How the Other Halves Live

Preview Poly-98_BW

A couple sits at a high-top table near a bar at the Courtyard Marriott hotel on the west side of Columbus. I met Andy the previous day, and he introduces me to his wife, Megan. They’ve known each other 15 years, have been married for 10 years, and love their child. They’re laughing, talking, and ripping labels off seasonal beer bottles.

A family sits one table over, engrossed in their phones and tablets. They don’t say much, occasionally looking over their shoulders at people passing the lobby. There’s a heated pool nearby, and kids scurry through the main hall with goggles around their heads and floaters on their arms, their parents trailing behind.

Andy is a nurse in the military, and this past year he was deployed for a few months. Unlike many servicemen, he didn’t have to leave his wife and kid alone while he was away. Instead, he was able to rely on one of his buddies to keep watch over his family.

“I had a partner who was already there to look out for their interest in my absence, and that provides me with a great deal of comfort,” Andy says, sighing while expressing his gratitude. “It’s tough to go somewhere for four months of your life and leave behind your responsibilities.”

His stand-in caretaker’s name is Connor, and he sits next to Andy and Megan at the high-top, chiseling at the remnants of a beer label with his fingernails. He’s married to a woman named Rachel, and they are awaiting the birth of their second child.

Connor is also Megan’s boyfriend.

The family at the adjacent table glances over every now and then, picking up tidbits of our conversation and looking at one another with bug-eyed incredulity.

The three of them are polyamorous. Poly, as it’s commonly known, is the practice of being romantically involved in an open fashion with more than one person at the same time. Some may pose the question: isn’t this just swinging? Both poly and swinging are under the non-monogamous umbrella, however, swinging may only involve sharing partners sexually and nothing more, while poly often has the potential to become binding and long-lasting. But if someone participates in “poly for play,” which emphasizes sex, or identifies as “swolly,” both swinger and polyamorous, the lines become blurred. The distinction is ultimately up to the individual.

There are so many configurations within the lifestyle that some proponents label it “poly geometry.” For example, a man is married to his wife. He might have a partner, his wife may also have a partner, and their partners may have husbands and wives, as well as other partners. At every intersecting relationship, there are interchangeable possibilities.

Maybe the man has several partners. Maybe he has none. Maybe the woman has a partner who has several lovers, who in turn have wives and husbands. Maybe a man or a woman doesn’t have relationships, labels, or levels, but identifies as poly (poly anarchist). There are those who may place certain partners in a hierarchy and then divide emotional investment into corresponding relationships. Others don’t do any of those things; take what you know about relationships and throw it in a blender. It’s a lovers’ Rubik’s cube, the shifting parts interlocked yet ever-changing, except there’s no predefined perfect combination. And it’s not devoid of specific morality; for some people, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures is the Bible of non-traditional relationships.

Megan, Andy, and Connor (whose names have been changed to protect them from the stigma often associated with poly) are in a V-style relationship; Megan is at the apex, and Andy and Connor branch out from there. Connor and Megan have been dating for about a year. They’re in a happy-go-lucky, easygoing relationship in which they go out on dates to art museums and maybe even spend the night together. Andy didn’t have a relationship other than his marriage when we spoke, but he welcomed the idea of another partner entering his life. Andy and Connor are metamours, the partners of one’s partner, and are not bound to one another.

Except that Andy and Connor are buddies.

There are so many configurations within the lifestyle that some proponents label it “poly geometry.” For example, a man is married to his wife. He might have a partner, his wife may also have a partner, and their partners may have husbands and wives, as well as other partners. At every intersecting relationship, there are interchangeable possibilities.

They go on man-dates once in a while, often returning home drunk to their wives after nightlong bouts at a bar. They would still be friends even if Megan wasn’t around. Collectively, they are models for big love, but society doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

That societal view—that it’s cheating, adultery run rampant—has stigmatized poly. The potential for ethical rebuke swirls around the community and could be the barrier preventing the credibility that some proponents want. Similar to the LGBT movement, poly people are reticent to live openly—even to family members—afraid that the common perception will affect their daily lives. In the late-’90s, many television households were brought into this multi-partner world for the first time when MTV aired a documentary about April Divilbiss and her polyamorous partners. Shortly after it ran, her daughter Alana was taken away by a judge on behalf of Alana’s grandmother, citing immorality in Divilbiss’s lifestyle.

Andy sums it up: “Right now, you’re better off having an affair off the books than to be ethical and non-monogamous.”

From the perspective of the traffic cruising down High Street in Clintonville, the building that houses the Columbus Insight Center appears to be nothing more than generic commercial space, indistinguishable from an orthodontist’s office or a small real-estate firm. But inside the unassuming brick building, PolyColumbus has become the epicenter of the local polyamorous community.

The three leaders of the poly support group gather in an upstairs suite that serves as its headquarters. Meetings are held in an area that resembles a modest loft apartment; curtains separate a few rooms and an assortment of chairs, couches, and beanbags create a college-dorm atmosphere more so than an open forum for relationship advice.

Dawn, Karen, and Dan (whose names are unchanged) are part of the group PolyColumbus, which was founded about 15 years ago. The group gathers monthly to talk about all things poly, drawing on personal experience to educate and aid others. They offer different topics at each monthly meeting, like sex in poly relationships, conflict resolution, coming out poly, how to deal with the press, and more. Most attendees say the meetings would also be constructive for monogamous people.

The three are in a V-style relationship—a “poly family” they call it—and though they don’t all live together, they spend significant time as a group, playing games, raising a puppy named Ginger, and recording a podcast called “3 Thumbs Up” that offers reviews of entertainment venues from a poly perspective.

Karen was once in a 17-year monogamous marriage with her ex-husband before she first gave poly a try.

“My husband and I, at the time, had a lot of conversations and [polyamory] didn’t seem strange or weird, and we were intrigued by it,” Karen says. She met Dan though friends, and he has been one of her partners ever since. After leaving the monogamous fold, she has seen the poly community expand considerably here in Columbus.

For the first few years, the same people gathered in a small space and talked, educated, and went out to socialize afterward. Though a similar schedule still exists today, the culture has changed tremendously. PolyColumbus is now governed by a board, and serves to lead the poly community, even facilitating Q&A-style discussions with OSU students in a human sexuality in context class. In early 2014, the organization created a board of directors to serve its growing needs, and the nonprofit is currently seeking a bigger location.

“I remember a time when maybe there was 10 people at a meeting, and now we have 50-plus on a regular basis. And that’s rotating—it’s not the same 50 people,” Karen says. “Every month we have new people come. There’s people who return all the time, and we continue to grow.”

At an early-November meeting, some people chatter about their already hectic workweek—it’s Monday—and everyone introduces themselves. Dawn, Karen, and Dan are welcoming, easily identifiable as group leaders for their encouraging approach to strangers and friends alike; you get to be yourself in this room. Others appear overtly nervous, though, so much so that they won’t talk.

The transition to an open and accepting environment can be difficult. PolyColumbus has partnered with organizations from other outsider movements, like the LBGTQ and kink communities, because these fringe groups have shared similar sentiments and public perception at one point or another. Sometimes individuals are so sheltered that they’re unaware polyamory exists or that there are groups like PolyColumbus to support them.

“People will always say that I’ve always had the tendency towards poly, but I didn’t know the word for it,” Karen says. “All the way back to high school, I remember having feelings for more than one person at a time and thinking that was wrong.”

On an unusually cold weekend in November, poly practitioners (as well as some who practice monogamy) gathered in a series of conference rooms at the Courtyard Marriott for an event called “Beyond the Love,” a three-day polyamory summit organized by Dawn, Karen, and Dan. It’s one of three similar conventions in the U.S., in addition to events in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and it brings together people from all corners of the country, some traveling from as far as California to participate. Guests are herded to the back of the lounge toward a series of hanging purple curtains, barricading the event from the rest of the hotel. A volunteer serves as a guard and checks nametags to assure that only registered participants make it inside Beyond the Love.

I receive a nametag, along with a “flirting sticker” to display my status—red means “no flirt,” yellow means “give me some space,” green means “I’m here for the taking.” Within 20 minutes I peel off the sticker in nervousness.

It’s difficult being in a room where you know you’re an outsider, where everyone shares a similar trait that you don’t. And without the presence of familiarity, it’s frightening. Outside these conference rooms, some polyamorous people feel this way all the time. For those within the community, the ability to find a safe place like this, maybe even for three days out of an entire year, is liberating.

“I think [poly] is all over,” Karen explains. “There are other groups that are large and thriving. We have people who come to our meetings and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that there were other people out there like us, and it’s very much a relief.’ There are people in smaller communities that don’t have local support, and that’s where they’ll end up at things like [Beyond the Love]. That’s how people respond—they’re just so happy to find something.”

These support groups and conventions seem to be the most tangible manifestation of the poly community for now. The popular online dating site OkCupid features the ability for poly people to seek each other out, but its numbers are low—they’re significantly more likely to meet at events like Beyond the Love.

Inside the convention, some people are willing to share their experiences and lifestyles with others. And there are those who don’t. One woman only introduces herself using a screen name she created for poly chat rooms. The event rules make it clear that cell phone cameras are forbidden within the sheltered confines inside the purple curtains, to protect the anonymity of participants.

An event sponsor and poly-friendly tax-advisement firm, Cortés and Baker, hosts a seminar specifically for poly people. (The advertisement? A packet of lubricant attached to a half-sheet of paper which reads, “Are you getting screwed on your income taxes? Maybe it can be less painful.”) As the seminar explains, there are no alternative sections for the polyamorous on a tax form and limited methods of stretching the taxable dollar in such a family. A head of household can claim another partner as a dependent, other than a husband or wife, but only if the person doesn’t work and has no income.

So, from the government’s standpoint, there’s no official way to be recognized or counted as poly. The census doesn’t ask the question, nor is it likely for some time to come.

Near the Courtyard bar, I poke and prod at Megan, Andy, and Connor, trying to dissect their relationship and discover the machinations and intricacies of poly life, about which I previously knew very little. Andy is soft-spoken but verbose once he begins talking, and Connor speaks fast and at length about the issues that concern him. Megan slips in a word or two when she can, but she mostly allows her partners to carry the conversation.

They all talk about how to make their relationship work, because being poly doesn’t mean being superhuman; they’re not given powers to prepare them any differently for relationships with multiple partners.

“It’s day to day. Some days, all four of us may be scattered to the wind. There’ll be moments when it’s tense, we’ll have disagreements here and there, but we’re always very open in our communications, so we put that behind us pretty quickly,” Andy says. Communication is sacrosanct in polyamory, the only concept that separates it from infidelity and steers it away from dysfunction.

Like any relationship, poly is work, multiplied by the number of partners involved. In dividing obligations among partners—through shared calendars or the app “The Poly Life, which helps organize multiple relationships—spending time together may be whittled down to a single scheduled event. I struggle to hold down one relationship, one might think, how can anyone have (plural) relationships?

“Part of polyamory is still self-determination,” Andy says. “I’m not here because I have to be here, I’m here because I choose to be here. It radically changes the dynamic of the way you approach something. As long as all of us are getting out of this what we feel is good for all of us, it goes on for as long as it goes on. … We’re always walking a tightrope because now, instead of two moving parts, we’ve got another moving part, and another moving part, and [we’re] trying to juggle that.”

There’s no easy way to do it. There’s no Disney movie in which the princess gets to pick two princes and live happily ever after. And people are still going to scowl at others “cheating” in wide-open spaces. Some people I discussed the topic with ahead of time laughed off the practice as merely a cover for having sex with more people without consequence.

But the trio’s stories show that, at least for them, it’s about more; both Connor and Andy care for the same woman and vice versa. All acknowledge that fact openly, and they talk to each other about their relationships and let the group know if someone is overstepping boundaries. They are there for support if someone needs to have a package picked up from a UPS stockyard near another person’s house, or if one of their spouses falls on a patch of ice and hurts an ankle, or if one of them needs a babysitter for the night. Or if one of them is called overseas to serve his country, someone who cares is there to watch and provide comfort.

I continue to pry, attempting to understand more but growing uncomfortable myself, knowing that this is a private, personal relationship I’m scrutinizing. I ask the group about the future of polyamory and its prospects for societal acceptance. Megan and Andy fiddle with their empty bottles and continue to talk, but Connor is itching to tell a particular anecdote. Finally, he interjects; he has grown impatient with my role as devil’s advocate.

“I have a friend who worked several years as the assistant of a divorce attorney,” he begins. In all her years, an affair broke apart a relationship only three times. Splits were almost always about money or conflicts of interest or lying, he tells us. Many people suffered through infidelity, but the death knell of a marriage was usually something else.

“The way that we have a very protectionist approach to monogamy and marriage is a cover-up for the fact the people live all kinds of different lives under agreement, but in the shadow,” Connor says. “I’m hoping 10 years from now, what we’ll see is a lot of people who are like, ‘Why cheat on your spouse? Why not be open about it?’” 

How Big is Big Love?

Despite the interest both within and outside the poly community, pinning down a population size for polyamory, or even a reasonable approximation, remains difficult. In a blog called Polyamory in the News, one post attempted to divine an estimate and used some rough math (poly arithmetic?) to calculate that there are probably between 100,000 and 1 million polyamorists in the nation. Statistically speaking, that is a city-sized hole. You would not do well on The Price Is Right using this type of estimation.

The problem with trying to determine the polyamorous population, and hence its rise or decline, is that many people who practice it don’t feel comfortable talking about it openly for fear of consequence or judgment. Also, there’s a lot of gray area involved in poly—where to draw the lines between open relationships, swinging, and polyamory, etc., is ultimately up to each couple, trio, or individual.

That aside, there are some basic statistics and figures that paint a broad picture of the polyamorous community, as well as those under the larger non-monogamous umbrella:

According to an article in Scientific American, it’s estimated that between 4 and 5 percent of Americans are consensually non-monogamous, looking outside their relationship for love and sex with their partner’s permission.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock estimates that there are 320 million people in the country, meaning that there are between 12.8 million and 16 million people in consensually non-monogamous relationships.