Of course, for polyamory to work, both parties have to be on the same sexual page. By the end of Brian’s first marriage, he says, his connection with his wife had basically dried up. At one point he was so desperate for intimacy that he considered paying a prostitute—just to be held. When he finally worked up the courage to talk to his wife of seven years about opening up their relationship, it ended in divorce. That’s when he started frequenting snuggles; he met April at one in 2006.
“We have a very strong commitment to each other,” April explains. “We’re partners, we are friends, and what we offer each other goes beyond sex and new bedmates. In fact, sex is probably one of the more minor areas in our relationship.” The arrangement, she says, also allows Brian to explore some of his more far-flung fantasies—like bondage, an act which April says makes her feel claustrophobic. “So I just let him go explore,” April says matter-of-factly.
“It works,” Brian says, “flawlessly.” It also provides him an unending supply of the magical elixir polys call NRE—New Relationship Energy. The kind of butterflies-in-the-belly, waiting-by-the-phone, oh-my-God-I’m-holding-her-hand tingling that most of us haven’t felt since, well, we got married or moved in with our partner five years ago.
But with that rush also comes a potential killer: jealousy, which Brian and April attempt to tame partly by talking about flare-ups and partly by keeping themselves preoccupied. When April had a recent rendezvous with another couple, Brian, conveniently, had already scheduled a flight to Missouri to visit his daughter. On Brian’s most recent date, April busied herself with a term paper (she’s a religious studies major at Marylhurst University) and stayed up on the third floor of their home. The idea is that if you’re busy, you won’t have time to dwell on the very grating fact that at that exact moment somebody else is plowing the love of your life.
It doesn’t always work.
Erin (who also requested her last name not be used), a 28-year-old counselor, thought she was ready when she and her boyfriend of one year decided to explore polyamory. “We thought we were really radical and that monogamy was totally oppressive, boring and not cool,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “Obviously that was a bunch of crap.” Three years into the experiment, poorly handled encounters led to resentment and anger. Or as Erin bluntly puts it: “He was into it more for the booty than the politics.”
Now in a long-term relationship with a woman, Erin says the only thing polyamory enhances is a couple’s odds of breaking up. “The theory that you can share your partner without some sort of backlash almost always works better than the practice,” she insists. “You can talk about having an open relationship, but the second one of you actually acts on it, the shit hits the fan.”
“Polyamory can be a mess,” admits Avena, the Ashland-based therapist. “It sounds revolutionary, and to have that much love and support in your life is astounding. But there can be a lot of conflict, and if the core relationship isn’t solid enough to handle it? People can get hurt really badly.”
A fact that I couldn’t stop coming back to. Sure, it’s honest if my girlfriend tells me she’d really like to hop in the sack with the guy bagging her groceries. But how many times can I hear that before I start losing confidence in my abilities as her partner, or in her abilities as mine? No matter how much we might try to turn such extracurricular hook-ups into some sort of air-tight, precoital Kyoto Protocol, the fact remains: She’s seeking solace in the arms—and nether regions—of somebody who’s not me. And, from where I’m standing, no amount of homework or night flights to Missouri could distract me from that truth.
Then again, maybe I’m just jealous.