We're moving from Stage 2 to Stage 3 polyamory. An example in an upscale city mag.
At last week's Rocky Mountain Poly Living conference in Denver, Leanna Wolfe — a poly anthropologist and sexologist active in the movement almost since its birth in the 1980s — spoke on what she called the three historical stages of polyamory in Western culture.
Her Stage 1 was mostly male-centric (my paraphrase). She described it as running through the Oneida Colony and other utopian communities of the 19th century through the free-love beliefs and attitudes that exploded in the 1960s.
Stage 2 has been what we call the modern poly movement: strongly feminist in its origins and growth, born in the mid-1980s and running until more or less now. Its founders, organizers, media spokespeople, bloggers, podcasters, book authors and opinion leaders have been mostly women (the ratio by my count is about 3 to 1). Its ideology has been gender-egalitarian, communication-centric, and consent-based since before consent culture was a thing. Like Stage 1, Stage 2 has been something of a counterculture that sees itself apart from mainstream society.
|The May 2019 issue|
Stage 3 typically involves mainstream couples who have little or no experience in questioning dominant paradigms. They consider opening their marriages for any number of reasons, with dreams of a new society not on the front burner. Couples in this position are primed to walk straight into the traps of couple privilege/ unicorning, and to bring along lots of unexamined cultural baggage from monogamism.
This is why I thought that More Than Two, published in 2014, was exactly the book needed for this era. It pounds relentlessly on avoiding the mindsets and assumptions that trip up so many of the Stage 3 types we're seeing now. That angers some of the book's readers, which says to me it's on target.
This morning, Chicago Magazine — the glossy, upscale city mag of the town and its burbs — posted a long self-portrait of a would-be Stage 3-er, a moderately bigtime book author, considering joining the poly world. The article is also in the magazine's May 2019 print issue. Excerpts:
Married With Benefits
Author Kim Brooks takes a very personal journey into Chicago’s burgeoning world of consensual nonmonogamy.
Chicago mag / Martha Williams
My date with David began the way most first dates do, except for the fact that I brought flowers for his wife. I knew Kate wouldn’t be there. She was gone for the weekend, attending an out-of-state polyamory conference with her boyfriend. David and Kate live in a single-family home they renovated in Pilsen. As David showed me around, he mentioned that the small carriage house out back was one of the features that had attracted them to the property. He told me Kate liked to joke that eventually they could have one of their other partners move in. It was the perfect setup: a shared space, shared lives, a feeling of community and connection. Separate but close.
I’d had coffee with Kate a few weeks before, and she’d expressed a similar sentiment. “My parents are married, they stayed married, but they hated each other,” she’d told me. “They didn’t want to spend time with us. I didn’t get along with my brother and sister. So I had a family, but I felt so alone. I always envied the families where they had cousins and aunts and uncles over all the time, a whole tribe of people.” Polyamory — the practice of having multiple sexual partners where all involved are willing participants — seemed to offer what she’d long felt was missing from traditional family structures.
Author Kim Brooks
David found a vase for the flowers and told me Kate would appreciate them. “She loves that sort of thing,” he said. He made us margaritas, and we talked for a while, though not too loudly because David and Kate’s 18-month-old son was asleep in the nursery. ...
David and I had met several times for coffee and once for lunch. Our conversations had been warm and friendly. Now, though, I was nervous and a little nauseous. The house felt like another woman’s home. True, she knew I was there, but that didn’t assuage my sense of discombobulation. What was I doing? I had my own home with my own family. I had my husband of 15 years, and there was also the man I’d been dating for several months since my husband and I had opened our marriage. I was in love with that other man, but he was out on a date with another woman he’d been seeing. My husband was also dating other women. ... I tried to focus on David and enjoy my drink, but I kept thinking of these other men in my life, wondering what they were doing. I felt insecure, jealous, panicky.
A year or so earlier, I hadn’t really known about consensual nonmonogamists — as practitioners of polyamory are often called — much less that (as I’d soon learn) a whole community of them in Chicago organizes monthly meetings, social outings, and support groups. When I read an essay five years ago on Salon about a woman who lived with her husband and her boyfriend, I’d thought why. Also, how. ...
If I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment, and tried to forget everything I’d learned about relationships in the past 39 years — as a daughter and a wife and, most recently, an author writing about marriage and parenting — and let go of every rule and every assumption about what love and dating are supposed to look like, then there was nothing unusual at all about what I was seeing and doing. Perhaps it would be easier with another margarita. ...
She interviews Sophie Lucido Johnson, the "Chicago artist and polyamorist who recently published Many Love, an illustrated book about her experiences practicing poly."
Johnson told me over coffee that for her, polyamory means treating her friends more like lovers and her lovers more like friends. “Which is not to say I have sex with my friends! I don’t. But my friendships are as important to me as my other relationships.”
She emphasized that embracing polyamory was not just an affirmation of a different lifestyle but also a negation of the kinds of relationships she didn’t want. ...
In some ways, that was how I became interested in polyamory, too. In the years leading up to opening our marriage — a decision we’d arrived at without any clear road map, much less the support of a whole community of like-minded people — my husband and I had been trying everything we could think of to make our marriage work. ...
... I’ve since wondered how unhappy we could have been if we were soaking in a tub together, holding each other’s wrinkled feet. Or maybe more to the point: What was the nature of this unhappiness? I couldn’t quite name it, but many of the poly people I spoke to could.
Take Eric, for example, a north suburban high school teacher whose friends call him the Mayor of Poly Town for his uncanny ability to draw people into the fold. He told me how before he went to his first poly support group meeting, he assumed there was something wrong with him: “I’d always felt like such a freak, like I was just doing relationships wrong.”
...The idea of monogamy had always felt impossible to [Eric], but he assumed this was a thing about him he had to hide. He had no vocabulary for what he felt — this longing to have different types of relationships with different types of partners, this suspicion that no single relationship was ever going to meet all his needs. He had cheated because it never occurred to him that there was any alternative, a community of sex-positive people who eschewed monogamy but still maintained open, honest, and meaningful relationships.
I'm glad to see her emphasizing the importance of poly community. Your own friends and lovers are fine, but if there's one thing I urge people new to this, it's "connect with the poly community." You need community.
It was a few months after this conversation that he discovered the Chicago Polyamory Meetup, a group with more than 3,000 members that hosts a monthly cocktail party, a “newbie” support group, karaoke hours, and other social and educational events. “Suddenly I was in a room full of people who were describing that they had experienced the world in a way I always had.” More important, he said, was that they weren’t lying or hiding this part of themselves. They were talking, negotiating, writing their own scripts. “It was just revelatory,” he told me. “I didn’t feel alone.”
The cocktail parties, held at the Lake View bar Matilda, attract a mix of newcomers and longtime members, who wear glow bracelets to stand out to those who might have questions. On many of the tables, organizers place laminated placards detailing rules of etiquette. The guidelines emphasize consent (“Please be sure to ask and wait for a yes before hugging or initiating any physical contact”) and communication (“Get to know your fellow attendees by asking respectful questions and listening carefully”). One attendee told me the rules are a response to some problems the group encountered early on, namely that “people think polyamory means easy sex.”
The answer to nearly all of the questions or problems raised was communication. “There’s a saying in polyamory,” one of the mentoring attendees said, “that if you’re not talking too much, you’re probably not talking enough.” With open communication, so the poly philosophy holds, jealousies can be worked through, insecurities overcome, needs and wants negotiated, boundaries established and respected. A support group regular named Stephanie told me that polyamory had taught her how important direct communication is: “It’s about owning your own shit instead of expecting people to guess what you’re feeling.”
And this too:
One point that emerged repeatedly was that most people blindly follow societal norms. A healthy relationship, we’re told, is one that progresses in a timely fashion from dating to exclusivity to cohabitation to marriage to kids to retirement to death. “In my marriage,” one woman told me, “I was on autopilot most of the time. In polyamory, there is no autopilot. The rules of each relationship are made from scratch.”
It all sounded freeing to me, but I wondered, Do these people have children? (Many did, I learned.) Do they have bills that need paying and front stoops that need shoveling and groceries that need buying? One of the lessons I’d internalized since starting a family was that time was a scarce commodity. I was surprised and also a little jealous that these polyamorists had the leisure to spend so much energy customizing their relationships. And so at one point in the meeting, I asked the question that had been in the back of my mind for months: “Isn’t it all a lot of work?”
“Yes,” a woman across the room answered. “But it’s the work people should be doing in monogamy. It’s the work of building healthy relationships.” ...
The article winds up with her own angsty journey.
Ideologically, at least, I was on board. And yet that night in Pilsen with David, I’d found myself struggling not to cry into my taco. I felt like an impostor in someone else’s home and couldn’t stop asking myself, How did I get here?
...One polyamorous friend suggested that the only antidote was seeing other people [than David]. Polyamory wasn’t just about replacing one all-consuming relationship with another, she said. It was vaster and lighter than that. ...
...Over the course of the next year, as I began exploring the poly community more purposefully, he and I texted and sometimes sexted halfheartedly, starting and stalling but never gaining momentum. ... Was I a polyamorous anarchist trapped in an unsatisfying monogamous arrangement? Or was I a bored and bitter housewife, sexually frustrated and emotionally disconnected from her husband? ... Despite all David’s wonderful qualities and all the work he’d done to practice nonmonogamy with her, he still didn’t do his own laundry. If I started dating David, would I one day find myself sorting his socks? Who would sort mine and my children’s while I was dating him? Like so many women my age or older, I’d been socialized to believe that part of what made men love women was the caretaking and the labor they performed — domestic labor, emotional labor, invisible labor. Could polyamory cure such deeply internalized ideas? My own experience suggested not: A few weeks earlier, I’d already started making soup for my lover. I phoned a girlfriend as I stirred tomatoes in a stockpot.
“You’re not supposed to make your lover soup, Kim. You take a lover because you’re tired of making soup, not to make more soup.”
“I know, I know,” I said, stirring. ...
I asked my friend if she thought my dissatisfaction was with marriage or with my own codependency.
“It hardly matters,” she answered. “A codependent is to marriage as an alcoholic is to an all-night bar.” ...
No spoilers about how it ends. See the whole article, all 5,000 words (online April 23, 2019).
"Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, an NPR Best Book of the Year.... Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Magazine, Salon, Buzzfeed, and other publications. She has spoken as a guest on CBS This Morning, PBS Newshour, 20/20, NPR’s All Things Considered, Good Morning America, the Brian Lehr Show, and many other radio shows and podcasts. Her novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016."