A polyamorist responds: what’s it like in practice?

September 25, 2012
My RECENT POST ON POLYAMORY got a lot of people talking, 
including some polyamorists I was lucky enough to meet on social media.
 I asked for a guest post to help us monogamous folk 
understand polyamory better, and a wonderful writer responded.  
Her guest post appears below.
If you have a question or two or even three, post it below, 
or on Facebook, and she’s agreed to respond in another post.
You may agree or disagree with polyamory, but I hope that, 
like me, you come away from this piece with 
a better understanding than Showtime‘s given us.

I’m Msmely and I’m polyamorous

I think I have always been polyamorous, though I didn’t always have the language to describe it as such. I began dating my future husband when we were both very young, with idyllic ideas about the future, and ridiculously in love. We had no model for what our relationship would look like in the future besides the heteronormative model that had been provided for us by society. What we acknowledged early on was that the heternormative model wouldn’t be enough; I’m a bisexual female, and was very clear from the very beginning that I did not want to live in a future where I could never make love to women ever again.

This laid the groundwork for polyamory from the very first. He was clear with me, progressive man that he is, and stated his belief that in a situation where there’s cheating in a relationship, the problem isn’t so much the sex as it is the dishonesty. He told me clearly early on that he loved me enough that if I wanted something badly enough, all I had to do was come to him and we would figure something out together.

Playing with women was easy to figure out, poly-wise. My husband is, obviously, not a woman, and I’d been with women since before I’d ever had a sexual relationship with a man. I remember a time before we were officially dating, when my best friend, my future husband and I were all at a family event at my best friend’s house. Her aunt asked us what exactly was going on with us three, and my friend jokingly replied “we have him on a time share.” It’s not really surprising that he ended up sharing me with her.

by Beth Walsh

My husband and I agreed very early on in our relationship that our priority was to establish a solid foundation on which we could build a strong relationship. We really believed (and still believe) that if the relationship itself is founded on a bedrock of honesty, trust, integrity, communication, compassion, respect, and a mutual desire to improve our relationship when the opportunity presented itself, then it would be resilient enough to handle nearly everything. We were close friends before we began dating, and we knew what we wanted. We didn’t want to half-love each other for fear of getting hurt. We decided we wanted to be whole people to each other, flaws and all. We decided we wanted to let our relationship define itself based on what we wanted as individuals, and did our best to try and invent a model that worked best for us, instead of the one prescribed for us by society.

I have never been a person who overvalued romantic relationships; it seemed strange to me that simply calling someone a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ could elevate them magically to a status equal to or above that of my closest most trusted friends. I ended up gravitating naturally towards people who I could trust closely, who I felt safe with when it came to sexual matters. I preferred to be on an intimate level emotionally with all of my close friends, and sometimes that progressed into physical intimacy as well. Trust meant I felt safe being vulnerable, which meant I felt safe in a sexual situation with them. I endeavored to build trusting, close, rewarding intimate relationships, and sexual contact was an enjoyable side benefit.

I mention all this context only so that those reading will understand that we as a couple didn’t have to have a great shift in thinking to find polyamory a desirable way to conduct our relationship. I had strong feelings for someone, I talked to the husband about them, and we gamed out what it’d be like if I were to act on them. For the most part things stayed as talk and I didn’t end up really acting on any of the feelings I had, but it meant a lot of deeply intimate conversations with the husband where the possibility of adding another to our relationship was a very real consideration, even if that rule for the most part only applied to women for the longest time.

Some friends were supportive and some were the exact opposite. I did what I felt was right. I formed the relationships I formed, and because life intervenes, sadly I did not end up with the kind of stable loving long-term relationship that I wanted with any of my girlfriends. Things ended up a little more casual than that, with no expectation that what I had with them would become a permanent long-term relationship. I was okay with that. In a way, I had my sex-with-girls itch scratched and I didn’t feel deprived.

That is, until I made a best friend who was also a man, and until I dreamed and imagined and fantasized about such a relationship with him. Until I realized that I had these strong sexual feelings for him, too.   

I confessed this to him one night, fidgeting with my keys. I had thought I could love my husband and love the women in my life without ever loving another man. I was wrong. As I got to know this man, as he became my best friend, my feelings for him exploded and it became clear to me that these warm intimate feelings of comfort and closeness and trust would pave the way for me to love him, to want to share myself with him and bring him pleasure. It was a relief when he told me he thought of me in that way too and would like to pursue just such a relationship.

It was an awkward time trying to describe what I felt to my husband. I confused him and he found it difficult that he wasn’t somehow “enough” for me. The husband sees himself as almost completely monogamous, and feels no need to have relationships besides the one he has with me. That was absolutely the hardest obstacle to try and overcome. He had his feelings of jealousy, of possessiveness, of insecurity and fear of being replaced. Those feelings cannot be wished away or explained away. The only way past them for us was to talk, and for me to be considerate. The husband was very generous, and gave me boundaries within which to explore. I had no desire to make him uncomfortable, and in a way, being given restrictive boundaries made our encounters more fun. We were forced to get creative. I have never before or since gotten so aroused from a kiss and a kiss alone.

We moved only at the speed my husband felt comfortable. I am convinced this was the secret to our success. We ensured the least comfortable individual was comfortable and stayed comfortable. His comfort level varied with time; usually when he allowed boundaries to move he would be mildly uncomfortable and then once it became clear that the result was not going to be relationship-destabilizing, he relaxed. 

We spent a lot of time together, my husband and I, talking about his feelings. We worked through where his jealousy comes from. We worked through his feelings of insecurity and possessiveness. We figured out what he needed to feel safe and comfortable. We read books and tried to learn everything we could. He has been a real trooper, willing to work through some very difficult stuff simply so that I can have polyamory. Some of his feelings are deep-seated and he doesn’t feel as if he’ll ever really be able to move past them, but he has found a way to soothe his reptilian hind-brain and let me be happy.

My husband being as accommodating as he is, I am able to see my boyfriend and my polyamorous arrangement for the gift that it is. My husband has given me a wonderful gift in allowing me another loving relationship. He has seen, over time, how good my boyfriend is for me. He has seen that the amount of love and affection he gets from me is increased when I’m allowed to love someone else.

There are things that my husband isn’t and my boyfriend is that I want from a relationship. There are things that my husband is and my boyfriend isn’t that I similarly want from a relationship. They are different people, in a complimentary way. Having a boyfriend means that I don’t pine away for the things my husband isn’t, because I’m free to get them from another lover. It means I’m free to love my husband for who he is, and enjoy the way he is, without having my love and enjoyment tarnished by wishing for the things that are missing. Similarly, my husband enriches my relationship with my boyfriend and vice versa, because I can enjoy separately how they are different, and relish in that diversity.

Joe Vandello art HERE

Some worry, I think, that having a second lover besides one’s husband would necessarily strain the primary relationship. Indeed, having more than one person in my life does place more demands on my time than if I were in a monogamous relationship. That said, though, a poly-negative individual isn’t likely to consider how beneficial it is to my relationship with my husband that I have a beautiful lover in my life who is a vocal and enthusiastic cheerleader for my marriage. My lover knows how good my husband and I are together. He knows my husband makes me very happy. He knows my relationship is healthy and beneficial for me, and he wants me to be healthy and happy, and so he actively encourages me in my marriage because he can see how good it is for me.

It’s very freeing to have a person who I can love for the sake of loving them, who loves me back for the sake of loving me. We want to make each other as happy as possible for as long as possible, and there’s no binding expectations for how we will model our relationship. We are free to have the relationship that we want to have, and what we’ve wanted together has evolved over time. We had no model to base things off of, and began initially, I think, thinking that we would become less emotionally entangled than we did. 

There have been ups and downs, like when he dated women who wanted him to be monogamous. We eventually learned the emotional difficulty of it, and the experiment ended with both of us knowing very strongly that it is impossible for someone to ask another to stop loving a person. It took time to come back together after that and rebuild the closeness, but we are better off for it. We learned how badly we wanted to be together, and learned how entangled our lives had really become. We recognized only afterwards how much we are a part of one another, and how nothing could truly sever that bond. It encouraged us to do the hard work of taking better care of our relationship, of pruning away the taking each other for granted, the worry and self-censorship, the possessiveness. Our love became purer and less cautious, and we now try harder than ever to give ourselves to the other more wholly. 

It’s been years now, almost eleven with the husband and over five with my boyfriend. We have grown together, all of us, with a love that is familiar, well-worn and fluently easy. I visit my lover and return to my husband with a renewed sense of joy and happiness, and love on my husband all the harder because I’m so grateful for the gift he’s given me in letting me expand my love. My husband is encouraged by my happiness, by seeing how well my boyfriend and I work together, and lets me know gently what he needs in order to feel safe and secure, so that I can keep this gift without my husband feeling deprived. I have a true and close friend who I can count on at all times and in all things, in addition to the husband who I have chosen to merge my life with. I have more than one person who loves me to a very intense degree, who supports me and wants the best for me. All this, and I’m reminded every time I spend time with my lover of how lucky I am, both to have a husband who is so willing to let me be free to love another, and to have a lover who’s so good to me and such a strong supporter of my marriage. 

I’ve been allowed by circumstance and the love of my partners to love without limits, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Questions? Comments? I want to hear them either below, on social media or via email at ccassara at (aol).

13 comments on “A polyamorist responds: what’s it like in practice?
  1. Gary Presley says:

    Oh, my.

    ‘Tis so very, very hard to reconcile this with the concept of loyalty, at least as I understand the ideal. Loyalty, after all, requires sacrifice, and in this missive, I hear nothing about sacrifice.

    I actually only hear talk of self-satisfaction, and that self-satisfaction is based upon the husband granting the wife freedom to do as she pleases, at least to satisfy her sexual appetites.

    Granted, every individual has the right to as he or she pleases, at least in this place in the world, and however they can contrive such an arrangement without harming another is kosher.

    What I’d like to hear is the husband’s perspective, the “why” of it all. What does he get from this arrangement? Who does he think would come first in a crisis? If it is him, the husband, what then does the boyfriend gain from the arrangement other than string-free sex and companionship, and perhaps a bit of titillation?

    I cannot criticize either husband or wife. She knew what she wanted. He knew what she wanted. And I suppose polyamory makes as much sense as polygamy.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Gary. They’re going to answer, too! 😉

  3. msmely says:

    You’re right in that it depends a lot how you define loyalty. I define loyalty in my commitment to honesty and integrity in my relationships. In constructing my poly arrangement I tried my level best to ensure that things were conducted with honesty and integrity. The only real disloyalty would be a lack of what ends up getting defined as “sexual faithfulness”, or the adherence to the idea that sexual exclusivity is a duty one owes one’s spouse. I actually chafe a lot at the language that surrounds this, as words such as ‘faithful’ and ‘loyal’ are emotionally loaded terms with meanings outside their connotations of sexual exclusivity. Similarly the words to describe extramarital sexual activity are also emotionally loaded: ‘cheating’ is a term with pretty strong negative connotations. This speaks a lot of how society’s prioritized the heteronormative monogamous arrangement, in that even the non-sexualized language all surrounds how sexual exclusivity is the same thing as being “loyal” to a person, even if it’s not.

    “Sacrifice” is another term that you kind of lean on, and I think it’s interesting that it got mentioned, because in all honesty, I think the post was pretty clear about the fact that there absolutely was sacrifice; the only difference is that in the narrative I present, I’m not the one who sacrificed — my husband’s the one who made the sacrifice, if anybody did. If anything, my husband sacrificed an easy sense of security bought through conformity to the norm. That sacrifice is such a small one that when I put the question to him, he denied that it was a sacrifice at all. He was quite vehement to me, in fact, that he doesn’t feel that he had to give anything up in order for me to have the relationships I have. He said, if anything, he gains a sense of security by knowing I have another person in my life who is a strong support structure for me. I guess the language of ‘sacrifice’ meaning a duty for me to sacrifice the possibility of ever having a relationship outside of him is pretty telling, if you consider it in terms of what is and is not a legitimate sacrifice. The implication is that my sacrificing polyamory is legitimate, whereas my husband sacrificing monogamy isn’t.

    The self-satisfaction isn’t just my freedom to whet my sexual appetites. The satisfaction is, to a great deal, me feeling liberated from the feeling that my relationship with my husband has to necessarily be the be-all and end-all of everything I need in a relationship. In accepting that that’s not the case, I can have a happy and fulfilling marriage without mourning the things I really enjoy in a relationship that I don’t get from my husband. As an example, my husband is a man of few words. He isn’t prone to long conversations, to talking on the phone, to expressive gestures or sentimentality. My boyfriend, on the other hand, really enjoys a deep conversation that really picks apart a topic. He has spent long talks with me on the phone. He’s mailed me presents just because he knows I’ll enjoy them. He keeps things at his house that he’s bought just for me, because he likes to bring me joy. In having these two people, I get to have the best of both worlds: the sweet sentimentality of my boyfriend, and the stoicism and gentle reassurance of my rock-solid husband. I can love my husband and my boyfriend both as people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, I think it makes it easier for each of them to love me in turn: my husband doesn’t have to endure hours-long conversations about my feelings, and my boyfriend doesn’t have to reconcile the fact that I want to be married (he doesn’t) and want kids (he doesn’t.)

    cont. below because I made things too long for the comment box

  4. msmely says:

    As for the “why” from the husband: it makes me happy. I get something out of it that he isn’t able to provide, and it makes me happy, and keeping me happy is a way of keeping our relationship stable. As to what he gets out of it: there’s other hypotheticals; it opens up the possibility that he could have a relationship of his own should he choose. At the end of the day, as he puts it, it boils down to the fact that I get a lot of pleasure and happiness out of it and he wants me to be happy. He gets to see me with somebody he trusts, which is important to him. He feels a lot more secure knowing that the person I’m with is someone that he knows, trusts, and has had a chance to have vetted. It helps the sense of security to know too, as I said, that my boyfriend is a huge cheerleader for my marriage. Our relationship isn’t a typical “I’ll-get-divorced-from-my-husband-and-we’ll-run-off-together” type affair. My boyfriend has zero incentive to destabilize my marriage, because he has a healthy, happy relationship with a woman who doesn’t want marriage or children.

    I’d strongly disagree that any sex I have with Dave is no-strings-attached. Dear God, the strings. That’s the inevitable downside to having a relationship that hasn’t been pre-defined for you by society: a near-endless loop of talking about how we define the relationship and what we want out of it. Every time something changes it’s like reinventing the wheel sometimes. There is nothing. Casual. About it. Titillation there may be, but like all well-done polyamorous relationships, it’s far more talk than it is sex. Sex is easy. Relationships are hard.

  5. Gary Presley says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I don’t begrudge your arrangement or your philosophical rationalization of it. Since there are no children (I make that assumption), I see nothing that reflects outward in a negative manner.

    We are different people. I have trouble divorcing sex (at least, healthful, spiritual sexual relationships) from love. I have trouble with the idea that one can love and nurture more than one partner. I am captured by culture, certainly. And by gender prejudice as well.

    Society has changed in my lifetime in that sex is no longer solely about relationships. It seems to be, at least as represented in the media and among the chattering classes, as a good game of tennis or a nice round of golf. I once critiqued a memoir for another writer, a woman spending a year in a foreign country, who spoke candidly of seeking a sexual partner. She didn’t want a relationship. She wanted a bed partner while she was 7,000 miles from home.

    But here I am again, right, equating sex with relationships, something I apparently cannot separate even though you say your polyamory works because you get, shall I say, an expanded version of the perfect mate by combining the virtues of the two men.

    And so here we are. Me, bemused. You, satisfied and certain. I respect your certainty. As for me, my only certainty is that I am satisfied with my marriage.


  6. Gary Presley says:

    Did you ever walk away from a conversation and think, “I should have said … “

    The good thing about the I’net is a person can return and carry out the impulse.

    My thought: if all you love and respect and desire from a man were combined in your husband, would you still feel the urge to be polyamorous?

    I don’t think I ever expected to find the “Perfect Woman.” I expected love. I found love. I also admire Lincoln’s aphorism, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

    There is a significant disappointment in my life, and Lincoln’s thought (and others like it) sustain me, and color my perception of things I encounter.

    Perhaps you (as intelligently as you present your choices) are a seeker of perfection.

    Me? I don’t expect perfection. I expect chaos. And pain. And frustration. All, of course, intermixed with joy and happiness.

    And that, I know, is far from the subject of polyamory.

  7. msmely says:

    You say you have trouble divorcing sex from love. In a way, so do I: I love freely and have sexual feelings for those whom I love. Similarly, I love the people I have sex with very deeply, so the idea of having to divorce sex from love is a red herring.

    So is the idea that children in my arrangement would necessarily be affected negatively. It’s an argument used frequently against LGBT people, that because their relationships don’t conform to the heteronormative ideal, then children will by necessity be negatively affected. In reality, children are most negatively affected by great stress and a lack of personal attachment from their caregivers than they would be by the side-eyed glances of others. I see nothing in this arrangement that would necessarily increase stress in a household or limit the amount of love and affection a parent would have for their children. Kids are resilient and plastic: they know what they grow up with, and what they grow up with is normal. If there’s more than one healthy, loving, stable relationship among their parents, saying this would affect kids negatively is pure conjecture.

    A lot of writing has been devoted to the idea that one can love and nurture more than one partner. One of the comparisons that has been made is, parents don’t find it impossible to love and nurture more than one child. Love is not a zero-sum game. I think it’s healthy that you’re able to recognize that a lot of these ideals you hold are subject to or the product of a lot of cultural bias. The bias against casual sex suffers similarly but that’s a topic for another post.

    The difficulty in combining my favourite features of my favourite people into one super-human is multifaceted: for one, there is no magical super-human in my life who possesses all of these qualities, secondly, lots of these qualities are polar opposites of one another and deeply ingrained into the nature of the person with that quality, so having one person who has two equally strong and polar opposite qualities at the same time would be a paradox, and thirdly, even if this weren’t paradoxical and even if I had this person in my life, they would still not be the perfect partner. Conflict would still exist. Stressors would still impact my life. There is no perfect person, not even perfect for me.

    My relationship choices could be pathologized as perfectionism, if anyone so chose. In practice it’s far from perfection. It croggles the husband somewhat that I find this arrangement desirable because, as he has said, he finds one relationship complicated enough. He’s right that more than one relationship complicates things accordingly. And you say you like chaos and pain and frustration mixed in with joy and happiness? And that’s far from polyamory?

  8. Gary Presley says:

    You make a logical case for your point of view, and as I noted, we’re on opposite sides of the gender fence. We also approach the place of sex in culture and in human relationships in a different category.

    It’s something of a negative connotation, and it’s an unfair generalization, but I feel people can usually rationalize their choices. You have, at least in the better sense of the word: you’ve made what you feel is a rational decision.

    It works for you.

    It wouldn’t work for me. If my wife were to come to me and say in so many words, “I need intimate contact with another male to make my life more complete,” I would feel I failed her. Does she know that even a hint of that desire would lacerate my already frail sense of adequacy? I am sure she does instinctively. Is that her reason for not doing so? I don’t think so, at least from my understanding of her desires, of her concept of marriage.

    Now, to make things more complicated, I think if she were to express the desire for intimate contact with another woman, the wound to my ego, to my concept of the bond we share would be less. And while I might grant that gender politics/bias plays a role in that, I do think that bisexuality or homosexuality are hardwired.

    So there we have it, don’t we? It’s a personal choice between two people, unique to each situation.

    What neither of us have addressed is how these relationships influence society. I doubt the choice of one partner, or multiple partners, will have as much influence as abortion, eugenics through pre-natal manipulation, gender-selection in utero, and genetic manipulation of embryos in laboratories, but it will change the way we perceive marriage and family.

    I will permit you the last post. Thank you for the dialog. Thank you for understanding not all social conservatives are intent upon attack and do not deserve attack for expressing their own views.


  9. Anonymous says:

    This is a great article. But I wonder how your husband feels more? My boyfriend has found out that he is poly and I don’t think I am. I want him to be happy no matter what, but I worry that he won’t really understand that I just want to be with him. It’s almost as if he doesn’t really understand monogamy anymore. I have a lot of issues with myself, and I’m trying to work them out. But, I wonder how your husband feels about it. How does he get past the feeling of insecurity? =/

  10. Alice Teague says:

    If you are ever interested in other testimonies from polyamorous people, I’m open to answering questions as well 🙂

    Polyamorous people, like people from any group, will have different personalities, experiences, etc. So I think it is helpful to learn about a range of them before forming an opinion. I’m sure that among the monogamous people we all know, there are some we like and some we dislike, some whose relationships we envy and some we pity.
    I think it’s good to keep that in mind, but of course your blog isn’t about polyamory so I don’t want to pollute it either. The bottom line is, if you want another perspective at some point, feel free to ask me questions and I shall answer them as pertains to my own experience 🙂

  11. Eccentricity says:

    I’m over here from the GBE post this week. 🙂

    Every one I’ve ever heard speak about polyamory who was actually in that situation long term make complete sense to me. I think too often it’s easy for people to confuse cheaters with polyamorists. No one wants a cheater – they hurt their partner with dishonesty, leave them with hurt feelings about how they weren’t enough, leave them feeling like their partner might be falling out of love with them. I don’t ever want a cheater. I’m already in a monogamous relationship, but if I wasn’t I think I would’ve been open to polyamory, although possibly unlikely to bring it up myself. I love the communication and honesty I’ve heard described here. I can also understand how it is completely possible to love more than one person without taking away from either.

  12. KM says:

    To the guest poster: in your second to last paragraph, you talk about the benefit to you (which is fairly obvious), and the benefit to your husband (you come home happy, grateful, and loving him more). I expected a third sentence giving the benefits to the third person in this arrangement, but it wasn’t there.

    In a follow up comment (#4), you say: “My boyfriend has zero incentive to destabilize my marriage, because he has a healthy, happy relationship with a woman who doesn’t want marriage or children.” Can I take it, then, that he very actively *wants* not to be married, and to have no children? He very much *wants* to remain living in his own home, alone, until old age and death?

    Or does he expect some day to have a live in partner or a wife? Or to move in with you and your husband?

    What would you say the benefits for the outside partner would be, if, like many people, they wanted to eventually be married?

  13. KM says:

    Forgot to click notify me of follow-up comments. 🙂

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