The house looks typical enough—an attractive split-level in an established Salt Lake County neighborhood—but the family living here is far from conventional. While Utahns are familiar with polygamy, another form of “non-monogamy” is both more commonly practiced and lesser known. We’re about to visit the household of the Smiths/Joneses (not their real names)—two wives, two kids and two husbands. They count themselves among the ranks of “polyamorists”—a relationship lifestyle not to be confused with swinging or cheating. Folks in the “poly” (polyamory’s nickname) community believe multiple-partner relationships go beyond mere recreational sexual encounters and can endure for extended periods.
Before we drop in, a short vocabulary lesson is in order: Polyamory means “many loves,” and polyamorists set a lofty goal. They (we, really, since I’ve been polyamorous since 2004) reject the long-held social norm that a loving, meaningful, romantic, ethical relationship must involve only two people. They even strive for something that at first blush seems overly optimistic—to feel good about the satisfaction their partners experience through their “other love” relationships. It’s a mindset they call “compersion”—the flip side of jealousy.
Utah’s polyamorists come in all sexual orientations—straight, same-sex, bisexual—and their sexual practices span the spectrum: one-on-one or “vanilla” (probably the majority), group, kink. The Smiths/Joneses form what’s known in the poly community as a “quad”—two couples with each individual able to share some sexual intimacy with any of the others. In a “simple, basic, or hetero quad,” only opposite-gendered partners are sexually involved.
The simplest poly “geometry” is the “V,” in which one person at the point is intimate with two other people who at least know of each other but are not sexually connected. If all three are sexually intimate, the relationship is a “triad,” represented by a triangle. More extended arrangements take the form of a “W” or a “star.”
The Smith/Jones quad is also “open,” meaning partners can have additional outside lovers, if desired. Other polyamorists practice “polyfidelity,” where sexual intimacy occurs exclusively within the group. Others may be “fluid bonded”—using condoms or other safer sex practices with outsiders.
OK, we’re ready to knock, but don’t expect a sin palace. There’s no suggestive art on the walls or mirrors on the ceiling, and nobody’s likely to be lounging around in sexy lingerie. This is a family of generally serious folk who spend more time reading books from their large library than they do partying. Some might say they’re a bit geeky, with interests in things both techie and sci-fi.
We’re with Liz, a 37-year old mental-health worker, and Celine, 35, who is employed by a nonprofit. They began dating 11 years ago, and both report having been bisexual from an early age. Liz later married Joe, a 42-year-old government employee, and Celine married Fred, now a 31-year-old stay-at-home dad. Each couple has a child—a 3- and a 5-year-old. They lived separately as couples but moved in together three years ago when they tired of someone always having to find their way home at night.
How did they vault the cultural fence and become polyamorists? Celine reports, “I was raised pagan, so being strange was never a big deal, but my big problem when I was young was that I fell in love with all my friends.”
Liz experimented with polyamory since her teens, but not without challenges. “I dated people of both genders in high school,” she says. “One relationship ended suddenly when I announced I was non-monogamous.”
Joe claims, “I was wired polyamorous from the womb. In second grade, I was in love with two girls. In high school, my girlfriend said, ‘We’ll never get an STD because we’re monogamous,’ but I knew I wasn’t. From then on, I only got involved in noncommitted relationships, so I didn’t feel trapped.” Celine mentored her husband, Fred, into the lifestyle.
One reason they formed an extended household was simple practicality and green economics. Liz explains, “My ideal is living in a communal situation. It’s wasteful for two people to live in an isolated box and try to raise children.”
“We were scraping by, so we merged,” Joe adds. “We now have more buying power.”
Still, only the most committed and flexible polyamorists share households, while most maintain separate residences and arrange visits with other lovers.
“We all have different things we specialize in and different ways of doing things we all respect,” Celine says, and points to a set of 20 cards that make up a homemade mobile hanging from the ceiling, each card containing one of the jointly drafted family values and their child-rearing philosophy. She explains that “in parenting situations, we defer to the birth parent for the most part, but anyone has input and can take control of a situation with a child.”
Celine says each couple sleeps separately at night with their own child. “When we spend intimate time, the others watch both children,” she adds. And that intimate time may mean that Liz and Celine are intimate with either Joe or Fred, or that Liz and Celine are intimate with each other and even occasionally Joe with Fred.
Fred says, “Overall, it’s much less stressful than a relationship with just one partner and kids.” Joe offers an illustration: “We’ve all had health or other crisis issues involving our extended families, so we’ve been able to go manage those knowing someone is here to take care of the kids.”
Utah, due to the LDS Church’s 180-degree flip on plural marriage beginning in 1890, has statutes that strongly challenge non-monogamous arrangements. “Technically,” Celine laments, “we’re in violation of Utah’s cohabitation law [as part of Utah’s anti-bigamy statute], so we stay below the radar.” To add to that, this state’s “at-will” employment law further drives polyamorists into secrecy, knowing most employers could terminate a suspected or an outed poly employee without cause even for just believing the employee’s lifestyle might be problematic. And more than one polyamorist has lost a child-custody battle because their “questionable moral character” made them unfit parents in the eyes of the law.
Who’s on Our Side?
The Smiths/Joneses drafted documents with an attorney for the transfer of property and guardianship in the event of a death, since they want the children to stay in the home they’ve created rather than be placed with extended family. They report, however, that it was tough to find willing legal professionals.
One who does assist society’s fringe types is Midvale attorney Andrew McCullough, who believes polyamorists enjoy broad protections stemming from the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. “It basically tells government to stay out of our bedrooms,” says McCullough, who opines that if kids aren’t subjected to behavior any more salacious than what they’d see in the typical home, “it shouldn’t matter how many ‘parents’ they have.”
For peer support, the Smiths/Joneses are involved with the Utah Polyamory Society, which maintains a Listserv at groups.yahoo.com/group/UtahPolyamorySociety/ for more than 500 subscribers. The society holds meetings twice a month and occasional socials for 10 to 100 attendees, geared to Utahns seeking encouragement and advice in creating successful polyamorous unions.
This is the 16th year that “UPS” has hosted a booth at Salt Lake City’s Pride Festival, but some Pride organizers and attendees feel that any form of nonmonogamy detracts from their efforts to establish the social acceptance of long-term, same-sex, monogamous couplings. Polyamorists, in general, though, are received favorably by Utah’s queer community, since both find common cause opposing state and national “defense of marriage” legislation, which narrowly defines marriage as an arrangement between only one man and only one woman.
The society’s lead moderator, Mary, is “partially out” about her status. She explains, “At work, they just know I share a house with another family, share parenting and make life decisions together.” She’s witnessed, however, numerous others who’ve had it much rougher trying to justify their lifestyle if it becomes known to an ex, a family member or a boss.
Oddly, one work environment that appears more accepting of polyamory than others is the military. Two active-duty military members of the Utah Polyamory Society (who want to remain anonymous for extended family reasons) don’t feel any hostility from their fully informed commanders and peers but regret that their additional partners aren’t eligible for family privileges and benefits.
Why We Do It
My own polyamorous journey began seven years ago, when I discovered that two married friends had an open marriage. Since my resignation from the LDS Church and exit from 30 years of monogamy, I’d not yet found that new, one-and-only lady, but neither was I financially or emotionally ready for a committed relationship. The discovery of my friend’s situation (I’d already thought she was attractive, and when I saw her husband openly kissing another woman at a party, I just had to ask) allowed us to go beyond simple friendship. While giving me a sexual outlet, it gave her more relationship variety—common motivations to shift out of monogamy. Since then, I’ve had other relationships of short and long duration with women, all of whom at least knew about any others, and I’m now four years into a live-in “poly/mono” relationship, so named because I’m the one who desires outside love interests while my primary partner currently does not.
While the Smiths-Joneses quad acted on their polyamorous inclinations early on, the Salt Lake City triad of Jake and Anna, both 48, and their “other love,” Vanessa, 46, adopted the lifestyle later in life, after they’d been fully immersed in Latter-day Saint life. (They’ve requested pseudonyms for the article only to avoid embarrassment to their extended family of highly conservative Mormons.)
All were born into the faith, and Jake and Anna were high-school sweethearts who married right after his mission. They had four children, and Jake was teaching adult Sunday School right up until a crisis of faith developed for them in the ’90s, initiated by the LDS Church’s involvement in the Mark Hofmann forgery.
As they worked their way out of Mormonism, the couple made another curious discovery: They were both attracted to the same woman. Anna had, as a faithful Latter-day Saint, kept bisexual fantasies tightly suppressed but, after she experimented with one woman, the couple allowed themselves a three-way intimacy with another friend. “The experience was healing on many levels,” Jake reports, and it was the first of several interpersonal experiments.
Even though their first polyamorous relationship didn’t endure, Jake and Anna were amazed by the amount of love that could be generated among three people. They then sought out more sexual intimacies involving both female and male partners for Anna. “But it wasn’t about just having a sexual experience,” Anna explains. “These were people we loved.” While they never got involved in swinging, they did have a few quick hook-ups, but in most cases, sex has always come as a natural extension of deep friendship.
Jake summarizes an essential element: “When you lose the jealousy, you can really have a lot of fun, and if you love the people you’re with, it can be unbelievable.” Anna adds that she and all her partners maintain satisfying friendships even if sex is no longer an element, as polyamory can be platonic, too.
Vanessa, also a former Mormon with four children, came into their lives in 2003, and she moved in with them in 2006. While Jake and Anna’s relationship with Vanessa has morphed over time and is no longer a sexual one, she continues to live with them, and it’s readily apparent that she’s a fully integrated, snuggle-buddy member of the clan. Jake and Anna have a network of friends with whom “benefit sharing” continues even if some partners live in other states and intimate trysts with other locals happen only rarely.
Most of the children are supportive of their parents’ lifestyle—their home, in fact, became a sort of a magnet for teenagers who feel at ease around these laid-back adults who are visibly comfortable with their lifestyle and try to make it nonthreatening for others. But one of Vanessa’s children had a harder time with her mother’s unconventionality and the stigmatizing disapproval that came from the girl’s peers. After Jack and Anna’s oldest son divorced, his ex-wife obtained a court order that prevented him from bringing his daughter to Jack and Anna’s home, due to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s unconventional lifestyle.
Vanessa is open about her bisexuality, but Anna is leery of too much exposure and public displays of affection with others. She’s not shy, however, about listing the benefits she’s accrued on her polyamorous journey: “Coming into who I really am while breaking out of what my parents and my bishop thought I should be and doing what moves me has been awesome. I love loving how I love. I love being how I am. I think I’m one of the luckiest women in the world, and I’m surrounded by intelligent, spiritual, loving people.”
All are hopeful that society will continue to become more accepting of unconventional lifestyles. Jake philosophizes, “I think the day will come when everybody will be living their dreams full-on, all the time, and without reservation.”
Out of the Monogamy Closet
Eddie McClellan, his real name, is a 74-year-old Arizona real-estate investor and former Mormon bishop who participates on the Utah Polyamory Society discussion board and jokes that he’s reached a point in life of not caring anymore if his “karma runs over dogma.” Married for 48 years to a woman with “definite monogamous rules and a nonequivalent sexual appetite,” he’s now in a primary relationship with someone who accepts his polyamory. Most of his adult children think he’s “on that slippery slope to you-know-where.”
Polyamory’s pull for McClellan is its recognition that no single person can be all things to another. He opines that “much time, money, effort and emotional trauma is endured by people searching the world for their one-and-only.”
For McClellan, “OAO now means one-among-others,” and he says multipartner loving relationships are “like a couple that welcomes another baby into their lives and discovers there’s quite enough love in their hearts to share.” He further says, “We need to experience variety to avoid boredom.”
McClellan also no longer accepts society’s traditional matrimonial rules, since “more than half of marriages end in divorce and half the remaining ones range from unhappy to downright miserable.”
Not all polyamorists are anti-monogamy, but those like McClellan who felt trapped for years or decades by stifling monogamous relationships often boldly assert that they have no intention of going back.
Some people alternate between monogamous and polyamorous lifestyles. A few become bitter about their experiences on one side and then commit to the other exclusively, but for many, circumstances dictate which works best.
Daniel Newby, also his real name, is a 40-year-old, self-employed construction-materials manufacturer whose philosophy on emotional and sexual attachments mirrors his “leave-people-alone” worldview. Newby states, “How I choose to express myself sexually depends upon where I am in life. For more than five years, I’ve explored non-monogamous relationships. I’ll always care deeply for more than one woman, and I believe my feelings are natural and appropriate. Currently, I’m sexually monogamous but don’t pretend to know if that will change because I don’t know how she or I might change. She’s not my property, and I’m not hers. If we remain monogamous, it will be the very best thing for each of us.”
The philosophical divide and diverse opinions in the gay/lesbian community over non-monogamy are basically the same as those among straights. Charles Lynn Frost, local LGBT leader, activist and actor best known for his Sister Dottie S. Dixon character, is currently monogamous but honors both poly and mono paths. He says, “Gays who insist upon rigid monogamy can get trapped in the same societal dynamic that created marriage: the control of people … and historically, those were women … property, and dowries.
“While I’m a strong believer in commitment,” Frost says, “I don’t think sexual exclusivity is an absolute requirement for successful relationships. Within the LGBT culture, for certain personalities and partnerships with complex compatibilities, monogamy may be counterproductive, as with some long-term heterosexual couples. LGBT combinations and agreements range from openness, honesty and mutual trust to the extreme opposite of cheating and the sad endings it brings.”
For the Young at Heart?
Younger folks experimenting with polyamory approach it with more curiosity and less emotional baggage. While writing a college essay four years ago, Beth, 23, learned about polyamory. The instructor suggested choosing a controversial topic in which she had experience. Having been raised in polygamy, it seemed a natural subject. A therapist once told her that she didn’t need to disown her entire religious past but could take anything good from it. “I knew that there had to be other relationships involving multiple people different than polygamy, so the intent of my research was to look into it.”
She liked the idea of polyamory but had to shed an aversion to sharing partners—a residual effect of her polygamous upbringing. “I find it natural to be involved with multiple people, but I don’t support it being religiously driven.”
Beth later became the third member of a triad with a married couple, Mike, 28, and Jen, 26. Mike had initially been skeptical of polyamory, but, after one monogamous year of marriage, he wanted to understand his wife’s acknowledged bisexual leaning, so they agreed to try a threesome. “We began exploring swinging, met some great people, but ultimately wanted deeper relationships,” Mike says.
They studied polyamory, consulted a relationship counselor, and the idea of seeing other people separately began to feel less threatening. Mike says, “I had to work through a lot of insecurities and fears to get past my jealousy. I grew more as a person in one year of polyamory than I did in the 10 years previous.”
Mike and Jen have developed a list of agreements they review monthly and update as needed. The triad (which leaves everyone open for other relationships, too) is working better than any other relationship they’ve ever had. All are active in the Utah Polyamory Society, and Jen comments, “Having a group to commiserate with and meet new friends is fantastic.”
Not for Everyone
Denise, 28, is a psychology student who was polyamorous for eight of 10 years with a partner, James, and it was he who made her aware of her attraction to women. “We went looking for the mystical unicorn (a poly term meaning that rare creature—a single woman who’s attracted to both the man and woman in a couple), but we were also just being free with our sexuality. We dated and slept with many others, which we mostly did separately, but in a few cases we dated a woman together.”
She found the experience at times immensely satisfying, and she felt her love was boundless and that their primary relationship wasn’t bogged down by jealousy. In the end, however, she fell deeply in love with a woman they were both seeing. Problems arose between Denise and James, but she feels the causes were unrelated to their other lover.
“Drama, jealousy and heartache ensued,” says Denise, who stayed with her other love and doesn’t know how she would have pulled through without her. Now they’re monogamous. “I can’t open my heart the same way I used to.”
She believes, and regrets, that part of her polyamorous experience was motivated by selfishness. “I don’t want to hurt someone the way that I hurt James. I lost my whole life when I decided to put myself first, [before] my family, my friends, my partner of a decade, and I saw the devastation. I was a traitor. I was banished. I have no desire to go through anything like that again.”
Denise admits that her tale may be cautionary more about her own personal choices and limits than illustrative of a failure of any particular relationship style. “I don’t blame polyamory for what happened, but I can no longer embark on new relationships the way I used to.” Her experience also reflects the challenges of adopting a socially divergent lifestyle like polyamory. “I think it’s an ideal that can be reached, but not by me. I think it has to be a main priority in a person’s life to be successful in our society.”
This visit to Utah’s polyamory community was never intended as a recruiting tour. Every experienced polyamorist admits that not everyone is cut out for the lifestyle, that monogamy still works for a certain portion of the population and that launching into polyamory to fix a crumbling relationship or marriage usually just makes it fall apart faster. But for those willing to explore beyond what’s conventional (and probably incur some of society’s disapproval in the process), polyamory is a fast-paced course in self-discovery, a laboratory for overcoming self-defensive reactions like jealousy, and a yoga studio for deep soul stretching.
Freelance writer and editor Jim Catano is launching two ultra-progressive, health-related projects but is still looking for a job.
The above article cites a statistic claiming that romantic, sexually active, long-term relationships are possible for only 13 percent of couples. The following Psychology Today article references the study where the 13 percent came from and provides a link to the study:http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201007/uncanny-love-potion
Resources for exploring the polyamory path:
Utah Polyamory Society, 801-309-7240, http://www.groups.yahoo.com/group/utahpolyamorysociety/ Once you subscribe to this Yahoo Group, the links and database sections are accessible.
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino, 2009, perhaps the most comprehensive and accessible nuts-and-bolts guide for living a polyamorous life.
Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jetha, 2010, a highly readable compilation of the scientific evidence that we humans are, at our core, non-monogamous.
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, THE pioneering book in the modern polyamory movement, 1997 and updated in 2009.
Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits: Secrets of Sustainable Intimate Relationships by Deborah Anapol, a classic by one of the international leaders in the poly movement.
MAGAZINES and WEBSITES
Loving More Magazine at http://www.lovemore.com 303-543-7540 Love More, PO Box 1658, Loveland, CO 80539
Polyamory? Links and Resources This site is a great beginner’s page. Light-hearted but gives valuable information—http://www.xeromag.com/fvpoly.html
Polyamory in the News The latest and most pertinent polyamory news from the media
Love that Works The institute for 21st Century Relationships Legal resources for poly people.—http://www.lovethatworks.org
Love Without Limits Healing, sacred sexuality, community development and new paradigm relating—http://www.lovewithoutlimits.com
Poly Matchmaker A free site to find others who share a polyamorous lifestyle—http://www.polymatchmaker.com
OKCupid is also a polyamory-friendly singles' site http://www.okcupid.com