A big, big love

“The thing I struggle with the most is when both partners want my time.”

As Valentine’s Day flutters on the near horizon, a lot of folks are either hatching plans to party with their sweetie or bemoaning the fact that they don’t have one. But some people seem to find themselves with an embarrassment of riches, having apparently been struck by more than one of Cupid’s devastating arrows.

“For me, polyamory is someone who is open to the idea of multiple relationships and of loving more than one person at a time,” says the man we’ll call Mr. X, leaning back a little in his chair. I shift a little too: It’s hard not to feel a little awkward when prying into someone else’s life – especially their sex life – but sometimes, curiosity has to overshadow tact.

He’s in his late 30s, a self-employed professional with a generally friendly demeanor. And though we’ve never met before, he seems not unlike any number of other people one might run into in the course of daily life. In fact, we soon discover that we know some of the same local bands, and we both used to hang out at the same rock club.

But there is one big difference between us: Mr. X is a polyamorist.

Even those who recognize the derivation of the term (a hybrid combining the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love”) may be a little vague on what, exactly, it entails. Depending on the context, it might bring to mind the idealistic “free love” communes of the ’60s, the religious bigamy of some secretive Mormon sects, the complex kinship rites of the Luo people of Kenya, or the covert suburban world of open marriages. And indeed, all of these examples satisfy the basic definition of the word.

But polyamory isn’t just some exotic lifestyle practiced by far-away strangers or underground sex fiends – you might find it anywhere. The numbers are small, however, and the practitioners are understandably quiet about it, which makes generalizing about matters so individual and so personal that much harder.

Intimate geometries

If you passed Mr. X on the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice him. Yet the longtime Asheville resident is living a life many guys have secretly dreamed of ever since they first read about it in a letter to Penthouse: having simultaneous, openly sexual relationships with two women. He’s been seeing both of them for more than three years, and together, they form what polyamorists call a “vee”: His two partners share him, but they don’t have a sexual relationship with each other.

That’s a common type of “poly” relationship, though it’s far from the only one – there are whole Web sites devoted just to clarifying the terminology of the different configurations. There are also “zee” and “w” relationships, as well as triads (similar to a vee, except that all three partners have sexual relationships with one another).

“We have a lot of terms and lingo,” says Mr. X, noting that some terms, like “quads” and “group marriage,” are easy enough to figure out, but others, such as the acronym OSO (for “other significant other”), are more esoteric.

“We have a term called NRE, or ‘new relationship energy,’ which is the high you get when you start a new relationship,” Mr. X reports. “It comes up in the poly community a lot, because one partner may not be getting proper attention when their partner is interested in a new person.”

Not surprisingly, other common topics among polys include issues familiar to almost everyone who’s been in an intimate relationship: jealousy, trust, honesty and communication. And if anything, polys appear to talk about these particular issues even more than mainstream couples (or “dyads,” in poly lingo). Even a cursory glance at the FAQs on poly Web sites such as polyamory.org suggests that the more people you bring into the relational mix, the more interpersonal drama will result.

Doing it the old-fashioned way

The solution seems to be a whole lot of hard work: negotiation, talking, absolute honesty. And not surprisingly, there are a number of support groups – many of them online – designed to help polyamorists find their way.

Mr. X, for example, spends some of his free time moderating the discussion board for the WNC Poly Yahoo group, the region’s biggest and best-known support group. That puts him in a good position to talk about the local poly community.

“When I first joined WNC Poly, I was dealing with some real day-to-day problems,” admits Mr. X. “I was in a relationship with two women, and I wanted to ask someone how to deal with some of the problems I was having.”

Even matters as seemingly prosaic as who washes the dishes, makes the food or pays the mortgage can be a real source of conflict, he notes. To be sure, such questions often become emotionally loaded in more conventional relationships as well. But for many polys – and particularly those who live together – the increased complexity of their commitments places an additional strain on the logistics of daily life.

“The thing I struggle with the most is when both partners want my time,” Mr. X reveals. “How do you make that decision? Sometimes we do things together, but that can be awkward. It’s a balancing act.”

Sleeping arrangements are another tricky issue, because time spent with one partner is also time spent away from the other one. This is thrown into high relief when all the partners live separately. But even when they live together, it’s rarely simple, he says, recalling one poly relationship in which he and his partners shared a three-bedroom house. Everyone had their own space, but they all tended to sleep in his bed.

“It sounds OK, but the reality was that everyone else had somewhere to go to get away, but I didn’t. If I chose to sleep in one of their beds, there could be all kinds of attention problems.”

How did they work it out? Much the way the principals in any healthy relationship do: by making agreements and compromises. But that sort of throws cold water on all those steamy fantasies of multipartner romance.

Reality check

In some ways, a polyamorous lifestyle might sound like the worst kind of emotional hell: romance by committee. And yet this loose-knit community appears to be slowly gaining recognition by mainstream society. The Montel Williams Show, for instance, recently ran an entire episode portraying polys in a relatively positive light.

And with gay marriage becoming a common talking point, some say plural marriage – a sort of polyfidelity – could be right around the corner. Even a number of right-wing commentators – from the Christian Broadcast Network’s Kim Bonney to The Washington Post‘s George Will – have weighed in on the subject of group marriage in recent years, while more fringe voices such as Truthbearer.org (a Christian polygamy group) have campaigned for an expanded definition of marriage.

But where are all the polys? Despite a month of research, e-mails, phone calls and contact with poly-oriented groups nationwide, Xpress had a hard time finding many locals who were willing to talk. And while this could reflect a fear of potential repercussions, it hardly seems the hallmark of a group of people desperate to be freed from societal repression.

Jennifer Bass, information-services coordinator at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, observes that thanks to the Internet, many lifestyles outside of the mainstream “may simply be more exposed now than before. But we really don’t know.

“Although there does seem to be some interest in it these days, we don’t know how many people practice a polyamorous lifestyle,” says Bass. Part of the problem, she notes, is that polyamorists typically don’t even show up in nationwide surveys. “Statistically, out of 1,000 people, the chance of finding someone who was involved in a polyamorous lifestyle is next to nothing. It’s a small enough group that the question has not really been asked in our surveys,” she says.

There’s also something of a Catch-22 here: Because there appear to be so few polys, funding for research is hard to come by. But that, in turn, makes finding actual scientific information difficult. Few U.S. researchers have bothered to look into the phenomenon, and most of what is known about polyamory comes from anthropological research on other cultures, reports Ted McIlvenna, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

“I don’t know of anyone who has done good research on it,” he says. “As with swinging, most of the research has been phenomenological. … I’d be really dubious about anyone who jumped forward who said that they had hard facts.”

So just how many polys are there in Asheville? A few dozen? A few hundred? Mr. X declines to venture even an educated guess.

WNC Poly claims more than 160 members, he notes, but many of them are merely people interested in the subject, rather than actual practitioners. And many local polys who’ve been in long-term, multipartner relationships aren’t members simply because they’re not seeking a support group, he points out.

“Do you go to a support group for your monogamous relationships?” Mr. X asks rhetorically. “There are also people that may have been in polyamorous relationships for years but may not even know the word or that there is a community in this town. I acted in polyamorous ways for 10 years before I ever heard the term.”

Another factor that’s easy to overlook in this information-overloaded world is that some people like to keep their private lives, well, private.

“Being poly is a very closeted thing for a lot of people,” says Mr. X.

Taking it to the mainstream

“That’s true, people are closeted, but that is starting to change,” maintains Robyn Trask, managing editor of Loving More Magazine, a quarterly devoted to the poly life. “In the last year, I’ve done several radio shows and interviews with the media, and the level of attention we are getting is growing.”

Trask readily admits that not all of the publicity has been positive. Consider her appearance on CBN’s The 700 Club last July, which was followed by what she calls “a very mean-spirited commentary” by Pat Robertson to the effect that polyamorists are little more than sex-obessed miscreants. Nonetheless, she believes the mainstream is slowly becoming more aware of polyamory as a lifestyle.

“People react very strongly to polyamory, and it is different from being gay,” says Trask. “Deep down, most people know if they are gay or not. Most people in monogamous relationships, however, will at some point be attracted to somebody else outside of that relationship. So when we come along and say that it is OK to act on those feelings – or simply that you can make a choice to act on them or not – it challenges people.”

As with any alternative lifestyle, polys must sometimes contend with other people’s moral judgments about their relationships. And not infrequently, those conflicts have legal repercussions. Trask tells of children taken away from their parents by the Department of Social Services, of people who have lost their jobs, and of families torn apart because of something as simple – and, in a sense, universal – as loving more than one person at a time.

“There are very real problems for polyamorous people,” notes Trask. She recalls a former Loving More staffer who was disowned by her family after coming out as poly. And when the staffer’s father died, says Trask, the woman’s own mother wouldn’t even look at her at the funeral.

Trask says she sees her work at Loving More as a way to clear up some of the misconceptions people have about polys. And with better understanding, she hopes, will come greater tolerance.

“That’s part of why I do it,” says Trask. “My family is fairly supportive, and I’m certainly not going to lose my job because of it, so I’m able to be out there much more than some people. If I’m out as poly, maybe I can make a difference for other people in the future, so that they won’t have to hide so much.”

Between the sheets

The idea of having multiple sexual partners is probably about as old as human physiology. And while orgies, ménages à trois and any number of other such intimate scenarios may still be seen as taboo, they are clearly on the pop-culture radar screen.

Yet even among polyamorists, there seems to be considerable confusion about what distinguishes them from the other widely known multiple-sex-partner lifestyle – swingers. The key difference, it seems, is how both groups view sex, intimacy and relationships.

“I will be the first to say that there are a lot of similarities between the two groups, and that there is also a gray area in between,” concedes Trask. “The difference, to us, is that poly relationships are … long-term relationships based on intimacy, while swingers are people who are more into having casual recreational-sex partners. There are many people who consider themselves both poly and swingers.”

That, of course, begs another seemingly tactless question: What does poly sex actually look like?

“You know, there is the old male fantasy about having two women in bed at the same time,” says Mr. X. “I’ve had that several times with several different women, and you know what? I don’t like it.”

Can decades of pornography be wrong? How on earth could this – what would appear to many to be one of the major selling points of a polyamorous lifestyle – be so disappointing?

“You still end up having to choose who you give attention to,” Mr. X explains. “For me, I want to give my undivided attention to the person I’m being intimate with.”

But he’s quick to point out that he can speak only from his own experience. “Obviously, there are triads and other groups that all sleep in the same bed and are happy that way.”

The idea that polyamorists are an easy source for group sex has also created some problems. Many people, he says, initially visit WNC Poly thinking that it’s little more than a dating service, rather than a support community.

“We also have a lot of guys – mostly horny old men – who come to our group looking for a ‘hot bi babe,'” says Mr. X. “It’s pretty common, and the phrase has become a joke within the whole poly community.”

Another common concern, here as elsewhere, is safe sex. And evidently, polys deal with this thorny issue much the way they deal with everything else – by establishing ground rules and talking it out. “Sexually, it’s a dangerous world,” says Mr. X, “and so most people have rules about condoms and testing for their group. It depends on everyone’s comfort level with each other.”

It may not be the most romantic thought, but apparently it works for many polys.

A philosophical divide

Not everyone who’s in a multiple-partner relationship feels comfortable with the poly label.

“We don’t know what to identify ourselves as, but we don’t identify ourselves as polyamorous,” says a man we’ll call Mr. Z, who says he’s been with his two partners – both women – for more than six years.

“We looked into the polyamory scene, but it wasn’t us,” he says. “To us it just seemed like a swingers’ club – they’re all open to everyone.”

He and his partners, on the other hand, aren’t looking for love around every corner – they’ve already found it. Their daily life is about making the relationship work and raising their kids, which Mr. Z says he hasn’t found much help with in the local poly community.

Interestingly, Mr. X voices many of the same concerns. He told Xpress that when he first joined WNC Poly, he was seeking similar advice, but that most of the people he met there were new to polyamory themselves, and he never has found a lot of support on such matters.

Avoiding the poly label, however, hasn’t protected Mr. Z and his family from prejudice. People, he says, “either think that I’m some pervert or they think I’m a Mormon. They either see me as a religious nut or as a swinger.”

And the judgments don’t stop with Mr. Z and his partners. His children are subject to some of the same stigma.

“I have to worry about if my kid is not being invited to a friend’s party because of us,” he says. “That’s a heartbreaking thing for me, because I would never want them to suffer. I think it would be a lot easier just to be single and swinging, but I wouldn’t know.”

Mr. Z’s situation also differs from those of many polys in another, more subtle way: Neither Mr. Z nor his partners ever intended to end up in this kind of relationship.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he reports. “It was a total accident; they were friends, and I fell in love with and married one of them. The other one didn’t want to be away from us. It wasn’t something I would have planned, especially given some of the difficulties we’ve had over the years.”

Although he describes his home life as very happy, Mr. Z acknowledges that it has come at the price of family turmoil, professional blackballing and the loss of friends. And perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Z also says he wouldn’t recommend his lifestyle to everyone – or even to his own kids.

“This is definitely not something I would tell my children to do,” he reveals. “I don’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong, but at the same time, I know this is not culturally or socially the norm.

“I don’t want my kids to ever have to go through the shit we’ve had to go through,” he concludes.

Being true

But if being a poly isn’t about regularly enjoying wild group sex with hot bi babes or being free to jump in the sack when opportunity knocks without your girlfriend getting angry, why would anyone want to live this way?

According to Trask, polys aren’t choosing anything; they’re simply being honest about who they are.

“In some ways, all that being poly does is give people a label to identify their behavior,” she observes. “Where does someone fit when they love more than one person? We are told over and over again in our culture that this is simply not allowed.”

Our society, notes Trask, appears to have no problem with a parent loving more than one child at a time or people having more than one dear friend at a time. And for her and others like her, the emotional component of polyamory isn’t all that different.

“Why is it, when it comes to sexual partners, that we can’t love more than one person?” asks Trask. “I’ve never understood that.”

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