a Twin Cities-based polyamory support group & social space
While I’ve grown up around progressive ideas and been quick to adopt liberal beliefs, when it comes to relationships and the idea of a typical romantic trajectory, my values are more traditional. I’ve always seen myself following my own variation of the typical relationship ladder, and the concept of non-monogamy has never been for me.
Last year, when two of my friends started dating each other while also being committed to their own respective long-term boyfriends, it confused me how they could see love as open. I found their choice not to fully commit to one person confusing, even frustrating, as I imagined the jealousy I would feel in their partners’ position.
When given the opportunity to study a group I knew nothing about for my English classes’ ethnography assignment, I chose to challenge some of my thinking. I found MNPoly, a support group for polyamorous people, on Meetup. I remembered how perplexed I’d been the year before by my friends’ situation, and wanted to learn about a perspective towards relationships so different from my own.
I reached out to the group’s administrators, an eclectic cast of characters, and asked if I could come and observe the upcoming coffee social. Jess*, a welder and self-proclaimed redneck from Pine City, and Allen, whose profile shows him wearing rainbow suspenders, vampire teeth and whose bio describes his interests: “INTP, sci-fi fantasy, likes fur”, both responded “absolutely”.
The concept of having multiple sexual partners has existed since our Neanderthal days, largely dominated among Western civilization by the practice of polygyny- men taking multiple wives. Modern polyamory, with its egalitarian-feminist dent, has more recent origins.
The Oneida Community, known for its silverware manufacturing as well as its practice of the Complex Marriage, was one of the first communities to practice non-monogamy in a gender-equitable way. In the mid 1840s, Oneida was founded by John Humphrey Noyes, a student at the Yale Theological Seminary turned Utopian socialist. Noyes and his followers founded the upstate New York community to avoid persecution for their radical lifestyle, including their idea that every man was married to every woman, and vise versa.
Unlike other practices of polyamory of the time, Oneida’s was based on equal rights between men and women living in the community. Men and women shared religious and administrative tasks, day care was communal. Members could have sexual relationships freely, so long as they did not become exclusive and thus isolate themselves from the rest of the commune. The term “free love” originated in writings from Oneida.
During the Victorian Era, non-monogamous ideas were repressed, and with the turn of the 19th century came the advent of the American nuclear family. It wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the 1970s that the concept of exploring multiple romantic partners reentered the public conscious. Swinging groups believed that self-actualization could be achieved through the pursuit of pleasure, and shaped counter-culture of the time.
The Internet led to the wave of polyamory as it as known today. The term ‘polyamory’ was first coined in an article on a neo-Pagan website in 1990, and from there was adopted into online forums and support networks. alt.polyamory, a Usenet Newsgroup, was created in 1992. The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, praised as the “Poly Bible” and a common theme in my interviews, was published in 1997. It wasn’t until 2006 that ‘polyamory’ first appeared in the Oxford English and Merriam Webster dictionaries.
MNPoly is one of these groups that came out of the Internet age. It acts as a support space for the polyamorous as well as a forum for those remotely curious in non-monogamy. Online, the group has 1,000 members. Most social events have around thirty attendees (like any other organization, MNPoly knows that it’s hard to get people to show up to things). The group has been active since the ’90s, but has gone through different phases of leadership and numerous name changes. The purpose- to create a space “where those engaged in the practice of polyamory can come together to share ideas, experiences, and resources” — has stayed the same.
The first MNPoly event I attended was on a Friday night in March. When I first imagined what a support group for polyamorous people would look like, I imagined a room full of young North Minneapolis hipsters, with maybe some older, free-love hippie types hanging around to maintain their youth. Their choice of venue, the meeting space on the top floor of the Edina Lunds & Byerlys, was thus a surprise to me. My expectations changed over the course of the 25 minute commute, and fell much closer to the mark.
On the door of the meeting space upstairs was a sign that said “Meetup”- nothing more specific. When I finally found how to get to the second level of the grocery store it was 7:00, and the only people there were David, Terri and Bob. The three were all in their fifties, on the heavier side, eating chicken tenders and mashed potatoes from the food bar downstairs. After I introduced myself as a U of M student and described the ethnography project, Terri grinned and told me sheepishly that I “walked in on a little triad”, meaning that the three of them are all sexually involved. Most of the members of the polyamory group are very open with me about their sexuality, and I find that Terri’s comment set the tone for the rest of the night.
As new people entered the space, David N. took it upon himself to introduce me and my project to other members as they came. David, who has been a part of MNPoly for 5 years, is the type of person who could be unanimously president of a group after only attending a meeting, because, well, he just seems like a stand-up guy. He’s charismatic and welcoming. While he hasn’t accepted an official position on the Poly Council — he cites that, while he may have infinite love, he doesn’t have infinite time — he attends the council planning meetings and frequently hosts social events. The website lists his position as a “Poly Resource and Future Council Member”, one example of how the group constantly pressures him to take on more leadership. David is frequently put in this position because he’s welcoming and dependable, and for the same reasons the groups he’s a part of encourage him to take charge, he soon became my cultural broker.
MN Poly is mostly people in their 40s and older. People come to events from all over the metro and surrounding suburbs, some even commute from rural Minnesota. When David introduces me, one member responds “I guess we’ll actually have to talk about polyamory then!”. More than a place for discussion on polyamory or a support network, the MNPoly socials are a place where polyamorous people can come and socialize with their other partners. They don’t talk about the challenges of monogamy or the nature of modern relationships as much as their kid’s schooling and the shows they’ve been watching. At MNPoly social events, board games and debate over sci-fi fan fiction are more prevalent than drinking and coupling up. Swinging groups, which MNPoly intentionally distinguish themselves from, exist for those more interested in the latter.
Privacy Concerns & Challenges in the Project
At the coffee social I met Steve and Lia. Steve and Lia were younger than others in the group, and cooler, too. They were in-between the age range for MNPoly and one of the local groups for younger polyamorists, and go to socials at both. Having tried swinging and now identifying as polyamorous, Lia had an interesting perspective on the distinctions between them. Steve showed me a picture of his girlfriend, who he met on Bumble, and recommended a few podcasts to me. As one of the few couples with kids, they talked to me about the risks of being open as polyamorous when it comes to custody. In the moment, the two were open with me, though a little nervous about securing their anonymity. When I later set up a time interview them, the couple was initially receptive, but as the date got closer, seemed to get nervous, and ended our communication.
Poly in the Cities, based in Minneapolis, one of the podcasts Steve recommended to me polyinthecities.com
Privacy concerns are major in the poly community. While the people I talked to were extremely open with me about their attitudes towards love and their sex lives, many requested that their names be changed in the article and declined to have their picture taken. These fears over anonymity take root in the lack of protections in place for polyamorous people, unlike those that exist for other sexual minorities. If polyamory comes to the surface in a child custody case between grandparents or ex-spouses, poly people are likely to lose. If poly people are outed at work, they can be fired under the ‘Morality Clause’ some employers include in their contracts.
One of the most famous custody battles over polyamory was sparked by an MTV episode. After April Divilbliss and her two husbands, Chris and Shane, were featured on Sex in the ’90s: It’s a Group Thing, speaking openly about their polyamorous living arrangement, Divilbliss temporarily lost custody of her child. The case resulted in a wave of activism in the polyamory community, and eventually courts changed the decision in her favor. Still, there aren’t legal protections for polyamorous parents, and cases like Divilbliss’ make poly people nervous about speaking openly.
MNPoly works to strike a balance between protecting the anonymity of current members and acting as a resource for new ones, but it’s difficult. Every step along the way the council, a team of seven members that maintain the group’s finances and Internet presence, consider potential breaches of individual’s privacy. When the group’s Meetup page came up, the council members half-jokingly cited me as an example of what they don’t want- a non-polyamorous outsider easily able to join the group and see the identity of its other members. There may come a day when the photo page of the Meetup has more than just memes and pictures of the meeting’s snack table, but until polyamory is safe for parents to openly partake in, that day will not come.
Polyamory & Relationship Structure
While outsiders might have an image in their mind of polyamory as a free-for-all, spawning off the idea popularized in the 1970s of “free love”, polyamory in practice requires many more “rules” than monogamy. Polyamorous couples need to decide on the extent to which they will prioritize their “primary” partner over the others. Poly people also have different ideas of the kind of relationships they want to have with their “metamores”- the other partners of their partner. Some couples practice veto-power, meaning that if their primary doesn’t get along with someone they’re seeing, their primary is allowed to ask them to end that relationship. Other couples, like David and Nan, think that veto-power defeats the purpose of polyamory and turns it into something inorganic and regimental.
At the moment David has his wife, Nan, four girlfriends, and a movie buddy (there’s “an energy between them”). David’s able to juggle a lot of relationships, but does say he intentionally limits the number of people he sees at a given time so that he can give each the attention they deserve. David says, “If I feel as though I can’t put enough time into a relationship, I just feel like I’m cheating them and cheating myself.” It’s also important for him to have time to do things outside of relationships. David tells me “while you may have infinite love, you don’t have infinite time.” For this reason, his movie buddy is, for now, going to just stay a movie buddy.
“Polyamory means infinite love, not infinite time.”
While David practices polyamory more actively than Nan, Nan has the more progressive ideas towards love and relationships. When I asked David to describe his different relationships, he mentions one recent breakup, and Nan corrects him, saying “how about ‘transition’?- I hate that term, ‘breakup’.” Nan is the one who, after the two pursued their own affairs with other people (non-consensual non-monogamy), suggested they start going to MNPoly meetings.
The couple trace the roots of their polyamory and resistance to traditional marriage in how they handled platonic friendships. At the beginning of their relationship up until their wedding day, Nan was clear with David that she was not the type of woman that would end her friendships with other guys just because she was seeing him. Looking back, Nan sees the earlier problems in their marriage taking root in her dissatisfaction with traditional marriage and the gender roles it prescribed her. For her, practicing polyamory was about empowerment. This theme was common in the different couples I spoke to: while the organizers of the group I met are all men, members of MNPoly insist that the decision to be polyamorous is most often driven by women.
Also conflicting with the stereotype of polyamorists having an “all-you-can-eat” buffet of partners is the fact that there aren’t that many polyamorous people. While it’s possible for polyamorous people to have a relationship with someone that’s not, many poly people consider being monogamous as a deal-breaker because of the power imbalance it can create. On top of the difficulties of finding another polyamorous person, poly people also need to find someone who is comfortable with the other relationships you have in place and interested in an equal level of investment. The difficulties associated with meeting other people that are “open” is one of the reasons groups like MNPoly exist, and also the reason that they can sometimes become a bit incestual.
Because of the small pool of polyamorous people, as well as age and declining interest, Nan stopped actively pursuing relationships outside of her marriage. Nan also raises the concern that she started to feel like her relationships were being “manufactured”, saying “This sense of ‘we can do this, so lets do it’ isn’t the same as we organically feel this way, so we’re going in that direction.” While David juggles his different girlfriends as well as his responsibilities as a council member, Nan follows a live and let live philosophy. Of dating, Nan says “if it happens, groovy, I’m not closed off to it, but I’m not actively looking for it.”
Closed relationship: a monogamous relationship in which partners are exclusively involved with each other
Compersion: polyamorous principle that your partner’s happiness with another partner makes you happy by extension. The opposite of jealousy.
Delta: triad in which all partners are sexually and/or emotionally involved with one another (called this because it resembles a triangle)
Friends with Benefits: ;)
Long Term Relationship: often abbreviated LTR
Metamore: the partner of your partner is your metamore
New Relationship Energy (NRE): the excitement and strong emotional and sexual receptivity experienced at the beginning of a relationship
Old Relationship Energy (ORE): In contrast to NRE, the feelings of comfort and stability felt with a partner you’ve been with for a long time
Poly: short for polyamory
Polyandry: practice of polygamy in which a women takes multiple husbands (contrast to polygyny)
Polyfidelity: a polyamorous relationship involving more than two people, but in which members don’t seek out additional partners outside of the relationship, or at least not without approval from all members of the relationship.
Polygamy: the practice of being married to multiple spouses. Historically, the most common form of polygamy is polygyny, in which the male partner has two or more wives.
Polysaturated: polyamorous, but not open to other relationships at the moment because of the number of existing partners, time constraints, etc.
Primary Partner: partner that you have the most committed, even while having other relationships. May be the partner that you’re married to, live with, have kids with, etc. Some polyamorous people also identify secondary or tertiary relationships
Quad: polyamorous relationship structure involving four partners, often formed by the merging of two existing couples
Swinging: singles and partners in committed relationships having sexual experiences with others recreationally, and with their partner’s consent. Unlike polyamory, swinging doesn’t have a focus on actually building relationships with other partners.
Triad: polyamorous relationships composed of three people
Unicorn: Called this because incredibly rare, a bisexual woman who is willing engage in a fidelitous triad with both individuals in a primary relationship.
Vee: Polyamorous relationship structure in which one member has two partners, but the partners are not romantically or sexually involved with each other
Veto power: Practice used by some polyamorous couples in which the primary partner can tell their partner to end other relationships
After observing the MNPoly community, I found that many of the polyamorous community are, in many ways, just as perplexed by their practice as I was. By the very nature of their practice, exploring polyamory requires emotional flexibility. Even those who have been practicing for years don’t preach a set way of approaching it. Talking about communication, touted as the key to responsible non-monogamy, David nods “Communication is key. It is… Have people actually mastered it?”. He takes a theatric pause and shrugs.
While polyamory might be idealistic, it is by no means idyllic, and those who are able to successfully practice it are those willing to put in the work. Those attracted to polyamory express a willingness to deconstruct their jealousy and, instead, see it as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. As Nan told me, “If you don’t have a strong sense of ‘I want this person in my life but I don’t need them in my life’, poly might not be a good fit.”
When it comes to our relationships, humans are governed by conflicting impulses. Evolution has lead us to simultaneously desire the security provided by intimacy, and sexual variety to satisfy our impulses. Growing into our romantic relationships, we learn to balance these desires, and sometimes are forced to choose one over the other. Polyamorists invert the question- why choose at all?
While my time with MNPoly didn’t alter my plan to eventually ascend the traditional relationship ladder, it did provide me with a greater sense of perspective. I learned that some people see jealousy as something that can be overcome, rather than just a fact of life. I saw that rejecting the notion than one person is responsible for meeting all your needs opens up a new world of communication. And when I last heard gossip of an affair, for the first time in my life I considered that “maybe they’re just polyamorous.”
*some names have been changed to protect the privacy of people I spoke with
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