A reader with what sounds like a fun presence on Feeld wrote me a few weeks ago:
Claire! Would you ever do an issue on ethical nonmonogamy?
She and her husband were dipping a toe in the lifestyle and was curious to hear about other witches’ experiences raising kids outside the monogamous couple paradigm.
Three generous witches agreed to speak with me about their “origin stories” as well as the challenges and benefits of their relationships. These are edited/condensed versions of our conversations. Major thanks to all three of them for graciously sharing with me.
A Chicagoland mom of two kids, 3 and 6, in a committed triad with another woman and a cis man:
How did you three get together?
J. and I met when we were 10. I refer to us as childhood sweethearts. He came here to Chicago for college; I went to a small Bible college in Tennessee. All three of us grew up very conservative and religious.
My wife V. and I met in college as best friends. By the end of junior year, we were in a relationship. Meanwhile, J., our male partner, got married after graduation. That lasted about a year.
J. came to visit us after V. and I got married. She and I were open above the waist at the time. We were 22 when we got married, but we knew we were young and didn’t want to commit to never kissing another person in our lives.
I was thinking, “I’m finally going to get my first kiss with this boy 15 years after I wanted it.” But I wasn’t going to leave her. She was like, “I want in on the flirting. Flirting is fun and I miss flirting.” We came up here for New Year’s that year. That was when the two of them had their first kiss.
We realized the three of us get along really well. What do we do with that? None of us were familiar with the poly world. We didn’t have a concept of poly fidelity. I was like, “I’m fine with poly but I need boundaries and certainty.” J. was like, “Are we giving ‘this’ a try?”
I don’t know what ‘this’ is, but yes.
You are out to everyone in your lives as a triad?
Yes. The girls have two moms and a dad. It’s been a decade. I feel like any other monogamous couple; there’s just another person.
J. and I are the biological parents of the girls. We need to get our wills in order.
The world is very used to multiple parents. My parents were divorced. You know how nice it would have been if they were all in love with each other and lived in the same place?
Are there any perks to this arrangement when it comes to housework or childcare?
Every single one of my friends with a family goes, “I need a wife.” V. is done with work at 3, and J. is the main cook. You get more sleep.
Of course, it’s not easy.
I told people I’d be speaking with you, and someone told me, “I just want to know who sleeps bitch.”
I’m used to the “Who sleeps in the middle?” question
Since the kids have been born, nobody has. Historically it was J., but now we alternate sleeping in the girls’ room because the girls are just shit sleepers.
Do you have a system for checking in on each other to make sure everyone is feeling good and cared for?
It’s so easy to feel like you’re ganging up on someone without trying to. V. and I are very similar, and we’re almost always on the same wavelength, and J. is not. He has a lot of his own strengths. Myers Briggs has worked well for us. She and I go with our intuitive gut feeling. He needs data and hard facts. V and I will talk behind the scenes, and one of us will go to him. The flip side is forgetting who you told something to, which triggers me a little.
What are the holidays like for you with three parents?
We have family in southwest Virginia, and Minneapolis, Kentucky. It wasn’t until COVID we spent Christmas at home.
The girls have four sets of grandparents.
All the parents were aligned with “Omigod, I’m dating a girl.” They had time to adjust to their notion of “I’m not getting what I pictured.” [When our male partner J. got involved], they were like, “You’re already off the rails. V.’s mom was like, “Hallelujah, there’s a man involved.”
When J. moved up here, his parents didn’t know there was a triad. His dad was like, “Do you want to be living with lesbians?” They’ve had a much harder time. His parents would not let me and V. in the house. Us having those kids is what did their complete 180°.
Many traditional monogamy people assume that it takes a lot of extra effort to make a situation like yours work. Do you have more energy than most people?
In a lot of ways, it takes less energy. I do fewer dishes because there are more people to spread it out. Do I have the energy to go out and look for more relationships? Absolutely not. I can’t even date the people I’m already with.
What do people get wrong about you when they learn you’re in a triad?
Definitely that it’s all about the sex. We’re parents of two young kids. In the beginning, it was a lot of threesomes. Post-kids, it’s been almost completely dyadic. We have a built-in babysitter for when it is a pair.
There’s still some heteronormative patriarchal shit that J. got the better end of this, he’s the lucky one. “Oh, you got lucky, dude.” Ten years ago, when I was younger and more foolish, I adored those comments. I felt like arm candy. Now I’m like, “Fuck you. Way to diminish any sense of pleasure or happiness I get in this relationship.”
A Montreal-based mom of two young kids who has been poly since college and is married to another woman:
How did you and your wife get together?
We met in college. I was dating someone else, and I was in a poly relationship with him. She and I started dating, but I broke up because I was so committed to him. I told him I’d be committed, but he was dating around. Things went really south with him. Then I got back together with my now-wife. We’ve been together for over ten years.
I was at a women’s college, and I was sleeping around. I encountered a lot of people who didn’t want to date me because they were like, “Oh you’re bi, and you’re just going to go back to men.” My wife was one of the first people who were like, “You’re bi; I am too.” She’s really butch, so people would say, “You’re just a lesbian and don’t want to accept that.”
She wasn’t poly. She’s very monogamous. She was able to accept that about me. When we first got married, we did close our relations for a while to build a solid foundation. We weren’t taking it for granted that we would always be poly; we wanted it to be an intentional choice.
She mostly remains monogamous. She identifies as a gray ace. She generally doesn’t feel sexual attraction unless she’s romantically attracted to someone. She’s fooled around with another person with me, and she felt comfortable and safe with that person, but she otherwise doesn’t see other people.
How many folks are you seeing aside from your wife right now?
Because we have young kids, I will sleep with friends if we are both comfortable and have the type of relationship where we know the other one isn’t going to read anything romantic into it. One of my friends that I’ve slept with a few times now is actually aromantic. It works out well because he doesn’t want a relationship. He’s friends with my wife too.
The biggest thing for me is having the right partners. I’m a good communicator, but I’m also really intentional about who I think I would be able to handle not joining my relationship, who wouldn’t alter the direction of my relationship. That’s pretty unusual in the poly world. Most of my friends either date or sleep around with lots of people, or they have a stable triad.
Where do you meet people you date?
It’s people I already have a relationship with. I would be open in the future, but my kids are young. We are still in the process of adopting one of my kids through social services. They’re very nosy about your relationships. They’ll ask you things like how often you have sex with your partners. I definitely don’t want to risk having me found on a dating app and having them be like, “Oh, what’s wrong with your marriage?”
What, if any, ground rules do you and your wife have?
I wouldn’t sleep with anyone without talking with her about it. If I was getting too involved with someone, and I wasn’t devoting my attention to our relationships, we’d make a decision about how I’d re-negotiate that. There definitely have been people who I’ve sort of broached, “I think this person is a little cute; I might see they might be open,” and she’s like, “No, I wouldn’t be open to that because of their dynamic.” And that’s fine.
She also wants to know the big picture of what I’ve been doing, but she doesn’t want to hear the details. Some people want to hear or even enjoy the details. If there is any fluid sharing, she’d want to know. But she doesn’t want to know the details unless she’s involved.
Me sleeping with other people has only improved our own sex life. When we’re going through a dry spell, and I have sex with another person, I’ve shifted my energy, and I’m invigorated again. It’s not predictable. It makes me feel desired. My wife makes me feel desired too, but it’s different with a steady relationship and kids and the grind.
Who are you out to?
We’re not out with school or anything. Whatever your sexual orientation, nobody wants to hear about your sex life.
The kids do know one of my sexual partners because he’s also one of my their sperm donors. They don’t know he’s my partner, but they know “He’s a part of my family.” They talk about him at school in terms of how important he’s important to our family.
My wife’s family doesn’t know, and it doesn’t need to know. They’re liberal, and they’re cool with us being gay; we got married in their backyard. But they’re not very sexually open. My my sisters in theory, know, but they sort of assumed that I grew out of it and settled down and have kids. I haven’t talked about having other partners or dates in a while.
There were times that we loosely talked about our sex lives. We had one conversation in the car where my sister was talking about your sex life going through a dry spell after having kids, and my single sister was like, “That’s so horrible,” and I was like, “It doesn’t have to be that way…”
But that’s all that was.
Who watches the kids if you’re on a date?
Because it’s usually friends, we actually are usually here in the house. When the kids were really young, and they couldn’t get out of their room, I used the living room. We had a futon in the living room for guests, and they’d spend the night there, and we’d hook up, and I’d go back to bed with my wife, and we’d wake up, and the whole family would have pancakes together. We don’t usually go out.
The kids in the morning are like, “These are mom’s friends. They’re coming from out of town, and they’re going to stay late and game with us.” The kids don’t know. The current person I sleep with the most regularly is totally happy to come over and play board games. They’re there to hang with us. If something happens, yay.
What do people get wrong about you without knowing you?
I think I avoid a lot of misconceptions in some ways because I’m capital-Q Queer. Since I hit puberty and was a sexual person, I had a lot of people assuming that I was slut and calling me a slut in a derogatory way.
I have been both sexually assaulted and cheated on. Both times nobody really believed that’s what happened because I was poly. When I was assaulted, it was a friend, unfortunately. People were like, “I can’t believe you slept with this friend." I was like, “Hang on, I was crying; there was no consent there.”
When I was cheated on, I would have been comfortable if he slept with her; we even talked about it. “It seems like you’ve been close to this girl. Is anything going to happen?” He was like, “No, you’re being paranoid.”
After we broke up, he was like, “Oh, I slept with the girl multiple times.” People were like, “What did you expect? You’re poly.”
My wife and I have this thing we say when we talk about men who have anarchist values or socialist values or who seem super liberal or woke “…but does he do the dishes?” I think it’s similar to poly. You have to talk about the issues before you talk about who you’re going to sleep with.
If you could give advice to someone contemplating a similar setup to yours, what would you tell them?
My first piece of advice is impossible—don’t overthink it.
We’re people, and we overthink things. Sometimes when you try to make so many rules and guidelines, you’re trying to keep yourself safe. But you can’t keep your emotions safe. It’s about having trust with your partner and open lines of communication where you can say I’m thinking about it, “I’m interested in this person; what do you think?”
Being able to get over the embarrassment or the fear is really hard work. I’m not saying, just get over your fear. You couldn’t say, “I want what she has,” and go and try to create that. It has to emerge organically. What are the opportunities in your life to go on a date, to have a friend who is interested in the same thing and talk with everybody openly, to say, “I might be interested in hooking up with you for a night”?
The other thing is not assuming that it’s going to give you free rein to do whatever you want. It gives you more people’s feelings to consider, not fewer. You have to say, “I went on this date; how are you feeling afterwards? Did you feel any jealousy, do you want to talk about it or not talk about it?” You have to be considerate of your partner. Then it can actually strengthen your bond.
If you’re thinking about opening up your relationship, open the ways you communicate and practice communicating in other ways of your life, whether it’s housework or parenting or how you relate to your kid’s school or communicate with the teacher.
A non-monogamous mother of a seven-year-old in Massachusetts:
How many people are you currently seeing?
It’s been quite fluid over the last five years. I have a partner I’ve been seeing for the last four years. He is happily married, and they have an open marriage. That is probably the person I see the most.
When it comes to ethical nonmonogamy, I have one comet who lives in Chicago who I see two or three times a year.
I recently connected with another play partner. He and his wife are swingers. I don’t have a lot of experience in the swinger community, but that’s been a positive connection.
My child’s father and I are getting divorced. We’ve been married for 22 and a half years. We grew apart. He moved to Long Island, and he’s living with his girlfriend there.
How long have you practiced polyamory?
About five years. The way I do it definitely has changed as my son has grown.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about my partner, A., who I see often. A. has two sons with his wife, and they’re out of the nest. We have gone back and forth in about “Do you want to know my son? What would the role be? Is your wife comfortable with that?” What went from an eagerness for A. to be more involved in my son’s life went to being more “Let’s not do that.” So my son is aware of him as a person but does not know him.
I had a previous relationship where I thought we were going to move in together. My son knew that person for many years. We shared many meals together. When it broke up, it gave me pause about what is the way to do it.
I believe my son sees me as someone who dates. He is aware mom has adult friends and needs adult time. “Mom gets to have play dates too. Do I go with you to your play dates?”
How did you first start exploring it?
My marriage was monogamous for 18 years, and I never questioned it. We ceased to have an intimate relationship, and that’s super important to me. I came to find out he had cheated on me. One of my main reactions to that was, “It’s not fair you get to leave the house and have fun, and I never get to. It’s just completely unfair.” He was like, “That’s fine. You can leave the house and have fun,” and that’s how it started.
One of the most important things about this lifestyle to me is that it requires people to be good communicators. Even though we were married for 18 years, my ex and I were not good at communicating with each other. Now we’re able to have these frank conversations.
What advice do you have for poly women whose male primary partners get jealous?
It depends on the man’s relationship with himself. Is he secure enough in his own self that he can deal with that? Would he prefer to do swinging instead because that’s more of a mutual couple-couple where people are guaranteed a partner? What is he looking for in additional relationships? What is his goal?
One reason I shy away from the phrase “ENM” [ethical non-monogamy] is that many men use that tag on apps but don’t give it any importance.
Part of what’s lovely about polyamory that you wouldn’t expect is the relationships between your intimate partner and yourself and their intimate partners. It doesn’t have to be intimate, but it can be, which is super fun. It can be a friendship which is called a metamour. When my ex’s girlfriend and I were both sleeping with him, the relationship with us was additional love, additional support.
A.’s wife and I are on friendly terms but she doesn’t want to be close. I don’t want to mess up what’s going on with them, but she does super nice things sometimes. I went to his house, and she purchased us nice stuff to make for dinner. That’s such a warm fuzzy.
Are you seeing additional people beyond that?
I am open to other people, but I’m not putting a ton of energy into it. Childcare has disappeared since the pandemic. It’s hard to get out of the house. I meet people on apps, but I’m not on any right now.
My recent play partner, his wife reached out and was like, “Uhh, interested?” I was like, “I wasn’t really looking, but didn’t know that about you. Yes, I am interested.”
I’m spending a little time falling in love with myself at the moment. Just thinking about my needs and nice-to-haves and I’m exploring my own sexual orientation.
What do people not get about being poly?
A misconception is that you really want to be monogamous, or “I, a man, have some purchase on your sexuality. I have some right to interfere with, demand or insist.” So much about relationships is about ownership of another person. Sometimes this kind of relationship can break that wide open.
It is really rejuvenating. A. has been with his wife for 20 years, and she has tons of partners all over the country. She’s very attractive and successful. When she does get a newer partner, I can feel that energy. If you want to have better sex with your partner whom you love, go fuck other people. The conversation will be interesting. That has more of a multiplying factor than a draining.
What is draining is people lying or not being able to schedule anything. That’s a big issue with men, that “You should come when I say.” I have a kid, I need to do this when it works for me.
What advice would you give to someone newly interested in exploring the lifestyle?
Red flag things: If someone says they love you on a third date, run away. They don’t.
Don’t take anyone’s word on STI testing unless you actually see it. That broke up a polyamory ring I know about: My ex’s wife was in a long-term relationship, and her partner got another girlfriend, and she was not honest about her own STI situation. If you’re not using protection, it goes around the whole circle, and it’s not fun. Those are not exciting conversations to have with your partner.
What are your personal ground rules?
It’s not OK with me if you have other partners and you don’t let them know about me.
A lot of people think you can’t get cheated on if you’re poly. You can. I think a lot of people use it as a shopping trip or don’t think you’re serious. Or say, “If you’re poly you don’t think there’s anything special about me.” Everyone lights you up in a different way.
Is there anything else you wish people knew about practicing a poly life?
Yes, three big things:
1: Everyone gets jealous. If you don’t feel jealous, then something is probably wrong. What is important is your ability to talk about it. “In this situation, I sometimes feel a certain way. Can talk about X?”
2: Compersion is a real feeling. It can be much stronger and more rewarding than you think.
3: You know how Sumner Redstone said, “Content is king”? Consent is king.
Also, a big frustrating issue is unicorn hunting — you’ll connect a woman and all of a sudden, there’s a man involved, and she can’t play outside that man. That is really icky.
You can do an analysis of monogamy from the perspective of property law. We see a lot of it from the Christian white supremacy movement and the attacks on abortion. I’m trying to claw back an ownership role for women under a patriarchal society. One of the reasons I persist is that it’s just a huge fuck you. I won my sexuality, and that belongs wholly to me.
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The archives live here. If you want to read more about being a mom who has sex here’s an earlier issue about postpartum sex. This week’s chat was on the very unsexy topic of things we’ve gotten our kids to eat recently, if you need ideas.
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One witchy thing
Text exchange between my friend and her tween daughter:
OK, this was fascinating. I learned a lot and yes, identified a few spots where I've just been a judgy het monogamy lady about these scenarios and need to get over myself. So appreciate you and your sources sharing all of this!
i am a polyamorous person with a husband and a girlfriend and a one year old! and it is HARD but is also so rewarding. There’s a lot here that i resonated with and i wish there were more spaces to talk about this.
I also love the comment that it changed some “judgey het lady” ideas from Virginia Sole-Smith. I hope that happens a lot more bc there is so much misconception of what polyamory, ethical non-monogamy, and relationship anarchy actually are and how they play out.
Love as thou wilt. (if anyone gets this reference let’s be besties).