Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Three's company: polyamoury in Winnipeg

Loving more than one person isn't a problem for people in polyamorous relationships

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Michelle, 39, has been married to Michael, 50, since 1995. They live in rural Manitoba and have two school-age children.

In 2005, however, Michelle found herself falling in love with Liam, a friend, fellow musician and bandmate she'd known for as long as she'd known her husband. He sang at their wedding, in fact.

Turns out the feelings were mutual.

This is typically where the weaving of the tangled web begins. Except that Michael not only knew about his wife's extramarital attraction, he consented to and supported her decision to get romantically involved with the divorced father of two.

Seven years later, Michelle, Michael and Liam are sitting in a downtown cafe telling a reporter how they managed to prevent the destruction of either a marriage or a friendship.

Let's just say that since 2007, Michelle and Michael's marital home has had two master bedrooms. And there are three names on the deed.

"I alternate nights," Michelle, a research scientist, says in response to what is probably the question most often asked of people who practise polyamoury.

And Michael's relationship with the man eating soup beside him?

"Somewhere between good friends and brothers," he says of Liam, a 49-year-old fellow IT professional and, in poly lingo, his "metamour" -- the partner of one's partner.

 

polyamoury ("poly" being Greek for many, and "amor" Latin for love) is a term coined in the early '90s to describe the practice of having more than romantic relationship at the same time. It's perhaps best defined by what it is not.

polyamoury is not swinging, which is more about recreational sex. It is not an orgy, which is group sex. And it is not (Listen up, Newt Gingrich) a one-sided open relationship, which is cheating.

"We're not terribly fond of people who come along on our forum and say, 'I'm polyamorous but my wife doesn't know'," says Anlina Sheng, a Winnipeg polyamoury activist and moderator at polywinnipeg.com. The forum has about 200 members in and around Manitoba.

You might say polyamoury is free love with strings attached. Although practitioners have multiple romantic partners, openness and honesty are core tenets of the lifestyle.

Sheng, a 29-year-old freelance graphic and web designer, has a live-in boyfriend, a Winnipeg girlfriend, and casual male partners in both Illinois and the Yukon. They all know about each other.

"This feels really natural to me. It's not something I chose," says the one-time Green Party candidate, who has been "poly dating" since she was a teen and likens being polyamorous to being gay.

Sheng, who is divorced, says that while she and her husband had a sexually open relationship, "he wasn't open to multiple romantic connections."

Although polyamoury's profile has risen in recent years because of the Internet, it's impossible to know how many people practise it since there's no applicable box to tick on any census form -- and it's still a crime in Canada to have more than one lawfully wedded husband or wife.

John Ince, a Vancouver lawyer and spokesman for the Canadian Polyamoury Advocacy Association, estimates that about three per cent of Canadians live in multiple-partner relationships.

polyamoury, for the record, is quite distinct from polygamy, which, thanks to TV shows such as the fictional drama Big Love and the reality series Sister Wives, people tend to associate with fundamentalist Mormons who practise plural marriage.

Polyamorous relationships are post-modern, secular, egalitarian and consensual, says Ince, while traditional polygamy is a pre-modern institution with religious and patriarchal roots.

"A critical distinction is that (in polyamoury) there's no stigma attached to any form of sexual orientation," says the founder of the Sex Party, a political party based in B.C., who has been involved in poly relationships for more than 30 years.

The relational groupings can be triads -- a triangle if all three partners are intimately involved, or a V if only two of the three pairs have a sexual bond (Michelle, Michael and Liam are a V) -- quads, or more. (Groupings of three or more are sometimes called "moresomes.") They can be all women or all men and include trangender and transsexual persons.

Ince, 59, who was in a long-term polyamorous relationship with two women but is recently single and currently "between other relationships," says it's a myth that polyamoury is driven by the male ego and "fundamentally about men getting their rocks off."

For one thing, most polyamoury authors are women, he says, including Deborah Anapol, a pioneer of the modern polyamoury movement in the 1980s and author of the seminal book, polyamoury: Love Without Limits.

Most poly people aren't just in it for the sex, Ince says, but seek "intimacy to a very high degree."

And while he concedes that polyamoury works best for people with high self-esteem, Ince would argue that possessiveness and jealousy are more highly associated with the prevailing monogamous relationship model.

"In monogamy, if your partner is attracted to someone else, you're going to lose that partner."

Her feelings for Liam did not negate, trump or interfere with her love for her husband -- which has only deepened and grown for their ability to stay together through the whole experience, Michelle says.

"What I had to learn through this whole process is that fidelity does not have to be defined through exclusivity, she says.

"polyamoury provided me with a context to make sense of my feelings for both (men), understanding that just as a parent can have deep and equal love for more than one child, so can an adult have deep and equal love for more than one partner."

Although Michelle and Michael were legally married in a religious ceremony in 1995, there has been no ceremony or rite to mark her relationship with Liam, although they often talk about having one. And they do wear matching rings to reflect their commitment.

The trio asked that their real names not be published in order to protect the identities of their four children, ages eight to 16, three of whom live in the home full time. They have faced criticism from family and friends, and severed relationships because of their lifestyle choices.

But they consider themselves a "blended family," and enjoy recreational activities and vacations together as a family. Michelle also makes sure she spends travel and leisure time with each partner individually to nurture both relationships.

As polyamorous couples go, Michelle and Michael are unusual because they didn't go looking for a third partner.

When asked why he didn't issue his wife of 16 years an ultimatum, Michael, who is soft-spoken and bears a striking resemblance to Liam, replies: "I think I understood what I'd be asking her to give up."

"Which is exactly why I love him as much as I do," Michelle says.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

 

For more info on Winnipeg's poly community, go to www.polywinnipeg.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 E1

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Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 10:14 AM CST: adds factbox

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