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.

Although monogamy has been required by the religious traditions of many cultures for thousands of years, the contemporary suburban ideal of the family unit--man and woman in monogamous relationship, under one roof, producing kids--hasn't been with us for very long historically. It's another social construct, one that came into being in the 19th century, in the service of the new industrial capitalism. Academics such as Rita Gross have argued that this type of closed unit isolates people and is the enemy of community.

Not that people have to be involved in a bunch of romantic relationships to have a community. But they need to be free emotionally. According to Sandara, none of the eight members of his newly formed group are involved with each other. So what's the purpose of the group? The same as that of any other group set up around an idea or set of political or philosophical interests.

"For support and discussion. To exchange ideas, and be there for each other," he says.

The group grew out of a previous polyamorous group that is now defunct. According to Sandara, the earlier group was composed mainly of older people, and was more geared toward sexual adventure. He and his friends--all in their 20s or 30s--broke away and set up their own group.

Before long, Sandara felt uneasy about one couple who joined initially. The woman didn't seem to be into it, and the guy seemed to have brought her along to be brainwashed. So, instead of kicking them out, Sandara told the guy he didn't want to be in a group with him and offered to leave. The couple left instead.

And polyamory isn't easy, even when everyone in a relationship agrees on it. One of Sandara's friends, a woman in her early 30s, tells me about the one venture into polyamory she's made so far. She was living with a guy, and was attracted to another guy. "The other guy was a foreign exchange student, so we knew it was temporary," she says. How did the guy she lived with handle it? "It was hard for him. He'd been okay when we talked about it, but when it actually happened--when I spent the night with someone else--he was tearful when I got home the next day, though later he denied that he'd been upset. But when we talked about it and he was reassured that I still loved him and wanted to be with him. . . . When he knew nothing had changed with us, it was okay."

Dossie Easton, one of the two authors of The Ethical Slut, a book that advocates all forms of consensual nonmonogamy, admits that her primary partner was badly hurt by her rejection of monogamy. And, Easton admits, "I am from time to time terrified that she will leave me, just because I hate monogamy."

Or, of course, it can work the other way. Since sex inevitably brings greater emotional intimacy--or an illusion of it--anyone in an open relationship, or a polyamorous one, must live with the fear that his or her partner might prefer to be with someone else. But it can be argued that it's better to find out quickly.

Still, the ideal of lifelong monogamy doesn't seem to be working. Dr. Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, says the average monogamous relationship lasts for four years.

"Yes, it's failing," says Chris Sandara. "Instead of living up to the . . . ideal of one person for life, we've settled for a series of ex-lovers whom we're not supposed to care about anymore when we're with our current lover. We have to deny any past joy, reject any community."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham