Wednesday, March 19, 2014

POLYAMORY: What Is It, Who Does It, And Why

Polygamy. Polyandry. Polyamory. Aren’t they all the same?

Before I began researching polyamory, the only thing that came to mind was the Mormon practice of polygamy, where a man had many wives, sired children with most or all of the wives, and they all lived together with the husband as its head.

I discovered that polyandry is akin to polygamy, except the wife has several husbands. Over the millennia, many tribes throughout the world practiced polyandry, often involving brothers as a way to keep landholdings intact.

As I met people at munches, conventions, workshops and parties, I came across a number of married folks who had relationships outside the husband-wife core. This piqued my curiosity. How did they live? How did they control their jealousy? What did they tell their children, their families, their neighbors?

Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Polyamory (from Greek πολύ [poly], meaning "many" or "several", and Latin amor, "love") is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”

But polyamory isn’t about one head of household with many spouses. The nucleus of a polyamorous relationship usually is a married couple who then add one or two (or more) intimate participants to their circle.

On FetLife (a fetish site geared for information and education, not a hook-up site) there’s a “Practical Polyamory” discussion group with over six thousand vocal participants. But those who have added “Polyamory” to their “likes” number almost 43,000. Wikipedia estimates there are as many as a half million polyamorous relationships in the U.S.

Interestingly, these couples/triads/quads/groups are not all polyamorous the same way. Let me outline four such groups, all married without children, that I’ve become friends with, ranging in ages from mid-thirties to early sixties. Their names, of course, have been changed.

George and Martha Wash. George is a Master who considers Martha his slave. Yet Martha is a Dominant to several male subs and in fact hosts parties limited to female Dominants and male submissives. George, on the other hand, goes out on his own to play with other slaves and subs. Martha feels that if George is looking for something that she can’t provide him, she loves him enough to let him search for it elsewhere, and vice versa. Thus Martha introduced me to the concept of compersion: “A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship” (definition is from Urban Dictionary).

Adam and Eve Eden. They are living apart due to job opportunities. They stay in touch daily by Skype, phone and text. If either one has opportunities to play with outsiders, they discuss expectations and desires with each other, and after play they exchange details of said play to titillate the other. Both are switches (they can be either a top or a bottom, depending on who they are playing with). When they reunite within a year, they look forward to sharing their play partners with their spouse.

Jack and Jill Hill. Jack is a Dominant and Jill a submissive. For the past several years Jack has had a slave who lives over an hour away, whom he sees for occasional weekends, with or without Jill. But they make a point to vacation, the three of them together, a couple of times a year. Jack also plays with others with Jill’s full knowledge and consent. Jill said she would play with someone else if she could find someone "as good as Jack", but she isn’t looking very hard.

John and Jane Doe. This is the youngest couple, just starting their polyamory explorations. A switch, John has a girlfriend whom he plays with at parties, while at the same party Jane, a submissive, plays with men or women as opportunities arise. Jane would like to find a boyfriend but hasn’t connected intimately with anyone. Yet John and Jane are obviously crazy about each other. This “crazy about” feeling holds true for all of these couples. Still, they all seek intimacy outside the marital bond, and all parties express compersion.

Those are only a few of the possible permutations. Some folks consider any kind of multiple partners a polyamorous relationship even if none of them are married to each other, while others feel the core must be a married couple adding one, two or more outside participants. There are groups where two couples live together and have sex only within that circle, including same-sex relations.

Some say it’s more trouble than it’s worth (as one person told me, “Even deciding on which movie to see can take all day”) while others say it’s the best thing since the computer chip. All agree it has to be consensual, ethical, and responsible.

It goes without saying that communication between the two core persons (husband and wife) is paramount and ongoing. Honest and open discussions with their blended “family” should include what each person expects from the relationship, coping with jealousy, how to handle fluid exchanges, safer sex and test results for STDs, and behavior around any children of the group.

Note that polyamory is not the same as swinging (i.e., married couples for whom sex with others is more of the friends-with-benefits variety and not based on respect and emotional intimacy). In polyamory, the secondary relationships are deeper and longer lasting and sex is only a small part of the continuum.

The above only scratches the surface of this unusual lifestyle. Here are two recent articles for those interested in more information:

This one from Live Science debunks 5 myths about polyamory. For a more detailed look at polyamory, Huffington Post features a book on the subject written by Elizabeth Sheff: "The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families".

I’d be very interested in hearing from folks pro or con about this fascinating subject. Please feel free to leave a comment.

~~ Cris


  1. Vastly informative and very interesting, Cris (love your examples). I was wondering, however, if, as in those erotic romances I love so much (and write) if ménage is considered separate from polyamory, even if the people involved (3-4) all do love one another or have loving relationships with the other partners AND are not separated by location or circumstance? Personally I have no problem understanding how someone can love more than a single sexual partner or have more than one person with whom they are in love. As I wrote in Words of Lust, my debut erotic romance, if love among a dozen family members is all right, if you have feel the same love for multiple siblings, 2 parents, for all of your children - why would it be so aberrant to love more than one individual romantically? That's (IMHO) an antiquated societal more whose time has passed....Thanks for a great article!

    1. Lise, thank you for such a thoughtful post. I too have written menage love stories, and I struggled with whether to bring the word "menage" into the discussion and decided against it, since none of the poly folks did. I don't there's a definitive answer to your question.

      I agree, love is love is love, by any other name. There should be more love in the world and less hate. Period.

  2. Fascinated post and topic, Cris!

    Kay (not her real name) is a gal in the lifestyle whom I've been talking with about my WIP. She's in a polyamory relationship; her partner, his wife and the wife's slave. They're all extremely happy, and that's the only thing that matters... ;)

  3. Interesting blog - thanks for sharing!

  4. My comment is so long I'm having to break in 2.

    I'm in a poly relationship and have been for over a quarter century.

    For the record, guess I should go into demographics. I'm a white male, N. European heritage, sixties. upper class, living in America. My partners are a white male, N. European heritage, sixties, and white female, N. European heritage, mid forties. All told we look a bit younger than our years (my wife gets carded every so often). We're all considered non-troll-like in apperance, and we live a pretty amazing life.

    Between the early sixties, and late eighties, I made a lot of mistakes, speaking of marriage, and wracked up 2 divorces and a few other significant relationships.

    I've always known I was bi, and never had a problem with it. I was lucky, and came of age in the sixties, when things were free and experimentation wasn't a big deal, especially in the world of arts.

    I met "Patrick" when my career was just starting out. He was everything I wasn't. He was Joe Q College kid, preppy, and I was an urban guy who worked to put myself through college, a little rough around the edges. Despite our differences, we became fast friends, and, within a couple of years, lovers. Our career had us traveling a lot, and we learned to rely on each other. We became intimately involved in the early seventies. I was in a fast-destructing relationship, he was single.

    Throughout the time between then and '88, I went through my 2 marriages, he married, and then divorced, his soulmate. Our wives knew about the sexual aspects of our relationship, but we tried to protect them from the more personal feelings. Turned out we'd been more transparent than we thought and they knew.

    Through the years, we had a few "group" events with our wives, but it wasn't the girls' thing, and we respected that. I never was involved with his wife, nor was he with mine.

    The three ladies, my two exes, and his one, are close friends and co-parents and an important and vital part of our lives today. They adore our lady and did from the moment they met her. We know how lucky we are. The marriages didn't break up for any nefarious reasons and our sexuality, and relationships, were a much smaller factor than our careers and the time we were forced to spend away from home, and the pressures of our professional lives.

    In the late eighties, we were both newly divorced, and discussing seriously about making a go of it as a firm romantic partnership, even though we acknowledged that we'd always be attracted to women. There was a lot of hiding in our professional lives, but we started spending more time together when we weren't traveling, being domestic. Life was good.

    1. Then, we met her. And it was like a rocket ship crashing into our lives. A chance meeting with a young woman we'll call Angela, who was almost twenty, and I knew. I'd fallen in love at first sight, despite our age difference, despite the fact that she was everything I wasn't looking for. Her vulnerability called to me, and the first night, as I sat at a piano in a distant hotel and sang to her, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this woman, and Patrick, too.

      Patrick didn't share my attraction. She was a college kid, he said, she wasn't his physical type, he said. She was too vulnerable to be with two hardened guys over forty, he said. She was closer in age to our kids than to us. I convinced him to talk with her, and challenged him that if looking into her eyes didn't move him, I'd walk away. I didn't know how I would, but I promised that.

      Over the short span of a meal, he, too, fell for this beautiful woman with a girl's vulnerability, the sharpest wit I know, and the most knowing smile around. Even though it sounded crazy, and my friends were stunned, I proposed to her almost immediately.

      And she said yes. We married legally, though Patrick is as married to her as I am, in spirit and in soul, just as he and I are as bonded as two humans can be.

      Patrick, Angela, and I have been together a quarter century and our love for each other grows ever deeper, and ever stronger. That vulnerable girl grew into a hell of a woman, a magnificent mother and stepmother, a good friend to our ex-wives, the rock to two men who are ruled by emotion sometimes rather than reason. Patrick and I have never been tighter, and Angela knows that when we're away, we're looking out for each other as only true soulmates can. And neither of us have ever felt for anyone else what we feel for Angela.

      We've walked life together as three people deeply in love. We've weathered tragedy and celebrated joy together. We've raised beautiful children into extraordinary adults. We've forged a life built in love, acceptance, compromise, tenderness, passion, and desire on every level. We're not complete without the two others at our side. And yet, though I say that, very few of even our closest friends know that we're a committed threesome. They see Patrick as a brother, and I'd love to be able to let them know he's much, much more than that to us both.

      I struggle to find the words to explain the depth of my feeling for them. Love isn't enough. They're my reason for being, they're the reason my heart beats. They're the reason I can put one foot in front of the other when life gets unbearable. They're my heart, my soul, and my reason for existing.

      And we share everything from domestic stuff, to romance, and she's even done a little work with us professionally, though she believes her talents don't lie there. Her ever-smitten husbands disagree.

      Ms. Anson, I did not expect this to go so long, and I apologize for hijacking your post. To that end, if you or any of your colleagues would like to discuss or want some information on the aspects from a long-term poly relationship, I'd be more than glad to contact by email. If anyone wants to contact, leave a reply here, and I'll monitor the replies and get in touch with you.

      Thanks for making this post. We have such an uphill battle to explain what we are, and every post and every novel written helps open more doors. If people only understood that sex is but one aspect of an everlasting bond, we'd be much more easily understood.

      I long for the day when I can sign my real name to such a post.


    2. Will, you brought tears to my eyes. Your dual post was as long as it needed to be, and I thank you for sharing your experience. We should all be so lucky to find such love in our lives, whether with one, two, or more people. Please feel free to contact me privately to talk further.

    3. Beautiful post, "Will". You know how I feel about you and "Patrick" being my daughter's husbands. I can't imagine her being happier with anyone else. You've both given my little girl your hearts and your souls and her joy at having you both in her life is plain for anyone who cares to see it.

      I look forward to the day when you can sign your name to a post like that, too. Or when I could respond without remaining anonymous. Or when I and my two men could do the same. Love is love and if all parties are consenting adults, it's nobody else's business who we love or are loved by.

    4. I wish I could meet you and all your family, Anonymous. The love you share should make the rest of us envious. It sure does to me.

  5. Great post, Cris! Thanks, Will, for sharing your story!

  6. Very insightful. Thanks, Cris, for your excellent research, and thanks Will for sharing.

  7. Will, What a touching story. I would love for people to be able to live like they want. I know that Dr. Charley is doing wonderful things to educate the world to the many differences of love. I also value each of Cris' posts because it shows me a different perspective as well as educates me.

  8. Thank you to everyone who commented. I truly believe that knowledge is power and I want to share what I'm learning about all the alternative lifestyles that I see in BDSM. As I said in response to one of the commenters, love is love, no matter to whom it's directed, and we certainly do need more love in the world.

  9. "We need more love in the world" is exactly what my husband said when I came out to him as polyamorous late last summer. He and I chose last spring to open our marriage, but initially the rules included "no relationships, only friendship at the most".
    When I met "Guy", that changed. I tried to keep my emotions within the confines of the rules hubby and I had set, but it didn't work. I tried not speaking to Guy for about a month. That didn't work either. Hubby became friends with Guy, and I realized that Hubby was bending some of the rules for me where Guy was concerned... and so I sucked up my courage and admitted to Hubby how I felt.
    Guy and I have been involved since last April; we've been officially in a relationship since September (though it's long-distance now; he relocated in July). Hubby jokingly refers to Guy as his "bro-hub", and recognizes him as part of our family. Before I met Guy--and before I admitted to myself and to both men that I didn't feel "right" in a monogamous relationship--I felt like a piece was missing. Monogamy really doesn't completely make sense to me; even when I was a teen, I always felt like having more than one boyfriend or girlfriend should be an option. Once I talked to Hubby and Guy and we all agreed a relationship could work, that missing piece wasn't missing anymore.

    When I sat Hubby down for that talk, his reply was beautiful: "You love both of your kids, right? And that doesn't take away from how much you love either of them or how much you love me? As far as I'm concerned, you loving Guy doesn't take away from how much you love me either. You're bringing MORE love into the world, and we need that."

    1. Thank you, Karenna, for sharing your experience. Again, it all boils down to love, doesn't it? More love is always good.

  10. It seems odd to me that for an overview of poly, the examples all use slave/sub/switch terminology. That might be truly for poly folks in the kink community, but the vast majority of poly folk I know don't use those terms

    1. Thank you for your observations, Saul. You are correct that the only poly folks I know are in the BDSM community, where open discussion is encouraged and people aren't afraid to admit their proclivities on groups such as FetLife. I would be happy to chat with you in private as to how I can reach some poly people who aren't into any aspects of BDSM. As "Will" and "Anonymous" intimated, they have to keep their lifestyle hidden, so their point of view remains hidden to those who might want to inform without criticizing.

    2. My relationship has nothing to do with BDSM, just saying.