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Married With Benefits

Author Kim Brooks takes a very personal journey into Chicago’s burgeoning world of consensual nonmonogamy.

Photos: Martha Williams

My date with David began the way most first dates do, except for the fact that I brought flowers for his wife. I knew Kate wouldn’t be there. She was gone for the weekend, attending an out-of-state polyamory conference with her boyfriend. David and Kate live in a single-family home they renovated in Pilsen. As David showed me around, he mentioned that the small carriage house out back was one of the features that had attracted them to the property. He told me Kate liked to joke that eventually they could have one of their other partners move in. It was the perfect setup: a shared space, shared lives, a feeling of community and connection. Separate but close.

I’d had coffee with Kate a few weeks before, and she’d expressed a similar sentiment. “My parents are married, they stayed married, but they hated each other,” she’d told me. “They didn’t want to spend time with us. I didn’t get along with my brother and sister. So I had a family, but I felt so alone. I always envied the families where they had cousins and aunts and uncles over all the time, a whole tribe of people.” Polyamory — the practice of having multiple sexual partners where all involved are willing participants — seemed to offer what she’d long felt was missing from traditional family structures.

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David found a vase for the flowers and told me Kate would appreciate them. “She loves that sort of thing,” he said. He made us margaritas, and we talked for a while, though not too loudly because David and Kate’s 18-month-old son was asleep in the nursery. We’d planned it this way, that I’d come over in the evening, after bedtime. We’d order from his favorite Mexican place, listen to music, maybe watch a movie.

David and I had met several times for coffee and once for lunch. Our conversations had been warm and friendly. Now, though, I was nervous and a little nauseous. The house felt like another woman’s home. True, she knew I was there, but that didn’t assuage my sense of discombobulation. What was I doing? I had my own home with my own family. I had my husband of 15 years, and there was also the man I’d been dating for several months since my husband and I had opened our marriage. I was in love with that other man, but he was out on a date with another woman he’d been seeing. My husband was also dating other women. I imagined the man I’d been seeing on a date with someone else, holding hands at a party, kissing. I imagined my husband in our bed texting the woman he’d been dating long-distance. I tried to focus on David and enjoy my drink, but I kept thinking of these other men in my life, wondering what they were doing. I felt insecure, jealous, panicky.

A year or so earlier, I hadn’t really known about consensual nonmonogamists — as practitioners of polyamory are often called — much less that (as I’d soon learn) a whole community of them in Chicago organizes monthly meetings, social outings, and support groups. When I read an essay five years ago on Salon about a woman who lived with her husband and her boyfriend, I’d thought why. Also, how. I didn’t think it was morally wrong. I just didn’t understand the motivation or the mechanics. Wasn’t maintaining a romantic relationship with one person hard enough? It seemed like the sort of thing that might work on a feminist commune, or in Portland, or in a Stanley Kubrick film, not in the Midwest. This is all to say that I’d always associated open marriages with hippies and key parties and sex dungeons and Champagne-steeped orgies.

But David and Kate were not characters out of Eyes Wide Shut. There was a crate of plastic toys and a baby monitor next to the sofa. I’d met David on Tinder and, over the course of a few weeks, learned a little about his life. He and Kate both worked in the West Loop and enjoyed roller derby and bingo night. Like many of the polyamorous people I’d later meet and interview, they were regular parents with regular jobs and regular lives. The only unregular thing I could identify about this very nice married couple was that I was on a date with one of them while the other was traveling with her boyfriend.

If I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment, and tried to forget everything I’d learned about relationships in the past 39 years — as a daughter and a wife and, most recently, an author writing about marriage and parenting — and let go of every rule and every assumption about what love and dating are supposed to look like, then there was nothing unusual at all about what I was seeing and doing. Perhaps it would be easier with another margarita.

“You like tacos?” David asked, perusing a takeout menu.

“Of course,” I said. “Everyone likes tacos.”

 

According to recent data, one in five married Americans has participated in consensual nonmonogamy. If that number seems high, perhaps it’s because the practice can mean different things to different people. To some, it simply means swinging or group sex. For others, it might mean an understanding that discreet out-of-town dalliances are allowed for both parties. For still others, it can mean sharing a home and raising children with multiple partners.

Sophie Lucido Johnson is a Chicago artist and polyamorist who recently published Many Love, an illustrated book about her experiences practicing poly. (She is the only person I interviewed who allowed me to use her real name; the others, including David and Kate, requested pseudonyms, citing the stigma they’d face in their workplaces or at their kids’ schools.) Johnson told me over coffee that for her, polyamory means treating her friends more like lovers and her lovers more like friends. “Which is not to say I have sex with my friends! I don’t. But my friendships are as important to me as my other relationships.”

She emphasized that embracing polyamory was not just an affirmation of a different lifestyle but also a negation of the kinds of relationships she didn’t want. This would be a recurring theme with the people I spoke to as I delved into Chicago’s poly community. These were couples who had tried to do things the usual way, following the script that told them how relationships were supposed to go, but decided that the script wasn’t working for them.

New relationship energy pull quote

In some ways, that was how I became interested in polyamory, too. In the years leading up to opening our marriage — a decision we’d arrived at without any clear road map, much less the support of a whole community of like-minded people — my husband and I had been trying everything we could think of to make our marriage work. And yet our shared domestic life, this grand project of trying to raise a family and support ourselves and write, felt like a blanket that was never quite big enough to cover us both, a blanket we’d been yanking back and forth for almost a decade. If we gave our two children the attention they deserved, there was never enough time to work or to connect with friends and family. If we focused intensely on our work, there was no time for our children or for each other.

My husband and I started to fall out of touch with the friends we’d had in our 20s. Our social lives took place entirely on Netflix. Our texts to each other read more like hotel-management memos than correspondence between loving spouses. Unmet needs proliferated. Resentments swelled. We were supposed to be working on our marriage, but often it felt like it was working on us, grinding us down, draining our reserves of emotional energy. For so long I’d assumed I was doing something wrong, or he was; if our marriage wasn’t making us happy, it had to be someone’s fault. As I got to know poly people around the city and asked how they had come to the community, I heard echoes of my own frustration.

For me that frustration came to a head in the fall of 2017. It was during this time that my husband and I, unable to dig ourselves out of what felt like a three-year relationship crisis, decided to open our marriage. We’d bought a house that for some reason had a hot tub. The real estate agent had seemed embarrassed by it and apologized during the showing, but the tub turned out to be my favorite feature of the house. I would light candles and soak for an hour and try to relax, then give up when I found myself distracted by thoughts of all I had to do the next day — call the plumber, buy new snow pants for the kids, fix the filter on the fish tank before the bettas die. Usually I bathed alone, but my husband was with me on the evening when the idea of an open marriage first came up. “What if we dated other people?” was how he broached the subject, and before long the notion had taken on a life of its own.

I’ve since wondered how unhappy we could have been if we were soaking in a tub together, holding each other’s wrinkled feet. Or maybe more to the point: What was the nature of this unhappiness? I couldn’t quite name it, but many of the poly people I spoke to could.

Take Eric, for example, a north suburban high school teacher whose friends call him the Mayor of Poly Town for his uncanny ability to draw people into the fold. He told me how before he went to his first poly support group meeting, he assumed there was something wrong with him: “I’d always felt like such a freak, like I was just doing relationships wrong.”

I’d connected with Eric after he saw my profile on OkCupid and asked me if I’d like to meet. When he inquired about my relationship status, I answered, “Confused.” I told him that I wasn’t sure if I was monogamous, married, open, dating, soon to be divorced, or simply in the throes of a particularly baroque midlife crisis. He told me he’d heard that coffee and friendly conversation were really good for all those things. A few days later, we met at a restaurant in Edgewater, a few blocks from my house.

Eric must have noticed the slump in my shoulders and the bags under my eyes, because he seemed more intent on improving my mood than anything else. He told me about his own marriage and how it had ended. He and his ex-wife were now on friendly terms, coparenting their son, but he’d done things he wasn’t proud of. He recalled how when his son was really young, he took him to a play group and became good friends with one of the moms. One day she mentioned that her husband was going on a business trip, and he made a crack about it: “Oh, another business trip? Are you ever afraid he’ll meet someone?” The comment got them talking, and she said, “I know he would never do that. I mean, everyone gets crushes. You just don’t act on them.”

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Eric remembered thinking, But I do. The idea of monogamy had always felt impossible to him, but he assumed this was a thing about him he had to hide. He had no vocabulary for what he felt — this longing to have different types of relationships with different types of partners, this suspicion that no single relationship was ever going to meet all his needs. He had cheated because it never occurred to him that there was any alternative, a community of sex-positive people who eschewed monogamy but still maintained open, honest, and meaningful relationships.

It was a few months after this conversation that he discovered the Chicago Polyamory Meetup, a group with more than 3,000 members that hosts a monthly cocktail party, a “newbie” support group, karaoke hours, and other social and educational events. “Suddenly I was in a room full of people who were describing that they had experienced the world in a way I always had.” More important, he said, was that they weren’t lying or hiding this part of themselves. They were talking, negotiating, writing their own scripts. “It was just revelatory,” he told me. “I didn’t feel alone.”

 

The cocktail parties, held at the Lake View bar Matilda, attract a mix of newcomers and longtime members, who wear glow bracelets to stand out to those who might have questions. On many of the tables, organizers place laminated placards detailing rules of etiquette. The guidelines emphasize consent (“Please be sure to ask and wait for a yes before hugging or initiating any physical contact”) and communication (“Get to know your fellow attendees by asking respectful questions and listening carefully”). One attendee told me the rules are a response to some problems the group encountered early on, namely that “people think polyamory means easy sex.” She said interlopers would show up expecting to find a bunch of horny people willing to go home with whoever walked through the door. Though the term “meetup” can carry sexual connotations, the organizers take pains to erase that misperception. “Our events are for learning about polyamory and developing friendships and connections within the community,” states the first rule of etiquette. “It is not a play space.”

In January 2018, I attended a meeting of Chicago Polyamory Meetup’s support group — a somewhat more formal gathering than the cocktail parties. The room in the Rogers Park branch of the Chicago Public Library was filled with about 40 people, most of them couples. Ages ranged from early 20s to late 60s. One couple I spoke with were in their mid-30s and had two children under 5. They lived in Rogers Park but were considering moving to the suburbs for the schools. The others were high school teachers, accountants, graduate students, lifelong Chicagoans, recent transplants. The subjects discussed ranged from overcoming scheduling headaches to managing jealousy and holiday friction.

The answer to nearly all of the questions or problems raised was communication. “There’s a saying in polyamory,” one of the mentoring attendees said, “that if you’re not talking too much, you’re probably not talking enough.” With open communication, so the poly philosophy holds, jealousies can be worked through, insecurities overcome, needs and wants negotiated, boundaries established and respected. A support group regular named Stephanie told me that polyamory had taught her how important direct communication is: “It’s about owning your own shit instead of expecting people to guess what you’re feeling.”

One point that emerged repeatedly was that most people blindly follow societal norms. A healthy relationship, we’re told, is one that progresses in a timely fashion from dating to exclusivity to cohabitation to marriage to kids to retirement to death. “In my marriage,” one woman told me, “I was on autopilot most of the time. In polyamory, there is no autopilot. The rules of each relationship are made from scratch.”

It all sounded freeing to me, but I wondered, Do these people have children? (Many did, I learned.) Do they have bills that need paying and front stoops that need shoveling and groceries that need buying? One of the lessons I’d internalized since starting a family was that time was a scarce commodity. I was surprised and also a little jealous that these polyamorists had the leisure to spend so much energy customizing their relationships. And so at one point in the meeting, I asked the question that had been in the back of my mind for months: “Isn’t it all a lot of work?”

“Yes,” a woman across the room answered. “But it’s the work people should be doing in monogamy. It’s the work of building healthy relationships.”

Crushes pull quote

Stephanie, who is in her 30s and divorced with no kids, spoke up, too, saying that nonmonogamy actually provides relief from some of the material, day-to-day strains of traditional marriage, though when she offered to get coffee with me a few days later and I asked where she’d like to meet, she laughed and said the answer was complicated. Stephanie lives in her own apartment in Lake View, but one of her long-term partners lives with his wife and kids in the north suburbs. Her other partner lives with his wife in the south suburbs. In a typical week, she might go to the meetup cocktail party on Monday, have a date with her partner in the south suburbs on Wednesday, then spend the weekend with the partner who lives up north. Ultimately, we decided to meet in Lake View.

I was running late and made excuses for myself as I sat down — there was stuff with the kids, stuff with work, stuff with the boyfriend, and so on.

“Ah,” Stephanie said, smiling. “You’re on poly time.”

Despite the complexities, she said, polyamory gives her the best of both worlds. She’d always wanted to have her own living space, an apartment that was hers and hers alone. But she also liked being around people she cared about. Now she had both. Stephanie considers herself solo poly, which means she’s not planning on cohabiting with anyone or having kids. She values her privacy and builds relationships — some of them romantic, some not — that meet her emotional and social needs.

By all outward appearances, Stephanie seemed genuinely happy. Still, I wondered if this happiness, this lightness of spirit, existed at someone else’s expense. Stephanie told me she had a strong friendship with one of her metamours (the poly term for a partner’s partner) and a somewhat more complicated relationship with the other, the one with children. I wondered whether these complications might stem from resentment about Stephanie’s freedom and autonomy.

When I asked her about any difficulty in balancing romance and responsibility, she said she has always respected the prioritization of the needs of a partner’s children over her own needs and has typically been drawn to partners who understood and accepted responsibility. She also pointed out that her metamours had their own relationships, that these wives hadn’t been satisfied with monogamy, either. She knew where they were coming from: “I was in a monogamous marriage and was really, really unhappy.” Things got worse when she lost her job during the recession. “My husband was super stressed because he had to be the sole breadwinner. I was basically sitting at home applying for jobs. After a year I was trying to make connections and friends through the internet, trying to have some intellectual connection with someone during the day.”

Stephanie posted an ad in the “strictly platonic” section of Craigslist saying she was looking for new friends. “I got 9,000 people who wanted to send me dick pics and one person who was like, ‘So who’s your favorite author?’ ” She started chatting online with that guy, whose name was Brian, about books and movies. Then they started meeting and talking about everything else. “Brian was already in a polyamorous marriage. He introduced me to the language around polyamory. In spending time with him and his wife, I realized some things about my marriage, that maybe there was a problem with the expectation that the person who was right for me at 25 was going to be right for me for the long term.”

Stephanie didn’t blame her ex-husband for any of this. As she saw it, her trajectory of growth had simply veered away from his. She’d tried talking to him about polyamory and what it meant. “He got it intellectually but said it didn’t sound like anything he’d want to do.” They went to counseling, but eventually they decided to divorce. Stephanie and Brian have now been partners — she describes them as “semiromantically involved” — for going on nine years.

Brian and his wife, who sleep in separate bedrooms, are raising two children, 12 and 14. Stephanie has been in the kids’ lives for six years. “At first I was just someone who was an important friend of the family,” she said. Eventually, though, the daughter started affectionately calling her “backup mom,” which Stephanie likes “because it honors the relationship with their own mom but acknowledges that I am a parent-like figure and that if they ever needed me I’d be there for them.”

I asked Stephanie what her own family thought of this arrangement. “My mom tries very hard to be supportive. She’s not always successful. My sister doesn’t try very hard to be supportive.” She recalled one particularly tense occasion when her sister was visiting with her own kids. Brian’s son was celebrating a birthday, so they all went to Medieval Times. “My sister was really unhappy with that, worrying what her kids would think, if they’d be confused. But I felt like, We’re not going to have sex in front of the kids at Medieval Times. We’re just going to eat some mutton. The kids aren’t paying attention to us in that way. And even if they are, what they’re learning is that love is abundant.”

It was a nice idea. In many ways, it was the same one I’d found so seductive when I’d first considered opening my own marriage: an escape from the economizing of emotion, relief from the constant dividing up and parceling out of attention into smaller and smaller units, every family an island with never quite enough natural resources to go around. I’d assumed polyamory was a mode of self-actualization — a thing people did rather than a thing they were. Only as I talked to the people practicing it did I begin to understand that it was as much about the claustrophobia of the nuclear family as it was about sexual expression. Polyamory seemed to promise access to new sources of love, support, and connection, the things that so often seem in short supply.

 

Ideologically, at least, I was on board. And yet that night in Pilsen with David, I’d found myself struggling not to cry into my taco. I felt like an impostor in someone else’s home and couldn’t stop asking myself, How did I get here?

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The long answer is that when my husband and I opened our marriage, it had been 16 years since I’d experienced what psychologists call the attachment phase of falling in love and what nonmonogamists often refer to as new relationship energy: that feeling of being addicted to a person, of wanting to touch them and talk to them and breathe them in every second of every day. The brain floods with dopamine the way an addict’s does after a fix. It is the best feeling in the world, and it is the feeling that we’re asked to give up when we marry, the feeling we’re told we’re no longer entitled to — and perhaps not without reason. This kind of love is intoxicating, destabilizing, and ultimately fleeting; it burns out fast — even in poly relationships — unless it morphs into something else.

At the time I connected with David, I was already well under its influence with the man I’d been seeing. I felt unmoored and afraid. One polyamorous friend suggested that the only antidote was seeing other people. Polyamory wasn’t just about replacing one all-consuming relationship with another, she said. It was vaster and lighter than that. Polyamorists could have many loves because they never entirely gave themselves over to a single partner, a single bond. “Date,” she told me.

And so I did. Or at least I tried. But sitting at David’s house that evening, I realized I couldn’t. I felt emotionally cold and disconnected. I’m a terrible polyamorist, I thought. After an hour or two, I made an excuse about not feeling well and left quickly, apologizing but not really saying goodbye. David seemed disappointed and a little surprised.

Over the course of the next year, as I began exploring the poly community more purposefully, he and I texted and sometimes sexted halfheartedly, starting and stalling but never gaining momentum. Millennials call the practice breadcrumbing — “the act of sending out flirtatious, but non-committal text messages (ie ‘breadcrumbs’) … in order to lure a sexual partner without expending much effort,” according to Urban Dictionary — and the rest of us would describe it as leading someone on. I suppose that’s what I was doing to David, but in a way, I was also doing it to myself. Loitering in a kind of prepoly purgatory, I was feeling increasingly uncertain about the monogamous relationship on which I’d built my life, and the relationship with the man I was dating, but not at all confident that nonmonogamy was the answer.

Was I a polyamorous anarchist trapped in an unsatisfying monogamous arrangement? Or was I a bored and bitter housewife, sexually frustrated and emotionally disconnected from her husband? I genuinely didn’t know the answer, but the one thing that was now becoming clear to me was that adding another paramour to the mix was not going to solve any of my problems. My relationship with the father of my children had broken down, and then I’d fallen in love with a person who was in no way integrated into the fabric of my life. And even though the two relationships were in so many ways antithetical to each other, they each seemed to drain me of some vital, finite energy I knew I should be saving for my children, my friends, and my work.

Now I remembered that I’d noticed the same drowning quality in Kate’s expression when I’d met her before my date with David. She’d confessed to me that polyamory did little to solve the problems of mother guilt and unequal division of labor. Despite all David’s wonderful qualities and all the work he’d done to practice nonmonogamy with her, he still didn’t do his own laundry. If I started dating David, would I one day find myself sorting his socks? Who would sort mine and my children’s while I was dating him? Like so many women my age or older, I’d been socialized to believe that part of what made men love women was the caretaking and the labor they performed — domestic labor, emotional labor, invisible labor. Could polyamory cure such deeply internalized ideas? My own experience suggested not: A few weeks earlier, I’d already started making soup for my lover. I phoned a girlfriend as I stirred tomatoes in a stockpot.

“You’re not supposed to make your lover soup, Kim. You take a lover because you’re tired of making soup, not to make more soup.”

“I know, I know,” I said, stirring.

I asked my friend if she thought my dissatisfaction was with marriage or with my own codependency.

“It hardly matters,” she answered. “A codependent is to marriage as an alcoholic is to an all-night bar.”

After I hung up, I thought of something Stephanie had told me. “My dad was not prominent in my life,” she’d said, “but my mother had friends, and my sister and I joked that her bridge club was our second parent. She was in the same bridge club our entire lives. When my mom needed parenting advice, she’d take it to the bridge club. This influenced how I think of my role. I don’t need a husband. I might need to have people in my life that fulfill the roles that a husband would play. But it doesn’t have to be one person.”

Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I imagined what it would be like if all my closest friends lived in the same city, on the same street, if we could all be in a room together once a week, our own council of elders. I’d imagine this and think of how far away they all were, and then I’d feel lonely.

One particularly lonely night, I texted David and asked how he’d been. He told me a lot had changed. Things had grown more serious between Kate and her boyfriend. He’d had to work through a lot of jealousy. “I’ve been able to speak with Kate more openly about how I’m feeling,” he texted me, “and she has been very reassuring and attentive when my insecurities start to surface.” It also helped that now he was dating another woman, a recently divorced mother. The scheduling could be a nightmare, but things were good overall. Sometimes they all hung out on the weekend. Sometimes they barbecued.

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In a later text, I asked David if he ever wondered what his life would be like if he’d continued to have a monogamous relationship. “Would you go down this path again?”

“I tried to be monogamous,” he answered. “But it’s like the rapper Nas says: Ain’t no pussy like new pussy. Does that answer your question?”

I put down my phone. In the face of his attempt at humor, I spent a few minutes practicing what I believe is called nonjudgmental thinking. I counted my breaths and did some paired muscle relaxation, tensing and releasing my fists until my heart slowed down.

“Kim? Did I lose you?” he texted.

“No,” I answered. “I dozed off. And yes, it answers my question. I think it’s the perfect conclusion.”

“Oh good,” he replied.

I stopped texting with David after that.

Later, when I told a friend about the exchange, she asked if I thought I’d continue to practice polyamory.

I gave the question a few moments of consideration. “No,” I told him. “I think I need to have an affair with myself.”

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