Kyle didn’t like the idea of watching his wife have sex with another man. While he wasn’t the jealous type—he could watch his wife flirt with another guy and not feel a thing—voyeurism didn’t turn him on.
But the rules of marriage were forever changed for Kyle, a stay-at-home dad, and his wife, Hope, a psychotherapist, when they decided to open their marriage to other romantic and sexual partners. It was Hope’s idea.
“It’s not that what we had wasn’t good,” she says. “I just wanted to try something different.”
That’s how Kyle found himself in the bedroom of another man two years ago; he’d insisted on tagging along on Hope’s date. Kyle, 42, prides himself on being a loving husband, and he wanted to make sure another man would treat his wife respectfully, tenderly even, during sex. “He’s very protective of me,” says Hope, 36.
This is the point at which most people start looking for holes in Kyle and Hope’s marriage, reasons why having multiple partners doesn’t make sense—or, for the less open-minded, why this suburban couple is off their rocker: Are they unhappy? Their sex life must be bad. They’ve got to be into some kinky stuff, right? But the answer—they swear—is no, no, and no.
Kyle and Hope have been married ten years. They have two little boys, a nice home in Alexandria, and a close relationship. They have sex no more than any other couple chasing around two kids does, but they are in love. Which is why Kyle was hesitant to open their marriage when Hope suggested it. Life with her was so good—why risk mucking it up by involving other people? Still, he was intrigued.
“We saw it all as a big experiment,” Kyle says. “We wanted to try it out and see what it was like.”
He struggled in the beginning. While Hope seemed to meet new boyfriends easily, Kyle hadn’t been confident dating in his twenties. Suddenly he was back to standing awkwardly at parties trying to make conversation with women. He scrolled through the “polyamorous” listings on Craigslist and OkCupid, looking for women open to dating multiple people at once. He tried to remember how to flirt: Use your quick wit. Listen more than talk. Show friendly body language.
Then he met Jane—a five-foot-ten, curvy woman with dirty-blond hair—at a party for polyamorous people. “We just clicked,” he says. They exchanged phone numbers, and she texted him that night: “Maybe we could have dinner sometime.” Jane was also married, living with her husband and eight-year-old daughter in Laurel. On their first date, Kyle took her to a Japanese steakhouse near her home. They made out in the car afterward, then went home to their respective families. Hope encouraged Kyle; she really liked Jane.
A few months after Kyle met his new girlfriend, they started Friday-night sleepovers. Jane and her daughter, Anya, pack a bag and head to Kyle’s house every Friday afternoon. He might give Jane a quick peck on the lips when she arrives, but nothing more until the kids are asleep.
“To the kids, it feels like a play date,” Kyle says. Anya runs off with his seven-year-old. After Kyle and Jane put the kids to bed, the two of them make dinner, catch up on their week, watch a movie. They sleep in the master bedroom; Hope spends Friday nights at her boyfriend’s house.
“We explain it to the kids in an age-appropriate way,” Kyle says. Simply put, they tell them that their friend—Anya—is coming for a sleepover. The kids are so excited, he says. Kyle knows the questions will become more complex over the years and says he’ll deal with them as they come up. For now, they’re careful to call their other partners “friends,” and they don’t touch—or even flirt with—them in front of the kids.
This is how he puts it: “If you look at the relationship Hope and I have, sex was the main connector. If I wanted sex, I had to get it from her. But when we could sleep with anyone, sex was no longer a reason to stay together. For a little while, this made me feel adrift—it was scary to let go of that bond. Suddenly, we were asking ourselves: Why am I with this person now, if not for sex? That’s why this experience has made our relationship so much stronger. I’m still with Hope because I love her. She’s wonderful. We have children together. We built a life together. Sex is just one aspect of why we stay together.”
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And sex is only one reason why couples practice polyamory. The word means “many loves,” and that’s how it differs from swinging, which is more about sexual conquest than meaningful connections. Polyamorous couples want long-term relationships with other people, not just one-night stands. They want the freedom to fall in love with other people, to get that wonderful rush of dopamine that comes with meeting someone new, hearing all of that person’s stories for the first time, and staying up all night listening to old music or talking about favorite books.
Polyamorists don’t think monogamy is wrong; they simply believe it’s not for everyone. But hearing “poly” couples speak of monogamy is like listening to an ex-con reflect on his years in prison.
Jonah, a government contractor in Northern Virginia, describes monogamy as an “anchor” around his ankle. “I felt like I was drowning in my marriage,” he says. He raised four children as an evangelical Christian, but after cheating on his wife, he decided there had to be a better model for marriage. He divorced his then-wife and met a woman named Olivia at a young-professionals happy hour at Lulu’s, a former bar in Georgetown, in 2004.
Olivia worked in international relations. She was smart, beautiful, successful. “We talked early on about the fact that we didn’t feel like we could be everything for one another,” Jonah says. “We didn’t want to put that pressure on each other.”
Jonah and Olivia married a year later, and they opened their union up to other people soon after. They’re drawn to “unicorns,” a term in the poly community for unattached bisexual women (who are considered as rare and special as unicorns). Says Olivia: “I still liked the idea of being married. There’s something deeply embedded in one man and one woman, and I couldn’t let go of that. My other relationships are like a bonus.”
Many poly couples express a similar sentiment: Having more than one partner can make you feel more fulfilled, with each person nurturing a different aspect of your personality. “Many of us don’t want to end a relationship with someone we really love just to get other needs met,” says Anita Wagner Illig, a polyamory advocate in DC who founded the website PracticalPolyamory.com and teaches classes for people interested in the lifestyle. Illig describes an ideal situation as one that “allows us to have one partner who shares our passion for, say, golf while another shares your activist nature or offers great sexual chemistry.”
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Open relationships aren’t new. Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist and author of The Polyamorists Next Door, who has been studying polyamorous families for a decade, says there were groups in the US practicing free love as an alternative to monogamy as early as the 1800s. In the 1960s and ’70s, communes, which often included some form of atypical sexuality, grew in popularity and “group marriage” and “swinging” became intriguing forms of sexual experimentation. (The freedom gained was squelched when the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980s.)
Divorce rates have been hovering near 50 percent for years—not exactly a cultural success story—and some people are vowing “not to be like our parents,” without knowing what they could do differently.
There’s anecdotal evidence of a spike in interest in polyamory in recent years. Last year, Showtime aired seven episodes of a reality show about two polyamorous couples in California, called Polyamory: Married and Dating. (Season two premieres on August 15.) And Illig says that poly social groups have seen a spike in members in recent years.
As in most major cities, Washington’s polyamorous community is tight-knit. “It can be a bit incestuous,” says Olivia. People tend to meet at friends’ parties, though sites like OkCupid let users search for poly individuals, and there are Meetup.com groups in the District, Northern Virginia, and Baltimore. One group of poly twentysomethings used to meet monthly at DC Bread & Brew near Dupont Circle, identifying their group with a copy of Opening Up or The Ethical Slut, books about open relationships, on the table.
Sheff says polys tend to be highly educated and upper middle class or wealthy, in part because there’s less risk for them if they’re outed. (If you can pay for the top lawyer in town, you’re probably not going to lose your kids because you have a boyfriend or two.) “Social privilege is a buffer that can make nonconformity safe,” Sheff says.
At the same time, local couples say polyamory provides an escape from the social trappings of Washington. There’s no keeping up with the Joneses in poly circles. That is, unless the Joneses want a one-night stand.
Says Jonah: “In DC, you go to events and everyone is posturing over where you work, what you do. It’s exhausting. In the poly community, people meet up to have a good time. You’re connecting more on an interpersonal level. I knew someone for over three years before I even knew what he did, and I was shocked by how high up in government he was. In the poly community, it’s not about who you know; it’s who you are.”