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Everything you wanted to know about polyamory but were afraid to ask
Inside the sex positive world of multiple partners
 
Love takes many different forms.
Love takes many different forms. (Thinkstock)

First things first: Maintaining intimate emotional and physical relationships with multiple partners is not for everyone.

American cultural norms steer us toward monogamy — a faithful, one-on-one, forsaking-all-others, 'til-death-do-us-part definition of love and intimacy that usually involves marriage. For a lot of us, this works. For others, it doesn't. Hardly a news cycle goes by without the revelation that some celebrity or another has been caught with his (or her) pants down. But cheating isn't reserved for the rich and famous. There's not a community in the country that hasn't experienced the scandal of extracurricular romance between otherwise ordinary people.

All this begs the question: Is there a functional alternative for those who are not by nature monogamous? One that doesn't involve secrets, dissemblance, and emotional betrayal?

There is.

Anywhere from one million to two million Americans are choosing polyamory, a word best defined by its Greek roots meaning "many" and "love." Polyamorists openly love more than one person. The estimated 500,000-plus polyamorous (or "poly") relationships in this country vary in configuration as widely as the people who comprise them, from heterosexual married people who simply date others, to larger, more complex relationship structures that often involve shared living space and raising families. What all truly polyamorous arrangements have in common — and what makes them distinct from secretive infidelity or "cheating" — is a defining characteristic of the practice: transparency. Polyamorists believe that their relationships can thrive only in an environment of complete honesty.

In that spirit, a number of polyamorists agreed to share with me the following pieces of wisdom and advice for those who might be considering "going poly," or those of you who are just curious about the practice.

Polyamorists are just like the rest of us.

Put aside notions of fringe-living religious zealots and commune dwellers: Most poly people are otherwise ordinary Americans who raise families, pay mortgages, and go about their daily routines just like everybody else. If anything, poly people tend to skew a little more intellectual — or "dorky," as one thirty-something biologist describes his poly circle of friends. Perhaps this is because most polyamorists have come to their decision to open their relationships by doing a lot of research.

Interested in doing a little research of your own? Novices and academics alike find Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá to be an accessible, engaging take on human sexuality and behavior that might just open your eyes, if not your marriage.

Polyamory is not just about sex.

"My husband wants me to set up a threesome with my PTA co-chair" is the stuff of mediocre pornography, not polyamory. While polyamorists must by definition be comfortable with less conventional sexuality — and many are aligned with the Sex Positive movement — most bristle at the implication that their desire for multiple relationships is rooted solely in lust.

Unlike the swinging or spouse-swapping so luridly portrayed in popular media, polyamorous relationships are based as much on emotional intimacy and love as they are on the physical. With many polyamorous arrangements lasting years and even decades, all participants eventually develop a deeper personal connection with one another that may or may not have anything to do with who sleeps with whom and when.

There are practical benefits as well. As one professional woman puts it:

"If I get the flu and my husband is buried at work, his partner might drop by with soup and movies. Or if I'm unavailable, she might take him to a doctor's visit or give him a ride to the airport."

Those interested in learning more about the many facets of poly life, from dealing with occasional jealousy to time-management and child rearing, might also be interested in author Tristan Taormino's book, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.

Communication is key.

From a couples' first conversation about the possibility of non-monogamy to deciding which of the many poly-family-friendly vacations you three (or four, or five) are going to take the kids to this year, poly people assert the importance of strong, sensitive communication. Why? Because honesty and empathy are the backbone of intimacy and trust, and intimacy and trust are essential to successful polyamorous relationships.

The more people involved, the greater the need for everyone to feel heard, understood, and respected. So be prepared to talk — a lot — with your partner(s). Perhaps more importantly, be prepared to listen. All of your relationships will be the stronger for it.

The nonprofit 501(c)3 organization Loving More is a great resource for poly individuals and families seeking additional advice and support.

Speaking of support…

Polyamorists actively debate the advantages and disadvantages of being "out" or publicly acknowledging the nature of their relationships. Some argue that the tenet of transparency that is so central to poly culture must extend to the world at large or be forfeit; others make the very good point that the world at large (not to mention your elderly Aunt Mary) might not be ready to accept the fact that your "dear friend" Melissa is actually your lover... and your husband's, too.

It's true that there are deep-rooted cultural and religious prejudices against polyamory that could result in criticism, ostracism, and lost jobs and friendships. What most poly people agree on, however, is the importance of building a strong network of like-minded people with whom you can share perspectives, information, and advice. In addition to the well-publicized Polyamory Conference (or "Polycon") held in Atlanta each year, numerous local groups exist to provide poly people with an opportunity to connect. Try Googling "polyamory" and your city, search meetup.com using "polyamory" as a filter, or visit the website www.polygroups.com. Other resources include Reddit and dating sites like OKCupid.

If this lifestyle feels right for you, it may be worth diving deeper. Who knows? You may just meet the love(s) of your life.

 
Leslie Turnbull
Leslie Turnbull is a Harvard-educated anthropologist with over 20 years' experience as a development officer and consultant. She cares for three children, two dogs, and one husband. When not sticking her nose into other peoples' business, she enjoys surfing, cooking, and writing (often bad) poetry.

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