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Bucking Monogamy

Thoroughly perforated by Puritanism, we Americans are quite sure that if something feels really, really good, it’s probably very, very bad for you. Like shooting smack, watching porn on your boss’s computer, or digging to the bottom of an order of Outback’s Aussie Cheese Fries.

Love affairs are another example. In order to reap the toe-curling rewards of conventional romance — from the shivery intensity of new sex to the unparalleled peace of enduring intimacy — we must also abide the inevitable tedium of monogamy. We must accept and embrace the thrill-sapping sameness that yangs true love’s yin.

Or must we?

A covey of free-thinking, free-loving dissidents is bucking Puritanism, bucking monogamy, and, frankly, bucking anyone else who’s game. They practice what they call “polyamory,” or being openly — and therefore ethically — involved in multiple intimate relationships.

“Poly,” as it’s called for short, encompasses all sorts of consciousness-expanding configurations: from stick-straight to gay-as-the-day-is-long, from married couples with separate-but-not-secret lovers to a trio of adoring roommates who share more than the water bill. It’s not polygamy and it’s not “swinging.” It’s consensual non-monogamy with as much emphasis on love as on sex.

“People tend to harp on the sexual component, but the relationship component is just as important,” said Thomas Amoroso in the Boston Globe’s recent story about the phenomenon. Amoroso is a Massachusetts ER doctor and poly practitioner who shares a female life partner with another man.

Today’s polyamorists aren’t the first to reject the traditional one-on-one courtship and marriage model; surely, intriguing romantic arrangements have been made behind closed doors for centuries.

But spurred, perhaps, by recent nationwide debate about the definition of marriage, and united into regional groups via the Internet (there isn’t currently an active group in Santa Barbara), their numbers appear to be growing. Coined in the 1990s by a self-described “neo-pagan poet,” the word “polyamory” is in both the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. Experts estimate more than half a million people in the U.S. engage in openly polyamorous relationships.

For old-skool copulators like myself, the concept can be unsettling. I think about polyamory and my “naughty” alarms go off, especially when I hear about the poly guy who told Portland Monthly Magazine that his missus serves him and his girlfriends post-coital snacks. “There’s nothing sexier than having your wife bring you food when you’re in bed with another woman,” he said with no apparent shame.

How can this be right? Why is he allowed to have intimacy, trust, and variety, damn him? But when I shake off any socially conditioned priggishness, it’s hard to find real fault. It’s not heartless if you’re connecting with someone emotionally; it’s not dishonest if everyone consents.

Logically, then, the only fair question is whether you can truly be in love with more than one person at a time: Does adding a second lover necessarily subtract from your bond with the first? I’ve heard that hurt feelings can still occur between poly playmates; just because there’s no betrayal doesn’t mean there’s no jealousy.

I know a married mom from Santa Barbara who’s polyamorous — but her beloved husband isn’t. And he’s not crazy about her two long-term lovers. “I don’t necessarily believe in the limits that we place on relationships in a traditional marriage,” she said. “I believe that the more people you love, the better your life will be. I believe in flexibility in thinking.”

Indeed, it takes an open mind to properly ponder poly’s ethical and emotional geometry. Assume, for starters, that its devotees look just like the rest of us prudes. They’re not witchy weirdos with lust in their eyes; they’re artists and engineers, realtors and baristas.

And the much-loved mom above? No kidding: She’s a wedding planner.

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