Polyamory isn’t always sexy

Just yesterday, my live-in girlfriend and I went to a barbecue. My two teenage kids from a previous marriage came with us. We brought ingredients for s’mores.

The barbecue was at the home of my other partner. We were celebrating her husband’s birthday. Their young daughter was playing in the backyard when we arrived, but she came up and gave us all hugs and kisses — especially my son, who babysits her from time to time. My live-in girlfriend’s boyfriend was already there with the dessert he’d brought so we said hello to him, and then my other partner’s husband’s second partner showed up with a bag full of beer to share.

We spent a lovely evening roasting hot dogs by the fire pit in the back yard, cooking s’mores in the oven when it started to rain outside, and goofing around with the various pets indoors.

Notice the lack of wild sex.

In case it’s not clear, I’m polyamorous. I am much happier in multiple, simultaneous love relationships than I ever was in a monogamous dyad. There’s no one way to “do” polyamory, but it’s distinguished from other open relationship models in that polyamorous folks tend to encourage the loving part of relationships, not just the sex.

Some people prefer a relationship dynamic that looks like a more typical marriage, with secondary or side-partners. Other people join multi-person family groups; some remain faithful to their group, while others date outside the group. Still other poly people remain steadfastly un-partnered, and prefer to connect with their partners on a one-to-one basis.

My poly family, or polycule (like “molecule”), is a dynamic group of people that meets regularly each month for a big dinner. Two of the group are married to each other, the rest are single or divorced. Some live together, some don’t. We have love relationships within the group as well as platonic friendships. There are some complicated connections and there are some fairly simple ones — all of us encourage and nurture each other as a family does.

Some people might think we’re all about sex parties, that we’re all hedonists or swingers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or we’re libertarians hiding in the woods with a six-pack of wives. Sounds exciting, I guess, but the truth is: it’s all pretty boring.

Routines make the world go ‘round

Adults in loving relationships have intimate, physical and emotional connections. That sounds great, right? Tons of sex! All the time! You’d think a polyamorous relationship would be one wild party after another. Not so much, really. Like any relationship, you’ve got to schedule time to be with all of your partners in a meaningful way.

You also have to figure out routines with each new partner. Who sleeps on which side of the bed? Do you like your window open or closed? Are you a read before you go to sleep person? Do you get up at the same time in the morning? There are so many more activities around sleeping in the same bed than just sex. These are the same issues you have when you’re dating just one person at a time.

As with “typical” dating, integrating your life more and more with other people means spending time together. I hate scheduling with a passion, preferring spontaneous get-togethers and spur-of-the-moment trips to the bowling alley. Polyamory, however, keeps me connected to Google in intimate ways, as we all share calendars with each other in order to avoid conflicts, over-booking, and figure out ways to spend time together both as a group and as individuals. Polyamory should be different! Alternative! Funky! Turns out, it’s pretty darn normal — shared calendars and group dinner scheduling feels a lot like what we already do at work.

Dating is hard, but not how you think

It might seem self evident that trying to find someone to date when you “already have a partner” would be tricky. It’s surprising to me, though, how many people are actually willing to learn more about polyamory and even give dating a try.

We tend to find other people we’d like to date online, like many other single folks do these days. We use Tinder and OK Cupid, mostly, but always make sure that our open-relationship status is front and center. That definitely limits the pool of potential partners, sure, but it also avoids any future conflicts when you can’t “be there” for a person you’re dating because you’ve already committed time to a current partner.

Dating as a 40-something adult with children is never easy, but it’s going to be the same whether you’re monogamous or not. You’re going to have to go on a lot of bad dates to find that rare person you connect with that connects right back with you.

When you end up finding someone who’s compatible enough to date, however, real life does creep in. The partner I don’t live with and I have a weekly date night to try and connect regularly and spend some quality grown-up time away from our kids. One time, when we were just getting home from dinner with sexy plans for the evening, her husband called to say that their child was ill and crying for mom. We packed up our own intentions and she headed home to comfort a sick child. I stayed home and read a book. We re-scheduled our alone time for another evening that week.

There’s always something happening. We’re all busy people. We have jobs and children and friends and social lives. Just like a monogamous couple, all of us have to work around each other’s schedules and plans. We have to compromise, we have to communicate.

Jealousy happens, until you meet the new guy

One of the seminal books on polyamory — The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt — spends a lot of time on the subject of jealousy. Worries of other people being better in bed, nicer looking, or replacing your affections in the eye of your lover can surely cause some stress in any open relationship, the same as it can in an exclusive one.

When my live-in girlfriend first started dating a man I’ll call Joe, I got jealous. Joe was younger than I was, he was handsome, he was sexy. He made more money than I did. I was sincerely worried that my girlfriend would find him so much more attractive than she did me, that I’d lose her.

What I found, though, when I finally met the guy, was that he was just as normal and flawed as I was. He was kind of sullen at times and he wasn’t good with money. Better yet, he was interested in things that I was not — things my girlfriend found interesting about him. I’m totally happy to let them watch anime or go rock climbing; I’d rather see a good sci-fi movie or do yoga. These aren’t better or worse things; they’re just different.

Each time one of us finds a new person we’d like to date, or we start to fall for someone we’ve been dating for a while, we remind each other that each scary new partner is just another human being. They get added to the schedule, which gets disrupted at times. It’s all rather mundane.

Relationships are relationships

Successful polyamorous relationships, like monogamous ones, are a lot of hard work. In fact, all of the strategies, mindsets and techniques I learned in marriage therapy are a boon to my current polyamorous relationships, strangely enough. Substitute “couple” for “triad” and you’ll find some surprising similarities to getting along together in a loving relationship.

One technique for maintaining a healthy dyadic partnership is to assume positive intentions. When conflict arises, and it always will, we need to trust that our partners (and their partners) all really mean the best.

My girlfriend’s husband, for example, didn’t want a birthday party. He told her over and over how he wanted only a small, family dinner on his birthday, and not to invite a bunch of people over or make any kind of a big deal out of it.

At the same time, his other girlfriend (to whom he had not made this assertion) planned a party at her apartment, invited other people, bought a cake, and in general made a big deal out of his birthday.

What my girlfriend had to do was assume positive intent, until she heard otherwise. In other words, she decided that her husband hadn’t tried to exclude her from his birthday, but had just forgotten to tell his girlfriend the same info he told his wife. In addition, my girlfriend had to assume that her husband’s girlfriend wasn’t trying to horn in on their relationship by planning a party outside the family; it was just simple miscommunication.

Boring is as boring does

So, here we are. We’re a loving, caring group of adults who consciously and ethically share our lives. We all have to do laundry, take our kids to school or soccer games, piano lessons and birthday parties. We all have to clean our houses, mow our lawns (or hire people to do so!), maintain our cars, go to work every day, pack lunches, make coffee, take showers, pay bills and taxes, and, and, and. There’s nothing that remotely special about it.

There are a few perks: get togethers tend to have more adults than children, so we can help each other manage things when the younger folks are around. When one person is feeling the blahs, another can step up and help out, or take a moment to listen empathically.

We function like an extended family, really, except some of us are in love with each other. Our kids interact with all the other loving adults, and we all default to the individual child’s parents’ wishes when there’s an issue, exactly how my aunts and uncles behaved with my cousins and me.

Last night, my non-live-in partner and I went out to dinner. So did my girlfriend and her boyfriend (but to a different restaurant). This morning, my non-live-in partner left early to go to work. She came back around lunchtime to share the leftovers we’d brought home from the place we ate the night before, then headed back to her job. My girlfriend had come home before lunch and was hanging out in the kitchen, grabbing a quick snack before she ran some errands. Everyone was happy and glad to be around each other. I don’t see how different this is, really, than any other life portrayed on television or on the big screen.

We are boring. We are human. There’s nothing more special about us than who we choose to spend our lives with — gay, straight, transgender, bisexual, male or female, monogamous or polyamorous: we’re no different than anyone else.

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