Have you ever heard of polyamory? ReligionWriter hadn’t until this summer, when a friend became involved with a man who insisted up front that he was simply not monogamous, and that any relationship they had would be based on the principle of multiple love relationships, openly pursued. Indeed, this man seemed very committed to the idea of non-monogamy — what he called “polyamory” — even in the face of great obstacles. To RW, this sounded almost like a conviction. And while not every conviction is on par with a religious belief, RW wanted to know how a “belief” in polyamory might overlap with religious life.

What the heck is polyamory?

Polyamory is “the general term used to describe all forms of multi-partner relating,” according to Loving More magazine, the 16-year-old Colorado-based publication devoted to the polyamorist lifestyle. But get ready, there is more: polyamory can take many forms. A long-time married couple might open their marriage to allow for extra-marital romantic relationships, as Montel explored on his show this year.

Or, you might have two married couples living together, involved with one another, like the family of “Mr. Big,” which ReligionWriter wrote about in an article published yesterday by the Seattle Times. And that’s just the beginning… to learn the difference between, say, “polyfidelity” and an “intimate network,” you’ll have to peruse the definitions at Loving More magazine. In other words, it’s no more easy to sum up the practice of American polyamory than it is to define something amorphous like “American dating.”

Polyamory is different from polygamy, in that polygamy is about marriage, legal or otherwise. [In the U.S., two separate groups practice polygamy — fundamentalist Mormons and a small fraction of Muslims. There is also a small Christian push toward polygamy, spearheaded by the group Truthbearer.org.]

Here’s a quick way to think about it: polygamy is multiple-partner living for those on the far right of the politico-religious spectrum, and polyamory is for those on the far left. (And RW will look forward to hearing push-back from those who bristle at this crude shorthand.)

Polyamory Up Close

In August and September of this year, ReligionWriter, in the course of writing her article on polyamory for the Religion News Service, interviewed a number of practicing polyamorists around the country and focused on how their romantic lives linked up to their religious values. These conversations were fascinating; here is one for you to consider:

Lisa Davis is a twice-married 40-something and a mother and step-mother of six children. She was living in a Southern state when her husband, a conservative-minded Air Force veteran, took a corporate job that involved extensive travel. Her husband, “John” asked Lisa if she would consider having John’s close friend (also a military veteran) step in to be a “surrogate husband” while John was away for a month or more at a time. Lisa, a convert to Hinduism, agreed, and the couple’s mutual friend, “Steve,” who was separated from his own wife at the time, began to spend lots of time with Lisa and her children, helping around the house, going out to movies together, having coffee on the patio. At the time, Lisa had never heard the term “polyamory” and had no idea there was a small, alternative polyamorous community scattered around country, which, like most small alternative communities, comes together online.

The relationship between Steve and Lisa gradually became both romantic and sexual — but only after John agreed to this step. Said Lisa:

None of this happened without my husband’s knowledge. We were always totally honest about what was happening. It was very beneficial. I was much happier having someone there when my husband couldn’t be there.

Indeed, Lisa was so pleased with the arrangement that she encouraged her husband — often living by himself in a rented apartment in a Northern state — to find a similar kind of companion. She began to search online, but was able to find only women who were “swingers,” that is, people interested in casual sexual relationships, while she wanted to find someone who was interested in her husband as a person. Ultimately, her husband remained alone while she continued her relationship with Steve, an imbalance that was sometimes difficult.

For Lisa, polyamory matched up with what she read in Hindu scripture:

It was very commonplace and normal in ancient Vedic society for kings to have more than one wife, because women needed to be cared for and looked after, and this was a helpful thing in society.

But, she warned, “Jealousy is the demon here.” It’s hard to find a way to balance time and emotions between partners so that no one feels slighted. Lisa said she felt at one point she was too involved with Steve, leaving her husband to feel left out and jealous. As for the couple’s blended family of children, the two oldest gradually pieced together what was going on:

Our son said he didn’t care, that he was just glad there was a guy around, so we could do stuff as a family. He saw the perk for him: that I was happy. Our daughter was more intrigued, but she was relieved to know that Dad knows everything.

Today Lisa and her children have relocated to live full-time in the Northern state with her husband, and she is no longer intimately involved with Steve, who has moved overseas to possibly reunite with his own wife. But Lisa and John were generally pleased with polyamory, and today are seeking polyamorous partners through social networks, online and otherwise, where they live, though she says it’s not easy for them to find partners they can both agree on.

Of course, almost all of this happens without the knowledge of Lisa or John’s family. “We can’t tell them — it would be too mind-blowing, too unorthodox.” Similarly, the corporate environment where John works is so conservative “he can’t even tell them he’s a vegetarian,” let alone that he has shared his wife with another man.

The Take-Away

What ReligionWriter discovered in Lisa’s story, as well as in the stories of other polyamorists she interviewed, is that polyamory for some is a way of creating an extended family and is, in some sense, a response to modern, nuclear-family-based living. It offers for some an alternative framework for family values. Said Lisa:

I’m not sure why our culture is so hell-bent on monogamy. It’s so impractical. Look at all the things you need to do with raising children. Some people have parents living with them, but that’s a rarity nowadays. I like communal living in general. That was my experience with Hinduism; I lived in a communal environment, where everyone could contribute and get the benefit of an extended family.

For Lisa, then, what started as a practical family arrangement opened her mind to the possibilities beyond monogamous marriage, and her religious tradition offered support for that step. What was surprising about her story was, of course, its normalcy, and the fact that her husband, who first suggested the arrangement, was a Bush-voting military veteran with conservative political views. Along similar lines, ReligionWriter also found out (and perhaps she was the last to know) that business legend Warren Buffett seems to also have engaged in polyamory, as this New York Times article describes. Could polyamory be more common than we realize?

Coming later this week: ReligionWriter shares more polyamory stories and reflects on how polyamory relates to the debate over gay marriage.

» » »


3 Comments so far

  1. Neil Ball II on October 31, 2007 5:33 am

    “Here’s a quick way to think about it: polygamy is multiple-partner living for those on the far right of the politico-religious spectrum, and polyamory is for those on the far left. (And RW will look forward to hearing push-back from those who bristle at this crude shorthand.)”

    The scale of “left” and “right” are fallacious. Take myself for example. I’m a polyamorous atheistic anarcho-capitalist. I lack a belief in any god/deity. I despise socialism and government in all its forms. I absolutely love the concept of a truly free market capitalistic society. Where do I fit on your scale? (You asked for it :D)

  2. Polyamory and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate | Religion Writer.com on November 1, 2007 2:46 pm

    […] “Polyamory’s Faith and Family Values,” Oct. 29, 2007 […]

  3. CatDeville on November 4, 2007 3:48 pm

    “Here’s a quick way to think about it: polygamy is multiple-partner living for those on the far right of the politico-religious spectrum, and polyamory is for those on the far left. (And RW will look forward to hearing push-back from those who bristle at this crude shorthand.)”

    I won’t disappoint, then :-)

    Yes, this “crude shorthand” is far from being accurate. Besides the obvious point made in your article that polyamory is a religiously and politicaly diverse community, there are many within the polyamory community who also practice polygamy - in the fullest sense of the word. By that I mean that both polyandry and polygyny as well as group marriage are practiced, and all three of those are “polygamy”. So, some polygamists are a subset of the polyamorous community.

    For those of us in the poly community who are also polygamous, inaccurately defining conservative religious polygyny as the only form of polygamy is annoying. The fact that the more abusive forms of polygamy (coercive, sometimes arranged polygyny which includes either spousal abuse or sexual abuse of minors) is seen as the only way that polygamy is practiced is even more irritating. Worse, creating, spreading or fostering such an idea increases the problems with prejudice and civil rights issues for ethical, polyamorous polygamists.

    Within the polyamory community, families, of any composition of spice (our pl of “spouse”) is possible. The most common are 1F2M, 1M2F and 2M2F, but any composition can occur, and since many polyfolk are also Pagan, and many Pagan traditions will sanctify such unions if asked to do so, these unions can be polygamous unions by the literal definition of polygamy.

    So polygamous marriages do exist within the polyamory community… both “informal” (where the family consider themselves “married” but never seek out a ritual to sanctify the union, often because they belong to traditional faiths where such a ceremony would not be possible) and more “formal”, where the union is sanctified with a religious sacrament.

    So the type of polygamy that you’re speaking of is only one type of polygamy. And there are more than two religious groups in the US who practice polygamy (although for Pagans, polygamy is not a tenant of our faith… it’s just something which which is not restricted by our faith and in some cases, such as with the Church of All Worlds, it is something which is supported by the tenants of our faith.)

    Never Thirst,

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It