Hopelessly Devoted to You, You and You
By ALEX WILLIAMS
Published: October 3, 2008
LIKE many considerate boyfriends, Ed Vessel, a cognitive
neuroscientist who lives in Brooklyn, bought a toothbrush for his
steady girlfriend Diana Adams to keep at his apartment when she
sleeps over. While Ms. Adams, a Cornell-educated lawyer, considered
this touching, she was less pleased when she noticed the toothbrush
that Mr. Vessel had bought for his other steady girlfriend when she
That Mr. Vessel had a second girlfriend was not the issue. All
parties here are committed to polyamory, which for them means
maintaining multiple steady relationships, with the knowledge and
consent of all involved. The problem was that the other woman's
toothbrush was "a really fancy one that says 'Primo' on it, and mine
is a junky one that says 'Duane Reade,' " said Ms Adams, 29. For
about a month, she was a little miffed every single time she brushed her teeth.
The two eventually talked polyamory involves a lot of talking and
they now laugh about it. "I just decided that this was an example of
a jealousy that is not warranted," Ms. Adams said.
Polyamory gained a degree of cultural vogue in the sexual revolution
of the 1970s, when books like "Open Marriage" made best-seller lists
and swingers capitalized on the concept to justify experimentation.
But while it failed to survive the era of fern bars for the
mainstream population, a small but vocal collection of adherents
many borrowing the language of inclusion used in the gay rights
movement argues that polyamory can be a workable, responsible way to live.
Within the past year, books like "Open," by Jenny Block, and "Opening
Up," by the sex columnist Tristan Taormino, have argued for
polyamory. Celebrities like Tilda Swinton and Carla Sarkozy, the
first lady of France, have expressed support for open relationships.
This weekend, a group called Polyamorous NYC, with more than 2,000
members, planned to have a three-day Poly Pride Weekend, featuring a
picnic and rally in Central Park.
All this does not mean that polyamory has risen above underground
status. Edward O. Laumann, a sociology professor at the University of
Chicago and a prominent sex researcher, said many sex studies don't
treat the practice as a category of its own.
Dr. Laumann said polyamorists are probably "just talking like that
because they haven't found somebody special."
But whether it is a movement, or just something a few a couples do,
there is little debate that polyamory holds a certain risqué interest
for those who would never practice it, and that it can make one's
life very complicated.
Just ask Mr. Vessel and Ms. Adams, who will be attending this
weekend's festival (she serves as the vice president for Polyamorous
NYC). As young professionals trying to juggle busy careers with
multiple steady romantic partners, their lives provide a window into
the freedoms and complications of polyamory.
Toothbrush disputes are the least of it. In the era of safe sex and
cellphones, a life that seems to promise boundless sex in fact
involves lots of talking. And talking. And talking.
For one thing, they constantly have to explain the way they live.
Ms. Adams, a former Lutheran youth minister, was raised by
conservative Christians in upstate New York. She said she was
skeptical of monogamy from the time she was a child "I always had
this lurking concern: 'How am I going to find a man and be married to
him for 60 years?' "
Mr. Vessel, 33, seated with Ms. Adams at her Williamsburg apartment,
said he thought monogamy "sold something short" the idea of
flexibility even though he grew up in a supportive nuclear family
Ms. Adams and Mr. Vessel consider themselves bisexuals. He has a
boyfriend in Texas he sees a few times a year, and she sees two women
More than half the polyamorists they know, however, engage
exclusively in heterosexual relationships. (Straight or bisexual,
there are limits to how open some polyamorists feel; Mr. Vessel and
Ms. Adams were the only two of the partners involved who would be
identified by name.)
Ms. Adams chose this course five years ago, learning about it through
a polyamorous married couple (she soon dated the husband). Mr. Vessel
came to it a year and a half ago, hearing about it from a friend. The
two met at a cocktail party, and Mr. Vessel said he was struck by Ms.
Adam's ability to, well, talk.
Communication skills are handy, as basic scheduling requires most
parties to coordinate their plans on a shared Google Calendar page.
Mr. Vessel typically sees each girlfriend two or three nights a week,
which means he keeps an overnight bag packed because he is often away
for four or five nights consecutively. This can cause emotional
confusion. "When you haven't seen your partner for four or five days,
it can be hard to re-establish a connection," he said.
And with all that running around, this lifestyle is not always about
boundless sex. The two said that rules become more important because
of the emotional and health hazards involved in having multiple
partners. All parties are expected to give full disclosure about whom
they are seeing and what they are doing.
Partners, particularly the so-called primary partners, also carry
veto power over their partners' new prospects. Last year, Ms. Adams
exercised them when Mr. Vessel saw a woman who both concluded was
trying to pit one against the other.
Mr. Vessel he didn't want to believe it. "She was hot," Ms. Adams
said in a stage-whisper, a note of jealousy in her voice.
Indeed, while Mr. Vessel seems largely "immune to jealousy," Ms.
Adams said she is not so lucky. A few weekends ago, she had to rush
upstate to see her ailing father. But Mr. Vessel had plans to go to
the Jersey Shore with his other girlfriend.
While both found the situation vexing, "the argument is not 'I want
to do that,' it's 'How can I make you feel better about that?' " Mr.
Vessel said. " 'Perhaps I can check in later that night, and give you
a call.' " (They also arranged for friends to accompany her back home).
And even when partners get things straight between themselves, they
still must find a palatable way to present their lifestyle to friends
and family. "A lot of the stereotypes I come upon are those of
swinging, that we are just being kinky," she said, even though these
partners say swinging is not the point.
SOME men are intrigued, said Ms. Adams's financier girlfriend, until
they consider how it would feel to have their girlfriends run off
with other men.
Mr. Vessel said his parents are growing accustomed to the idea,
although they had a hard time understanding why, on a recent trip
home, he held one girlfriend's hand while talking about another 1,600
And last week, Ms. Adams invited her mother to a rooftop barbecue,
where she was introduced to her daughter's circle of partners. "I had
to say, 'You know how I'm bisexual,' " Ms. Adams said. " 'Well guess
what, I have a girlfriend. In fact, I have two.' "
She added: "My mom's reaction was, 'If these are people that you
love, they're family to me.' "
Open marriages have own rules of engagement
Zosia Bielski, National Post
Published: Friday, September 19, 2008
Samantha Fraser has a few rules for a successful marriage. She keeps
a regular Wednesday lunch date with her husband, Stéph, and they make
a point of reserving weekends exclusively for each other. Their best
time is typically in bed just before sleep, when the two talk about
"something new that brings us closer together."
But the Frasers, married since 2004, have other rules, too. That is
because they are in an open marriage: The couple has practised
polyamory - having several sexual or emotional relationships at once
- for two years. Samantha, 28, has one sexual partner outside of the
union, as does Stéph, 31. They are considering the "possibility" of
The Frasers schedule "dates" with outside partners once a week or
every two weeks. They reserve the right to veto these partners,
though this has happened only once. They also try to introduce each
other to their respective dates. Sleepovers are forbidden, unless
someone is too drunk to get home.
"We used to do sleepovers more last year and it contributed to some
issues with us getting too close to people," said Fraser, who works
in Toronto's digital media sector and details the perks and
challenges of polyamory in her blog, Not Your Mother's Playground.
"We just feel it out as we go," she says. "Some days we might be OK
with things; and other days, we're not. We've accepted this as par
for the course, though."
They have pared the rules down over the years, but the "guidelines"
as Fraser puts it, remain lengthy.
To the uninitiated, polyamory may look like a return to the
hedonistic free love of the 1960s, but its current proponents say
today's open relationships are often regimented by more rules than
monogamous ones, largely because the polyamorist's main challenge
appears to be jealousy.
The reason their open relationships work is because of constant
negotiations between partners, or what Fraser calls "checking in on
Often labelled as swinging, which usually involves a couple having
sex with other people together, polyamorous relationships are highly
hierarchical: Primary partners are strongly attached, while secondary
partners float in and out, ideally without the emotional or economic
commitments of the married couple.
Fraser sums it up: "We get to enjoy single life within the security
of a very committed relationship."
That is not to say that the union does not experience the occasional
hiccup, as is shown by one of her blog posts. On July 23, she was
angry that her husband had showered at his date's house rather than
at home. But she was mollified by the fact that he is also seeing a
second woman as well as this date, and that this second woman is part
of a couple they are both seeing.
"Couples are ideal because everybody has somebody. It's dealing with
the external single people that has been a challenge," she concluded recently.
Several Toronto sex shops have hosted workshops on polyamory and
jealousy, while a group called the Toronto Ethical Lover Group meets
regularly at the University of Toronto to discuss happy
"poly/non-monogamous relationships." At least two polyamory how-to
guides hit Canadian bookstores last month, and support groups have
sprouted online for polyamorists in Vancouver, Montreal,
Newfoundland, Ottawa and Tobermory. Meanwhile, polyamory conferences
- some of them nude - were held in New York, Pennsylvania and
California this month.
In Hollywood, Swingtown, a TV drama about the key parties and open
marriages of the sexually liberated 1970s - premiered this summer on
CBS. Actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett have admitted to a U.K.
tabloid that they tell each other if they "need to have sex" with
other people. And Woody Allen's latest flick, Vicky Cristina
Barcelona, involves an open relationship between two ex-spouses
played by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz and the pillow-lipped
The practice has also been examined in a paper presented recently in
Vancouver. In "Is Polyamory an alternative to marriage? A sociology
inquiry into jealousy," PhD candidate Jillian Deri posits that
jealousy is an "outcrop of the institution of monogamy and Western
ideas about love and marriage." She believes jealousy is "being
resisted and rewritten by those who practice polyamory."
Asked how they deal with that nasty emotion, polyamorists often
insist that having more partners can actually help people cope with
jealousy - and ultimately have better relationships.
Many seem keen to question the underpinnings of jealousy. "I believe
that jealousy is a learned behaviour, one that is reinforced and
rewarded all around us every day in every form of media and
behaviour. There's an expectation that if you love someone and they
find someone else attractive, you need to be jealous and, if not,
that's strange," says Tristan Taormino, a Village Voice columnist,
porn director and author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and
Sustaining Open Relationships.
Taormino - who has been in an open relationship for seven years -
interviewed 126 people in non-monogamous relationships across the
U.S. People practising polyamory, she says, "absolutely acknowledge
that they feel and experience jealousy, but they're working to
essentially unlearn it."
At the Toronto sex shop Come As You Are, Dana Shaw recently gave a
workshop on "Taming the Green-Eyed Monster: Polyamory and Jealousy,"
which drew couples hoping to enter into an open relationship and
those already in one. "We are each taught very early in the
socialization process that someone else doing something that excludes
us is selfish, but that's not necessarily the case," says Shaw, who
has been in polyamorous relationships for 20 years.
She says monogamists could benefit from the discussions polyamorists
have constantly: "Jealousy is about responding to a fear that someone
will do something to hurt you. Those fears can be about abandonment,
lack of attractiveness or low self-worth. They point to an
individual's triggers for feeling badly about themselves and
projecting that fear on to the other person. The opportunity in
polyamory is to look at the fear response and ask yourself really
important questions about those triggers."
For others, it's not a problem. Paul Tallant, a 73-year-old
Newfoundland photographer, rang in 2008 with his lady friend. Tallant
had her for New Year's Eve; her other boyfriend got her for Christmas
Day. He has seen only pictures of the other man, but says he would
very much like to make friends with him. As for the shared
girlfriend, she simply "really likes men," says the thrice-divorced
Tallant. "There are at least some of us humans who genuinely have the
incentive, interest and the ability to intimately love more than one person."
Although proponents maintain that polyamory is not out to replace
monogamy, their main complaint rests with the monogamous
relationship. They say it is a flawed concept because it sets
unrealistic expectations: No one person can do or be everything for
another, they protest. Fraser says she became disillusioned with her
monogamous marriage after two years, when the union had turned her
and Stéph into "the same person, a creature that spent most of its
time off shopping at Ikea and Home Depot. Having never felt that
strong desire to get married, I wondered if I had fallen into some
slick suburban trap," she wrote on her blog.
She began to question her decision to marry - and indeed felt
conflicted about her job as a wedding planner. Two years into the
marriage, the couple began to consider swinging. One day, as Fraser
was slugging lattes at Starbucks, a customer slipped her a note.
"He was basically complimenting me and saying that he wanted to get
in touch. I showed Stéph the note and we started this never-ending
conversation. It snowballed from there."
They began seeking outside partners on the dating Web site Lavalife.
Fraser says new partners have helped them be their own persons again
and that this has reinvigorated their marriage.
The movement is not without its detractors. Across online forums,
critics accuse polyamorists of greed, self-indulgence and cowardice.
They indict polyamorists for conjuring elaborate alternatives to
commitment. "To me, basically it's asking someone for permission to
cheat. Open relationship is an oxymoron," one writes.
Other critics worry about the children. Andrea Mrozek, manager of
research for the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, says that,
rules aside, she is concerned that polyamorists are looking for
acceptance as "ethical" parents. The appearance of publications such
as PolyKids Zine - a publication for kids that "supports the
principles and mission of the polyamory society" and includes stories
like "The Magical Power of Mark's Many Parents" - suggest that
polyamorist parents want their visibility.
"Our marriages in two-people couples are facing significant
challenges. You can only imagine that that is multiplied in a
polyamorous situation. When that kind of relationship breaks down,
imagine how that works for a child," Mrozek says.
Proponents such as Shaw suggest that aside from traditional family
values and jealousy, the reason more Canadians might not be diving
into open relationships may be the modern obstacle of time.
"The biggest challenge is time management. There are only a certain
amount of hours in a day, and there are only a certain amount of
hours outside of work hours in which a person can dedicate time to
building and maintaining a relationship."