The afternoon lunch rush has been long finished at the Columbia City café. A family with a husband, wife, their 11-year-old son and the husband’s girlfriend walks in.
Yes, the husband, happily married for 17 years, has a girlfriend, and his wife has no issue with it. In fact, she has a boyfriend, too.
They are a polyamorous family. Polyamory is a relationship model in which a person has more than one intimate relationship with the knowledge of everyone involved. Unlike polygamy or polyandry, in which a person has multiple spouses (and which usually has religious connotations to it), those who practice polyamory are free to have other romantic partners.
Matt Bullen and his wife, Vee (not her real name), who live in Southeast Seattle, opened their relationship more than five years ago while they were living abroad. For half of each week, she left their rural town to stay in a city several hours away for work.
“One night, we were talking, and I asked the question, ‘We’re a responsible couple; we’re both apart a lot and under ongoing stress. What would happen if one of us found someone for company for one night?’” Matt explained. “Not out of desperation, but just hypothetical. Vee wasn’t interested, but we agreed to it.”
Matt and Vee didn’t act on their new agreement until their family returned to Seattle in 2009. They made friends with three people who were all in a polyamorous relationship, and their interest in polyamory developed from there.
A polyamorous family
Emma (not her real name), who has been dating Matt for the last 16 months, said she felt nothing odd with the arrangement. “I was actually pretty surprised with how everything was normal,” she said. “‘Normal’ is the only word you can use to describe it.”
She attends the Bullens’ son Edwin’s soccer games on the weekends, and Edwin (not his real name) sees her like an “auntie.”
Emma, who enjoys her independence, found this relationship fit perfectly and considers herself monogamous. “I date Matt and have no other interest in dating anyone else,” she said. “The dynamics work out well for me. I get my time and then relationship time.” There is no set template for the structure of a poly relationship. Like Matt, Vee and Emma’s arrangement, there are triads involving three people, or quads involving four people, group marriages…the list goes on.
There are many misconceptions of what polyamory is and what it is not. Many may assume that polyamory is the same as an open relationship or even swinging. Polyamory is more centered on the actual relationships more than sexual contact. However, this can be a sticky subject, according to Allena Gabosch, executive director for the Center of Sex Positive Culture in Seattle. She acknowledged, “There’s a bit of controversy about what ‘polyamory’ means to those of us who are poly. We get to define it, and we all define it differently. For many, poly puts the emphasis on ‘loving, intimate relationships,’ where[as] ‘open’ may be more about casual sexual encounters. That said, I know many poly folk who practice both.”
As for her relationships, Vee makes it clear that her relationships “are not a causal thing. We truly love each other, and if something is to happen to the other one, we are there for each other. Our relationships are like friends with benefits but long-term.”
One thing all emphasized is that polyamory is not cheating. As in a monogamous relationship, infidelity or any other dishonesty is not tolerated.
“In cheating,” Emma pointed out, “there is a fundamental dishonesty involved that really doesn’t exist in a healthy poly relationship.”
Matt explained, “Cheating is not poly. If that’s an excuse to use to cheat, it will not work.”
As with a monogamous relationship, not having good communication can be a potential game-ender for a polyamorous arrangement, especially if there may be some jealousy.
Vee recalled a time she dealt with jealousy: “One’s own imagination is an enemy in such a highly aroused emotional state. Once, when both Matt and my other partner were on dates on the same night, I was left home alone. I had convinced myself that they preferred the others over me, and therefore, I would be supplanted by the other partners. At the time, no amount of self-rationalization that I was special, loved, sexually attractive and cherished helped.”
Feelings of jealousy are almost always common when one partner begins a relationship with another. That person usually is experiencing a high of being in love, which is referred to in polyamory as “new relationship energy.” There is a chance that one partner will feel ignored or left out. Vee stressed the importance of spending enough time with your partner.
Matt said that even the thought of jealousy can taint people’s views on polyamory. “People freeze when they hear the word ‘jealousy,’ and they get very scared and don’t want to go further.”
Matt believes that the next wave of polyamory being more socially acceptable will be “those who are currently poly but who camouflage it, will finally stop it. They come out and say that, ‘You know what? This picture on my desk at work is not my sister or brother, but my other partner.’ Because they had found a second or third partner and are sick of disguising it.”
Polyamory and other forms of multi-partner relationships are nothing new. There was a large devotion to open marriage during the free-love movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s — rhat dropped during the AIDS scare of the 1980s. Thanks to the boom of the Internet in the 1990s, polyamory started to emerge as a social movement.
Those in polyamorous relationships include former National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland, actress/comedian Mo’Nique, actress Tilda Swinton, magician Penn Jillette and financier Warren Buffett.
Another prominent polyamorous figure is Dr. William Moulton Marston, the inventor of the lie detector. He’s more famous as the creator of comic-book heroine Wonder Woman, whom he based on both his wife, Elizabeth, and partner Olive Byrne. After Marston died, Elizabeth and Olive stayed together for more than 40 years.
In the political world, there was the late former French Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand. His wife and his longtime mistress both provided care for him as he lay dying of terminal prostate cancer and later accompanied his casket to the grave. Despite media attempts to keep it hidden, French society was well aware of it.
“People are used to the monogamous paradigm — they don’t know there is another option,” Vee said. “Rather than thinking healthily of how to communicate the feelings that they have with partners…, you are either doing serial monogamy or you are cheating. If people knew they had another option that wasn’t unethical and it could work for them, a lot of relationships could be saved because a sharing could be accommodated.”
The long run?
According to Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, not enough studies have been done on polyamory to know its actual viability. “Polyamory is a much more complicated form of living together for people who have not grown up with a village or [are] living in a group mentality,” she said. “Not impossible, just difficult. Even in those societies where multiple forms of marriage are legal and culturally familiar, the anthropological literature is replete with tales of competition, jealousy and favoritism. So I do not see it as a new trend but something that a small group people will want and an even smaller group of people will be able to do successfully.”
Vee agrees about the uncertainty, but she points out that it is “no different from a monogamous relationship, with a 50-percent chance of divorce. If you ask that about every mono relationship, people would be paralyzed.”
Matt added, “Monogamy is seen like the eldest child that is forgiven everything: No matter how many times it goes wrong, they still kind of favor it.… Then there’s the youngest son, polyamory, and everything he does is wrong. People tend to favor monogamy because that’s what’s always been around.”
Gabosch, of the Center of Sex Positive Culture, said that polyamory can be both “life-changing” and “important,” especially if one is going through a crisis. “I recently went through breast cancer, and having my poly family there was amazing. I never went to the doctor or chemo alone. In fact, many times, several of them were with me. I also think that the financial and emotional support that a poly family brings can be important.”
The Bullen’s son, Edwin, can definitely agree with this. He enjoys spending time with Emma, bantering about the Sounders or the latest James Bond movie, and with Vee’s boyfriend. A few of his friends know about his family dynamic, as does his schoolteacher (Emma is listed as an emergency contact), but he has not had any negative backlash from it.
“We want him to stay a regular, innocent, cheerful lad,” Matt said.
The café is now starting to pick up as the dinner hour approaches. Vee is heading to a concert. Emma is heading home to rest after getting back from a business trip with Matt. And Matt is heading home with Edwin to make dinner. Everyone gets up and leaves…as a family.
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