A love triangle? Try a hexagon
In the world of polyamory, relationships are concentric, overlapping, fluid and unbound by numbers. The ancient practice is getting a modern boost from the Internet.
By Leonora LaPeter
Published February 18, 2007
Cherie Ve Ard is worried. As she waits for her burrito at an Orlando Tijuana Flats, she wonders if she's giving her three boyfriends enough attention.
There's Franklin Veaux, 40, her long-distance love from Atlanta, who has surprised her with a visit. He's holding her left hand and kissing her neck.
Her longtime live-in boyfriend, Fritz Neumann, 40, cradles her right hand on his knee.
And she gazes googly-eyed across the table at her newest love, Chris Dunphy, 34, of California. They met in a Toyota Prius chat room in June, and their conversation was so intense he drove cross-country to her doorstep one day ago.
Ve Ard, 33, knows people may think she's a swinger. But these aren't casual sexual relationships, she says. They are a natural outcome of her belief that there's more than one true love out there for her at any given time.
"I feel that there is no one person out there who can meet all who I am," says Ve Ard.
* * *
History is replete with people who, like Ve Ard, participated in relationships with more than one love, each lover aware of the others. Financier Warren Buffett, beatnik Jack Kerouac and William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, come to mind.
Now the practice has a name: polyamory. Researchers believe the phenomenon is growing, and certainly it has become more visible, thanks largely to the Internet.
The word polyamory only last year joined the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. But already it is seeping into the popular culture; it was mentioned recently on the NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
The term is used to define an entire range of relationships. Some polyamorists are married people with multiple love interests, and others practice informal group "marriage." Some have group sex, and others have a series of one-on-one relationships.
Polyamorists around the country gather in support groups formed on the Internet; Meetup.com has about 6,000 polyamorous members nationally. A half-dozen groups meet in Florida, including Gator Poly at the University of Florida and PolyTampa in the Tampa Bay area (178 members).
Heather Wilson, 32, the mother of a 12-year-old girl, organizes local polyamory meetings on Meetup.com. In December, participants discussed how to handle polyamorous relationships during the holidays.
"Most people don't realize there's a phrase that's been coined to cover the relationship style," says Wilson, who once was married and dating another man. She is now divorced.
Polyamorists also attend conventions with seminars called Jealousy Management and Polyamory 101. A dating site, Polymatchmaker.com, claims 6,500 members, and a book on the subject, The Ethical Slut, sold 60,000 copies. There are even books that polyamorists give their children, including one called Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies.
"The majority of polyamorists are white middle- and upper-class professionals," says Elisabeth Sheff, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. She's one of the few academics who has studied polyamory, interviewing hundreds for her research.
"Many work in the computer industry, so there is a strong online community. They tend to gravitate toward urban areas," she said, "much like gays and lesbians."
* * *
The woman with no fewer than four men at her beck and call has long, curly red hair and steel blue eyes and has been on a lemonade diet to lose weight.
Ve Ard calls herself "Smoocherie" online and organizes a Central Florida polyamory retreat. She runs a software business out of her home near the beach in Melbourne, rails about the "design concept and flimsy hardware" of her smartphone and uses phrases like "child-free by choice" and "intentionally unmarried."
Her parents have been married 36 years, but she says she always felt she was wired differently. When she was in high school in Texas, she wondered why she couldn't have relationships with both her boyfriend and his friend.
At 19, she met her future husband and they began a relationship with another couple, practicing polyamory even before she knew the word existed.
Later, she and her husband got into a serious relationship with a different couple. Neumann, a technology project manager at a hospital and Ve Ard's longtime live-in boyfriend, was the other man in this "quad."
Ve Ard met Neumann on a couples message board, and they arranged to meet and bring along their spouses. Their first date was like any other, times two: The couples met at an Italian restaurant. Afterward, they went for a walk on the beach and talked all night as they watched sea turtles lay their clutches in the sand.
"It's just like in the monogamous world," Neumann recalled. "Some people jump in the sack, but that just wasn't us. We wanted to talk and get to know one another. We found a lot of synergy between the four of us."
Eventually they bought a house near the beach together. Then both couples divorced to give each member of the quad equal standing.
But the quad did not last. Within a year, the four divided into two sets of two, but not the sets they started in. Ve Ard's ex-husband married Neumann's ex-wife. And Ve Ard and Neumann moved into a new home together.
Ve Ard said the experience did not sour her on polyamory.
"However, it did lead me to question the concept of marriage and making 'till death do us part' sorts of commitments."
* * *
Polyamorists like Ve Ard spend a lot of time trying to convince a monogamous culture that their lifestyle is viable. Outsiders are dubious, to say the least, especially where children are involved.
"We need to have a debate right now about what this means for children . . . because having multiple unrelated adults passing through will open them up to a much higher risk of physical and sexual abuse," said Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families in New York City.
No one has actually studied the effect of polyamory on children. Polyamorists say it has benefits because there are multiple adults around to care for them.
A court rejected the lifestyle in at least one case. A Memphis polyamorous woman who came out in 1998 on MTV's Sex in the '90s: It's a Group Thing lost custody of her 3-year-old daughter to her mother-in-law over the revelation.
The juvenile court referee said the lifestyle was "detrimental to the moral upbringing of the child."
Conservative Christian groups and pro-marriage organizations have attempted to bolster their case against gay marriage by arguing that if it is allowed, polyamorists will start clamoring for group marriage.
"Could your business afford health care benefits for five or nine people in a group marriage?" asks Glenn T. Stanton in an article for Focus on the Family. "In this brave new world, what would keep two heterosexual single moms - or even six of them - from 'marrying' simply so they can receive family health, tax and Social Security benefits together?"
* * *
Many polyamorists like Ve Ard say they have no intention of ever marrying. They are content to develop multiple relationships and live in "extended networks," groups of people who are dating or living together though they may not all be having sex.
Much of Ve Ard's extended network was with her on that recent visit to Tijuana Flats in Orlando.
Try to follow:
Ve Ard sat between longtime boyfriend Neumann, a balding man with a beard and greenish-blue eyes, and her Atlanta boyfriend, Veaux, skinny with razor stubble and glasses. Veaux has three other girlfriends, including a woman who sat next to him, a University of Florida student named Shelly, who was studying for a test while Veaux kissed Ve Ard. Shelly lives with another boyfriend and his wife in Gainesville and commutes to see Veaux in Atlanta three days a week.
On the other side of the table, a laid-back Dunphy, Ve Ard's latest boyfriend, sat near James Glendinning, a 37-year-old wine and liquor salesman and his girlfriend, Laura Guy. Ve Ard and Glendinning used to be lovers but aren't anymore. Guy is one of Ve Ard's closest friends.
After a while, Ve Ard got up from her spot between Neumann and Veaux and headed over to Dunphy's side. She grabbed Dunphy's hand and moved in for a kiss on the lips. Her long, red curls hid the smooch.
What was she thinking just then?
"I'm wondering if everyone is getting enough attention," she said, "and if I'm spread too thin. I'm not used to having this number of extended partners close by."
Ve Ard says she's not having sex with all of her boyfriends. But whenever she adds another lover to her repertoire, she sends him a "sexual history disclosure" spreadsheet, complete with names of partners, the types of sexual contact they had and the results of tests for sexually transmitted diseases. She expects the same in return.
So when she and Dunphy initiated a sexual relationship, they exchanged spreadsheets and she disclosed to him that she has had human papillomavirus, or HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease. They also got tested for other STDs, including HIV, and shared the results with each other - and with Neumann.
"Because I'm sexually involved with her, any new diseases will affect me," Neumann says.
It is hard to imagine all of this ever being simple. Sheff, the Georgia State University professor, said polyamorous relationships sometimes fail because some partners feel unequal. Typically it is the long-term partner who starts to feel neglected.
Neumann, Ve Ard's longtime beau, realizes her new relationship with Dunphy is something special compared with the other relationships she's had. But he appears unconcerned.
"New relationships take more energy," says Neumann. "But it is something we'll get through. She's going to be spending more time and energy with her new relationships. I accept that as an existing partner."
He admitted one feeling: envy.
"I just wish I had that new relationship fluffiness going on," he says. "It's like the little kid in you seeing a new toy and saying, 'I want, I want, I want.' "
He has limits. If Ve Ard's new relationships start taking up too much of her time, Neumann says he'll let her know it.
"Cherie (Smoocherie) invented the word polysaturation," says Neumann. "If she gets enough partners, all of us are going to go to her and say, 'Cherie, come on, you're spread too thin.' "
* * *
One day in December, Ve Ard headed out on a date with her fourth boyfriend. She met him online last summer.
"It's just dating at this point, and he's a good friend who I'm hanging out with," Ve Ard said.
She ended up staying overnight at his house, though she says they are not sexually involved. Dunphy and Neumann, meanwhile, stayed behind and dueled on a PlayStation Star Wars game.
The three have essentially been living together since Dunphy arrived in December.
"Seriously enjoying having two guys around the house," Ve Ard wrote in her online journal one day recently. "It's sheer bliss and I feel so absolutely loved and adored."
The three planned a seven-day cruise to Mexico on Disney's Magic. They would share a suite.
Neumann offered to let Ve Ard and Dunphy have the master suite while he took the sleeper sofa. Ve Ard said she would probably spend a few nights with Neumann.
A few days later, they boarded the ship hand in hand. All three of them.
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
Publications: Loving More, a national magazine that is distributed to about 1,200 people, has been around for 20 years. It hosts retreats on the East and West coasts each year, drawing 100 to 200 people to each one. It will host the first international conference in Greece in March.
The history: There is a long history in many cultures of men having multiple wives or women having multiple husbands, and it was the right of royalty and nobility to have concubines and consorts, says Debra Anapol, a psychologist, polyamorist and author of the 1997 book Love Without Limits. The modern movement began with Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 book, Stranger in a Strange Land. The book is about an orphaned boy left on Mars and raised by Martians who return to Earth and, among other things, initiate nonmonogamy.
The word: In 1992, a Pennsylvania woman named Jennifer Wesp created a Usenet newsgroup called alt.polyamory. A few years before that, a Pagan poet and writer of Indian and Irish ancestry named Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart used the term polyamorous in an article titled, "A Bouquet of Lovers."
The famous: The most commonly cited example is financier Warren Buffett, who lived with a woman named Astrid Menks but continued to be married to his wife for decades. The women knew about each other, and he continued both relationships until his wife's death in 2004. Six months ago, he married Menks.
William Moulton Marston, creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman, lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and his former student, Olive Richard, until his death from cancer in 1947. He had two children by each, and the two women continued to live together until Richard's death in the 1980s.
And physicist Albert Einstein was said to have had extramarital affairs that he discussed with his second wife.