Polyamory: When One Spouse Isn't Enough

Some See Polyamorous Marriage as the Next Civil Rights Movement


June 18, 2009—

She has a birth name but calls herself "Ashara Love," because most people don't understand her unconventional family.

Love, a 51-year-old insurance underwriter from California, has been married to her husband "Cougar" for a decade, but they've had numerous sexual triads, which they insist have enriched their relationship.

"I am living my life partially hidden and partially open," said Love, whose friends and boss know about her sexuality, but her parents do not.

"Many of us adopt another name because it provides us with protection from being outed," she said. "We are the next generation after the gay and transgender communities."

As polyamorists, the couple belongs to a small group that believes people have the right to form their own complex relationships with multiple partners. The most vocal want the right to marry -- as a cluster.

"We have rights to love any way we want unless we are harming other people," said Love. "Like the air we breathe, we have a right to be and do and say whatever is our full expression, and this to me is a civil right."

The polyamory movement grew out of the communes of the 1960s and the swingers of the 1970s, but today, with gay marriage legal in six states, some, such as Love, say their cause should be next.

This nascent and as yet small effort to legalize group marriage is likely to enrage conservative religious groups that upheld Proposition 8, California's ban on gay marriage. In hard-hitting ads, those groups charged that allowing gay marriage would open the door to all kinds of nontraditional relationships, including polygamists.

"These group marriage people are certainly fringe but clearly growing," said Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family.

"Google the word 'polyamory' and see how many groups there are," he told ABCNews.com. "And look at their rhetoric. It is word-for-word what same-sex marriage advocates employ in their effort to redefine marriage. Is it really a good idea to open this Pandora's box?"

But Love said polyamory is more about the spiritual and emotional connection between partners -- who in her group are faithful -- and not just about sex.

The couple belongs to the group Loving More, which publishes a magazine and holds conventions and retreats for the like-minded.

Founded in 1986, the organization has more than 15,000 on its global mailing list and 3,000 active members.

"Now we have the Internet and we can find each other," said Love. "We are not odd fish in the community we live in."

Polyamorous Murder Case Shocks Capital

But too often, polyamory gets a bad name.

Just this month, investigators in the 2006 unsolved murder of prominent Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Wone, say the three primary suspects -- all gay male professionals -- lived in a polyamorous relationship.

Police affidavits speculate that Wone was "restrained, incapacitated and sexually assaulted" before his death, then the trio tampered with the crime scene to cover it up.

Last November, Wone's widow, Katherine, filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against housemates Joe Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward, who were charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy in connection with the fatal stabbing.

But polys, as they call themselves, say lurid crimes like the Wone case do not define their lifestyles, which are as varied as their partners and personal arrangements.

Like Love, Robin Trask of Loveland, Colo., struggled with monogamous dating relationships in high school.

"My mother lived in Colorado and my father was in Texas, so I had a boyfriend in each place," Trask, the executive director of Loving More, told ABCNews.com.

Polyamory Allows Multi-Partners

"I felt wretched about myself," said Trask, 45. "I fell deeply in love with two people, and I had to choose."

Trask has three partners: the man she has lived with for four years; a man with whom she has been involved for 23 years who is married and lives outside the country; and a third man from New York City (he might be married; she doesn't know).

There are rules. The wife of her second partner forbids her husband to sleep with anyone but Trask.

Trask's sexual encounters are always one-on-one with a partner. But in a previous polyamorous marriage of 18 years, she had a threesome with her husband and his girlfriend.

"The dynamic was different, and it surprised me," said Trask, who identifies as heterosexual. "For me, it was about spirituality, much more about the relationship and emotional connection than just sex."

Polyamorous Children Grown Up Together

Trask likes the extended family that polyamory provides. She has three children -- 22, 18, 13 -- and her first husband's girlfriend also had children who spent holidays together.

"These are important relationships," she said. "The children grew up together."

Some polys support legalizing civil unions or incorporating their "clusters" as a corporation to gain health care and joint property rights. But Trask said her biggest concern is raising awareness so polys do not lose their children or jobs.

"We want it to be OK when you have two dads or two moms -- or whatever configuration -- at parent teacher conferences, and they don't freak out on you."

In polyamory, there are still are jealousies and pain, the same dynamics that can occur in a monogamous marriage, but the "full disclosure" between partners makes it more honest, according to Trask and Love.

Polys say that monogamy is a cultural norm that often fails. "As a result, many marriages are train wrecks, even when they don't end in divorce," said Love's husband, "Cougar," 58.

"Few people have good models to base their polyamory rules on," he told ABCNews.com. "For this reason, polyamory agreements must be negotiated with tenderness, empathy, partnership and the commitment to keep everyone safe."

Polyamorists Value Fidelity

Love and Cougar's goal is to create a "polyfidelitous family" -- four, five or six people who don't have relationships outside the marriage.

"Every person in a cluster or family realizes that no one can be completely happy if anyone is not," he said.

But Judy Kuriansky, a sex therapist and professor at Columbia University Teachers College, said being successful at polyamory is a tall order.

"[It] demands knowing yourself, replacing guilt with acceptance, communicating and embracing sexual energy, spirituality, new beliefs and a new culture," she told ABCNews.com. "Overcoming jealousy is key."

As a clinical psychologist, Kuriansky has seen some "dismal failures, even for the leading proponents."

"One wife left her poly husband, saying, 'I'm just a girl from Kansas. I finally realized I don't want my husband f**king other women.' A husband had a rude awakening when his wife added another man to their household and her bed, only to declare she wanted a sexual exclusivity with another man."

According to expert Deborah Anapol, polyamory has been accepted by many cultures. In Hawaii, where she lives today, there is even a word for the extra partner -- "punalua."

"We talk like we invented it, but it's been around a long time," said Anapol, who counsels couples and families, and is writing a new book on the topic, "Understanding Polyamory in the 21st Century."

Most Not Interested in Marriage

But, she said, today's polys have little interest in legalizing marriage, and "the state being involved in their lives.

"Polys don't want to make it into a special identity and don't want to be known as a poly person," said Anapol. "They just want to live their lives. A movement tends to put you in an oppressed, underdog position."

"I'd like to think the movement has already succeeded and in the most liberal parts of this country, it's more accepted," she said. "The shift has already happened."

At 57, Anapol is now "single" after two marriages -- one traditional and the other polyamorous -- which produced two daughters.

"Both are comfortable with the idea," she said. "The 37-year-old has chosen a conventional monogamous marriage and the 20-year-old is still experimenting, but definitely attracted to the idea."

But Anapol, who has several long-term "intimate friendships," has discovered that being polyamorous "doesn't solve all marital problems."

As for Love and Cougar, who celebrate their 10th anniversary this month, they say their relationship is "extraordinary."

"We've been very cautious," said Love. "He likes to say he steals my boyfriends. I am not interested in men unless they are interested in me."

"Every person is seeking to find a fit that works for them," she said. "It's hard enough to find a monogamous partner. It's exponentially harder to fit the quirks of two people, plus a third person."