The rise of polyamory

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The Rise of Polyamory

Jen Day and her boyfriend of 11 years, Pepper Mint (yes, that's his real name), live together with their cat in a whitewashed house on a narrow, leafy street in Berkeley, Calif. They kiss and nuzzle and have date nights, like any other couple.

Just not always with each other.

Day has another boyfriend. Mint has another girlfriend — and just began seeing two other women, too. The couple practice polyamory: They have multiple committed relationships at once, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

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Yes, it's Berkeley, but also? Apparently more people across the country are getting on the big-love bus. Large-scale studies tracking the number of polyamorous (aka "poly") individuals don't exist, but evidence from polyamory groups, relationship therapists and dating websites suggests that figure is rising fast. University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley, for instance, estimates that 5 percent of Americans are involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships.

Related: Photos of polygamous couples:

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The rise of polyamory
FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2013, file photo, Brady Williams poses with his wives, from left to right, Paulie, Robyn, Rosemary, Nonie, and Rhonda, outside of their home in a polygamous community outside Salt Lake City. One of the largest organized polygamy groups in Utah said this week it is investigating an allegation that its leader molested one of his daughters, now featured in a reality TV show. Rosemary Williams of TLC's "My Five Wives" wrote in a blog posted in November 2014 that she was molested more than two decades ago by her father, Lynn A. Thompson. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
***EXCLUSIVE*** HERRIMAN, UT - OCTOBER 2004: A collect photograph of Alina (L), 35, Valerie (M), 34 and Vicki (R), 34 during October 2004 in Herriman, Uttah. Beautiful twin sisters Vicki and Valerie Darger are so close they even share their HUSBAND. The 42-year-old sisters are in a polygamous marriage with Joe, 43, who is also married to a third woman - their COUSIN Alina, 43. The Dargers, who are fundamentalist Mormons from Salt Lake City, Utah, live together in a large family home and have 24 children between them. Vicki, currently a stay-at-home mum, has been married to Joe, who runs a construction company, for 22 years, while Valerie joined the family as his third wife in 2000. Brave Joe was just 18 when he began dating Vicki and her cousin Alina at the SAME TIME, and married at them in a joint wedding ceremony in 1990. Each wife has their own bedroom, and Joe alternates between the three of them each evening. The three wives and their husband have co-written a book 'Love Times Three', and some of their adult children also contributed to the story. PHOTOGRAPH BY Laurentiu Garofeanu / Barcroft USA /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
***EXCLUSIVE*** HERRIMAN, UT - FEBRUARY 1990: A collect wedding photograph of Vicki (L), Joe (R) and Alina's (R) marriage during February 1990 in Herriman, Uttah. Beautiful twin sisters Vicki and Valerie Darger are so close they even share their HUSBAND. The 42-year-old sisters are in a polygamous marriage with Joe, 43, who is also married to a third woman - their COUSIN Alina, 43. The Dargers, who are fundamentalist Mormons from Salt Lake City, Utah, live together in a large family home and have 24 children between them. Vicki, currently a stay-at-home mum, has been married to Joe, who runs a construction company, for 22 years, while Valerie joined the family as his third wife in 2000. Brave Joe was just 18 when he began dating Vicki and her cousin Alina at the SAME TIME, and married at them in a joint wedding ceremony in 1990. Each wife has their own bedroom, and Joe alternates between the three of them each evening. The three wives and their husband have co-written a book 'Love Times Three', and some of their adult children also contributed to the story. PHOTOGRAPH BY Laurentiu Garofeanu / Barcroft USA /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
AP10ThingsToSee - A girl swings a chain as she stands with others in a playground in Colorado City, Ariz. on Dec. 16, 2014. The sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, once run by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, are split between loyalists who still believe he is a victim of religious persecution and defectors who are embracing government efforts to pull the town into modern society. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
NKANDLA, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 20: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) DJ Siyanda Tshabalala and his wife Millicent at the traditional wedding ceremony of President Jacob Zuma and Bongi Ngema on April 20, 2012 in Nkandla, South Africa. The president, who has been married six times, now has a total of four current wives. (Photo by City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - The Dargers, a polygamist family, discuss their lifestyle on 'Good Morning America,' 9/13/11, airing the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images) GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, JOE DARGER, ALINA DARGER, VICKI DARGER, VALERIE DARGER
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 13: (L-R) Janelle Brown, Meri Brown, Kody Brown and Christine Brown from 'Sister Wives' attend a pre-show reception for the grand opening of 'Dancing With the Stars: Live in Las Vegas' at the New Tropicana Las Vegas April 13, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for AEG Live)
Bridegroom Milton Mbhele, with his four brides, left to right, Happiness, Thobile, Simangele, and Zanele at their western wedding in Weenen, near Ladysmith, South Africa, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009. South African law recognizes traditional polygamous marriages, even President Jacob Zuma has three wives. Yet while polygamy remains common among several tribes including the Zulus and Swazis, simultaneous weddings are rare. (AP Photo/Str) **SOUTH AFRICA OUT**
PROVO, UNITED STATES: The five wives of polygamist Tom Green talk with reporters outside Fourth District Court after their husband was sentenced to two five-year concurrent prison terms 24 August 2001 in Provo, Utah. From left are: Shirley, Cari, Linda, Hannah and LeeAnn Green. AFP PHOTO/George FREY (Photo credit should read GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images)
***EXCLUSIVE*** HERRIMAN, UT - MARCH 04: Twin wives Vicki (L), 41 and Valerie (R), 41 pose for a photograph on March 04, 2012 in Herriman, Uttah. Beautiful twin sisters Vicki and Valerie Darger are so close they even share their HUSBAND. The 42-year-old sisters are in a polygamous marriage with Joe, 43, who is also married to a third woman - their COUSIN Alina, 43. The Dargers, who are fundamentalist Mormons from Salt Lake City, Utah, live together in a large family home and have 24 children between them. Vicki, currently a stay-at-home mum, has been married to Joe, who runs a construction company, for 22 years, while Valerie joined the family as his third wife in 2000. Brave Joe was just 18 when he began dating Vicki and her cousin Alina at the SAME TIME, and married at them in a joint wedding ceremony in 1990. Each wife has their own bedroom, and Joe alternates between the three of them each evening. The three wives and their husband have co-written a book 'Love Times Three', and some of their adult children also contributed to the story. PHOTOGRAPH BY Laurentiu Garofeanu / Barcroft USA /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
NKANDLA, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 20: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) Jabu Duze, Dudu Dlamini, Dr. Siphiwe Mndaweni, Samke Dube and Zama Nyawose at the traditional wedding ceremony of President Jacob Zuma and Bongi Ngema on April 20, 2012 in Nkandla, South Africa. The president, who has been married six times, now has a total of four current wives. (Photo by Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
SAfrica-politics-Zuma-polygamy,FOCUS by Manqoba Nxumalo A happy Robert Chauke (50) with his 6 wives and some of his children at his home in a small compound outside Johannesburg on April 18, 2012 he has 26 children. All of them, from his 10-week-old baby to his 28-year-old son, live together. 'I love all my wives. I can't attribute this success in raising such a huge family to anything. I guess it is a blessing from God,' the 50-year-old said smiling, flanked by his six wives, aged from 25 to 44. Families like Chauke's are back in South Africa's public debate, as President Jacob Zuma prepares to marry his long-time fiancee Bongi Ngema this weekend, giving the country four 'first' ladies. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - The Dargers, a polygamist family, discuss their lifestyle on 'Good Morning America,' 9/13/11, airing the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images) JOE DARGER, ALINA DARGER, VICKI DARGER, VALERIE DARGER
HILDALE, UT - FEBRUARY 24. EXCLUSIVE: L -R back row: Joanna Dockstader (19) Crista Henderson (22) Amanda Lebaron (23) Front row L - R: Tamera Barlow (36) Carol Zitting (28) Charise Tipson (37) at The Merry Wives Cafe on February 24, 2010, in Hildale, Utah. The Merry Wives Cafe in Hildale, Utah, is a unique place where tourists mingle with Mormon families and have a taste of the plural lifestyle. It was set up by Charise Dutson, 37, two years ago to provide a diner for local people, and show a friendly face of polygamy to the world. From the outside it looks like a normal roadside diner but the walls inside are covered with old photographs of men with many wives and scores of children. Visitors to the area stare in disbelief when a man arrives with three women who all kiss him and a mini-bus full of children who take over the cafe. Many customers come from nearby Centennial Park, a modern polygamist community built in the 1980's by a break-away group from the more old-fashioned Mormon Fundamentalist towns of Hildale and Colorado City, two miles away. (Photo by James Ambler / Barcroft USA / Getty Images)
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Why are we embracing more than one partner? Skepticism of monogamy plays a part. Roughly 20 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce. "There's a shaken belief" leading to "more openness to seeing what works rather than believing in some tradition," said San Francisco clinical psychologist Deborah Anapol. And, in general, people have grown more open to alternative lifestyles. Of course, it's also possible that interest in polyamory has remained stable — but people just have more opportunity to take part. Thanks, Internet!

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Still, the poly-curious should think hard before making the leap. Polyamory might sound like free love, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Maintaining multiple healthy relationships takes McKinseyian time-management skills and grace dealing with jealousy. Skeptics worry about the welfare of children in polyamorous families. The stigma hasn't quite worn off, either.

"A lot of people get into this relationship style and don't really have the tools to do it ethically, so people get hurt," says Michael (last name not given), who organizes polyamory events in the San Francisco Peninsula and South Bay Area, Calif. "People are like, 'I dated this guy who was poly and was a sleazebag.' It gives the lifestyle a bad name."

Polyamory has existed in most cultures, but the term "polyamory" didn't emerge until the 1990s in San Francisco (natch), where group marriages and open relationships from the free love and queer movements coalesced into the modern polyamory movement. Since then, polyamory has taken on a variety of forms. "If you ask one person what their definition of polyamory is, it will be totally different from somebody else's," says Maryland-based sex and kink educator Cassie Fuller.

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To wit: Fuller and her husband practice polyfidelity, in which all members are considered equal partners who remain faithful to one another. Mint and Day form intimate networks, labeling their lovers as "primary," "secondary" and "tertiary" depending on the level of commitment. Michael and Yi-Ling (last name not given) practice relationship anarchy, participating in open relationships without ranking partners.

In relationship anarchy, "you don't refer to your partners as partners or lovers or cuddle buddies or dating," Yi-Ling says. "All this terminology is thrown out the window.... There are no expectations.... They don't really think of you as a partner, but as a human."

Sexual jealousy and possessiveness can be a problem, poly people admit. Brutally honest conversation — including about how far a partner can go sexually with someone else — can help, as can limiting talk about other partners. Sometimes jealousy can be channeled into something pretty hot.

Time-management is trickier. "That's the real hard part — finding time to give everyone what they need," Day says. Mint stays organized with a calendar on his cellphone, filled with rows of color-coded time slots. He and Day have a date about twice a week, and cleaning and cooking count. Day also has a weekly standing date with her other boyfriend.

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It's hard to know exactly how many people identify as polyamorous, because few universities fund research on sexual minorities. There's not a standard definition of polyamory, either. Most poly people agree on it in principle, but fill in the details themselves. "What about a couple who thinks of themselves as swingers, but swings with the same friends for years and years, falling in love with each other?" says relationship consultant Elisabeth Sheff.

And yet, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests an upswing. Local poly organizations have experienced a surge in membership, while sex and relationship therapists have noticed a rise in poly clients. "All signs point to an upward trend," says Niko Antallfy, a sociology lecturer at Macquarie University.

Oh but the critics! There are many. Some, predictably, consider polyamory amoral. Others blame a shift toward a "me-me" culture. "We have been taught in this generation that we can have it all"— including more than one relationship, says Karen Ruskin, a Boston therapist. And polyamory remains stigmatized. "Coming out" could mean risking friendships, or more. Mint recalls one community member who lost his teaching job.

Advocates and skeptics alike agree that although polyamory will likely continue to spread, it won't replace monogamy, because cultural and religious beliefs that condemn polyamory will continue to exist. In other words, the U.S. isn't legalizing polyamorous marriage anytime soon. Assuming it does, sorting out the legal aspects will be a headache, from taxes to inheritance to, yes, divorce.

Yet Anapol predicts "it's only a matter of time" before the law embraces many-member marriages. Meanwhile, she predicts, more people will experiment with polyamory at some point. "The real trend is toward more tolerance and acceptance of diversity," Anapol said.

Three needn't always be a crowd.

Editor's note: The story has been updated with the current U.S. divorce rate.​



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