Polyamorous Pollyanna

It's a little bit disappointing. I was half-expecting and half-hoping to find a place jammed with strobe-lighted rooms full of writhing, entangled naked bodies.

Instead, I find an ordinary house on a residential street in Tempe. I knock on the door, and it's opened by a young man with long, dark hair, a beard and a tee shirt inscribed with the words "Be As You Are." He talks like a comedian's caricature of a gestalt therapist.

Chris Sandara is the founder of a group and online magazine called An Unconditional Love. Both are devoted to polyamory. According to his magazine, "the term polyamory can be literally defined as 'multiple loves.'"

Does that mean what it sounds like it means?
Kind of. But not exactly.
Polyamory--at least in Sandara's view--is not the same thing as polygamy or swinging. Polygamy is conventional, patriarchal marriage, except that the guy gets to have a bunch of wives instead of just one. Sandara describes it as "misogynistic in nature." And swinging tends to be almost entirely based on sex.

Polyamory, however, is based upon the recognition that human beings very often have strong romantic/sexual feelings for more than one person at a time. Although we are the only primates who mate for life--or at least try to--this tendency is socially constructed. We are the only primates whose social conditioning is directly contradictory to our biological programming.

Sandara shares the house with a roommate. His private space resembles the stereotypical student's bedroom. The main furniture is a bed, a desk with a computer, and a chair. I sit on the chair as Sandara tells me his story.

He's 31 years old. He grew up in Michigan, but has lived in Arizona since 1990, except for a brief stint in northern California. He says he came here for the weather, and to escape Michigan's conservative values.

I point out that Arizona is hardly a hotbed of liberalism.
He nods. "But things are talked about in this area. If you took out the retirement communities, it really wouldn't be so conservative here. I think twenty- and thirtysomethings are more open to ideas."

He makes his living by building Web sites, and doing online and individual counseling.

"I specialize in working with polyamory issues," he says. "It's very difficult for polyamorous people to go to mainstream therapists, who consider any questioning of monogamy to be a pathology."

How did he come to question monogamy?
"I had two brief marriages. The first one lasted for five months, the second for one year. I felt guilty, and had a deep sense of failure. A pivotal moment for me came during my second marriage. I was sitting in a coffee house with a friend, and I realized that I was more honest with my male friends than with my spouse. This saddened me. With my friends, I could be open about any attraction I might feel to people other than my spouse. I was tired of living with the perilous feeling that the relationship was always in danger if the other person was attracted to someone else."

So he talked to his wife about it. "I told her I was interested in opening the relationship up. She told her mother, and her mother told her that if she stayed with me, her mother would never speak to her again."

And what happened?
"She decided that this was an incongruent system for her. If a relationship begins with an assumption of monogamy, it's much harder to switch."

After that marriage ended, he decided to start questioning the value system he had always tried to accept. A friend recommended a book--Sonia Johnson's The Ship That Sailed Into the Living Room--that questions the assumption that monogamy is the best, or the only, way to be in a relationship.

"I realized I was not commitment-phobic. I wanted long-term relationships, but I had been setting myself up for failure . . ."

So he believed he had discovered where he was going wrong. What would be the right way to approach a relationship?

"I believe a relationship can only be congruent if we remove the ownership component. Most people who are polyamorous are involved in monogamous relationships, or else are not in any relationship." Then how are they polyamorous? "Because the component of ownership is not there. The love in the relationship is unconditional, rather than governed by or dependent upon a set of rules. It's a philosophy, a state of mind, rather than a physical manifestation. It's natural to love many people, if we're open to love."

While it's easy to mock Sandara's tendency toward psychobabble, it's less easy to deny that he makes sense. In our culture, monogamy is typically presumed as soon as sex has taken place. Although open relationships are expected to be discussed and agreed upon, monogamy is taken for granted.

Why this is is seldom examined. Most people have close friends, and also friends with whom they're less close. For example, when a man makes a new friend, he doesn't feel he's being unfaithful to or cheating on his pre-existing friends. But, as soon as sex enters the equation, exclusivity is assumed.

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