THE MORE THE MARRY-ER
By CHRIS ERIKSON
October 19, 2005 -- TODAY'S a special day for John and Nan Wise - it's the 31st anniversary of their first date. As with most special events, John, a bankruptcy attorney, and Nan, a psychotherapist, will share the occasion with their extended family: her boyfriend, Julio, and his girlfriend, Amy.
The Wises, who've been married for 24 years, are "polyamorists" - people who reject monogamy in favor of maintaining relationships with more than one person at a time.
It's not the same as swinging, which involves casual sex outside of a marriage; nor is it cheating, which involves secrecy and dishonesty. Rather, it involves committed, emotional relationships - but with multiple partners, and the full consent of everyone involved, whether it's a married couple with outside lovers, a m‚nage … trois or a single person with multiple partners.
"It just feels more right to me both emotionally and physically," says Justen Michael, the 32-year-old founder of the group Polyamorous NYC, who's been polyamorous since he had his first relationship with two men at 19.
"There's just a much stronger connection when I'm with two people I care about than when I'm with one." An oft-closeted practice, polyamory gets a moment in the spotlight today, with the premiere of "Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family," a new documentary that opens today at IFC Center. It's the story of three New Yorkers who lived together in a committed "tri-nogamous" relationship that survived for 13 years and yielded two children.
As the movie depicts, the relationship came about when Sam Cagnina and Steven Margolin, two young men in a gay relationship but with bisexual leanings, thought, what if we brought a woman into the fold? At the restaurant where he works Sam meets 21-year-old Samantha Singh, who's taken by the idea, and soon they're living together and sleeping happily in the same bed.
The polyamory movement has a growing profile in the city in other ways as well: Founded in 2000, Michael's group hosts monthly meetings that draw up to a few dozen people and an annual Poly Pride Day in Central Park. It boasts an e-mail list of more than 800 people, that include married couples, straights, gays, lesbians and bisexuals. "It's a very hot movement," said Barbara Foster, a retired professor of Women's Studies at Hunter College, who calls polyamory "an important social movement."
Foster, who both studies polyamory and practices it with her husband of more than two decades, says that at meetings she sees a younger and younger crowd, whom she describes as "college-educated, curious, lively people. They're not weirdos."
John and Nan Wise were anything but weirdos when they first became polyamorists - rather they were a happily married couple raising two children in the tony suburb of West Orange, N.J. Their conversion to polyamory came when a close friendship they had with a couple whose daughter was in their daughter's kindergarten class became sexual one night. That eventually led to a physical and emotional union that Nan describes as "a deep sort of expanded marriage."
That extended relationship fell apart after two years, when the other husband left his wife. But having had a taste of polyamory, the Wises decided it suited them.
"We found that we really enjoyed having intimacy with other people," she says. So they've each maintained a series of relationships outside the marriage. John's been with his current partner for 51/2 years, Nan with hers for two. "Having the other people in your life brings so much to the table," she says. "It's kind of like a tribe thing. For me it's about kin."
Of course, the kinfolk in question are the kind you have sex with - but while the opportunity to have multiple sex partners is undeniably part of the draw, polyamorists say that to focus too much on sex is to miss the point.
"It's not about sex, it's about love," says Birgitte Philippides, a West Village painter who currently maintains "one male primary partner, one non-primary female partner, and have several other male long-term relationships."
"There's sex involved, but it's not the basis of my relationships. It's multiple long-term, loving relationships that are based on friendship, not a multitude of booty calls."
Embracing polyamory is a relatively new thing for Philippides, who says until recently she was "a typical 'Sex and the City' girl, wondering why I didn't have the relationship of my dreams." For her, the key to fulfillment was realizing that a single relationship wasn't what she was cut out for. When she first heard about polyamory, she says, "it all made sense to me."
"I was torn between the model of what I grew up with and thought I should have, and what I wanted, which is having a primary partner and other relationships as well."
With numerous relationships operating simultaneously (she declines to give an exact number), things around her West Village apartment can get fairly complicated. "It gets a little overwhelming for me to make sure that everyone is happy," she says. "But I have the personal life of a billionaire. Everyone completely gets along, and they all accept me for who I am."
Aside from scheduling issues, another obvious potential complication is jealousy. It's something that most polyamorists wrestle with at one time or another - but it's also something that can be conquered with trust and communication, they say.
"What we try to do is find honest, responsible ways of dealing with it," says Michael. "Jealousy is a learned insecurity, and I think it's possible to learn how not to be insecure."
Still, polyamorists acknowledge that the non-monogamous model is not for everybody.
"It requires a lot of emotional stability," says Nan Wise, who's worked with numerous polyamorous couples in her therapy practice. "You have to deal with emotionally charged issues that there's not a lot of training in our culture to deal with."
Still, they argue that the rewards are worth it - and they point out that monogamy isn't exactly a bed of roses either. Suggest to any polyamorist that their choices are unnatural and they'll point to skyrocketing divorce rates among heterosexual couples.
"Monogamy," says Philippides, "doesn't seem to be working for a lot of people."