Up for Polyamory? Creating Alternatives to Marriage
How one lawyer helps those, like her, in non-traditional relationships
“When I was a child,” Diana Adams began, “I had a doll house and a rich fantasy life. I imagined that I was a cancer-curing surgeon, a world-class ballerina, and a TV show host all at the same time. I was also an amazing mom to all my dolls, but it was always a little mysterious about where they had come from and whether they all had the same father. A little neighbor boy once said to me, ‘I’ll be the daddy.’ I thought about that for a moment. I said, ‘No, you can be my gay lounge singer friend. That’s much more fun.’ I’ve always liked boys. I just like them better in groups.”
Over the years, the aspiring ballerina/surgeon/TV host shifted her focus to law. As a lawyer, Adams now runs a Brooklyn-based legal firm oriented toward providing traditional marriage rights to non-traditional families like the one she imagined as a kid. As an openly polyamorous woman, Diana lives inside a version of that doll house today. Along with her primary partner Ed, she is currently romantically involved with several other men and women.
I sat down recently with the 35-year-old to discuss her life and career.
Why does polyamory work for you?
I remember from a very young age realizing that I was bisexual, and that I tended to be attracted to many different people at the same time. I really think that polyamory for me is an orientation, like being heterosexual or homosexual. Humans in general have a hard time with monogamy. That’s always been the case. We used to have a sense that it was acceptable for husbands to go out and have other lovers, but with the shift to egalitarianism, rather than to say that woman could do that too, we’ve gone in the other direction.
What are the consequences of that, do you think?
I think it's interesting to see the way that when people get into a monogamous couple dynamic, they often have to neuter their sexual desires. As the initial intensity of a relationship shifts to feelings of long-term love, you can end up in a sexless marriage, and I think that’s a huge contributor to infidelity and the breakup of a lot of families. We put so much emphasis on a partner being everything—that this person completes you—and when that doesn’t happen it creates a lot of pressure. I don't think that open relationships are for everyone but it's something that you should no longer feel ashamed to talk about at a time when so many marriages are failing.
What do your other lovers give you that your primary partner can’t?
Well, for example, with my female partners, I feel a different kind of power dynamic. I feel a protective impulse toward women I’m involved with. It's a different kind of love feeling. My partner Ed is a wonderful feminist man, though sometimes I’d really like to be out on a date with the kind of man who wants to open car doors for me and treat me like a princess. I don't want that all the time, but I might want that once a month.
How do your different lovers get along with one another?
They’re really good friends. The men even have a name for themselves. They call themselves “The Man Harem.” Sometimes they’ll play with that. They’ll all show up in matching clothes – wearing all pinstripes, or all red shirts, for example. They’re friends and they help each other. For instance, I just had my birthday and my partner Ed is off doing amazing work as a scientist. As a consolation, my long-term boyfriend is staying in the house for the week. So, rather than my boyfriend saying, “Wow why's your partner going out of town when it's your birthday?” he’s asking if my partner is okay having to be away for so long, if he needs support. And my partner is saying, “Thanks for taking care of Diana since I can’t be there.” There’s a real feeling of compersion. Compersion is the opposite of jealousy.
That word compersion is a really new word whereas jealousy is such an ancient concept. What role does jealousy play in your relationships?
Jealousy is an emotion that we treat in a really blunt way. We often say somebody’s jealous and then that's an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior: throwing a drink in someone's face, or storming out, or manslaughter. In manslaughter, it's basically a defense: “I walked in on my wife having sex with another man and I killed them.” We treat jealousy almost with this reverence, but we don’t unpack what’s behind it. Let’s get more specific. There are different versions of jealousy. One version might be a feeling of scarcity. Another can be insecurity. The way that I discover what version I’m dealing with is that I ask myself, “How old do I feel right now?” And when I'm insecure, I'm feeling like I'm 13.
How do you deal with those emotions?
We talk a lot. We check in with each other, “Is this okay with you?” and the answer can be, “I don't know.” For instance maybe Ed and I are going to a party together and this guy that I've been dating is at the party too. “Will it feel okay with you if I go over and kiss him?” Polyamory will find your buttons and it will push them. If you don't want to have that kind of challenge, it's not the right lifestyle for you. But, if you're up for it, polyamory can be the catalyst for powerful personal growth.
How does your family view your lifestyle?
Well, I come from a very religious household. I mean my dad is a fundamentalist deacon, so it was hard at first. But, basically my parents have been incredibly supportive. I think that's because they get to see me having wonderful love in my life and getting a lot of support.
Can you give an example?
Well, a while ago my dad had a massive heart attack and two of the men in my life came together to be with my family at the hospital. They’re both scientists, so they understood what was going on with his body and were able to explain everything that was happening. Both of them had busy jobs, so they actually coordinated with each other so that one of them was there at all times.
My family was just completely awestruck, “Wow, not just one smart, compassionate, great boyfriend, but two.” I think that if they learned about it in another way, they might've thought I was being sexually exploited, but obviously I wasn’t. It was clearly something that was really nurturing.
How are you using the law to empower non-traditional relationships like yours?
Our laws are about 20 years behind what families actually look like. I'm working to create alternatives to marriage, because I think that if we could choose marriage affirmatively instead of it being a default, it would make relationships stronger. Marriage is an incredibly intense contract. It's a legal-financial contract that you're making, declaring that you're going to be the other person's social welfare state and safety net if they screw up. I mean, you’re signing the most important document you’ll sign in your life and people read it less carefully than a cell phone contract. People have no idea what they’re actually committing to and are horrified a lot of times when they find out.
What kinds of alternatives to marriage are available?
There are different options. Domestic partnership, for example, has tremendous possibility to create a more expansive version of what a relationship can look like. Domestic partnership was originally created as an alternative for gay couples who couldn’t legally get married. But then, all these surprising things started happening where these other kinds of people started using it for their own purposes. For instance, many elderly widow friends have entered into platonic domestic partnerships. It’s a situation like the Golden Girls. These are friends saying, “I live with her, and we watch out for each other, and I want her to be the person I can share my health insurance with.”
How about in relationships with multiple partners like your own? Of the 1,200 or so rights and privileges provided by a traditional marriage contract, how many can you replicate?
I can't approximate all of them, however there are a lot of rights that we don't necessarily need. For example, if you’re buried in a government cemetery, you have the right to have your spouse buried next to you. Okay, how many people does that actually apply to? There’s the right not to testify against your spouse, but [for most people], that will probably never come up.
ere are a lot of basic things like ensuring tax benefits, or making sure that your partner is not financially vulnerable, or if you want to be sure that you can visit your partner at the hospital, we can do a healthcare proxy. The girlfriend can get the healthcare proxy because the wife can come in automatically. We can create agreements in terms of school or the doctor's office for a third parent to a child. And, I actually think that these arrangements can be better, because people can be really clear about what they want to create. They’re not signing on to things they maybe don’t actually want.
What else can you do for polyamorous unions?
I’m helping one polyamorous triad right now set up an LLC so they can share their finances. We’re making them employees of their own three person corporation so that they can be covered under an employee health plan.
Can you secure parental rights for a third parent to a child?
There are a lot of things we can do with co-parenting. With the busy lives that we lead, I think that three adults per child is actually a great ratio. So many parents are overburdened. I work a lot with lesbian couples and sperm donors in a three-parent model. They’re basing their relationship around a child. That’s a model that many courts and policymakers can wrap their heads around better than a polyamorous triad. If one woman contributes an egg, the man contributes sperm, and the other woman acts as a gestational surrogate, then all three of them are biologically a parent. We can do a three-parent adoption.
It takes a village right?
Right! You know Ed and I joke sometimes that we need a wife, because I get home from work at 10 and he gets home from work at 12, and it would be really awesome if there was somebody else helping with some of the household chores and child-rearing type things. I say “wife” in a joking way. I think the gender of the person doesn't matter. But, it would be nice to have another person in the home. You know, we pay other people for help like that in America when there are other possible models that actually create an even more stable and interconnected society.