The Atlantic: "Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy"
|A Summer Camp drum circle.|
Then back home I turn on the computer and what do I see but Sarah, Michael, and Jonica, another Summer Camp organizer and a member of their intimate network, leading off a major feature article in The Atlantic online — one of the country's most prestigious news and public affairs outlets. The article is long, 5600 words. It has stayed #1 on the site's most-read list for two days now.
Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy
Polyamorous people still face plenty of stigmas, but some studies suggest they handle certain relationship challenges better than monogamous people do.
By Olga Khazan
When I met Jonica Hunter, Sarah Taub, and Michael Rios on a typical weekday afternoon in their tidy duplex in Northern Virginia, a very small part of me worried they might try to convert me.
All three live there together, but they aren’t roommates — they’re lovers.
Or rather, Jonica and Michael are. And Sarah and Michael are. And so are Sarah and whomever she happens to bring home some weekends. And Michael and whomever he might be courting. They’re polyamorous.
Michael is 65, and he has a chinstrap beard that makes him look like he just walked off an Amish homestead. Jonica is 27, with close-cropped hair, a pointed chin, and a quiet air. Sarah is 46 and has an Earth Motherly demeanor that put me at relative ease.
Together, they form a polyamorous “triad” — one of the many formations that’s possible in this jellyfish of a sexual preference. “There’s no one way to do polyamory” is a common refrain in “the community.” Polyamory — which literally means “many loves” — can involve any number of people, either cohabiting or not, sometimes all having sex with each other, and sometimes just in couples within the larger group.
What this misses is their particular relationship: it's a form of Relationship Anarchy, in that they proudly tell the world they have no terms or agreements, not even for safe sex; each is responsible for handling their own precautions and everything else in life.
Sarah and Michael met 15 years ago when they were both folk singers and active in the polyamorous community. Both of them say they knew from a young age that there was something different about their sexuality. “Growing up, I never understood why loving someone meant putting restrictions on relationships,” Michael said.
“What I love about polyamory is that everything is up for modification,” Sarah says. “There are no ‘shoulds.’ You don’t have to draw a line between who is a lover and who is a friend. It’s about what is the path of my heart in this moment.”
They’ve been “nesting partners” for 12 years, but they’ve both had other relationships throughout that time. Jonica moved in three years ago after meeting Michael on OkCupid. She describes the arrangement’s appeal as “more intimacy, less rules. I don’t have to limit my relationship with other partners.”
The house is, as they describe, an “intentional community” — a type of resource-sharing collectivist household. They each have their own room and own bed. Sarah is a night owl, so she and Michael spend time together alone late at night. Jonica sees him alone in the early morning. They all hang out together throughout the day. The house occasionally plays host to a rotating cast of outside characters, as well — be they friends of the triad or potential love interests.
The triad works together, too, running a consulting nonprofit that puts on events “that teach skills for living together peacefully, such as clear communication, boundaries, what to do when you get upset,” Sarah said [think New Culture]. An added bonus of the living arrangement is that it cuts down on commuting time.
I initially expected the polyamorous people I met to tell me that there were times their relationships made them sick with envy. After all, how could someone listen to his significant other’s stories of tragedy and conquest in the dating world, as Michael regularly does for Sarah, and not feel possessive? But it became clear to me that for “polys,” as they’re sometimes known, jealousy is more of an internal, negligible feeling than a partner-induced, important one. To them, it’s more like a passing head cold than a tumor spreading through the relationship....
...Increasingly, polyamorous people — not to be confused with the prairie-dress-clad fundamentalist polygamists — are all around us. By some estimates, there are now roughly a half-million polyamorous relationships in the U.S., though underreporting is common. Some sex researchers put the number even higher, at 4 to 5 percent of all adults, or 10 to 12 million people. More often than not, they’re just office workers who find standard picket-fence partnerships dull. Or, like Sarah, they’re bisexuals trying to fulfill both halves of their sexual identities.
Says Sarah: "The one thing in the article I really wish I could correct is being portrayed as wanting to be poly because like many bisexuals, I'm 'trying to fulfill both halves of my sexual identity.' It’s such an old tired stereotype that bisexuals need 'one of each,' or have 'halves' of our identities, and it’s so unrelated to my reasons for being poly!"
...Polys differentiate themselves from swingers because they are emotionally, not just sexually, involved with the other partners they date. And polyamorous arrangements are not quite the same as “open relationships” because in polyamory, the third or fourth or fifth partner is just as integral to the relationship as the first two are.
...Despite lingering disapproval, there’s some evidence that Americans are growing increasingly accepting of open relationships. To be sure, the sanctity of two-person marriage still looms large: For decades now, most Americans — 90 percent, give or take — have told Gallup that having an affair is unacceptable.... However, an April study asked 1,280 heterosexuals how willing they would be, on a scale from one to seven, to commit various non-monogamous acts, such as swinging or adding a third party to the relationship. Depending on the scenario, up to 16 percent of women and up to 31 percent of men chose a four or higher on the scale when asked whether they’d willing, while still with their partners, to do things like have a third person join the relationship, or have “casual sex with whomever, no questions asked.”
...Bill and Erin don’t hide their outside relationships from Erin’s 17-year-old daughter. One day, the couple was watching the television show Sister Wives, which documents a polygamous family in Utah, when the daughter remarked that it was an interesting system.
“She was talking about Sister Wives, and I said, ‘What about brother husbands?’” Bill asked her. “I said, ‘Your mom and I date a guy.’ And she was like, ‘Cool.’”
...Cassie and Josh said their son, who is now 10, has grown up around his parents’ girlfriends, so he doesn’t find it unusual. He calls the women the couple dates “Ms. ‘Anne,’” and refers to them as “my dad’s [or sometimes mom’s] girlfriend” to others.
“We have friends who are poly, mono, gay, and lesbian,” Cassie said. “He doesn’t understand why people have a problem with people caring for and loving each other.”
...There’s a paucity of any sort of research on consensual, Western non-monogamy.... The nascent research that does exist suggests these modern polyamorous relationships can be just as functional — and sometimes even more so — than traditional monogamous pairings.
...Terri Conley, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who studies polyamory, has analyzed a sample of 1,700 monogamous individuals, 150 swingers, 170 people in open relationships, and 300 polyamorous individuals for a forthcoming study. She said that while people in “open relationships” tend to have lower sexual satisfaction than their monogamous peers, people who described themselves as “polyamorous” tended to have equal or higher levels of sexual satisfaction.
What’s more, polyamorous people don’t seem to be plagued by monogamous-style romantic envy. Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont has found that polyamorous people tend to experience less overall jealousy, even in situations that would drive monogamous couples to Othello-levels of suspicion. "It turns out that, hey, people are not reacting with jealousy when their partner is flirting with someone else," Holmes told LiveScience.
Conley found that jealousy is “much higher” among monogamous pairs than non-monogamous ones. Polyamorous people also seemed to trust each other more. “For a long time I’ve been interested in whether monogamous relationships are all they’re cracked up to be,” Conley said.
Her findings, like Holmes’ and Sheff’s, are preliminary and limited. But if they hold up, it could mean that at least in some ways, polyamory is a more humane way to love....
Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.
Read the whole, much longer article (July 21, 2014).
It's getting a lot of public notice. Sarah in the story says, "This is my first time having so much about myself shared online, and I'm feeling exposed.... some of the comments are pretty fierce, and if folks are willing to comment, I would be grateful. The biggest bugaboo seems to be the age spread among Michael, Jonica, and me, and what it must certainly mean about why we are in this relationships configuration."
In fact, as I noticed during those ten days with them and 80 others, their age differences mean little when each is a free agent with their own life goals, other interests, and no strings. But many readers only know the polygamy stereotype.
Diana Adams, the lead character in The Atlantic's last big feature on poly, remarks that this one is "written in a bit of a scattered way, with a tone that poly people are 'the other' and seeming mystified by motivations of poly people." I'd agree.
More from Sarah: "Although there were some factual errors about our lives (apparently we live in a 'tidy duplex'), I'm reasonably OK with how I was portrayed and quoted, especially on working with jealousy."
Barry Smiler of BmorePoly (in whose home most of the interviews took place) says of the story, "While the writer definitely got some things wrong, from a big-picture perspective I think she did an okay job. It's great to see mainstream reporting on polyamory that's fact-based and not sensationalistic. As Pete Seeger used to sing, 'inch by inch, row by row...' "
A writer for the Time magazine website takes brief note:
The Atlantic argues that polyamorous people handle certain relationship struggles better than monogamous people do. “Bill says watching his wife have sex with another man induces compersion — basking in the joy of a partner’s success.” (I’m pretty happy when my wife gets retweeted.)
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