When two won't do
LOVE IS ALL AROUNDThursday, October 1, 1998
Toronto -- No need to waste it, so a growing number of couples think. They have embraced an alternative to the married-couple-for-life scenario, a style of relationship called 'polyamory,' where primary partners branch out to other partners, but in committed relationships, too. Yes, it's complicated. No, lots of outsiders don't like it, or are at least very puzzled by the idea. But in an age where the traditional idea of marriage is taking it on the chin, polyamory makes some sense. Read on.
THE CHANGING SEXUAL MORES OF OUR TIME
First in an occasional series
Two won't do. That's how Maureen Marovitch felt growing up: Monogamous relationships seemed senselessly limiting. Cutting a partner out of her life because she met someone new struck her as bizarre. The idea of donning a white dress and waltzing down the aisle filled her with horror. "The fairy tale seemed to end there," she explained. "And I thought, Where does it come from, this idea that you must limit yourself to one person, that there is only one person you can share things with for the rest of your life?"
When Two Won't Do is the title of a documentary Marovitch, a 29- year-old Montreal filmmaker, is making with her partner, filmmaker David Finch, 32. The doc explores the alternatives -- illicit affairs, swinging (joint extramarital sexual encounters) and polyamory -- to a traditional monogamous relationship. Polyamory (loving more than one) means maintaining intimate relationships with several people.
The term first came into vogue in the early 1990s, describing relationships that loosely resemble the "open marriage" of the 1960s. Actor Michelle Pfeiffer and her partner, television producer David Kelley, are reported to be polyamorous, both having other long-term relationships. On Kelley's popular TV drama, Ally McBeal, Ally's firm acted for a couple trying to legally add a third person to their marriage. Polyamory has, as its definitive book, a work entitled The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt; a magazine called Loving More, published in Colorado; a bustling Net presence, with dozens of sites; and two annual conferences a year, one in California and one in New York each summer, attended by about 400 people. There is a polyamory support group in Toronto; and another group that meets in an Ottawa restaurant once a month, to hang out with other people who don't gasp when one says things like "my boyfriend's boyfriend."
"There are greater numbers and greater acceptance for polyamory," said Brett Hill, co-editor of Loving More. "It's definitely changed since we started publishing 15 years ago."
And then there's Marovitch and Finch: Seven years ago, in the early months of their relationship, Marovitch started voicing her discomfort with monogamy to Finch. He was, she recalled, "not thrilled." But as she explored the options through books and Internet research, they began a discussion. Along the way, the film was born, and so was the blueprint for a new relationship.
Cheating, they felt, was not for them. They met a lot of people who seemed to really enjoy swinging, but didn't feel that was what they were looking for either. "There was something so calculated about it," Finch said. "It was sex without love or even any closeness."
That left polyamory. When Marovitch first raised the idea of both of them having intimate relationships beyond their "primary partnership" (as it is known in poly terms), Finch "asked all the traditional questions," he says now. "How can you like or love more than one person equally? Where will there be room for me?"
As they work to finish the film (they expect it to premiere on teleivison next fall, but haven't been signed up by a broadcaster yet), Finch is not involved with anyone else, but Marovitch has two other intimate relationships. One of those secondary partners happens to be a friend of Finch's, a common theme in polyamorous relationships; the other is not. They agree that that is problematic. "We're trying to set up ground rules, like if either of us is involved with someone else, we should like the other person," Marovitch explains.
The film has been a much more difficult project than any of their previous work (such as a 1994 TV documentary on street kids called Longshots), because it involved an exploration of their own relationship. More important, while everybody knows somebody who has had an illicit affair, polyamory remains a taboo form of non-monogamy. "Openly admitting to loving two or more people has this air of abnormality, of scandal, about it," says Marovitch.
Poly relationships range from the couple in a long-term union who each see other people casually, to the committed threesome, to the polyfidelitous groups living a "married" life in multi-adult households. Hill said that, often, people start out having individual relationships, and then meet people they want to include in their lives, then move to a triad or even a five-person (two women and three men) relationship like his
Believers say polyamory is a great way to get more love, more support, and more romance into your life. "I was looking for Mr. Perfect," said Stefani Whelan, a 35- year-old Ottawa software developer who is five years into a polyamorous relationship involving several men. "And then I figured out that a person I'm involved with doesn't have to be everything because he's not the only one in my life. I can love two people and that's okay."
There are problems, of course. The social taboo looms large. Without exception, the more than one dozen people interviewed for this story expressed concern for what their mother would think when she read it.
Then there is the small matter of jealousy. Some people who choose this lifestyle seem to have been born without the green gene. Whelan says it never bothers her when her primary partner gets involved with others. "I like his taste in women," she says. Others have to learn to quell jealous feelings. "I had to realize that it doesn't change how Maureen feels about me," says Finch. "And we had to deal with my feeling of being left out."
And what about this having-your- cake-and-eating-it-too argument? Well, this isn't about bringing every adolescent boy's threesome fantasy to life. It is, as Finch says, a whole lot of work."There is an exponential increase in the work required when you involve more than one person in your relationship." The pair interviewed a Playboy reporter sent to cover a polyamory conference in New York three weeks ago. The journalist had said, " 'cheating is so much easier, you just sneak off with your secretary; this is so much work, you gotta negotiate and keep everybody happy,' " recalls Finch.
Elinor Crosby understands that reaction. Crosby, a 25-year-old Halifax secretary, has a primary partner and a number of secondary relationships. "It's a lot of stress, trying to keep two relationships going at the same time," she says. "One is hard enough."
Not everyone feels that way: Leanne Cusitar, a Toronto AIDS educator who spent considerable time in a triad, recalls it as the "easiest" relationship of her life, perhaps because there were three people to share both the love and the emotional work.
The key to making it work, polyamours agree, is rules. Everyone's policies are different, but you have to have them. Crosby's are that everyone is careful, because of fear of sexually transmitted diseases, and that everyone tells the truth, all the time. "The whole thing takes a lot of honesty," she says. "You have to be up front about everything or it won't work at all. You can't feel you have to hide something." Other poly policies dictate things like "no bringing someone home to our house," or "Saturday night is our time."
The payoff? "Our relationship is better, closer," Marovitch says (then she pauses, to check if Finch agrees. He nods vigorously). "It's easier to love someone who accepts you as you are, and it's easier to accept yourself."
Even child-raising is better when you're poly, the proponents say. Finch and Marovitch spent a week living with a four-adult, one-baby family in California, and found the arrangement made terrific sense. "They have three incomes, and lots of people to share child care, and tons of love in the house," says Marovitch. In a society where the divorce rate is close to 50 per cent, Finch says, polyamory may be a solution for people who need alternatives for sustaining their relationship, instead of just walking away.
As for Marovitch and Finch, they are glad and grateful to have weathered the making of the film, and the introduction of this scary idea to their relationship. "Polyamory isn't for everybody, but it's the best fit for us," he says. And Marovitch laughs a quiet, happy laugh -- a woman who has read past the end of the fairy tale.
Polyamory:Loving more than one; to be sexually and/or emotionally involved with more than one person with the knowledge and consent of all those involved.
Polyfidelity: Relationships involving more than two people who have made a commitment to restrict sexual activity to within their group and not have outside partners; often, a communal family raising children together.
Primary:In a hierarchical, multiperson relationship, the primary partner is the one to whom one is most strongly bonded, often through legal marriage.
Secondary:The person or people with whom one is involved without the emotional, legal or economic commitments of primary bonding.
Non-hierarchical polyamory:Multiperson relationship where all have equal ties to the other.
Triad:"Marriage" of three people with equal commitments to each other.
Vee:Three people in a relationship, where the "pivot point" partner is strongly involved with the other two, and they less so with each other.
Monosexual: Relating only to one gender as potential or actual sexual and/or romantic partners (rather than bisexual).
Polyamorous couples often employ some of the following rules to manage their relationship:
Tell me about it: Members must tell each other about any outside involvement, usually before it happens . . . or . . .
Don't tell me about it: Involvement outside the relationship is accepted, but the partner(s) don't want to hear about it.
The veto: Members have prior and continuing approval of any involvement outside the relationship.
Limits on partner choices: Colleagues, strangers, close friends, neighbours.
Only together: Sexual or romantic involvement outside the relationship occurs only if everyone participates.
Everybody works together: When one member of a couple is pursuing an outside relationship, the remaining partner needs to be taken into account so as not to be neglected.
Time to reconnect: Primary partners set specific time for talking when they have been with other people.
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