Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

September 14, 2016

Seventeen years later, the Esquire Nan Wise story is revisited

The October Elle devotes many pages to two long feature articles on polyamory. One looks at female "thirds" of open couples. It eventually gets around to explaining that this is not always the model, and closes with profiles of two solo polys.

The other article I found arresting. If you were in the East Coast poly scene a decade or more ago, you remember Nan Wise: a fireball of poly activism, a brilliant and passionate presenter at Loving More conferences, a person who swam in relationship tumult. The May 1999 issue of Esquire published an 8,000-word rollercoaster of an article, Scenes from a (Group) Marriage, following Nan, her husband John, their quad, and their friends through gales of joy and drama that made the poly world sound absolutely exhausting. It was a story to scare the timid away forever.

Several years later Nan suddenly vanished from the poly scene. Now the Esquire author, John H. Richardson, re-interviews Nan and John about those times and how it all turned out. Spoiler: They shed the whole megillah, and for the last nine years they've been in a nice, settled, low-drama quad with a new couple, aging pleasantly. Their careers have advanced, and their kids have turned out great.

● First, some excerpts from Elle's unicorn piece:

My Boyfriend's Married, and His Wife's On Board

Open marriage reportedly invigorates some relationships. But what's in it for the women who are so-called secondary partners?

By Whitney Joiner

...Then she moved to San Francisco. There she met a man at a conference who was "super polyamorous," she says. Her new partner's version of "super polyamory" was different from the secretive multiple-partner dating she'd been doing back in New York: this was all out in the open, with lots of discussions about boundaries and agreements; what was okay between them, and what was not. She became his polyamory protégé, and has since had four open relationships.

In her second open relationship, her boyfriend already had a serious girlfriend. Ivy was, for all intents and purposes, the "secondary." ... "It was very clear what the hierarchy was, but he called us both his 'girlfriends,'" she says. The expiration date on this experiment was crucial: "I didn't want to be obsessing every day whether it worked for me, because that's a recipe for unhappiness." At the end of the six months, she'd assess.

The threesome eventually split up — the duo wanted to return to a monogamous arrangement — but she's still close with them both, and she's still nonmonogamous. But she's not out about it. "I'm planning on coming out of the poly closet," she says. "I just haven't yet."

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...The recent media glut notwithstanding, an important voice has gone missing: that of the extracurricular partner, the lover, the girlfriend or boyfriend — people like Ivy. The focus is always on the couple — how their adventures in nonmonogamy fuel their partnership and heighten their sex lives; how they're able to navigate sleeping with others without breaking their sacred union. Maybe Ivy isn't "out of the poly closet" not because she's ashamed or embarrassed to be part of a poly arrangement, but because of her particular position within that arrangement.

In the open-relationship world, there's a term for this: "couple privilege."... While "couple privilege" is a concept meant to be resisted by people trying to ethically navigate nonmonogamy, I also saw it as the larger macro lens through which the media reports on these relationships: always through the eyes of the couple, with a tinge of titillation (ethical cheating, sexy!) as well as anxiety (but what about the dying institution of marriage?). It's an angle that only serves to reaffirm the preeminence of coupledom in American culture, not disrupt it.

So who are the mysterious people these nonmonogamous couples are sleeping with?...

...Most of the women I interviewed — 10 around the country, but mostly in the Bay Area, where it seems like practically everyone is at least a little nonmonogamous — raved about dating polyamorously married men. They were excellent communicators, the women said, because to negotiate the inevitable minefields of nonmonogamy, they had to be. The women attested to feeling loved, adored, cared for: lots of dinners, weekends away, vacations. But they didn't have to play the classic mistress role, either. Since transparency was required — and they were involved, in some way, with the wife or primary partner — they could be out in public as the "girlfriend."

"I loved her like a sister," says Ivy, of her ex-boyfriend's primary girlfriend. "I don't know any woman who isn't occasionally like, God, I just wish someone else would handle my husband tonight. Just make sure he's okay and give him a blow job. I [gave her] that. And I got weeks off, but still got to feel the love of these two people."...


...Ivy and Beth both want children, and they don't think they have to become monogamists to do it. Ivy hopes to raise any kids she has in a communal setting; as for Beth, she says, "I'm actively looking for a partner, a coparent, or a sperm donor. This is my primary goal for the next year."

[Another] flavor of polyamory, dubbed "solo poly," involves multiple partners, including men in open marriages, but no plans to ever move in with someone, or put him or her above all others. "I see myself in the long term having a solid network around me — not just in terms of my romantic relationships but also my friendships," she says. ... Her goal, she says, is to live "off the relationship escalator" — referring to the prevailing model of intimacy that starts with flirting and ascends to legally sanctioned, monogamous marriage.

Wendy Shines
Wendy, a 38-year-old in San Francisco who runs a Facebook group called Support for Solo Living with 234 members, shares Mel's desire to remain a "free agent." (There's another solo poly Facebook group, with 4,600 members.) She's in a long-term open relationship, four years and counting, in which she and her man live separately and see each other once a week, once every two weeks. "It's a very deep relationship," she says. "We're just not doing the other stuff together."

When I called Wendy, she was ready with a list of the reasons she loves her situation. "One: I like my own company," she says. "Two: Not needing anyone's permission or agreement for day-to-day decisions. Avoiding the enmeshment or control sometimes present in relationships. Life stability: When breakups happen, there's less life disruption." She goes on, "You have more personal time to contribute to your community, to interests or hobbies. This is the last one, and really important: With solo poly, I continue to choose my partner, and my partner chooses me," versus being caught on that escalator....

Read the whole article (October 2016 print issue; the online version appeared Sept. 13, 2016).

● Next, the Nan and John Wise followup:

How Does a Polyamorous Marriage Go the Distance?

By John H. Richardson

...Seventeen years ago, I wrote a story for Esquire called "Scenes From a (Group) Marriage." The main characters were John and Nan, a married pair of well-educated professionals living in the suburbs of New Jersey. John was tall and handsome, with an athlete's body and the serene intensity of a military officer. Nan was a sexy Jewish earth mother, welcoming and open-hearted. They had good jobs, happy kids, a nice house, and a Volvo in the driveway. Influenced by an idea called "radical honesty," they admitted that they weren't satisfied by monogamy but also didn't want to end up as ordinary philanderers. Instead, they were going to move a pair of young lovers into their house and try polyamory — which means "many loves," and also "expanded marriage" or "complex marriage." They were going to risk everything for a dream.

My story ended with their new twenty-first-century tribe assembled in their rec room, a recently installed hot tub bubbling away in the backyard. Eventually, however, the original lovers drifted away and were replaced by others. So much drama and pain went down that Nan coined the term polyagony.

...With four decades of marriage behind them, they finally feel so secure in their lives and marriage they're even willing to let me reveal their last names — meet John Wise, Esq., and Nan Wise, PhD, bold explorers in the wilderness of the heart.

John and Nan at their prom in 1975; expecting in 1985; all grown up in 2011. (Elle)

So here we are, old friends, sitting around a patio table piled with healthy snacks from Trader Joe's. Because interviewing John and Nan is always a group experience, I've brought along my wife, Kathy, an artist and graphic designer with a very open mind. The night is balmy, the air is soft, the birds are singing, the bong is circulating. Dense thickets of bamboo make the patio cozy. Nan is laughing about what a long, strange trip it's been. "What the fuck were we thinking?" she says. "That was fucking crazy."

Moving their young lovers into the house, she means. I actually helped move Jen, John's 32-year-old girlfriend, down from Boston in a driving snowstorm. That was in the fall of 1998, three or four years after they'd started their poly experiment. Nan's young lover was named Tom. There was another young guy named Malcolm living in the house, too, though I was never clear about his role.

"I think it bothered the kids at times," Nan says. "At the end of the day, I probably would have chosen to be more protective of my house and not have people live here."

[John] takes a moment to consider. "We were embracing the idea of community as a primary unit," he finally says. "You were no longer a member of a nuclear family, solely; you were a member of a family of choice, a member of a tribe. ...

Did I mention he's a lawyer? His specialty is bankruptcy, which he loves for the opportunity to plunge into chaos and find order.

..So what happened to Tom and Jen? They lasted about 18 months, Nan says, but it wasn't "sustainable" because Tom wanted Nan to himself. Jen never actually moved in, just settled nearby, and moved on around the same time Tom did because she wanted John to herself — the first taste of the polyagony to come.

And how many polyamorants were there altogether?

After Jen, they say, John hooked up with another woman he doesn't want to name. The relationship lasted more than seven years. Nan marked time with a guy named Steve and then a handsome party boy named Julio....

And how did it work, exactly? Did they all do it in the same room?

"Initially we were all together," Nan says, "and gradually we got into going into separate rooms and sometimes separate houses and sometimes separate zip codes."

She laughs. "Wait," she adds. "I remember the most important thing — Julio was a placeholder for me, because I think it was easier for John to get satisfactory relationships."

"Ah, that's very honest," John says.

Neither wants to go into too much detail about all this. I can't tell whether they think it's old news or if they're just afraid to rip off the scabs. Both of them tend to be a bit cerebral anyway, forever drawing lessons from their experiences. Of course, you're going to get "ramped up in spontaneous desire for your new partner," she says. "Sometimes I definitely took my eye off the ball and bankrupted my marriage because of that.… Sometimes it hurt when I saw him taking his attention off me.… You learn not to identify that as love."

Later, when I text Nan a follow-up question about the mystery woman, she gives me another glimpse into her pain. "She ended up being such a disappointment. Traitor and cowgirl. Oh, well."

A moment later, another text arrives bearing what is, for Nan, perhaps the harshest judgment of all: "She was a monogamist."

But these days, she'd really rather discuss all this on a scientific level. "As a cognitive neuroscientist, I've learned that it's like the way the brain reacts to drugs; the newness and unpredictability intensifies emotions and creates a sense of reward. It's like chess on three levels. It's like going to a new country where everything is new. Everything's brighter, louder, bigger. It can be scary."

Then she shrugs it off: "The lows were low; the highs were high."

...Refusing to take the easy answer is poly in itself, John believes, an effort to push for a deeper connection, so he forces himself to meet the challenge — with a hint of an exhausted marathoner rallying himself at the twenty-fifth mile. "I had a hard time saying no to the one not named Nan. And I hurt Nan, I hurt the other one; I should have been more courageous. I should have been a man."

...But here's the good news. In the worst part of this polyagony, a spiritual teacher taught them how to "breathe up" the chaos energy instead of trying to control it. Then Margie the therapist suggested that Nan try breathing the energy into her career for a while, and Nan went to Rutgers to get her PhD with Barry Komisaruk, the first scientist to study the brain during orgasm. ... This week, Nan's finishing up revisions for a paper on brain activity unique to orgasm in women for the field's leading academic publication, The Journal of Sexual Medicine.


Which raises the question: Are the prudes right? Is it a mistake to have sex with other people? Isn't it greedy? Selfish? Isn't your spouse enough for you?

"That's the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard," Nan says. "That's the downfall of marriage, that we expect people to meet all our needs. Take sex off the plate. We don't fuck you and Kathy, but we like to be with you. We can choose the relationship styles we want."

..."If I can talk about us for a minute?" Kathy says.

"Please," John says.

When our daughters were well past 21, she says, she told them that we had "loosened the rules" of our marriage a bit (because Kathy is the secret-garden type and doesn't care to share the details with outsiders, that's as much as I can say). Being honest with the kids "felt so good," she adds. "Nobody should go into a marriage thinking these archaic— "

"The Disney idea of monogamy," Nan says.

"Whereas the expanded marriage is really, if you look at it in a certain way, tremendously romantic."

"It is!" Nan says. "It's a romance that you can stay with the person through all sorts of things."

For many people, this may be the strangest concept of all. But it is the heart of this story. Imagine you confront the Great Forbidden and it turns out to be just another fat little man behind a curtain. All your fears and doubts melt away in a blast of freedom. You and your spouse become partners in crime, collaborating instead of negotiating, glowing with a universal energy that really does seem larger than yourself; Nan calls this blissful state "polyhead."


...So here's the final joke, the last twist of all this screwing — just when Nan and John decided to quit poly forever and become ordinary swingers, saying good-bye to the endless complexities of complex relationships, they met a pair of swingers who'd had their fill of new bodies and were ready for a deeper commitment. Within a year, the four of them were exclusive partners in what you might call a group marriage (Nan prefers to call it "an exclusive relationship") that has lasted for nine years and counting. They spend three nights a week as a foursome, pairing off at bedtime, John with the other wife and Nan with the other husband. According to all reports, their sexual pleasure has only increased with time.

...The whole thing is more ordinary and natural than outsiders could possibly imagine — as John said, a "less perverted way to live."

Have we arrived at a happy ending? ... Nan says they've had to learn to balance the chaos and control energy in their individual selves instead of relying on the other to supply it ("Google imago therapy," she tells me). It does seem significant that both couples are at a later stage in their lives and all of them are about the same age. It also seems safe to say that in the doorway of their lives, John and Nan will always be facing out.

But this much is certain: Their friends and family all approve of the other couple. "They're so stable, it's perfect," one says. "It's a very giving, supportive relationship," says another. One reason they're so accepting is because they all hang out together in that same old rec room, friends and lovers all together in the same tribe, so there's no mystery or fear casting shadows on the wall. That seems significant to me, and that's the lesson I take away. Humanity can't even decide if history is circular or linear, much less judge the inner lives of others. The best answer is to be honest, breathe it up, embrace the chaos, and try to love one another as much as we can. "Fun first," Dr. Wise prescribes. "There's an infinite game we can play."

Read the whole article (October 2016 print issue; the online version appeared Sept. 13, 2016).




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