Did you know polyamory is all the rage now? This is a question three different people have asked me in just the past month alone. Whether they asked it in jest, somehow rhetorically, or in all seriousness, I knew the answer: Yes. Yes, it kinda is.
The first polyamorous 'unit' I met was over 10 years ago. It consisted of a primary couple, in which each partner had a secondary boyfriend. I met three of the four of the unit in Fire Island, although they were all based in the DC-metro area, where, in the gay community at least, there seems to be a growing number of unique arrangements involving more than two partners.
This particular unit had all sorts of rules. For example, the primaries could have sex with each other or with their respective secondaries, but the secondaries could not have sex with each other or with their non-primary. And if one of the primaries was home, then his secondary could sleep in bed with him. But if both primaries were home, then it was sofa city for the secondaries!
I recall sitting at dinner with three-fourths of the unit and with five or six of my close friends; I was so fascinated, I had to ask how it all worked. But when I did, I was shot down immediately, not just by the unit, but also by all of my friends - as if I had broken an unspoken but obvious rule that any discussion about their relationship was off limits and inappropriate. Predictably, because I was henceforth not permitted to ask any more questions, lest I break another "rule," I only grew more curious.
Fast forward about a decade, when I moved to Baltimore and met Jason, a scientist and ex-boyfriend of a friend of mine. Jason is a member of a polyamorous unit comprised of four men - all attractive, all accomplished, and all very approachable. I asked Jason if I could write about their relationship, with an emphasis on its mechanics (i.e., the day-to-day), which, based on my biased, statistically unsound research among friends on Facebook, seemed to be what many people were most interested in.
What follows are snippets from my conversation last year with Jason; John, a veterinarian; and Mark and Sid, two entrepreneurs and the co-founders of a trendy new store in Baltimore.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the men.
First and foremost, men, what is polyamory?
Jason: Polyamory, in my view, is a committed relationship among multiple, consenting adults. After that, there's a great deal of flexibility in how polyamory can be defined, independent of the sexual component, which many people seem to get too hung up on.
Got it, and we'll get to the sexual component in a little bit, but in the meantime - why? Why polyamory?
Mark: Polyamory doesn't have to be anything, but what it is for us is having the flexibility and freedom to love each other in our own way - that's why we're together. It's kind of the opposite of marriage.
Ah, yes, marriage. It's one of the reasons why I'm reluctant to publish this article. In the fight for marriage equality, the last thing I want to do is fuel the flames of the far right, who'll claim you'll all want to get married - first to each other, then to your dogs.
Jason: We're not interested in marriage. Our focus is on our unique, mutually consensual relationship.
Sid: I almost look at marriage as a four-letter word. It's a bastardized institution in many ways; it's something I don't want to be a part of.
Jason: And polyamory is not polygamy.
So what is the distinction between polyamory and polygamy?
Jason: Polygamy focuses on an institution of marriage, however it's defined. Polyamory focuses on love. Pure and simple. Take the sex out, just leave the love part in. Contrary to what we're told or what we're led to believe, love is not finite. People think that you can only love one person, which makes no sense to me - it's not only illogical, but it completely goes against the core of my being.
That makes sense, but how do you address your lack of rights and benefits given to couples and recognized by the government (i.e., financial, legal, health, etc.)?
Jason: These become open discussions. We formulate our decisions together and put everything into writing. We're very pragmatic that way.
Mark: We make all of our decisions independent of what the government ordains or recommends.
I appreciate your proactive pragmatism (and should learn from it), but some things still remain a challenge, no? Take, for example, visiting a non-marital spouse or partner in the hospital?
John: Correct. If there was a car accident and somebody was put in the hospital, none of us would, in theory, be able to actually see one another right away; we're similar to a non-married straight couple in that regard. There are some measures we could put into place for extreme cases...
Jason: But, as it stands now, our parents would probably have to get involved.
The parents, yes. Tell us about your parents and what they think about your relationship.
John: My parents actually met all three of the guys before they knew that we were together, and then I texted my mom, because we don't really chat on the phone, and told her. Her immediate response was, "Is that a gay thing?" Then she texted, "I don't even care, as long as you're happy." Now when we text or talk on the phone, she asks, "How are the boys?"
Mark: My parents live in Rehoboth, on a gay beach. So does my brother. He's been back and forth on the polyamory thing. But my parents are very comfortable with it.
Jason: My parents are the exception, they don't know. They're still out West, where I see them once every five or six years. It's one of those conversations I'd rather have in person, as opposed to over the phone or via text, so it probably won't happen until I'm back in my hometown, which is an ongoing question. So I'm the one oddity in that sense.
What about other people? Not that it matters, but what sort of reception do you experience among new friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc.?
John: There are basically three ways of being received: 1) they're not okay with it; 2) they are okay with it but don't care; or 3) they're really interested and ask a lot of questions.
What's the number one question you are asked?
All: How does the bed work?!
And what's the answer?!
John: [without skipping a beat] It's two queens put together; and it's Mark, Sid, John and Jason.
Mark: I think of it in terms of Android charger, iPhone charger, Android charger, iPhone charger.
What about spooning? Who spoons whom, if there's any spooning at all?
Sid: We are all over each other.
Mark: Our sleeping positions are based on how much we spoon and what time we get up in the morning.
John: That's not entirely true. Mark is on the end because he doesn't like to cuddle; he gets clammy.
I can relate. So I don't want to belabor the bed situation, but I have to ask: what if someone has to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom?
John: I sleep so soundly, it doesn't matter. All three of them could be murdered in bed and I wouldn't wake up.
Sid: I usually have to use the bathroom, so I scoot down the bed.
Mark: And chances are, if Sid's scooting down the bed to go, I'm probably thinking I should get up and go, too.
I'm a sound sleeper, too. With a bladder of a camel. Is that even an expression? Anyway, what's another (non-sexual) question you are frequently asked?
Jason: I'm sometimes asked who the "alpha" is. There is none.
Thank god. Because I do NOT want to have to get into the hierarchy and rules of 'primaries,' 'secondaries,' etc. The whole thing seems like one giant headache, no?
Jason: Agreed. We sometimes use those terms when addressing the chronology of how we all met, but our relationship is one of equals. It has to be.
[How the four met is redacted due to space limitations.]
When I asked my friends what they were most curious about, many of them asked questions related to the day-to-day: how do you handle grocery shopping, cooking, household chores, etc.?
Sid: It depends on what it is.
Mark: If it's tech-related, I'm in charge. Kitchen is more Sid. Breadwinning is kind of Jason.
And the bills?
Mark: I am 100% all bills - credit cards, rents. I make sure everything is up-to-date: the Target card; the preferred American Express card with 5% back on groceries, 3% back on gas; 2% Capital One card dollar purchases. For organization, if we're going to get into that, Google Apps is the answer to a lot. Relationships will work with the right amount of technology at the right times, understanding that at other times it won't be of any use.
This kind of leads into scheduling, and making time for each other.
Mark: We have a Google calendar for the family that is constantly updated by everyone. There's a layer to the calendar that has John's work schedule, which isn't as consistent as the rest of ours. We try to have breakfast together at least two or three times a week, even if that requires Sid and me to get up at 6 am or 5 am - we do it, so we can all be together and communicate. We plan family dinners, often at breakfast. We try not to eat out too much, though. We cook a lot.
How do you communicate when you're not sitting together at breakfast or at dinner?
Sid: Facebook Messenger is really effective; it's been a good platform for us.
Jason: It's essentially a group text.
Mark: You can see who's read what and when.
Sid: You can also see where a message has been sent from.
Mark: Sid and I work at home and we use an app called, Life360, so that whenever Jason or John leaves work, we get a notification to let us know to start making tortillas or whatever.
Jason: Pretty much we can track each other through GPS. But it's all very passive.
Going back to scheduling, what's your approach to weekends and vacations?
Mark: Weekends are easy, mostly dictated by our schedules. Vacations are more difficult; we try to coordinate them.
John: Being from Colorado, I prefer the snow; the other three like warmer climates. But, to be honest, I'm okay with going pretty much anywhere. It's a new experience, and I get to be with my boys. But there are times when I'm fairly sure we're going to go somewhere where I'm going to be miserable.
Mark: We went to Charleston and didn't tell John where we were going. That was a strategy; we didn't tell him until we hit South of the Border in South Carolina.
John: I actually enjoyed myself that time.
What about the logistics of traveling?
Jason: We have three vehicles, and one is a minivan.
Mark: With four people it's difficult to book hotel rooms on travel sites since most availabilities and deals are based on double occupancy. Sure, we get to split a hotel room among four people with four salaries, but we don't always get the best rates.
John: Thankfully, that hasn't been an issue.
Jason: Yeah, I'm a staunch atheist.
Mark: All of us are atheist.
Jason: Which means the pressure's off to do anything. If one of us wants to see his [non-poly] family, then that's perfectly okay. He can visit them, and we'll stay home and do our own thing. The idea of a complicit descent of obligation does not exist in this house. Nothing's a requirement in that way, including things like gift-giving.
All right, let's finish up by discussing sex and intimacy. How are the two different in your current relationship from your respective past monogamous ones?
Mark: I think everyone in general secretly wants to sleep with someone else. When you're with one person, you can grow tired of him very easily. If you've gone on a long vacation with one person, or had a roommate in college, or even had a monogamous relationship, you realize that things ebb and flow. Like, I could have a really strong connection with Jason, including passionate sex with him, but it will ebb. When it cools off and maybe becomes a little more practical, we can relate to each other in a whole other way, while interacting physically intimately with John and Sid, or not. I just think it's better that there are so many more ways to freely express and explore ourselves.
Jason: Expanding on what Mark is saying, because we're dealing with four different people with four different schedules, timing - and I know I'm taking a very pragmatic approach to this - you get options; there is inherent variation as part of this dynamic.
And no one gets jealous?
Mark: We do have a sex policy, though.
Jason: Yes. If somebody wants to get off, he gives everyone at least a five-minute notice.
Sid: Usually by text message.
Jason: And then you're free to join, not join, watch, not watch, whatever you want to do. There's no obligation.
But what if nobody's interested at that moment?
Jason: That rarely happens. Somebody's libido will invariably be up for it.