Love is a many-splintered thing

Will polyamory ever be fully accepted?

On January 26, 1998, then-President Clinton told the nation, "I did not have sex with that woman," a reference to Monica Lewinsky that fueled a scandal that would soon engulf his presidency. But what if, instead, Bill and Hillary Clinton had held a different press conference?

The President explains, with grace and dignity, that he and Monica are in love and that the first lady has been aware of their relationship since it began. Hillary tells the press she approves of the relationship based on her own friendship with and affection for Monica. Monica joins them on camera, and they go on to explain that their relationship is a "polyamorous triad," one in which all three are equal partners and which is open to including future partners.

When a shocked press corps demands to know how this has affected their daughter, Chelsea herself happily answers that she now has three parents, all of whom she loves, and that it's taught her a lot about the benefits of being completely honest in all of her relationships.

Farfetched? According to The Polyamory Society, established in 1996 in Washington, D.C., approximately 70 percent of the world's population and 20 percent of U.S. citizens would beg to differ. They practice some form of polyamory, a "lovestyle" defined as "The non-possessive, fulfilling, honest, responsible, ethical philosophy and practice of erotically loving multiple people simultaneously," according to The Polyamory Society. It hosts one of several informational sites on the Internet about polyamory.

A polyamorist, or "poly," can be straight, bisexual, gay, young, old, male, female, of any race, creed, etc. They all may have sex together or individually, based on sexual orientation. They may live together or separately, be very involved in one another's lives, semi-involved or sporadically so. They may be formally, though not legally, "married" and have a lifetime commitment, or anonymous swing-club partners in a one-time encounter.

What makes them polyamorous is that they are mature, honest, supportive and caring about one another's well-being. (Most have a "condom commitment" that requires safe-sex practices with all partners).

"Most polyamorists choose this lifestyle based on our experience of 'old paradigm' marriage as being very limiting to the personal growth of the people involved," said Jon Ross, 48, an engineer and community activist, and poly for more than 20 years. (The names of all polyamorists have been changed.)

"We believe that most traditional significant other/marriage relationships are based on getting one's needs met through the other person, rather than taking responsibility for one's own actions and unresolved personal issues; that until one learns to do this, he/she won't have successful relationships, whether monogamous or polyamorous," Ross said. "To do this takes tremendous clarity as to who one is and what one does and does not want in one's life, along with personal integrity and honesty with others. It leaves no room for cheating of any kind."

Ricardo Rey, 50, a local accountant who has been actively poly for more than three years, said that "at the heart of every poly relationship is the ability to make and keep commitments, which means being honest with oneself about one's wants and needs, and communicating this to one's significant others."

"The movement as a whole tends to be very serious about personal growth through honesty, integrity and responsibility toward oneself and others," he said. "For instance, if I'm in love with Person A and I fall in love with Person B, my feelings for A don't disappear. But why should I either break up with A or cheat on them? Instead, I'm going to tell them about my new love and the three of us will honestly participate together in our newly-expanded relationship. It won't necessarily be easy, but it's far better than serial monogamy, which is what our culture condones as the only 'correct' relationship, but which doesn't realistically work for many people, myself included."

Retired paralegal and community activist Henry Stagg, 55, agreed. "Many of us grew up with the model of normality being a dysfunctional home where one or both parents were dissatisfied enough to cheat, perhaps become abusive, and ultimately leave. Many times the cycle continued into a subsequent marriage/marriages, each with the same pattern: fall in love, marriage, fall out of love, divorce, find someone else, etc. Even though in many instances there was still tremendous caring for the previous person."

What made sense for Stagg was polyamory, an offshoot of communal living or other forms of group environment living. "When one is polyamorous, it's natural to want to share one's life as much as possible with all of one's lovers, and community is a great place for that to happen," Stagg said.

However, not everyone who is poly is communal. "As long as the relationship is mutually fulfilling and supportive, duration and living arrangements, if any, are secondary." said Kathy LaBriola, a Berkeley, Calif., therapist specializing in poly, bisexual and gay relationship counseling.

"The majority of my poly clients tried serial monogamy and realized that their natural capacity to simultaneously love more than one person couldn't be fulfilled within the boundaries of that type of relationship or their platonic friendships," she said.

"Polyamory fulfills those needs and succeeds due to the maturity level of those involved. That's why it tends to be chronologically based in the over-35 age group. These people have had enough life experience to know what they want and are mature enough to handle the integrity required to achieve it, in whatever form works best for them."

But what about jealousy? "Though there are a number of people who don't have a problem with it, and some who go so far as to say that jealousy is only experienced by immature people, as far as I'm concerned it's normal," LaBriola said. "Dealing with it takes tremendous patience and understanding because it's so indoctrinated culturally as to be considered human nature."

Rey agreed. He said that practicing compersion, the opposite of jealousy--that is, being OK and happy that your lover is enjoying his/her other lovers, too--is a fine theory but difficult in real life.

"Humans are territorial by nature and pretty competitive, and the idea that one isn't getting as much attention from one's lover as someone else may be is pretty upsetting," he said.

"Simultaneously, it's an opportunity to really look inside and deal with one's own insecurities: Why do I feel unloved and what am I contributing to reinforce that belief?"

Julie Solara, a San Francisco graphic artist, said she lucked out. "I'm definitely the jealous type. But neither of my 'husbands' are, and they're also best friends. I've been with my first 'husband' for 25 years and my second for 10, in a closed triad. So I've been spared the agony others go through."

That agony can lead to monogamy by choice. Anne Black, 39, a local government worker who described herself as "poly-friendly, but not truly polyamorous," is currently involved with three lovers, but she believes she will ultimately settle down with just one.

"I have no problem currently being in multiple deep relationships. The greatest thing is that all my current lovers know about each other and are friendly towards each other, so I can enjoy sex and intimacy safely with mature men whom I trust and love without being limited to just one," she said.

"However, if eventually there are stronger feelings between myself and one of them specifically, the focus will be there exclusively. Monogamy will follow because neither of us would want to share at that point. For me, it's the realization that jealousy isn't wrong, it's human, and for some of us it's a boundary that can't be crossed beyond a certain point."

"Being poly isn't for everyone," LaBriola said. "It's a viable alternative for those who are oriented toward it, if they're willing to do the inner work necessary to make it succeed. This includes deep enough self-knowledge to be clear about one's wants and limitations, along with not basing one's self-worth on their relationship or rearranging their life to accommodate the other person's insecurities. And working supportively together to overcome such difficulties. It's very much the same criteria as what makes a successful monogamous relationship, just multiplied."

As for that other big question -- what about the children? -- the answer can be positive. "The key word in raising well-adjusted children is 'stability'," said Sid Mansfield, a Phoenix-area child and family therapist.

"If a child is raised in a home where the adults are honest, open, loving and consistently present, physically and emotionally, it's not going to matter whether those adults are monogamous or polyamorous," he said. "When kids grow up with an adult model of mature, responsible behavior on a constant basis, they'll be far more likely to behave that way too.

"I'd much rather see a child grow up in a nurturing polyamorous home than be exposed to a steady stream of step-parents in a serially monogamous one. It's far more emotionally damaging for a child to deal with the chaos of all that change," he said.

"If the relationship breaks up, how the kids are affected is going to depend to a great extent on how the adults involved handle it. Regardless of whether they're mono or poly, if they're mature they'll do everything they can to see that the children aren't put in the middle of the conflict, and to help them understand that they didn't cause it."

Not all family members of polys agree with their lifestyle, especially if there are children involved. In a July 1999 ruling by Tennessee Juvenile Court Referee Herbert J. Lane, 21-year-old April Divilbiss, her legal husband Shane, 24, and her other "spouse," Chris Littrell, 22, were ordered to turn custody of her 3-year-old daughter over to the daughter's paternal grandparents, Donna and Gordon Olswing.

Divilbiss and her two spouses had appeared on MTV in a November 1998 program on alternative lifestyles, which the Olswings had viewed. They subsequently contacted their local child protective services and had the child removed, with Divilbiss declared an unfit mother.

Although no expert witnesses were called during the hearing, the referee ruled in favor of the Olswings. "At some point, even if a lock were put on the door, this child will walk into the bedroom and see her mother in bed with two guys. . . I'm trying to do what is right for the child . . . parents have to do what is morally right for their children," Lane stated. "In this case, the mother is living with two men in this alternative lifestyle; now she must make a choice."

Divilbiss' choice was to have Littrell move out. "I think the judge's ruling is based on our lifestyle and not any facts that show we neglected or abused this child. He's simply judging our lifestyle. What right does he have to judge us?" she said. "We're a happy, loving family."

A subsequent July 2001court ruling overturned Lane's verdict, returning her daughter to the custody of Divilbiss.

"This tends to be one of the hardest ideas to dispel in the minds of relatives, friends and the general public about polyamory," Rey said. "The assumption that it's all about sex and orgies. They don't want to accept the idea that it's about full-blown relationships, not just nooky, and that it's certainly not about cheating.

"It's one of our biggest problems, people claiming to be poly when they really just want to cheat on their spouse. When they realize how much honesty and commitment is involved, we don't see them again."

Stagg added, "There's also an attitude from some people of angry jealousy, as though we're getting away with something because we're honest about our lives and they can't be, so they have to cheat. One married guy called us and yelled about how we're home-wreckers and perverts, then asked if we knew any good-looking women's phone numbers."

"Men have gotten pissed at me because I won't automatically sleep with them," Black said. "It's like, 'Well, you're a slut cause you have lots of partners, why won't you fuck me, too?' They don't seem to get that it's not a bacchanalian rite, it's real life!

"Then there are the women who have accused me of being greedy and taking all the good men away from them and 'making' them polyamorous, as if they weren't before they met me."

Jon Ross finds that although freeing in its honesty, polyamory has "way too many rules. If you're monogamous, you're with one person, period. Poly relationships, depending on how many partners are involved and how deeply, can get really weighed down by everything from who's with whom on what night, to whether you're allowed to fall in love with someone outside of the primary relationship.

"It even sometimes goes so far as to who has first right to go to concerts and such together -- only the primary partner or any partner? It can get very petty and very confusing without an exhaustive amount of constant communication amongst all parties involved."

Mansfield said that in his counseling experience, "The best relationships, the ones that last and are consistently the happiest, are those based on very deep intimacy and mutual knowledge, which doesn't happen when people spread themselves too thinly over multiple relationships. There's only so much time and energy available; between working, the need for personal time, raising children, seeing friends, not much is left to devote to one's significant other(s). Even with weekly visitation scheduling, a bad headache or other unforeseen problem can throw poly relationships into disarray.

"I've found that polys who aren't the primary partner -- the secondary or tertiary partners -- often end up leaving because of the limited commitment. They live the double-edged sword of lots of freedom -- very little involvement in the day-to-day primary relationship -- and, ironically, not enough depth of intimacy for the same reasons. Without that consistent deep intimacy, the relationship dies."

Perhaps the biggest problem is just being accepted. Most polyamorists see their struggle as part of the larger fight to "normalize" all forms of loving relationships. "Where the gay and lesbian movement was 30 years ago, i.e., very secretive, is where we are now," Stagg said.

"We've learned from them that by being relentless activists, having multiple organizations to educate the public and the government, is how we'll eventually be fully accepted. That and being personally open to others about the realities of the poly lifestyle."

So how does one act (or react) appropriately to a friend or relative's introduction of her husband and her other husband at the Thanksgiving potluck? The Polyamory Society offers these suggestions:

1) Be as nonjudgmental as possible. Be truthful and voice your disapproval, but avoid passing your own personal biases, values, beliefs, etc., on the other person. Do it in a spirit of love and trust, as your first reaction is likely to be remembered and can cause permanent damage if it's overly negative.

2) Ask questions and really listen to the answers given, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

3) Educate yourself about polyamory's realities and fictions.

4) Remember that it's their life and their choice how they live it.

5) Continue to love, accept and respect them for their honesty, courage and authenticity.

Will polyamory ever be fully accepted? "God, let's hope so," Black said. "If we as a culture were open to it as fully as we are to monogamy and its repercussions, I truly don't believe we would have talked about impeaching Clinton, because he never would have had to lie. At least, not about his love life!"