Polyamory in the Twin Cities
City Pages, with Jeffrey Alan Love
Carrie, her husband Rick, and her boyfriend Mark are roommates who share a house in south Minneapolis. And like most roommates, they have rules.
For example: When Carrie and Rick are having a date night at home, Mark stays out of sight. When Mark brings home a date, Carrie gives them space.
If Carrie and Mark are on a date, however, and Rick and his girlfriend are in the house, they can all socialize — but only if it's in a common area like the living room. You know, normal roommate stuff.
While at first pass this may seem like a rejected script for a Three's Company remake, the reality is that Carrie, Rick, and Mark — all of whom requested pseudonyms — are polyamorous. This means they practice the idea of carrying on multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, while maintaining an open honesty with all those involved.
To monogamous folks, this idea might sound like something straight out of science fiction (which is actually kind of true, as polyamory has been a recurring theme in sci-fi for years). However, polyamory has been around the Twin Cities for decades and has become increasingly visible over the past few years thanks to media exposure and various organized meet-up groups. It's through one of those groups that Carrie and Rick, both 41, first met and began what has been a long, successful relationship.
"We've been married for two years, but together for more than 11," Carrie explains while sitting at the head of her kitchen table, her two male suitors facing each other on either side. "Rick was actually a part of a triad with my former husband and me for several years before we began to consider ourselves married. Then once my husband and I got divorced, he and I were able to get married legally so we did."
A self-described "heavy committer," Carrie first realized she was a polyamorous person back in college when her then-fiancé introduced her to a book about plural marriage.
"I would find myself in a strong relationship with someone for quite a while, but then at some point I'd start to find myself caring about another person," she says. "So then I'd start to think that maybe I was doing something wrong, or that there was something wrong with me. Once I read this, though, it all made sense."
Carrie's husband Rick has been a practicing poly since he was 19 years old, and floated the idea of an open relationship to his then-girlfriend. Since then, he's always known his relationships to be polyamorous, and a good majority of that time has been spent with Carrie. Just as you'd expect with any longtime couple, they've had their ups and downs, just not quite in the same way traditional couples do.
"After Carrie and I had been together for about a year and a half, she and her new boyfriend co-hosted a party together at his house," Rick begins. "So during the party she was spending a lot of time with her new boyfriend, all cuddled up and kissing and whatnot, and I felt a sense of anxiety, like something was going to change for the worse. But after I got through that anxiety and really thought about what was bothering me, I knew that I needed to remember that she can control her time and attention and affection."
Mark, who is 30, moved in with the couple about 10 months ago. But unlike most stories of wives with boyfriends, this time it was the husband playing matchmaker.
"Apparently before they started dating I asked Carrie if she was attracted to Mark," explains Rick.
"And I said, 'He seems nice but I don't know.' And then Rick says, 'Why wouldn't you want to date him?'" Carrie chimes in, as Mark quietly smiles and nods.
Eventually, Rick's persistence paid off and Mark soon became the third member of the triad.
A triad, for those who aren't up on their poly-lingo, refers to the idea that three people are intertwined with one another romantically, and also live together full-time. Many triads include one couple who are legally married, but it's not required. There are also other poly combinations, such as "quads" that include four partners, but not all members of the triad or quad are necessarily having any type of romantic relations with one another.
Rick and Mark, for example, have many similar interests and share a partner, but the men of the household explain that their bro-bond is completely platonic.
"Everyone always asks about the guys and whether they sleep together," Carrie says. "In some triads you will get two men or two women who also are attracted to one another, but in ours the guys are just friends and roommates."
Whether a poly person is looking for stability or sex, the Twin Cities has a group for pretty much any flavor.
A quick search online will show a number of various polyamory meet-up groups or organizations, catering to various ages, backgrounds, and geographical locations throughout the state. MN Poly — the Minnesota Polyamory Network — is the most well-known, and also happens to be the one that has Carrie as a member of the board.
The group officially has a couple hundred active members, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding a poly group in the area.
"There are groups for people in their 20s and early 30s, who don't really want to hang out with us old folks," Carrie explains. "There's also a group that focuses on advocacy (Modern Poly, based in Minneapolis), which means we (MN Poly) can really just focus on the social aspect."
And while the idea of a "poly party" may invoke visions of wild, sexually charged debauchery, Carrie puts those fantasies to rest.
"Our parties usually include a few adult beverages, maybe some board games," she explains without a hint of sarcasm. "I actually get new members emailing me asking about these parties, like what they should wear and what they should expect. Honestly, the craziest thing that may happen is we'll end up in a cuddle pile at the end of the night."
Aside from the tight-knit circle of her group, Carrie has actually dated three "non-polys" since she started identifying herself as polyamorous, but says these weren't the most successful relationships.
"One guy was turned off immediately because he didn't want to be a 'home wrecker,'" she begins.
"It's much tougher to sit down at a bar or something and strike up a conversation with someone, only to then say, 'Oh, and I'm married but I'm poly so it's fine,'" adds Rick. "It's an idea that you kind of need to educate people on before they can feel comfortable entering the relationship."
"Or they think you're just looking for sex," Carrie laughs.
While her quip was made in jest, Carrie agrees that the idea of sexually transmitted diseases due to multiple sex partners is one of — if not the most — talked about topics with those who are uninformed about poly.
"Most of my monogamous friends just assume I'm a slut, and to a degree I guess they're right," Carrie explains.
"Here's the thing though: In a group like ours, you're a lot more cognizant of who you sleep with," Rick adds. "We all hang around each other in the same circles, so I know that if I sleep with someone, then I'm affecting the other people she may be in a relationship with."
"I know more about STDs than my monogamous friends," Carrie adds. "It's funny, because they assume my number of partners is higher than theirs. Then we compare numbers and I think it scares them a bit how many more people they've been with than I have."
Sex and commitment are two of the most frequently discussed hot-button topics in the poly world, but neither of those holds a candle to the most significant question: What did your mom (or dad, brother, sister, friend, etc.) say when you told them?
"You have to be careful, because you trigger people's judgments when you come out," says Carrie. "So if the moment is there I might bring it up, but you'd be very surprised at how some people completely misunderstand what poly actually represents."
While she has been fairly open about her poly lifestyle, she has the benefit of being a housewife without the prying eyes and judgments of co-workers to worry about. That's something that both Rick and Mark have dealt with in their own ways.
"I'm out to some of my family, and most of my friends know," says Rick. "As far as work, I don't decorate my cubicle with pictures of my poly family or anything like that, so it never really comes up. If I have a co-worker who passes the boundary of 'friend' at some point, then I'll let them know, but otherwise no."
While that makes sense to an office worker who can maintain a low profile, Mark has seen a much more drastic example of poly being judged by peers.
"My ex-wife, who I was actually married to when I first began to practice polyamory, was very active in her church, and when she decided to become poly she came out to her pastor about it," Mark begins. "It became a big conflict. He told her he couldn't support it as a pastor and as leader of the church, and that she couldn't be in a leadership role any longer as a result. That hurt her a lot, but she still remains in contact with people from her church and identifies as Christian. But that was a major issue that came up when she decided to be open about being poly."
When speaking about the religious beliefs of their various poly friends and fellow MN Poly members, the triad members point out that they have a wide range of preferences spread across the group that allows for continued diversity and individuality among a set that's often only classified for being polyamorous.
And then, there are the kids.
The subject of children in polyamorous households is still a hot-button topic, and one that Carrie says has forced many to downplay their lifestyle choices.
"I doubt you'll find anyone with kids who will talk with you," she confesses when asked about the topic. "They keep that on the down-low because courts today will still take children away from polyamorous people. They award custody to the grandparents. It's happened in multiple states."
This was an issue that came to light back in the late '90s, when MTV featured a polyamorous family from Tennessee who outed themselves on a televised special. The courts intervened, and granted guardianship of a child to her grandmother and step-grandfather.
Potential scrutiny aside, starting a poly family has other factors that parents-to-be need to think about.
"In my first triad, what prompted us to decide that Mark was no longer a boyfriend but a husband was because I really wanted to have kids," Carrie says. "This was about five or six years ago, and I had that strong instinct to start a family. So we went to a lawyer to discuss what papers would need to be drawn up to give him custody rights of the children if something happened to me. No matter who was the father, the children would be my legal husband's. Ultimately we decided not to have kids, but a lot of families have similar situations."
Despite the potential issues and setbacks the triad has experienced over the years, Carrie believes that poly has come a long way in terms of being accepted across the Twin Cities.
"I remember once in the gay-marriage movement several years ago there was an opinion piece written in another local publication. The right-wing groups and talking heads were all saying things like, 'We can't support gay marriage because the next thing will be polyamorous marriages.' I thought that was interesting because I had never heard polyamory mentioned in the media before," she recalls. "So anyways, this publication wrote an op-ed piece where they said, 'You don't have to worry about polyamorous marriage because polyamory doesn't exist.' That really upset a lot of us because we felt like we were being marginalized."
The group took a stand, organizing a letter-writing campaign (remember letters?) and creating more awareness for the poly community. The results are still being seen today.
"It's a lot different now that we have organized groups, and I think because people have become so much more accepting of the GLBT community and other types of relationships, I think our group and our community is going to continue to grow," Carrie says optimistically. "I think that we are the next equal rights movement, and that poly is going to continue to become increasingly accepted in the future."
Jami is 31 years old and lives in St. Louis Park. She has been a practicing poly for approximately one year, and finally feels like herself.
"I hated being monogamous," she laughs. "I think my friends were sick of me being monogamous too, or at least talking about how much I didn't like the various mono relationships I was in."
Jami is also a member of MN Poly and likewise requested a pseudonym, but she lives a very different poly lifestyle than Carrie, Rick, and Mark. She's dating a few different people, both married and in relationships, and lives with a completely "vanilla, straight-laced, monogamous roommate."
"She and I have lived together for a couple of years," she says. "She was the first person I came out to. She was totally supportive and has been that way ever since."
Jami represents a younger generation of practicing polys, who have had more exposure to the idea of simultaneous relationships. While she's had the opportunity to meet other people with similar interests through online and community groups, Jami has found her way thanks to the media's most important invention: reality television.
"Back in college, I saw an MTV True Life special that was all about polyamory, and I was like, 'This is interesting,'" she explains. "Then I watched the show Big Love that was all about polygamy, and that got me thinking a lot more about my own life, even though it's a little different."
Eventually, Jami recognized what was missing, but the truth is that she had known for quite some time.
"I used to talk about how I wanted to just move to California and live in one big, open house full of people who were all open and cared about each other," she laughs. "I guess I should have known all along."
This past summer, polyamory got even more mainstream exposure when Showtime began airing a reality series called Polyamory: Married and Dating, which follows the lives of polyamorous people at various stages of their relationships.
Just like any other piece of top-notch and totally not misrepresentative reality entertainment, the show features its fair share of sex, fighting, and jealousy.
"Happy relationships don't make great television," Jami laughs.
A fan of the show and a self-proclaimed "social media junkie," Jami quickly did some digging and began following the program's many stars over Twitter, which is where she got the real story.
"They all appear to be really great, stable people," she explains. "They all understand the reality of reality television, and they admit that what you're seeing on the screen is merely one moment in their lives. Obviously it's not representative of their everyday."
While the perception of sex and fighting may be cranked up for the cameras, Jami can attest that jealousy is still a very real emotion that she and other poly folks struggle with.
"It's always an issue," she says.
Jami's first experience with jealousy in a poly situation came when she was in a quad with three other people early on.
"It wasn't that we didn't like each other or anything, it's just one of those things where sometimes your needs and the other people dating within that quad don't match up. We broke up, but I'm still great friends with them."
Unlike Carrie and her triad, Jami is bisexual. This made Jami's coming out to family even more interesting.
"My siblings were totally fine with me being bi, but opposed to the idea of being poly," she explains. "But my grandparents were totally fine with it. They just said they wanted me to be happy with the right man or woman or both."
Whether it's misconceptions or a different moral compass, Jami believes those who have the biggest problem with her as a poly have one key reason for their distaste: "People have a problem with the idea that I can have my cake and eat it too."
And while she may be correct, she's also quick to insist that being poly isn't just about sex.
"To me, being poly is about building open, honest, lasting relationships. I just believe that some people are meant to be monogamous and others aren't. I tried being monogamous and I realized it's not for me.
"Some people say that being poly isn't an orientation like being straight or gay, that it's a choice. Personally, I think that the fact I don't have to be everything for just one person is fantastic. It's just better."
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