My family is very ordinary to me. We eat dinner together. We gather in the living room and watch movies. Last weekend, we went on a camping trip and sat around the campfire making s’mores, the grown-ups enjoying a few beers while my 9-year-old daughter challenged us with endless rounds of “would you rather?” It all feels so wonderfully mundane that sometimes I have to remind myself that most people view us as strange at best, depraved at worst.
I’m polyamorous, which means I believe you can love multiple partners at the same time. I’m in a relationship with my husband of nearly 17 years, and my boyfriend, with whom I celebrated my second anniversary in May. (In polyamorous lingo, our relationship is known as a “V”; I’m the “hinge” of the V and my two partners are the vertices.) People often say our lives sound complicated, but the truth is, we’re quite harmonious. We often joke that we’d make incredibly boring subjects for reality TV.
That hasn’t kept the world at large from condemning us. The right has spent years warning that we are the travesty waiting down the slippery slope of same-sex marriage. With every stride forward for marriage equality, I can count on turning on the TV to find conservative talking heads lumping families like mine in with pedophilia and bestiality. But liberals, for the most part, don’t treat us much better. They’re quick to insist that same-sex marriage would never, ever lead to such awful things -- failing to point out how multi-partner relationships between consenting adults do not exactly belong in the same category as “relationships” with children or goats.
Even people who don’t vilify us still have a great deal of misconception. Aren’t you just “having your cake and eating it too,” they ask me? Isn’t this unfair to the men? Doesn’t this hurt your daughter? The confusion is understandable. Many people have never seen a polyamorous family like ours before. So let me explain how it works -- or, at least, how it works for us.
My path here was a long one. As far back as I can remember, I felt that loving one person romantically did not preclude the possibility of loving another at the same time. It seemed natural and intuitive to me. But I had no models for that way of living, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.
I married my husband and remained in a monogamous relationship with him for many years. I knew I wanted to be with him for the long haul. But I was never entirely fulfilled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of me was repressed.
When I learned about polyamorous relationships, I knew that’s what I wanted. My husband wasn’t so sure, though. It sounded fine for other people, but just not him. And it still seemed unrealistic to me, so I never pressed the issue.
When I returned to school to finish my bachelor’s degree in my late 20s, I became friends with a man who changed my mind about all that. He believed in polyamory, too, and we had long conversations about it together: how it could work, how it was truly possible.
One night, I sat down with my husband and spilled everything. I told him that being polyamorous was a part of who I am, and I asked if he would at least do some research and give it serious consideration before dismissing the idea. He understood that I never would have asked this if it hadn’t been extremely important.
That conversation could have ended our marriage. But instead, our journey into non-monogamy began.
One of the biggest hurdles in non-monogamy -- probably the hurdle -- is jealousy. My husband was an incredibly jealous person back then, but he began to question its usefulness and purpose. Jealousy is born from a fear of losing a partner; if you believe that love and intimacy can be shared, and are not diminished by sharing, then that fear loses a lot of its power. It was liberating for my husband to step outside of the box that saw everyone else as some kind of threat.
Once he became comfortable with the idea, I began dating my friend from school. Those early days were not without challenges. Choosing to be polyamorous doesn’t mean you instantly flip a switch that extinguishes all jealousy. But it does mean that we seek to understand why we’re feeling insecure. Rather than saying, “You can’t do this with this other person,” we try to pinpoint what’s missing from our own relationship. We say things like, “I’m having a hard time, and I could really use some quality one-on-one time with you right now.” Being able to ask for what you need — rather than direct negativity at a partner’s other relationship — is vital in a polyamorous relationship. Opening ourselves up in this way was a revelation for my husband and me. We became more connected with each other than we’d been in years.
That first romantic relationship of mine only lasted 10 months (though he remains one of my closest friends). Afterward, I didn’t actively seek another partner. I was hurting from the breakup and not in any rush to put my feelings on the line again. Still, I was happy knowing I had that freedom when the right person came along.
Eventually, he did. My boyfriend and I met through our leftist politics. We were members of the same organization. We built a friendship over a period of months, often sitting up talking until sunrise on my back porch. He hadn’t been familiar with polyamory before, though he said the idea made sense to him immediately. I knew I was falling for him, and suspected he felt the same, but I was uncertain whether he would want to be in a polyamorous relationship. After we finally kissed for the first time, I forced myself to have an upfront conversation. Because polyamory don’t rely on familiar social scripts, it’s crucial to spell out terms and expectations rather than relying on assumptions. I needed him to know I wanted a real relationship, not something casual on the side. He told me he wanted exactly the same thing.
From the beginning, I was aware that this relationship was different from my previous one. My boyfriend introduced me to his family, something my ex had never done. We spent a great deal of time together, and within months I knew I was falling in love. I hadn’t experienced that kind of emotional intensity since my husband and I were teenagers. Feeling that same surge so many years later made me freshly aware that my husband was the only other person I had really ever been in love with before.
My husband liked my boyfriend a great deal. He had even encouraged me many times to “go for it” in the preceding months. Still, it was an adjustment to watch me develop such deep feelings for someone else. And he was somewhat surprised to find himself struggling with his feelings over this. (Hadn’t he slayed that green-eyed monster with the last relationship?) But this was another learning experience: Every relationship is different, and presents a new set of challenges. With time, and plenty of talking, I was able to give my husband the reassurance he needed. This wasn’t a threat to our relationship. If anything, I loved him more than ever.
At the same time as I was trying to help my husband feel secure, I was also fearful about the future with my boyfriend. As the months went on, and I began to envision a lasting relationship with him, I worried constantly that he would leave me for a “normal” life. He never expressed any jealousy over my relationship with my husband, but I knew it was frustrating for him that I wasn’t freely available to leave my family and spend time together on a whim, and I felt guilty for the unavoidable limitations placed on us. But my boyfriend made it clear to me that he did see a future with me.
A year ago, my husband and I started looking to buy our first home, and we did so with the full intention that my boyfriend would come live with us. When we first embarked on living polyamorously, I hadn’t imagined meshing our worlds so fully. But it became increasingly clear doing so made sense for all of us.
This past year has been a gradual transition. My boyfriend is at our house about half the week, and will be moving in full-time when his current lease is up, just weeks from now. All three of us had some apprehensions about sharing the space. But this slow adjustment has given us a chance to see firsthand how well it works, and none of us has concerns anymore.
Like any relationship, both of mine occasionally have conflict. But at this stage, that conflict isn’t related to the fact that there are three of us. I have the same kinds of spats and disagreements with each of my partners that monogamous folks have: I’m sensitive and get my feelings hurt; stress makes one of us snippy; we have those absurd fights that start over nothing.
Sometimes, having limited time with each of them does create more tension. I have higher expectations for the time we’re going to spend together, and sometimes those high expectations cause me disappointment. But that’s less and less of a problem as we blend our lives together under one roof, and I no longer feel that my time is so divided between them.
Last weekend, as the three of us were sitting around the campfire, after my daughter had gone to sleep, the conversation turned to the impending move-in, and how ready we all feel to take that step.
“It just feels right,” my husband said to my boyfriend, and I just sat back and smiled.
Of course, one of the most common questions I get is about children. Isn’t a family like ours a harmful environment for kids? My daughter, who will be 10 next month, has known that her father and I are non-monogamous for nearly as long as she can remember. She certainly isn’t exposed to sexuality any more than children of monogamous relationships are; she sees child-appropriate displays of affection between me and both of my partners, and she lives in a stable, loving home. I often talk to her about the fact that society frowns on families like ours, and whenever I mention the claims that polyamory is bad for children, she rolls her eyes and says, “Oh no, kids having more people to love them! How horrible!”
She adores my boyfriend, and his relationship to her is like that of a stepparent, or maybe the fun live-in uncle. They play video games and do Mad-Libs together, and they laugh a lot. When I think about the number of kids with an absent parent, I think it’s pretty great that my daughter has three adults in her life to give her time and attention and care. And with all the varieties of loving, blended families in the world, I fail to see why mine should be considered any differently.
After all these years together, I still look forward to seeing my husband every day when he gets home from work. At least one night a week, the two of us stay up and do nothing but talk for hours and hours. We are far past the honeymoon phase, but in a world where so many marriages fail, we both feel incredibly fortunate to still genuinely enjoy one another’s company, and to remain deeply in love.
And my husband feels that he benefits a great deal from being non-monogamous. He is far more introverted than I am, and knowing I have another partner to spend time with helps him to feel like it’s OK for him to spend time alone, or to turn down invitations to social events he once would have felt obligated to attend with me. Being polyamorous allows us more breathing room to each be ourselves, rather than feeling like our needs are in conflict with one another. Maybe because I am more fulfilled now and living in a way that feels authentic for me, our marriage is stronger than it’s ever been.
My boyfriend and I, too, can easily pass an entire night engrossed in conversation. We giggle together a lot, love nerdy board games, and share a dedication to leftist organizing and social justice. After just two years together, we are in a newer and in some ways more exciting phase of our relationship than my husband and I are. But there is a tremendous amount of comfort between us, as well. I often find it difficult to believe that we’ve only known each other such a relatively short period of time. It feels as though we’ve known each other forever.
My boyfriend and I are planning a (non-legal) wedding ceremony next summer, and would likely legally marry if we could. But it’s painful to know that many people in our lives will never take our relationship completely seriously, or see it as entirely real.
The reality is that all three of us are consenting adults, who are all incredibly happy in our family. My partners are equally free to pursue other relationships, and both value that freedom a great deal. But for the time being, we are all quite content with things the way they are. And it’s offensive to all three of us when people assume that someone in our relationship must be the “victim.”
Both my partners are firmly committed to feminist values, and both make me feel respected, loved and valued for who I am. They are my best friends, my greatest supporters, and I cannot imagine my life without them. As for what makes it work, we don’t really find it as complicated as other people assume. Just like any relationship: communication, honesty, trust and respect. The ability to compromise comes in handy. But for the most part, we celebrate one another’s individuality, and we never try to stifle or control one another. Our life is comfortable and peaceful.
On a typical evening when everyone is home, my husband — who loves to cook — makes dinner, and we all eat together. Afterward, we might watch a movie. Sometimes my boyfriend and my daughter play video games while my husband and I work on our computers. Sometimes my boyfriend (currently a nursing student) has homework and my daughter reads in her room, and my husband and I sit and talk in the living room. After my husband and daughter go to bed, my boyfriend and I — the night owls in the family — might stay up and talk, or just sit together and read. It all feels so normal, it’s hard to believe I once thought it was impossible.
When my daughter talks about same-sex marriage or polyamorous relationships, she always looks perplexed and says, “I don’t understand why anyone is angry about people being in love and not hurting anyone.” And I long for a world where everyone is able to see it so simply.