What is love if it is not a kind of curiosity?
The only abnormality is the incapacity to love.
- Anas Nin
Phil and his wife Katie live in a cozy, blue, two-story colonial in a newer subdivision on Madison's west side. There's a wreath on the front door, a Dodge minivan in the drive and kids' snow boots on the stoop--the sheen of mid-America normalcy is everywhere, right down to "The Simpsons," which I can faintly see through the sheers as I trudge up the front walk.
Soon after I arrive, Phil's lover, Grace, pulls in the drive, and Phil, who has been nursing a beer by the fire with his wife, calls out, "Hey, honey!" Phil and Katie's two young sons follow suit, turning away from the tube to chirp hellos to their father's girlfriend.
Phil, Katie and Grace (not their real names) are open about their unusual setup; they asked to remain anonymous for this article out of respect for their extended families, many of whom live and-okay, the real reason-attend church in town. But they're straightforward about being part of a pioneering sexual subset, three of about 50 members of a local group called WiPolyOut, a social outlet and support network for area polyamorists.
Don't call them swingers. And don't attend one of their monthly open meetings to flirt or find that hot bi babe to fulfill your fantasies. They will want no part of you. WiPolyOut is not a matchmaking service for the randy curiosity-seeker nor a hook-up club for its members, unless people "accidentally" fall in love.
They do like sex, oh yes, talking about it, joking about it-and they do have open sex lives, but what distinguishes them from swingers is that they espouse multiple relationships, not key parties or random sex.
As WiPolyOut founder Chris Bzdawka puts it, polyamory is a "lovestyle that encompasses more than one sexual-loving relationship at a time." Bzdawka ("it rhymes with pissed-offka") says, "The group tends to be eggheads." After a pause, she adds, "and techies."
IT'S A GROUP THING
"It's not all wine and orgasms," Katie tells me, when I first meet her at WiPolyOut's open discussion meeting, held monthly at OutReach, Madison's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender center in the Gateway Mall. Katie hands me a nametag with a parrot on it, the group's tongue-in-cheek insignia. (Think: "Polly wanna cracker?")
On the surrounding couches, about 20 people crowd the room, most of them WiPolyOut members. Tonight's topic is child raising. About half the group consists of poly parents interested in sharing their experiences; the others are younger polys, many of whom want children in the future.
It's an eclectic bunch, to be sure-lots of graying ponytails, a few tattoos, a spiked collar-but there are also people like Katie, a soccer mom who juggles four kids, a clerical job and the challenges of an open marriage.
Katie didn't even know the word "poly" existed when she first fell in love with a man at her church, partway through her marriage. She and hubby Phil had experimented with an open marriage in the '80s, but it hadn't worked. "It was just casual sex back then," she says.
Once they decided to have kids, they closed the marriage back up, but they both felt like something was missing. "We just weren't sure what it was," says Phil. When Katie realized she was in love with another man, she confided in Phil, who agreed she should act on her interest. Although the relationship was short-lived (the man moved away), it solidified something Katie and Phil had been thinking all along: They believed in consensual non-monogamy.
Then Grace came along, Phil's partner of two years. Phil met her at a potluck, shortly after reading about the WiPoly group in Ursula Understands, a column that runs in The Capital Times. It was the first time he had heard the word "poly," and it immediately clicked. "I've been hardwired poly ever since I could remember," he says. "I was the guy in high school who wanted to date two or three people at a time and couldn't figure out why nobody was into it."
Phil left the column lying on the counter for his wife to read. He remembers Katie running up to him, excitedly. "Have you read this? That's it," she said. "That's me."
THREE IS COMPANY
So here's how it works: Several times a week, Phil sleeps over at Grace's house; on the other nights, he sleeps at home. And sometimes Grace stays over at Katie and Phil's house. Grace, who jokes about her familial role as the "Auntie Grace Action Figure," hangs out with the kids, joins them for supper, takes them to movies, but she's not anything more than pals with Phil's wife. No threesomes for them.
It's not a flawless system, but it works as long as they communicate, stave off jealousy and deal with the complications of two women sharing one man.
When I go to Katie and Phil's for dinner, Phil cooks while Katie and Grace sit on the carpet before the fire, talking to me. Katie, 39, is analytical and sharp, evidenced by intent blue eyes behind her round glasses. Like the color scheme of her neat house, she wears plaids, baby blues. She has a territorial side that shows itself in child rearing, but she's also amazingly freethinking about the benefits of opening her marriage. She seems to genuinely appreciate Grace's contributions to her family, namely a love of camping and canoeing. The three have taken a number of trips down the Kickapoo River together, along with the children.
Grace is 41, with long, dark hair, an easy laugh and a pleasant earnestness. At one time, there was talk of her moving in with the family, of co-parenting, even of Grace and Phil forming a kind of marriage. But a recent rift between her and Katie has nixed that. "We have different ideas about raising kids," Katie says. "We have different values, I think," Grace offers. There is an awkward silence.
At the dinner table, Phil sits between his wife and his girlfriend, across from the kids. He's a bus driver with an effusive personality and a stubbly goatee. During the course of conversation, he'll reach over and sweep a strand of hair behind Grace's ear or nuzzle his wife Katie after a joke. Their 9- and 11-year old boys babble cheerily about school. Their 17-year-old daughter Vionna comes home from work partway through the meal and pulls up a chair. She darts up to her room at one point and brings down a present for Grace, a pretty glass vial of perfume. Between all parties, there's a natural and easy vibe.
"It kind of upsets me when my mom has a date on Friday night and not me," ribs Vionna, when I ask her how she feels about polyamory. Then she grows matter-of-fact: "I figure if they can love more than one child, why shouldn't they love more than one partner?"
Vionna, who displays a good deal of maturity, speaks candidly about the impact of her parents' open marriage. On the one hand, she's seen her parents grow "in really positive ways-they eat more vegetables and they've taken up canoeing." She also enjoys having another adult around the house "who can offer a different opinion." On the other hand, she's been exposed to the woes of their love lives, privy to their frustrations and jealousies.
"It looks really hard," Vionna says. "I don't think I could ever be poly. Not because it's icky, but because it's not the kind of person I am." After a few seconds of rumination, she adds, "I think I'd be really, really jealous."
The J word. It comes up in every poly convo, has at least a chapter dedicated to it in every poly reference book, from The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt (considered by many to be the de facto poly bible) to Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, by Dr. Deborah Anapol.
"I don't think you get rid of it, I think you learn to deal with it," Phil says. "We've all felt jealousy at different times. The key is being specific about the kind of jealousy, to define exactly what you're jealous of."
Katie says, "Sometimes I'll realize what I'm feeling isn't jealousy; it's envy, because when Phil and Grace hang out together, they don't have the constraints of children and bills."
Grace describes her jealousy in different terms. She raised two kids alone, worked multiple jobs, struggled with putting her two boys in nonstop daycare and with not having a partner. Even though she's an empty-nester now, she says, "I'm jealous of Phil and Katie's nice home, their togetherness as parents." She also grouses about being "a professional third wheel."
Several times a month, Katie, Phil and Grace set aside time to air their grievances. Often, they'll meet for brunch on Sunday, and usually there's an agenda.
"Last week I had to ask Katie if it squicks her out when I leave hickeys on Phil's neck," Grace laughs. Last week, Katie says she worked through the loneliness she was feeling on Saturdays.
Though they function more or less as family, there's constant renegotiating, and achieving a sense of trust and balance among all three takes work.
Even Phil, who wakes up most mornings feeling "pretty lucky," finds the arrangement challenging. Besides being a father to the kids, he essentially has two "wives" to consult about everything. And while it's relatively easy for Katie and Grace to be amenable to his changing schedule now, if they find additional partners, who's to say? They'll probably have to set up a spreadsheet.
"Run while you still have legs," Grace leans over to tell me. "This is really hard."
NEW SEXUAL ETHICS
While many people practice sequential monogamy-Liz Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor top the list in terms of public displays of this - it's harder to gauge exactly how many people are practicing polyamory. Not so among other mammals. The ideal ostrich family is reputedly two females and one male. Gorillas have been noted to enact threesomes and so have cats. But most humans still prefer the security of routine monogamy, and when they practice sexual freedom, they do so sneakily.
Anapol, the author of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, claims our culture is desperately in need of new sexual ethics. "We need a middle ground between the free love/do your own thing doctrine of the sexual revolution and outmoded lifelong monogamy." For those who maintain traditional values, Anapol offers the following: "Statistics for married men and women reporting extramarital affairs range from 30% to 70% for men and from 29% to 50% for women." These proportions, she reports, increase over time.
Anapol asserts that most of us are polyamorist at heart. The proliferation of the marriage-divorce-remarriage cycle can be viewed, she says, as an example of how we are moving closer to who we really are. To that, she says, "When infidelity or the desire for broader sexual expression is the primary cause for the dissolution of marriage, surely we can find more imaginative alternatives than divorce."
Polyamory, which is derived from the Greek and Latin roots meaning "many loves," was first proposed by Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, who founded the Church of All Worlds in the early '60s. Today they are part of a famous nest of polys, all of whom go by the last name of Ravenheart. They occupy a compound of sorts just outside San Francisco.
According to the Church of All Worlds, the Ravenhearts can marry additional partners, of either sex, via a pagan ritual known as "hand fasting."
What draws people to this lovestyle? Among the local poly group, some are clearly byproducts of the '70s zeitgeist, a time when the landmark book Open Marriage, by Nena and George O'Neill, caused many to embrace a new wave of coupling, tripling, quadrupling. Others are sons and daughters of poly families: One woman, raised in a local poly compound of sorts, now lives and runs a company with her two husbands. But there are also a number of seekers, like a young couple I met in their 20s, who came to polyamory as an alternative to the broken marriages they saw replicating around them.
A love of science fiction is often a common bond among polys. The WiPolyOut Web site has a reading list, which includes such poly tomes as Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Marge Piercey's Woman on the Edge of Time and Robert H. Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment.
What all polys agree on is honesty. They denounce cheating and maintain strict policies about consensual open relationships. "We get a lot of inquiries from people who claim they're poly but that their spouse isn't," Bzdawka says. "If your partner isn't poly, you're not poly. Being poly means everybody says 'yeah.'"
A LOVESTYLE FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Having an Internet presence has certainly connected the poly community; thousands post at a national site called alt.polamory, and Loving More, the 16-year-old mag for polys, is going strong.
Yet gaining numbers and garnering publicity has also had negative effects. After outing herself as poly on an MTV segment called Sex in the '90s: It's a Group Thing, April Divilbiss lost custody of her child for appearing with her two husbands.
Instances like these have sent shock waves through the poly community. At the recent open meeting in Madison, parents exchanged differing views on how much to protect their families. One woman, who identifies herself as poly and pagan, says a main reason she home-schooled her kids was to shield them from inquiry. Another father fears mixed messages. "One minute we're open with our kids, the next minute we're telling them not to talk about it in public."
Someone else makes the point, "Every family has an inside face and an outside face." If kids aren't told that their parents are poly, won't they risk more confusion?
Katie, Phil and Grace make no attempts to hide their lives. They'll kiss in the driveway. They'll spend Christmas together with the relatives. They're open with their kids about dating, break-ups. With today's high divorce rates, Katie feels that a majority of children are exposed to multiple parents anyway. She and Grace routinely attend her son's soccer games together, and while some parents have regarded them with shocked stares, she maintains a don't-care attitude.
"Our kids have seen us introduce a new person into our relationship, without going through a divorce," she says, giving emphasis to the last phrase.
"It's odd," says Grace. "People can deal with a break-up, but it's like they can't deal with people staying together if they do it this way." She makes the point that in a monogamous divorce, a kid loses half; if a triad breaks up, the kid may only lose a third.
When I ask them where they see themselves in five years, they all say, "together."
Around the dinner table, Grace, Phil and Katie sit contentedly holding hands, a fire blazing in the background. Even as they exchange pecks on the cheek when Phil clears the supper dishes, nothing seems out of place. Everything about them suggests intentional living, commitment-from their safe-sex pact, to family vacations, to the house they dream of in the future. Yep, it's a duplex.
WiPolyOut was formed in 1997 to bring together polyamorists in the Dane County area. Within their network, members offer an open group, which meets monthly to discuss topics and answer questions from visitors, and a closed group, which provides more of a social outlet for regular members. The operation is closely monitored by a "gatekeeper," who fields inquiries (mostly via the Internet at www.hello.to/wipoly) and keeps an eye out for red flags, like folks scoping to hook up.
Says WiPolyOut founder Chris Bzdawka, "We don't judge how other people do polyamory, but we do ask, 'Is this someone who is right for our poly group?'" She notes the diversity of the members, from heteros to transsexuals, from pagans to Christians, to several singles who appreciate the poly philosophy for its lack of proprietary leanings.
A kinder, more forthright group is hardly imaginable. They're social folk, and they enjoy a good deal of banter. When I met several for coffee one day, they were swapping recipes for eggnog, invoking Martha Stewart. One came in waving Engels, dubbing himself the "poly intelligentsia." Another joked about how the invention of the four-slot toaster has saved numerous poly relationships.
Their support for one another charmed me, and their level of honesty was a surprise. One young poly, a new husband, explained how he grew up watching his father cheat on his mother. "My dad would tell her he was going to go sleep on the boat. That was his code," he said. "I didn't want to end up acting like him."
Now he and his wife, who was also in attendance, are openly poly. In many ways it's easier for them than it is for people who are trying to open themselves to polyamory later in life, especially if they've been in a monogamous relationship.
"Polyamory is not something to save your marriage from divorce," Bzdawka says. "People who get divorced don't always have good communication skills. Polyamory requires you to be extremely communicative...to the point that you should probably be muzzled from time to time."
The group erupts in laughter. But what Bzdawka says seems to point to the heart of what polyamory is all about, namely respecting the people you love and being completely honest with yourself. In essence, the rules that make a successful open marriage work are the same rules that make a successful closed marriage work. As long as everyone's of one mind, does it matter who's zooming who?
For more information about WiPolyOut, call 260-8667 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.