Antoinette and Kevin Patterson thought they’d stop dating other people once their relationship got really serious. They didn’t.
Maybe, they said, after they got married.
When that didn’t happen, they assumed after they had kids. Not then, either. Today, Antoinette, 35, and Kevin, 38, still date other people. The parents of two continue to identify as polyamorous, meaning they maintain multiple relationships with the consent of everyone involved.
“I quickly and very early on realized that monogamy was just not my jam,” Antoinette said from her home near Philadelphia. “I struggled with it from Day 1. It was not something I was able to do.”
Polyamory, once portrayed as the sole realm of sexually open hippies, has a very real place in modern life, with participants from all walks of life navigating a complicated web of sex, relationships, marriages and friendships among those who are in love or lust with romantic partners often dating each other. Logistics are difficult (enter elaborate Google calendars), jealousy happens, and there’s a coming-out process for people in polyamorous relationships that can open them up to criticism and judgment.
But those who make it work say the benefits of living and dating openly outweigh the drawbacks.
Antoinette, a physical therapist, and Kevin, a writer, now say polyamory is a fundamental part of who they are. They both have upper-back tattoos depicting a heart and an infinity sign, a symbol and a constant reminder, Antoinette says, that they’re “doing this poly thing forever.”
Now, it’s about convincing others that rejecting monogamy doesn’t make them all that different.
“I’m not trying to freak the norms,” said Kevin, who wrote a book about polyamory and race. “Like, I have a Netflix queue. I drive my kids to school every day. I am the norm.”
In addition to her husband, Antoinette has a boyfriend. Kevin can’t say exactly how many people he’s seeing because it’s always evolving. Sometimes it’s five. Other times it’s a dozen. For three years, he has dated Kay, who is pansexual and open to all gender identities. She practices what’s called “solo poly,” meaning she isn’t in a primary relationship with anyone.
Facing a stigma
The words polyamory and nonmonogamy encompass a variety of relationships, including married couples in open relationships, people who practice solo poly, and people in “triads” or “quads,” which are multiple-person relationships where everyone is romantically involved with one another.
Terri Conley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and an expert in sexuality, said the general interest in swinging and nonmonogamy that took shape in the early 1970s died down in the ’90s with the HIV health crisis.
Since then, the idea of “consensual nonmonogamy” has re-entered the public consciousness, and there’s a slowly growing acceptance of it. Meanwhile, the internet has allowed members of this niche community to coalesce, forming active presences on social media and fostering meetup groups in cities across the country.
“We live in a culture that very much values and prizes monogamy, and anyone who deviates from that is often stigmatized,” said Justin Lehmiller, an assistant professor of social psychology at Ball State University in Indiana. “My sense of it is that the stigma is lessening, but it’s still there.”
Some studies suggest that 5 percent of Americans are in consensual nonmonogamous relationships, but as many as 20 percent have been in one at some point in his or her life. And though the reasons why someone chooses polyamory vary — some say it’s a deep-seated part of their sexual orientation, others say it’s more of a relationship preference — the consensus among experts is that it’s not a fear of commitment.
On the contrary, said Conley, “These are people that really like commitment.”
“I’m not polyamorous because I’m avoiding commitment,” Kevin Patterson said. “I’m making commitments with multiple people.”
Jealousy and joy
Shallena Everitt has two spouses. When she tells people she has a husband, Cliff, and the two have a wife, Sonia, the first question is almost always: “How does that work?” She responds simply: “It works like any other relationship. It’s just more people.”
Shallena, 40, identifies as bisexual. She and Cliff have been married for 18 years and have two children. Four years ago, they met Sonia. The three fell in love and in April had a commitment ceremony — a de facto wedding for the polyamorous triad, although Sonia’s marriage to Shallena and Cliff is not legal. They now live in a blended house along with Sonia’s three kids, and the relationship among the three of them remains open.
“A lot of people say, ‘How can you love more than one person?’ ” said Shallena. “You love them for different reasons and they bring different things to you.”
While some polyamorous people admit that they deal with jealousy, others say they feel joy when their romantic partners are happy in other relationships.
Tiffany Adams, a 30-year-old nurse, identifies as polyamorous and pansexual. Today, she has three romantic partners: Phillip, Dan and Huey. She said feeling truly happy for her partners can help keep her jealousy in check.
“When my partner tells me they met somebody and they really like them or that their new partner told them they love them, it makes me feel really good,” she said. “I think having those things can counteract any jealous feelings.”
Paul Beauvais, a 44-year-old IT architect, said some people assume he has it great, especially when he mentions he went on dates with “both” of his girlfriends during the weekend. But while Beauvais says he loves being polyamorous, he makes sure to add that the practice includes all the “not so great” parts of a relationship, too.
“Polyamory is really based on the idea that we shouldn’t be running relationships in a resource model,” he said. “Love is not a scarcity.”