MY OLD FRIEND, whose name isn’t really Amy, had never even heard the word “polyamory” until her husband of 15 years brought it up one night, between dessert and indigestion.
“I love you, I love you, so completely,” the man not named Josh began, then protested too much for several more minutes. (“I should have known another shoe was about to drop,” she told me glumly a day later.) “So what I want to talk about is not a commentary on my satisfaction with us,” he continued. “I love us. It’s that I’ve recently learned about this practice called polyamory and I’m wondering if we might…you know, as a couple…think about…considering it.”
As she sat piecing together Greek and Latin roots—many? loves?—he elaborated, with all the enthusiasm of a toddler clutching a shiny trinket. Not superficial swinging, nor Big Love–style polygyny, he explained, polyamory is the umbrella term for the practice of loving more than one person at a time. He wanted her to consider the kind that would free each of them to openly pursue romantic interests in addition to the primary one at home.
“So…cheating,” Amy summarized crisply, her strawberry pound cake thudding to the bottom of her gut.
“No!” Josh corrected. “That’s just it! It’s openly loving more than one person, within a context of honest disclosure and loving agreement. It’s actually the opposite of cheating.”
“Hmm,” I mused over coffee with her the next morning. “I guess I thought fidelity was the opposite of cheating.” She smiled weakly and I took her hand. “Josh is a good man, Ames. The only guy in the world who would ask his wife’s permission to play around. He loves you to the point of adoration, you know he does.”
Gratitude shone from her weary eyes. “I know he does. The irony is, this ‘open love’ thing appeals to him precisely because of the qualities I love best about him.”
I knew what she meant. I’ve known Amy through the long chain of cads we all dated before we were surprised by fine men, and Josh is among the finest. Kind, smart, and grounded, he is made of a nonjudgmental spirit, a large heart for people, and an integrity so genuine he would never submit blindly to any convention for its own sake. Josh is a flower child, born 10 years too late.
So it makes sense that when he heard about polyamory—from a friend who turned out to be a practitioner—it stirred something deep in him. Deeper, he insisted to his wife, than mere sexual variety—though to the woman who knows him best he wouldn’t deny the attraction of that. Deeper, he explained, than the rigid mind sets about monogamy and romantic possession we accepted wholesale from the era before the sexual revolution changed everything. “If ours is the generation willing to validate gay marriage—to redefine marriage away from gender!—can we really continue to insist that it requires a specific number?” he asked Amy. “Ours is the generation that has finally named the one defining characteristic of marriage: consensual love.”
But Josh isn’t asking a generation to consider opening its marriage. He is asking his wife to do it—a flesh and blood woman who feels a pang if he gets too animated with the grocery clerk.
“To be honest, I don’t know how I’d feel knowing you were with another guy either,” Josh confessed. “It’s why I’m asking us to consider polyamory…not sign up today.” He’d been researching it for awhile—long enough to learn that academics and practitioners both count Seattle second only to San Francisco in its number of practicing polyamorists—and much of what he learned resonated with his own philosophy of love.
The basic idea of this practice (the word surfaced in 1990, but the concept is ageless) is that love is too pure to be defined in terms of possession—which turns one’s beloved into a commodity—and too limitless to be contained within a single relationship. “Why do we always assume that taking new lovers will leave us loving our original lover less?” Josh asked Amy at one point, frustrated. “We never assume that will happen when we have more than one child—and, you know what, it never does!” Monogamy, he went on, prizes fidelity—but then defines fidelity as “sexual exclusivity” instead of “trust and honesty.” Indeed, polyamorists work overtime in the full disclosure department.
The basic idea of polyamory is that love is too limitless to be contained within a single relationship.
“It’s all so high-minded,” she sighed, swigging her coffee. “So dripping with integrity.” And, I thought with a stab—so ingrained. By a bizarre coincidence I had just finished reading Anatomy of Love by the anthropologist Helen Fisher, a rollicking natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce, primordial ooze to the present. She argues that pair-bonding has forever been characteristic of the human animal, with marriage—the two-person kind—a universal across cultures. Over 90 percent of Americans marry. But what predictably flourishes alongside the monogamy, and always has? Infidelity.
With those two absolutes of human behavior rippling in parallel streams down the ages, maybe polyamory is some sort of enlightened modern synthesis…? I looked into Amy’s welling eyes.
Or maybe not.
“I just don’t think I’m wired for it,” she murmured. “And the thing is—I’d like to be. I know Josh loves me. I love him. Because this means something to him I’d like to be able to at least try it. But I think the jealousy could destroy us.”
Josh had researched the jealousy issue—turns out a disproportionate portion of the polyamory oeuvre is devoted to the topic—and learned that most polyamorists spend a great deal of their energy managing the green-eyed monster. They use strategies for learning to relax within the feeling, and plumb their psyches to unearth the root causes of their jealousy. They even work, from their position as third wheel, at being happy for the happy couple. “There’s this word, ‘compersion,’ ” Amy told me miserably. “Polyamorists made it up to describe the empathetic, selfless feeling of joy one has knowing one’s beloved is enjoying love with someone else.”
“All righty then!” I said, trying for perky. “Whole lotta new words in this game!”
And suddenly I was back in high school humanities class, learning for the first time about the philosophical underpinnings of the political theory called Communism. I’ll never forget running in the door from school that night and telling Mom and Dad all about this life-changing philosophy I’d learned. Pure classlessness, the foundation of the good society. It made so much sense! It felt so just!
“So great in theory,” Dad said. “And so seriously incompatible with the human heart.”
I smiled at Amy, and felt tired for her. Because I’m sure some small percentage of humans genuinely is polyamorist; women and men who, unlike Amy, really are wired that way. All she needs to do now, God help her, is figure out if Josh is one of them.
Or if he’s just, well…a guy.