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First Person

My life as a polyamorist

Google Calendars, anchor dates, and other rules and rituals of ethical non-monogamy

Michael, 42, is a copywriter and polyamorist living outside of Boston.

I had my first brush with polyamory when a girlfriend brought it up in college, back in 1997. I was intrigued by the idea that we don’t all have to live a life where you’ll have your last first kiss for the end of time.

But at the time, I was also leading Bible studies in a fundamentalist Christian congregation while grappling with a tough family situation. I attended theological seminary, got married, and had a daughter. When I extricated myself from that extreme religion, I left a giant paradigm behind. Suddenly, other institutions and viewpoints and values were up for grabs — including traditional monogamy, which the Hallmark section of CVS tells us is the only way to do relationships.

So when I met an interesting woman in 2006 and she brought up non-monogamy, I told her I was pretty sure I was interested, too.

Today, thanks to the magic of Google Calendar — and some healthy boundaries — I see four people with different levels of frequency. I’m loyal, and so are they. If they’re sick, I bring them soup. If two are sick at a time? Well, they all have other partners, too, so they get extra soup. They all know about one another.

Some people subscribe to a type of polyamory that looks more traditional, in which a person cohabitates with an “anchor” or “nesting” or “primary” partner. Others, like me, arrange things differently. In ethical non-monogamy, the main point is that everything is aboveboard and well-communicated — open and transparent. You talk it through with your partners and see what works for you. Although I now know I’m bisexual, all of my partners are currently women — and I don’t nest with any of them.

I’ve been with Molly — not her real name — for six years now. She was married when we met, and is still happily married today. We met on a dating app, OkCupid, where we both listed polyamory in our dating profiles. We had a slow-burn relationship over the years, a steady increasing of depth. It would not be uncommon for her to meet someone whom I was also dating and, being the sex-positive person that she is, consider a group situation. But group sex isn’t the point of the relationship. There’s a myth about polyamory: “You must be having threesomes all the time!” It’s not like that.

My next main partner is someone I’ll call Nadia. I met her at a party a couple of years ago and became her polyamory Sherpa, so to speak. If you’re non-monogamous and find yourself attracted to somebody, you’ll allude to that reality in a way that makes the other person feel safe. You might say, ‘my other partner,’ and leave it to the other person to process it however they will.

Another current partner, I’ll call Kelly. We connected when Molly and I went on a double date with Kelly and her boyfriend. We thought it would be fun to go out with a couple and see if we clicked. (That sounds very swingers-y, but most polyamorousidentified people won’t identify that way. For swingers, there’s typically no room for emotional attachments. For poly people, there can be.)

My next partner, whom I’ll call Susan, happened to move into the same group house as me. She was questioning monogamy and we talked about it, and also felt some mutual attraction. She has an aspiration for kids and marriage. I don’t — I see my daughter, who lives in the Midwest, on a regular basis — but Susan and I really care about each other, and if she finds someone else who wants kids, we’ll modulate.

I’m loyal, and so are they. If they’re sick, I bring them soup. If two are sick at a time? Well, they all have other partners, too, so they get extra soup.

Mostly, I see my partners separately. What works for us is that I schedule a standing date with each of them, a regularized event that occurs every week or two. It’s an anchor point: You know it will happen, no matter what. In between standing dates, you might get extra bonus dates if there’s an open slot. If we’re feeling frisky, we might have a threesome with other partners we know or go out flirting on the town. I can toggle between my partners’ Google Calendars. If I have a trio date with Molly and Nadia, it has a different dynamic than a one-on-one. But it’s still a date.

We might go to an event, or talk and catch up about our lives. And yes, there might be sex, but that’s really not the point any more or less than it would be on a monogamous date. We all barbecue, have chill hangouts, invite each other to other partners’ events. People are always happy to meet one another’s partners, and there’s generally no jealousy; I’m relatively fortunate that way. A lot of people who get involved in non-monogamy have a lot of jealousy to unpack, which is natural enough — the way monogamous people might get jealous of their partners’ hobbies, friends, or careers.

But to me, jealousy is just a signal to pay attention to myself. Am I feeling vulnerable, insecure, or lonely? We’ve all grown up with a cultural idea about jealousy: a monogamous script where someone flies into a rage if his partner is caught with someone else. Polyamorous people coined the term “compersion” to refer to the joy you get when your partner is happy with another one of their partners.

I view non-monogamy as a fountain of youth for a relationship. It preserves the sense of possibility that you first encountered with that person. And it’s becoming increasingly visible. When I started having polyamorous relationships in 2006, OkCupid might have listed 10 or 20 non-monogamous people in Greater Boston. Now, I’m seeing hundreds — maybe thousands, if you increase your search radius.

Still, many continue to hide; polyamory is still stigmatized and coming out can have heavy professional and personal consequences. Your kids could get taken away from you, which is why I’m not comfortable using my last name in this essay. I wouldn’t want any unintended consequences for my daughter, or her life.

But I’m confident things are changing. In a podcast episode several years ago, Dan Savage used the term “monogam-ish,” and it was like a rock in a still pond. Everyone kind of woke up and blinked: “Wait, we can still be respectful. We don’t have to make our clothes out of hemp or join a hippie commune. I can still be an attorney or whatever, but we don’t have to subscribe to 1955 Miss Manners.”

Now, I’m out to my sister and brother-in-law and they’re supportive and happy about my partners. My folks are in their eighties. My mom has dementia and lives in a nursing home, but my dad’s in the same house where I grew up. They know I was married, and they know that didn’t work out. But hey, I’m 42, I have a career, and I’m dating, so they’re happy. 

If I had one wish, it would be that polyamory was universally understood. I wish people would do more research. This isn’t pathological. It might not be for everyone, and that’s OK. But it’s a viable option. Mentally healthy. And not dangerous, if it’s ethical. What drives me is the same thing that attracts monogamous people to marriage: The act of being in a relationship, of experiencing meaningful connection. The levels of commitment are no less thick and thin than for married people. Plenty of marriages fall short and end in divorce, but nobody blames the institution of marriage.

A lot of polyamorous people feel that the particular brand of monogamy we’ve been assigned is an historical flash in the pan. Humans have successfully enacted umpteen different relationship types over the centuries. They all work — or don’t — in equal measure. What’s empowering is when you know you have a choice.

As told to Kara Baskin.

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