Never put energy into any Secondary relationships when there is an active conflict within the Primary. This has to be bedrock or the Primary will eventually fold.

The difficulty with this rule is that if both partners are not equally committed to the openness of the relationship, it can be used as a gun in their disagreements. By deliberately picking a fight just before Primary A goes to see a Secondary sweetie, Primary B can control her spouse and prevent him from ever having successful Secondary relations. This behavior is fraught with dishonesty and secret monogamous agendas; if it is persistently indulged in, it is symptomatic of a fundamental problem with the basic principles.

If Partner B plays this game with Partner A's satellite assignations while continuing to pursue his own, B is an out and out hypocrite and needs to be called on his bullshit in no uncertain terms!

Nevertheless, this rule is the safety valve for sanity and preservation of Primary relationships and should be followed with scrupulous integrity. It is a good idea for Primary partners to have an agreed upon set of signals or a formally stated phrase to politely request their Primary to postpone or cancel the secondary assignation so that the energy can be put into the Primary relationship for fence mending or bonding. This ritualized request can be structured so as to avoid loaded terminology and to decrease the negative emotional charge. Frivolous use of this signal is very destructive of it, as is refusal to participate in healing when access to the Primary partner has been obtained.

Territorial jealousy has no place in a polyamorous agreement. However situational jealousy can arise over issues in the relationship when one or more of the partners is feeling neglected. Obviously the best cure for neglect is to focus attention on what has been neglected; the relationship will prosper when all partners are feeling strong and positive about each other. From that strong and healthy center it becomes possible to extend the love to others.

Consult with the Primary partner before becoming sexually involved with a new long term Secondary lover. The Primary partner must approve of the new person and feel good about them and not feel threatened by the new relationship. Nothing can break up a relationship faster than bringing in a new person that is hostile or inconsiderate to the other Primary partner. On the other hand, the most precious people in my life are the lovers that my Primary partner has brought home to become our mutual life-long friends.

The check and balance on this rule is how often it is invoked by the same person. If it is used all the time by one person, this is patently unfair and is symptomatic of a problem or need that must be addressed. This can be tricky and once again, if honesty is not impeccably observed, the rule can be abused. If a man has a hard time relating to other men for instance, he can use his alienation to pick apart every other lover his wife proposes on some ground or other, leaving her with no satellite relationship that is acceptable to him. The cure for this is for the person who has the problem relating to the same sex to seek a therapy group for people who want to overcome this alienation.

Different rules may be used to apply to one night stands or other temporary love affairs. One-night-stands are not necessarily frowned upon and can be a memorable experience, but some Primaries choose to not allow any such brief flings as too risky, while others feel that such happenings add spice and are especially welcome during business trips or other enforced separations. The "ask first" rule may be suspended for the duration of the separation.

All new potential lovers are immediately told of any existing Primary relationship so that they genuinely understand the primacy of that existing relationship. None of this hiding your wedding ring business! Satellite lovers have a right to know where they truly stand and must not have any false illusions or hidden agendas of their own. For instance, in a triadic relationship of two women and one man, there is occasionally a solitary satellite lover who wants to "cut that little filly right out of the herd." If satellite lovers are really seeking a monogamous relationship then they will not be satisfied with the role of a long term Secondary relationship, and it is better that they find this out before any damage is done to either side.

If a Secondary becomes destructive to the Primary partnership, one of the Primary partners can ask the other to terminate the threatening Secondary relationship. It is wise to limit this veto to the initial phase of Secondary relationship formation. After a Secondary relationship has existed over a year and a day, any difficulties with the partner's Secondary must be worked out with everyone's cooperation. If you are not all friends by that time, then you are not conducting your relationships in a very cooperative and loving manner. When all is said and done, what we are creating is extended families based on the simple fact that lovers will come through for you more than friends will.

An additional complication can arise with the variable of alternate sexual preference. A bisexual woman I knew who was partnered to a man had to terminate a relationship with one of her female lovers because the Secondary lover was a lesbian who objected to the Primary relationship for political reasons. Another bisexual couple had a system whereby they were heterosexually monogamous and all their satellite relationships were with members of the same sex. This elegant solution underwent considerable stress and eventual alteration with the advent of AIDS.

Staying Healthy

Venereal diseases have been the thorn in the rose of erotic love for centuries, but recently the thorn has developed some fatal venom. If open relationships are to survive, we must develop an impeccable honesty that will brook no hiding behind false modesty or squeamishness. We must be able to have an unshakeable faith in our Primary partners and a very high level of trust with any Secondary or other satellite relationships. This demands a tight knit community of mutual trust among lovers who are friends. A recent study yielded some sobering statistics: over 80% of the men and women queried said they would lie to a potential sex partner both about whether they were married as well as whether they had herpes or other S.T.D.s. All it takes is one such liar and the results can be pathological to all. Nowadays, anyone who feels that total honesty is "just not romantic" is courting disaster and anybody unfortunate enough to trust a person like this can drag a lot of innocent people down with their poor judgment.

In order to cope with this level of risk, a system has been evolving that we call The Condom Commitment. It works like this: you may have sex without condoms only with the other members of your Condom Commitment Cadre. All members of the Cadre must wear condoms with any outside lovers. The Condom Commitment begins with the Primary relationship where trust is absolute. Long-term Secondary lovers can join by mutual consent of both Primaries and any other Secondaries that already belong. If a person slips up and has an unprotected fling then they must go through a lengthy quarantine period, be tested for all S.T.D.s, then be accepted back in by complete consensus of the other members of the Cadre. The same drill applies if a condom breaks during intercourse with an outside lover.

Adherence to the Condom Commitment and to the other Rules of the Road may seem harsh and somewhat artificial at first, but they have evolved by way of floods of tears and many broken hearts. Alternative relationships can be filled with playful excitement , but it is not a game and people are not toys. The only way the system works is if everyone gets what they need. The rewards are so rich and wonderful that I personally can't imagine living any other way.

I feel that this whole polyamorous lifestyle is the avante garde of the 21st Century. Expanded families will become a pattern with wider acceptance as the monogamous nuclear family system breaks apart under the impact of serial divorces. In many ways, polyamorous extended relationships mimic the old multi-generational families before the Industrial Revolution, but they are better because the ties are voluntary and are, by necessity, rooted in honesty, fairness, friendship and mutual interests. Eros is, after all, the primary force that binds the universe together; so we must be creative in the ways we use that force to evolve new and appropriate ways to solve our problems and to make each other and ourselves happy.

The magic words are still, after all: Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.


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A lot of love to give

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 6, 2008 at 4:34 pm

Since the inception of this blog we've covered some pretty sticky subjects, from male orgasms, to cockblockers and the scourge of Brisbane's boofhead bloke and whilst we've touched on swingers there's still something I'd like to nut out.


The topic came to mind yesterday morning when I clicked on a comment made by Carla Bruni, the heiress cum model turned singer and latest love of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Much press speculation surrounds the pair as the twice-divorced, right-wing Sarkozy allegedly angles for his third shot of wedded bliss with the Italian beauty only to be rebuffed by the feisty, left-wing, self professed "tamer of men".

"Monogamy bores me terribly," Bruni once proclaimed. "I am faithful … to myself!"
"I am monogamous from time to time but I prefer polygamy and polyandry (its female equivalent)."

Ah-me. Life on the Continent. Or life for the fabulously wealthy, beautiful people. All very good and well and a lovely light-hearted fantasy (just think ladies, a whole harem of hubbies at your beck and call!) but how would this work in the world of the mere Aussie mortal; we who are taught monogamy is our M.O.

Can this polyamoric business be the romantic revolution the love-lorn are looking for? Perhaps some folks fail at 'normal' relationships because they're just not geared that way – perhaps for them true happiness does lie in having "more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved" ?

Read the rest of the article, and the comments at brisbanetimes

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Polyamory (or Please Sir, May I Have Another?)

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 6, 2008 at 4:18 pm

God knows I've tried… monogamy I mean. Girl after girl, all of them possessing wonderful characteristics; many of which put together would make most guys bend down on one knee and pop the big question.

But not me.

I still want that special someone, don't get me wrong, but I want that someone to want more than just me. I want them to get off on that first time when you know you're interested in someone else and pursue it with the full knowledge that they have my approval and that it turns me on just the same.

Maybe I'll be there and maybe I won't but I want them to enjoy it just as much as I would when I'm in the same position next month.

Sounds simple, right? I mean, two people who are committed to each other should be able to explore various intimacies with other people with the full knowledge and approval of their partner, right?

It's anything but.

Read the rest of this article over at blogTO

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An Open and Shut Marriage

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 6, 2008 at 4:14 pm

At an upscale pub in our small Northwestern town, one of the mothers seated around our table made an indissoluble confession: she told us she had been having a very serious crush on a man who was not her husband. She said the crush bothered her. Besides making her feel guilty, it also made her unsure of the status of her marriage. As she spoke, red blotches formed around her neck.

Read the rest of the article at the New York Times

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How the polyamorous celebrate Valentine’s Day

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 6, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Whether you're single or attached, Valentine's Day can be rough: either you're planning that perfect date, which can't possibly meet your special someone's expectations, or you're lamenting the fact that you don't have a special someone to disappoint. Either way, it's nothing compared to what the polyamorous have to deal with.

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Hello, Poly

In Too lazy to assign a category on August 5, 2007 at 7:16 am

A few weeks ago I was at a party with some friends, and another friend, Jane (some of the subjects' names have been changed at their request), introduced us to her cousin, who was in town visiting. "This is Kim and . . ." Jane's voice trailed off, as she wasn't quite sure how our friend Kim wanted to handle explaining the two guys on either side of her. Kim, a tall striking redhead in a sheer black shirt, turned to the man on her left and said, "This is my husband, Phil." Then, she subtly gestured to her right, "And this is my boyfriend, Dan."

Polyamorous people have sexual, emotional, loving, and/or committed relationships that are ongoing with more than one person. Relationships, in fact, are what set polyamory apart from other forms of non-monogamy like swinging or occasionally hooking up for sex with other people.

Polyamorists must create and maintain their complex, nontraditional relationships in a society that promotes and values monogamy as the ideal model. There's a growing list of publications, websites, groups, and events dedicated to polyamory, but most of them focus on the primary couple. There may be tips on how to transform a monogamous relationship into a non-monogamous one or, for those already in open relationships, strategies for negotiation and problem solving. Like advice I've read (and given) about how to have a threesome, most is geared toward the couple, and the third of three is given little information or support. That person is not simply a plaything or a third wheel, but a human being with as many needs, desires, and feelings as the primary couple.

A few months ago, I attended "Polyamory for Non-Primary Partners," the only class I know of to address this issue. Sarah, a 36-year-old customer service representative from Virginia who taught it, spoke about how to manage secondary relationships and be a non-primary partner. Sarah is currently in four relationships with three men and one woman. She's been with one of the men for three and half years; he's a formerly primary/currently non-primary partner with whom she lives and spends one night a week; he also has a girlfriend. Next is a married man she has been with for almost three years; they see each other five to six hours a week. And Sarah has a girlfriend (who has a wife) whom she sees once or twice a month because they live in different cities. She also has Steve (she calls him "the emerging primary") who she sees three to four nights a week. Feel like you need a flow chart? Well, that's part of polyamory—it's not for the disorganized.

I have been to a lot of classes on polyamory. I think the most compelling classes are not those where presenters set out a general "how-to" plan, but the ones where they speak from experience and open up about how they make their relationships work. Relationships are all in the details, and it's always rewarding when someone shares the nitty-gritty bits, which is what Sarah did.

"Being in a non-primary relationship allows me to have relationships with people that I couldn't have if I were only looking for primaries. I don't have to worry about having to fit into people's lives in only one way," says Sarah. "I can have relationships with people that don't require heavy investments of time and energy, which I don't always have."

Penny, a 29-year-old activist and artist, is in a relationship with a woman who has two long-term primary partners; she and Penny spend at least one long weekend a month together and talk on the phone several times a week. "I have a ton of things going on, and I don't have space in my life for a primary relationship. But to have an amazing weekend once a month where I am the focus of attention for this person and she is for me is exciting," says Penny, who admits that their relationship began as purely sexual, then evolved into more.

Just as polyamory flies in the face of the traditional pairing model, choosing to be a non-primary partner contradicts all the rhetoric we learn about finding "the one," making a commitment, and being the most important person in someone's life. Choosing to be farther down on the food chain immediately has people thinking you have commitment issues, low self-esteem, or something else wrong with you. In fact, these critiques echo comments often made about the "mistress" in a cheating relationship, but the difference here is a big one: choice. While the mistress may dream of or even be promised that she'll become Girl Number One, the non-primary person knows where he or she stands in someone's life and is content there. The non-primary folks I know either don't want to be anyone's primary because of other priorities in their life or, like Sarah, want multiple relationships, some of which are with people who already have a primary partner.

For some folks, there is no food chain: They eschew the concept of primary/non-primary altogether because they don't believe in the hierarchy it implies. "I'm in two relationships, and I consider them both equally important," says Cate, a San Francisco–based filmmaker. "A mother doesn't consider one of her children to be the primary child, does she?" Sarah counters, "Eventually someone has to be on top because we will be put in a position where we have to choose where our energy is going to go. If [people who reject a hierarchical model] can make that work for them, it's great. In my world, at some point you have to decide." Penny says, "We think of each relationship as different. I don't know if non-primary is the word I would use, but there is no other word, so it's like the default."

Regardless of semantics, what these women do have in common is their emphasis on being very aware of their wants and needs. Sarah stressed that people must have good boundaries and practice honest negotiation and communication to make polyamory work. For her, it has great rewards: "If I wasn't poly and willing to be someone's non-primary partner, I would miss out on incredible people and the lessons I've learned from them. I will trade the silly fantasy [of one true love] for multiple functioning relationships any day of the week."

Tristan Taormino

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My Husband Gave Me Permission to Have an Affair – Now What?

In Too lazy to assign a category on August 5, 2007 at 7:00 am

Having an open marriage is interesting enough…

But when your husband encourages you to have an affair , as long as you don't tell him about it… between the stigma around cheating and affairs, and your own fear that you're breaking the sacred trust in your relationship, things can get a little more complicated.

The stigma of infidelity… MUST we call it an affair?

Cheating is not the cause of relationship problems, but rather a symptom of significant relationship issues. People who are happy and content in a relationship – emotionally, spiritually AND sexually, do not go outside the relationship to "cheat". It just doesn't usually work that way.

There are situations however in which one person can't meet all of their partner's needs… leaving that person longing for more, whether it's emotionally OR sexually.

But if another person is brought into the relationship to meet those needs, is it truly cheating or breaking the trust, or merely breaking some more commonly accepted societal norms around what a marriage or relationship "should be"?

What if your partner CAN'T have sex with you?

For whatever reason, often health related issues, some people feel they can no longer have sex. Or maybe they just no longer WANT to have sex.

But in reality, they realize even though they no longer have sexual needs, their partner still does. At this point, the relationship will begin to suffer, since there are unmet needs, and those needs intensify as time goes on. Something eventually has to give, and if you're not careful, it's going to be the relationship that collapses under the strain.

Do you really want or need to divorce? Is there maybe another way?

So do you really need to divorce or separate , or is there maybe another way?

What if you were to consider an open marriage, or an arrangement by which another person could meet your partner's sexual needs, while still keeping your marriage, or your relationship, intact?

Certainly this would require even much more trust and communication than a relationship normally does, but it COULD work. At the very least, wouldn't it be worth trying as a last ditch effort before letting the relationship crumble and deteriorate?

If both partners are willing to approach this situation from a place of true love and acceptance – as opposed to ownership and jealousy – then the relationship may have a chance to survive this challenge.

Love, honesty, and devotion are very different from sex

Many people confuse love, honesty, and devotion to a partner with sexual contact.

Those are very different things…

Millions of couples worldwide enjoy the swinging lifestyle (formerly known as wife swapping in previous generations), and they are often brought closer together for sharing such an experience. Rarely does swinging break a couple apart – unless they're doing it just as an excuse to have sex with other people, and to mask deeper relationship problems.

While swinging only involves sharing your partner with others for sex, many couples engage in polyamory , where there is an actual love relationship between multiple partners and couples. It's easy to forget sometimes that not all cultures today or throughout history have practiced monogamy.

Isn't that heresy? Is it even legal?

Our society is a blend of many different religious and spiritual influences. One man's sin is another man's redemption.

Fact is, you decide how you wish to live your own life, and as long as nobody gets hurt, it's not anyone's business but your own. This can only work of as long as you are completely open and honest with your partner about the situation and any feelings that arise from it.

And set the ground rules ahead of time to avoid problems later on… from safe sex to whether or not you want to meet this new person and know in depth what your partner is doing with them.

Although sharing your partner sexually with another person may sounds like a very bad idea to some, and it may go against what you were taught growing up, isn't it at least worth considering if it could save your relationship?

Dear Dan and Jennifer,

I have looked at a number of your letters but have found it quite difficult to find a corresponding answer to my question:

What if your husband finds it emotionally impossible ( because of work stress and being very overweight )(and physically impossible for a number of medical reasons such as sleep apnea ) to have sex but I so desperately want sex?

And now when he says I should find someone else for a sexual relationship ( just as long as I don't tell him! )? We have been married for thirty years and have three children ( now grown-up).

I am now very attracted to a colleague at my work and he is to me but feel torn yet desperately need a physical connection….I have not had sex with my husband for approx 12 years and it is driving me crazy, crazy enough to consider an affair but my religion and upbringing are such deterrents. I feel I cannot leave my husband yet I also feel he has given me "permission" to have an affair, oh dear I don't know what the right way forward is I do hope you can help. I am very confused.

– A. (Argyll, Scotland, UK)

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Control Tower & Kink Calendar

In Too lazy to assign a category on August 5, 2007 at 6:42 am

I'm about to embark upon another adventure in polyamory—I'm going down to Georgia for a family visit, and instead of my partner Max, whom my family knows and loves, I am taking with me my other partner, Monk. This should be interesting.

My parents and brother have known that I am poly for some years now. But it's been a theoretical thing, something we've discussed in the abstract. I didn't feel a need to introduce my previous partners to them, but now that time has come, and I suspect that having me show up with Monk instead of Max is going to be challenging to my kin.

My biofamily is quite clear about the fact that they don't wish to know about the kinky side of my sexuality. But my observations of other people's coming-out experiences make me think that some families actually have an easier time accepting kink than they do polyamory. For one thing, it's easy enough f or a determinedly vanilla person to mentally blur over the details of what their kinky relative is doing. But no matter what my family thinks—or tries not to think—about what I'm doing in bed with Max, they're not going to be able to ignore the fact that he's actually not here and I have a different guy with me.

I suspect the real difference is that kink doesn't seem to reliably make vanilla people question their own relationship choices. At least, not to a point of discomfort. But rare is the person in a long-term monogamous relationship who hasn't been attracted to another. Sometimes it's at a level that's easy to handle. But sometimes it's a mighty struggle. Seeing others apparently having their cake and eating it too—although it's not really quite that simple—can arouse sleeping resentment. Too often what I've seen is someone more or less saying, "If I have to suffer, you should have to, too!"

There are other fears as well. My mother, I think, fears that I'll be abandoned. She often asks, with studied casualness, if Max and I have thought of getting married. Words like security and commitment drift into her conversation. I have gently pointed out to her that married, monogamous people—for example, you and Dad—break up, too. I am committed to Max, and to Monk, and they to me. But love is not like getting a civil-service job.

My father snorts at the idea of relationships-as-security. "Security is what's in your head," he states. "And in your feet." My mother says I'm like him in many ways, and she's probably right. But he says openly that he'd be far too jealous to be poly, and sometimes he looks at me and shakes his head gently, as if wondering where this strange, wild girl-child came from.

They'll like Monk, because he's a likable guy. And they'll get used to being around my poly family. It's a good thing, because when it's their turn to visit me this Christmas, there will definitely be more than two stockings hanging by the fireplace.

Column by Mistress Matisse

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Love unlimited: The polyamorists

In Too lazy to assign a category on June 26, 2007 at 8:41 pm

"I was dating Gordon when I met Heather and Jim. Then I started dating Jim too, and Heather started dating Gordon right before he and I broke up," says Noemi. Confused? Tonight I'm having dinner with a group whose unusual lifestyle warrants such introductions. They are a "polyamorous" family – one whose members are openly committed to several lovers at the same time.

Their household, in a quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts of San Francisco, looks like any other. A little boy in pyjamas answers the door when I knock, smiling around a large strawberry stuck in his mouth. His mother Heather, an artist with oval glasses and pink hair, is cooking in the kitchen with her boyfriend Gordon, a computer-network engineer with an understated manner. The dining room is pleasant, airy and smells of roasting chicken. Heather's husband Jim, along with housemates Noemi and Alicia, are bustling about the table, opening wine, putting out place settings and making sure Heather and Jim's son (the strawberry eater) brushes his teeth before going to bed. Noemi, a park ranger who is pregnant with Jim's second child, offers me some bread and cheese.

The group's network of relationships is fairly typical in polyamorous circles, where it's not unusual to hear somebody introduce a "husband's girlfriend" or "my wife and her boyfriends". Noemi does her best to explain the history of the family, but it sounds like a logic puzzle. "If you really want to understand all of our relationships, it might be easier if we drew you a chart," says Heather (see Diagram). "I'm not dating any of them," says Alicia, a librarian. "My boyfriend is poly, so I guess I'm poly by association."

"I feel like I'm monogamous because I've been sleeping with only one person for about five years," says Noemi. Everybody starts laughing, and finally she admits, "OK, well I did sleep with some other people too."

It is hard to estimate how many polyamorists exist – there is no box for them on any national census – but the number of online resources, articles and books on the topic has exploded since the early 1990s, when the term polyamory ("poly" for short) was coined in internet newsgroups. The Ethical Slut, a 1997 book by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt that some call the "bible of poly", has sold more than 50,000 copies and is about to go into its second edition. Recently the concept of multiple lovers has become the subject of public debate in the US, where conflicts over gay marriage have led some conservatives to claim that homosexual weddings will lead to marriages of more than two people: if you can have two mothers, they say, why not two mothers and a father?

For psychologists and evolutionary biologists, polyamory is a rare opportunity to see, out in the open, what happens when people stop suppressing their desire for multiple partners and embrace non-monogamy. Proponents say the poly brand of open but committed relationships may be a way around infidelity because it turns an age-old problem into a solution: polyamorists are released from the burdens of traditional marriage vows, yet they seem to keep their long-term relationships intact. What makes poly enticing is the possibility of reconciling long-term stability and romantic variety.
No swinging, please

And why shouldn't we consider it? When most people think of non-exclusive marriages, they think of polygamy, an ancient but still widespread practice that involves one person, usually male, acquiring multiple spouses in a harem-like arrangement. Or swinging, in which couples have casual flings on the side. Polyamory is different. It encompasses a dizzying variety of arrangements – anything from couples with long-term lovers on the side to larger groups with overlapping relationships. If anything characterises poly, says Elaine Cook, a psychiatrist who has a private practice in Marin county, California, it is a lack of rigid structure.

What evidence there is shows that poly couples stay together as long as monogamous ones – and, apparently, for good reasons. In a study published last December in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (vol 8), Cook analysed the relationships of seven couples who had been married for more than 10 years, and who had had additional partners for at least seven of those years. She found that most of the couples reported "love" or "connection" as important reasons for staying together. This contrasts with monogamous couples, Cook notes, who often list external factors such as religion or family as major reasons for remaining committed.

That is telling. Cook speculates that polyamorists perceive themselves as having more choices, and therefore they only stay in marriages and relationships that make them happy. "They have other relationships that they are perhaps equally excited about being in, but they want to maintain this [marriage] relationship because it continues to satisfy them," she says.

For some, poly may be more realistic than monogamy. Having multiple partners frees people from the process of trying to find "the one" who is perfect for them in every way. In April, psychologist Rachel Robbins at the Mission Mental Health clinic in San Francisco conducted a survey of 250 polyamorous women. The number 1 reason they gave for being poly was "to experience different activities and explore different parts of themselves with different people". Instead of asking one person to meet all their needs, polyamorists are content with several people who each meet a few.

Noemi's housemates would drink to that. "I have a lot of interests and passions in my life, and I can't fulfil them all in my relationship," says Alicia. "It was good to have my partner go off and date other people, because then I could pursue my outside interests too – and I didn't feel scrutinised for wanting to do that." Noemi agrees: "It makes me sad that so many people isolate themselves," she says. "It's good to have multiple people who love you, and it's good to have freedom and downtime too."

All well and good, but what about the demands of juggling so many commitments at once? Surely it saps their time and energy. In a break during dinner, I ask how the family manages multiple relationships, particularly as most of them live under the same roof.

"We all have our own bedrooms, which is key," Noemi says. "And our bedrooms aren't next to each other, so we have privacy," says Heather. "Also, we have a nominal schedule where Jim sleeps with Noemi and me on an every-other-night basis, and I'm with Gordon on the weekends."

"My nights without Jim are great," Noemi says with a laugh. "I get to hog the covers, and nobody snores."

Critics call poly self-indulgent and morally reprehensible. Yet it is hardly a sexual free-for-all. The freedom has limits – and managing emotions like jealousy becomes a central issue. "These are designer relationships," Cook says. "Every group decides for itself what's open and what isn't."

Take Emma and Nate, a young married couple living in California's Silicon Valley who describe themselves as "stable and well-settled". They met in college 11 years ago and have always had a polyamorous relationship. Emma has had a boyfriend for the past seven years, while Nate prefers to have short-term romances with friends. Some aspects of their relationship, however, are not open. "We don't do sleepovers with other people," Emma says.

"I like waking up next to her in the morning," Nate says. "The only exception is if I'm out of town, in which case I don't mind if she's having a sleepover." Another rule they have established is letting each other know in advance about dates with other people. "If either of us gets serious about someone else, we bring them home to meet the spouse," says Nate. "In fact, that's what we're doing tomorrow – we're having lunch with my new girlfriend and her husband."
Your cheating heart

Polyamorists come to it at different points in their lives and for different reasons. Emma says she had open relationships in high school, and many people I spoke with described discovering poly in their late teens or early twenties. Most, like Jim, tried monogamy. "My first marriage was supposed to be monogamous, and I was," he recalls. "But she slept around in a cheating way. That killed the relationship."

So is poly more sustainable than monogamy? "Infidelity in monogamous relationships is estimated at 60 to 70 per cent, so it seems that attraction to more than one person is normal. The question is how we deal with that," says Meg Barker, a professor of psychology at London South Bank University who presented her research into poly at the 2005 meeting of The British Psychological Society. "The evidence is overwhelming that monogamy isn't natural," says evolutionary biologist David Barash of the University of Washington, Seattle. "Lots of people believe that once they find 'the one', they'll never want anyone else. Then they're blindsided by their own inclinations to desire other attractive individuals. So it's useful to know that this behaviour is natural."

But as a mating strategy, poly may not be any better than monogamy; a person's reproductive success may diminish if there is less pressure to be exclusive. "Jealousy is probably fitness enhancing," Barash says. A more jealous male is likely to stick closer to his mate and prevent her from getting impregnated by other males. "A good look at human biology does not support polyamory any more than it supports monogamy," he says. Biologist Joan Roughgarden, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, goes further. "Polyamory won't last. The likelihood of being able to successfully raise children in that context is very limited. My guess is that it's not an evolutionary advance, but a liability."

To others, however, biology is not the point. "In middle-class urban cultures, people aren't marrying for survival any more," says psychologist Dossie Easton, co-author of The Ethical Slut. "They can get divorced, and the kids won't starve. This means we're having marriages and relationships for very different reasons than our ancestors did. We're doing it for emotional gratification." Easton sees poly as a break from the "survival strategy" traditions that created both polygamy and monogamy. "Polyamory is a cultural outgrowth of serial monogamy, or having multiple partners without necessity," she says. "Once you're released from necessity, you can start doing all kinds of original thinking."

Barker concurs. "It's assumed that jealousy is a natural response," she says, "but some polyamorous people say they hardly feel it at all. I think this gives us insight into how people can make sense of their worlds in many ways if monogamy isn't the default." She has found that when people leave traditional monogamy behind, they often rethink "givens" such as how to divide up the housework, money and childcare. Children of poly couples, for instance, tend to be raised by a small community instead of two parents.

Back in San Francisco, Heather's family is clearing the table. As she replaces our plates with bowls of fruit compote, she says poly is a way of keeping her long-term partnerships alive. "When you think about it, what happened is that Jim and I didn't get divorced when we got new partners. We're still together and yet have more love from other people."

"Polyamory is not for everybody," says Jim. "But it creates a range of options, which is important because you can't optimise one kind of relationship to fit everyone."

"The important thing is that we trust each other," says Noemi, rubbing her pregnant belly with a smile. Although poly is still well out of the mainstream, it has become an attractive alternative to monogamy for some. Whether it is good for society remains an open question. For now, there's a more pressing issue – is it good for you?

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