Sex & Relationships

Three's Company

What the heck is polyamory, and is it a legitimate way to sustain a romantic relationship?
Polyamory is more than just an excellent drag name. It's the state of being openly in love with more than one person, or having more than one love relationship simultaneously. Kind of like polygamy without the marriage part.

Thanks to HBO's new series "Big Love," which features a Utah polygamist with three wives, romantic multitasking is getting viewed with a fresh new eye. Honestly, I think a lot of people are in polyamorous relationships. It's just that one member of the group doesn't know about it yet -- they're called "affairs."

I mentioned this theory to Janet Kira Lessin, president and CEO of the World Polyamory Association, and she thinks it's just about right. "Our society suffers from pluralistic ignorance. We're doing one thing while professing another," she says."Polyamory is just another offshoot of people who are sick and tired of having to lie."

Janet and her husband, Sasha, a psychotherapist, both do relationship and polyamory counseling and teach tantra in Maui. Married since 1997, Janet says, "[Sasha] and I are primaries," meaning they have priority among whoever else they bring into the relationship. "We dated this other couple for four years and that was just incredible," she says. The other pair had to leave Maui for reasons not related to the relationship. "It was like breaking up," Janet says, a little wistful at the thought. But life goes on. "We have another single fellow that we're starting to date right now."

I've never tried polyamory myself, but have always been curious about it for lots of reasons. Maybe it's because I'm an American, and I think more is better. Second, I've far too often been plagued by this quandary: Do I date the one who is safe, comfortable and good? Or the one who's so hot my jeans catch fire? Polyamory seems like it would eliminate that conundrum.

I'm not entirely joking. Are people really like dinner courses at Joan Crawford's house: You can't have the next one until you're totally finished with the first?

"People in monogamous relationships are sometimes afraid to share their thoughts," Janet says. Been there. But if we tried, would the world really end? Or could we come to terms with other attractions and affections so they woudn't have to mean the end of a good thing, the foregoing of an also-good thing or a potential deception?

Never having tried polyamory, I don't know if I could handle it or not. "You [need] to have a willingness to look at jealousy and see what it really is," says Janet, who was in two traditional marriages (the first ended in abuse) before trying polyamory in 1991. "Are you feeling envy? Are you feeling abandoned? What is jealousy for you?"

"Yes, I have experienced being jealous in this lifestyle," she says, but she has a community where she can talk about it. Another thing about polyamory is that typical relationship processes are accelerated. "If you have baggage, you're going to have it shown to you by more than one person," she says. You "get busted on your shit" more quickly.

I admire Janet's guts for trying it. At the moment, for me to worry about handling multiple partners would be like practicing my Oscar speech because I got on the 7-11 store cam. Since I don't have one steady partner, wondering about two seems a little premature.

But it's an interesting thought -- especially now, when traditional marriage seems to be going through a bit of an identity crisis. You have gay couples wanting to get married, and you know they're going to do it better than straight people (please see couture, design, dinner parties, manners and every other civilizing element of society).

Then there's the divorce rate -- which, according to Erika Lawrence, director of the UI Center for Marital and Family Studies, "has remained stable at 40 percent over the last 10 to 15 years" for first marriages, while it "hovers around 66 percent" for second and third timers. If cars didn't work 40 percent to 66 percent of the time, people would start hang-gliding to work.

So it seem less surprising that people might be looking for a new way to couple (or triple or quadruple). I don't know if America is ready for polyamory, but as Janet points out, people used to smoke everywhere, and now nobody does. There's lag time for things to change, but change they do.

And she seems pretty happy. "I did something right in my life to come to this place," she says. "My life has been magical."
Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.