Jackie Lay

Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy

Polyamorous people still face plenty of stigmas, but some studies suggest they handle certain relationship challenges better than monogamous people do.

When I met Jonica Hunter, Sarah Taub, and Michael Rios on a typical weekday afternoon in their tidy duplex in Northern Virginia, a very small part of me worried they might try to convert me.

All three live there together, but they aren’t roommates—they’re lovers.

Or rather, Jonica and Michael are. And Sarah and Michael are. And so are Sarah and whomever she happens to bring home some weekends. And Michael and whomever he might be courting. They’re polyamorous.

Michael is 65, and he has a chinstrap beard that makes him look like he just walked off an Amish homestead. Jonica is 27, with close-cropped hair, a pointed chin, and a quiet air. Sarah is 46 and has an Earth Motherly demeanor that put me at relative ease.

Together, they form a polyamorous “triad”— one of the many formations that’s possible in this jellyfish of a sexual preference. “There’s no one way to do polyamory” is a common refrain in “the community.” Polyamory—which literally means “many loves”—can involve any number of people, either cohabiting or not, sometimes all having sex with each other, and sometimes just in couples within the larger group.

Sarah and Michael met 15 years ago when they were both folk singers and active in the polyamorous community. Both of them say they knew from a young age that there was something different about their sexuality. “Growing up, I never understood why loving someone meant putting restrictions on relationships,” Michael said.

“What I love about polyamory is that everything is up for modification,” Sarah says. “There are no ‘shoulds.’ You don’t have to draw a line between who is a lover and who is a friend. It’s about what is the path of my heart in this moment.”

They’ve been “nesting partners” for 12 years, but they’ve both had other relationships throughout that time. Jonica moved in three years ago after meeting Michael on OkCupid. She describes the arrangement’s appeal as “more intimacy, less rules. I don’t have to limit my relationship with other partners.”

The house is, as they describe, an “intentional community”—a type of resource-sharing collectivist household. They each have their own room and own bed. Sarah is a night owl, so she and Michael spend time together alone late at night. Jonica sees him alone in the early morning. They all hang out together throughout the day. The house occasionally plays host to a rotating cast of outside characters, as well—be they friends of the triad or potential love interests.

The triad works together, too, running a consulting nonprofit that puts on events “that teach skills for living together peacefully, such as clear communication, boundaries, what to do when you get upset,” Sarah said. An added bonus of the living arrangement is that it cuts down on commuting time.

I initially expected the polyamorous people I met to tell me that there were times their relationships made them sick with envy. After all, how could someone listen to his significant other’s stories of tragedy and conquest in the dating world, as Michael regularly does for Sarah, and not feel possessive? But it became clear to me that for “polys,” as they’re sometimes known, jealousy is more of an internal, negligible feeling than a partner-induced, important one. To them, it’s more like a passing head cold than a tumor spreading through the relationship.

Of the three people living in the Northern Virginia duplex, Sarah volunteers that she’s the one most prone to jealousy. “It can be about feeling like you’re not special, or feeling like this thing belonged to me and now someone’s taken it.”

She said it was rough for her when Jonica first moved in. Sarah had been accustomed to seeing Michael whenever she wanted, but she started to feel a pang when he spent time with Jonica.

“At first I thought, ‘Is something bad happening, something I don’t want to support?” she said. “No, I want to support Michael and Jonica in being together. From there, I look at my own reaction. I can be an anxious person, so maybe I was feeling anxious. I find other ways of getting grounded. I might go for a walk or play guitar.

“It’s part of learning a healthy self-awareness and the ability to self-soothe,” she added. “I notice what I’m feeling, and do a dive inward.”

Two-person marriage, be it gay or straight, is still such the norm that even the most progressive among us do a double-take when someone says they like their relationships a little more populous. (This stigma is also why, with the exception of the Northern Virginia triad, all of the other polyamorous sources in this article asked to go either by their first names or pseudonyms).

Increasingly, polyamorous people—not to be confused with the prairie-dress-clad fundamentalist polygamists—are all around us. By some estimates, there are now roughly a half-million polyamorous relationships in the U.S., though underreporting is common. Some sex researchers put the number even higher, at 4 to 5 percent of all adults, or 10 to 12 million people. More often than not, they’re just office workers who find standard picket-fence partnerships dull. Or, like Sarah, they’re bisexuals trying to fulfill both halves of their sexual identities. Or they’re long-term couples who don’t happen to think sexual exclusivity is the key to intimacy.

Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who interviewed 40 polyamorous people over the course of several years for her recent book, The Polyamorists Next Door, says that polyamorous configurations with more than three people tend to be rarer and have more turnover. “Polys” are more likely to be liberal and educated, she said, and in the rare cases that they do practice religion, it’s usually paganism or Unitarian Universalism.

Polys differentiate themselves from swingers because they are emotionally, not just sexually, involved with the other partners they date. And polyamorous arrangements are not quite the same as “open relationships” because in polyamory, the third or fourth or fifth partner is just as integral to the relationship as the first two are.

Polyamory overlaps somewhat with geek culture, such as cosplay, or the kink world, such as BDSM. Many couples who become interested in polyamory start by looking for a single, bisexual woman to add to the relationship. In fact, this quest has become so common (and its object has remained so elusive) that it’s known as “hunting the unicorn.”

But Sheff cautions that once said unicorn is caught, “the men are sometimes not as well-tended as they hoped to be. During the actual sex, the women get interested in each other, and the men describe it as ‘not all that.’”

Even many devout monogamists admit that it can be hard for one partner to supply the full smorgasbord of the other’s sexual and emotional needs. When critics decry polys as escapists who have simply “gotten bored” in traditional relationships, polys counter that the more people they can draw close to them, the more self-actualized they can be.

In the course of her research, Sheff met one couple in which the man was as “as kinky as a cheap garden hose.” “It didn’t do it for [his wife], the whole kink thing,” Sheff told me. “So he started going to local [BDSM] dungeons and playing with other women. She was not that into that, either. She loved the theater, but she stopped going as much because he thought it was boring and stupid and expensive.”

So the couple went poly: “He started dating kinky women. She ended up hooking up with her old high school friend she found on Facebook, and they enjoyed the theater together. And she ended up enjoying time with her husband but not feeling so much pressure about the kinky sex.”

I asked the logical, mono-normative question: Why didn’t the wife just ditch the garden hose for the theater man? “She gets stuff from the garden-hose guy that she doesn’t get from the intellectual guy,” Sheff explained. “They do fun things together, and the theater guy is too needy for her. She doesn’t want him all to herself, because he would be too much work.”

When I went to visit polyamorists in Baltimore, I brought my 6-foot-3 boyfriend with me. The organizer of the local social group BmorePoly, a middle-aged software engineer named Barry, opened the door and said, “Is that your bodyguard?”

I laughed a little too loud.

(We’re not polyamorous, by the way. I feel the need to clarify that, as did the scientists I spoke with who study polyamory. One such professor told me that when she describes her research to her peers at academic conferences, they often ask her if she herself is in an open relationship. “Would you ask a cancer researcher if they had cancer?” she told me recently.)

One of the Baltimore couples, Josh and Cassie, represents a typical approach to polyamory: They met a decade ago through a mutual friend, and they dated monogamously for several years before Cassie, who is bisexual, raised the idea of adding another woman to the relationship. They’ve since had several committed triad relationships lasting from a few months to several years. The “other woman” becomes a full partner in the relationship, and ideally, she complements them both in some way. Cassie always hopes that it’ll be a fellow horror-movie lover, while Josh keeps his fingers crossed for an anime fanatic.

“She can go running at 5 a.m. with him,” Cassie said. “I’m fine sleeping in.”

The only restrictions are that Josh and Cassie spend their wedding anniversary alone together, and that all parties undergo a full STD check before any kind of “fluid bonding” takes place.

Expanding the group beyond three people hasn't been an option so far, Josh says. “When we date together, it’s a closed group,” Josh said. “That’s what works best for us in terms of time and energy. I have a very demanding job.”

When monogamous people discover that Josh and Cassie are involved with a third partner, they ask questions that suggest it’s just a fling. “Like, ‘How far is this gonna go or how long will you be with them?’” Cassie recalls. The answer she gives: “We let it have a natural growth, like any other relationship.”

Another Baltimore couple, Erin and Bill, has so far mostly had shorter-term triad arrangements. When Erin and Bill met in the summer of 2012, Bill confessed that he had always fantasized about having sex with a woman and another man at the same time. “I’m heteroflexible,” Bill said. “It’s like saying you’re mostly straight. You’re like 70-30.”

As it turns out, Erin’s fantasy was to have sex with two men at the same time.

When Erin and Bill meet a man they like, all three go out together, with the two men sitting on either side of Erin and holding one of each of her hands.

Bill says watching his wife have sex with another man is anything but unsettling. Instead, it sometimes induces compersion—the poly principle of basking in the joy of a partner’s success in romance, just as you would with his or her success in work or sports.

“There are so many societal norms that say, ‘He looked the wrong way at someone so I’m gonna go all Carrie Underwood on his vehicle,’” Erin said. “Polyamory is about the idea that having their undivided attention isn’t the end all, be all.”

Though some ancient civilizations permitted polygamy, or multiple wives, the idea of monogamous marriage has been deeply rooted in Western society since the time of the Ancient Greeks. (Although monogamous Hellenic men were free to have their way with their male and female slaves.)

Monogamy quickly became the norm—and social norms influence our psychology. The process of adhering to social rules and punishing rule violators tickles the reward circuits of our brains. Some studies suggest that each time you think to yourself that polyamory is icky, an oxytocin molecule gets its wings.

In its history, America saw only a handful of collective dalliances away from two-person marriage model. In the 1840s in upstate New York, the Oneida commune practiced “complex marriage,” in which the 300 members were encouraged to have consensual intercourse with whomever they desired. As its leader, the lawyer John Humphrey Noyes, put it in his proposal letter to his wife, Harriet: “I desire and expect my [wife] will love all who love God ... with a warmth and strength of affection which is unknown to earthly lovers, and as free as if she stood in no particular connection with me. In fact the object of my connection with her will not be to monopolize and enslave her heart or my own, but to enlarge and establish both in the free fellowship of God’s universal family.”

By some accounts, the Oneida way of life was far more feminist than traditional marriage was at the time: The women only had sex when they wanted to, for example, and some of the female members relished having multiple sex partners.

But this was no erotic utopia. The commune’s elderly true believers regularly initiated its less-experienced teenagers into sex in order to strengthen the younger generation’s devotion to Noyes. Members were publicly chastised if they were discovered carrying on exclusive relationships. People who wanted to be parents were matched in arranged marriages and prevented from bonding with their children, all as part of Noyes’ plan to create a superior uber-race. In 1879, Noyes, fearing arrest for statutory rape, fled the country and wrote to his to his followers that they should abandon complex marriage. The 70 remaining commune members entered traditional marriages with whomever they happened to be living with at the time.

From there, “free love” experiments largely became the private domain of lefty academics, anarchists, and artists. London’s “Bloomsbury Set,” for example, was famously a jungle gym of affairs and attractions.

The practice of “swinging” first became common among American military members during World War II, with the tacit understanding that the wives of the men who did not survive would be taken in by those who did. Group marriage saw a limited rebirth in the communes of the 1960s, and open relationships, too, had a heyday in the permissive 1970s. The specter of AIDS put a damper on the free-love movement in the ’80s and early ’90s, but when the Internet came along, the poly-inclined found new and improved ways to connect with one another.

When Sarah Taub was a teenager in the 1980s, “if I wanted to look for anything about open relationships, there was some science fiction. There was no one you could talk to about it. I felt like I was crazy or that there was something wrong with me.”

In her youth, she entered a sexless monogamous relationship that puttered along for a few years before she discovered the poly world. “These days, someone wanting to be poly can easily find a huge group on the Internet,” she said. “Poly people are very happy and communicative—there is huge support now that there never was before.”

In 1990, Morning Glory Zell, the High Priestess of the Oregon-based pagan Church of All Worlds, wrote an article called “A Bouquet of Lovers,” which laid out a vision for transparent, consensual open relationships. Some think it was one of the first modern uses of the word “polyamorous.”

“I feel that this whole polyamorous lifestyle is the avante garde of the 21st century,” Zell wrote. “Polyamorous extended relationships mimic the old multi-generational families before the Industrial Revolution, but they are better because the ties are voluntary and are, by necessity, rooted in honesty, fairness, friendship and mutual interests. Eros is, after all, the primary force that binds the universe together.” Zell died—or rather, “crossed the veil into the Summerlands”—in May of this year, but her legacy lives on.

Despite lingering disapproval, there’s some evidence that Americans are growing increasingly accepting of open relationships. To be sure, the sanctity of two-person marriage still looms large: For decades now, most Americans—90 percent, give or take—have told Gallup that having an affair is unacceptable. In a 1975 survey conducted in a Midwestern town, only 7 percent of the residents said they would ever participate in mate-swapping. Only 2 percent said they ever had. As recently as 2005, college women ranked open marriage as one of the least desirable partnership options: 95 percent of one study’s participants said "One man married to two or more wives" was the one of the most undesirable forms of marriage, while 91 percent said “group marriage” was.

However, an April study asked 1,280 heterosexuals how willing they would be, on a scale from one to seven, to commit various non-monogamous acts, such as swinging or adding a third party to the relationship. Depending on the scenario, up to 16 percent of women and up to 31 percent of men chose a four or higher on the scale when asked whether they’d willing, while still with their partners, to do things like have a third person join the relationship, or have “casual sex with whomever, no questions asked.”

Polyamory might seem like the bailiwick of the young and carefree, but many of its practitioners have children. The idea of parents having live-in third, fourth, or fifth partners isn’t frowned upon.

Bill and Erin don’t hide their outside relationships from Erin’s 17-year-old daughter. One day, the couple was watching the television show Sister Wives, which documents a polygamous family in Utah, when the daughter remarked that it was an interesting system.

“She was talking about Sister Wives, and I said, ‘What about brother husbands?’” Bill asked her. “I said, ‘Your mom and I date a guy.’ And she was like, ‘Cool.’”

Sheff said that most polyamorous parents date outside the home, much like divorced parents do. And how much they share with their children depends on their ages—a 4-year-old doesn’t need to know as much as a 14-year-old does. “It’s much more like, ‘This is a friend,’ not ‘This is your new dad of the month,’” she said.

Cassie and Josh said their son, who is now 10, has grown up around his parents’ girlfriends, so he doesn’t find it unusual. He calls the women the couple dates “Ms. ‘Anne,’” and refers to them as “my dad’s [or sometimes mom’s] girlfriend” to others.

“We have friends who are poly, mono, gay, and lesbian,” Cassie said. “He doesn’t understand why people have a problem with people caring for and loving each other.”

Some marriage experts don’t agree that polyamory’s impact on children is neutral, though. "We know that kids thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Polyamory can be like a “marriage-go-round,” Wilcox said. “When kids are exposed to a revolving carousel of spouses, that experience of instability and transition can be traumatic.” (Wilcox, who has contributed to The Atlantic, is known for having rather conservative views: He recently penned a Washington Post op-ed about how marriage ostensibly protects women, and he consulted on a much-contested study about the children of same-sex couples.)

Wilcox also assumes that polyamorous people must struggle to devote enough time and attention to each partner and child. “It’s a challenge for me as a husband and father to give my wife and kids enough attention,” Wilcox said. “I can’t imagine how challenging it would be to add another partner. There are limits to time and space.”

There’s some evidence that polygamy, in particular, can be harmful, not only to children but to women and men. The anthropologist Joseph Henrich has found that the world’s polygamous societies gradually evolved toward monogamous marriage because doing so resolved many of the problems created when powerful men hoarded all the wives for themselves. Meanwhile, these societies’ mobs of horny, angry, low-status single men would lead to “significantly higher levels rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud,” as Henrich and fellow researchers wrote in a recent study.

By easing the competition to scoop up as many wives as possible, monogamy allows men to instead focus on things like child-rearing, long-term planning, and saving money. It also increases the age at first marriage and lowers fertility rates, Henrich found. He suggests that’s one reason polygamy was outlawed in Japan in 1880, in 1953 in China, and in 1955 in India, for most religious groups. But the welfare of children living in today’s polyamorous households won’t be knowable until there are more long-term studies on that (tiny) cohort.

In fact, there’s a paucity of any sort of research on consensual, Western non-monogamy. A 2005 study that examined 69 polygamous families found that there often was a “deep-seated feeling of angst that arises over competing for access to their mutual husband.” Conflict between the co-wives, the researchers wrote, is “pervasive and often marked by physical or verbal violence.” But that analysis was based on predominantly African cultures where men take several wives, not the more egalitarian polyamorous community in the developed world.

The nascent research that does exist suggests these modern polyamorous relationships can be just as functional—and sometimes even more so—than traditional monogamous pairings.

Perhaps most obviously, people who have permission to “cheat”—that is, through a planned, non-monogamous arrangement—are more likely to use condoms and have frequent STI tests than clandestine cheaters are. Apparently, sneaking around is already so morally torturous that a stop at Walgreens for Trojans would simply be too much to handle.

Terri Conley, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who studies polyamory, has analyzed a sample of 1,700 monogamous individuals, 150 swingers, 170 people in open relationships, and 300 polyamorous individuals for a forthcoming study. She said that while people in “open relationships” tend to have lower sexual satisfaction than their monogamous peers, people who described themselves as “polyamorous” tended to have equal or higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

What’s more, polyamorous people don’t seem to be plagued by monogamous-style romantic envy. Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont has found that polyamorous people tend to experience less overall jealousy, even in situations that would drive monogamous couples to Othello-levels of suspicion. "It turns out that, hey, people are not reacting with jealousy when their partner is flirting with someone else," Holmes told LiveScience.

Sheff agreed. “I would say they have lower-than-average jealousy,” she said. “People who are very jealous generally don’t do polyamory at all.”

Conley found that jealousy is “much higher” among monogamous pairs than non-monogamous ones. Polyamorous people also seemed to trust each other more. “For a long time I’ve been interested in whether monogamous relationships are all they’re cracked up to be,” Conley said.

Her findings, like Holmes’ and Sheff’s, are preliminary and limited. But if they hold up, it could mean that at least in some ways, polyamory is a more humane way to love.

Then again, most people aren’t biologically predisposed to share their lovers. With limited resources, the only way for our caveman forbears to be sure they weren’t raising someone else’s children was to ensure their cave-ladies never strayed.

“The men who were happy to have their partner have sex with other men were not our ancestors, because they were more likely to be raising offspring that were not their own,” Todd K. Shackelford, an evolutionary psychologist at Oakland University, told me. “They did not pass on the genes that built their greater liberalness.”

Although women did not face the risk of accidentally raising a rival’s offspring, they similarly had to sweat over whether their partners were cheating—and thus wasting their time and efforts on another woman’s children.

These divergent infidelity anxieties, Shackelford says, forged the differences in how modern men and women experience relational jealousy today. Women get more upset about emotional unfaithfulness, while men are more concerned with sexual cheating.

“There’s a phenomenon within psychology called obsessional review, which refers to the kinds of questions that the partner that finds out about the infidelity asks the unfaithful partner,” Shackelford said. “Men ask, ‘Did you have sex with him? How many orgasms did you have?’ etc. Women ask, ‘Are you in love with her? Did you buy her gifts? Did you take her to our restaurant?’ and so on.”

Beyond the broad strokes of gender, individual differences further shape our jealous reactions. In a 2005 study, Shackelford found that men who had previous long-term relationship experience were more jealous in their current romances.

Modern forms of dating also have the potential to foment jealousy to a greater degree than the steadier, simpler courtships of yore. We’re no longer settling down with our high-school sweethearts: In 1970, the average first-time bride was 21; today, she’s 26. And women now have sex for the first time nearly 10 years before they give birth for the first time. In 1945, that span was only four years.

Later marrying and child-rearing ages have opened up a bevy of potential mate options at work, among friends, and online. But with great choice often comes great envy. “What’s the new sexual etiquette for the way people flow into relationships over the course of a longer adulthood?” asked Virginia Rutter, professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. “And how does a lifetime of having opposite-sex close relationships affect the boundaries around heterosexual relationships?”

Social media tends to pump steroids into existing romantic discontent. Tara Marshall, a psychology professor at Brunel University in London, has found that people who are naturally anxious tend to stalk their partners on Facebook, scouring their partners’ digital footprints for hints of dishonesty. Through the filter of jealousy, even the most neutral, sideways-hugging photos might be interpreted as threatening.

And there’s something uniquely crazy-making about online dating—the way these arranged romances lurch from “just sex” to “getting serious” and back again, unpredictably fizzling or heating up, depending on who’s available.

According to Jennifer Theiss, a communications professor at Rutgers University who studies relationships, uncertainty over the status of a romantic relationship tends to increase angst—as does transitioning from casual dating to a more committed state. There’s nothing longer than the pause after one partner asks, “Where are we?”

“That’s when people have uncertainty over how the partner feels about them—they’re having a hard time reading their partner,” Theiss told me. “At any other time, the fact that X commented on a Facebook post wouldn’t bother me, but today you didn’t kiss me before work, so now when I see that X commented, I’m much more sensitive.”

When a couple meets online, there’s little to stop one party from keeping her online options open—and her profile up to date. In that way, it can be a sort of involuntary polyamory, with a horde of would-be monogamists all vying for each others’ attention over Tinder’s siren call. “Before this kind of technology took off, people were meeting in bars or at work ,” Theiss said. “You probably would have escalated your relationship more quickly to monogamy.”

Our dating options may be increasing, Theiss and other researchers suggest, but so are our occasions to be suspicious and envious. “Peoples’ eyes are opened to the possibility that people are maintaining emotional connections to a lot of people through technology,” Theiss said. “The ability to connect with old partners and to still be online friends with them can create new opportunities for jealousy that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago.”

Stew, a Maryland man who is in an open relationship with his “main partner,” M, said that even though he tries to be open-minded, he still sometimes feel uneasy when others flirt with his “beloveds” on Facebook.

“Sometimes I feel pangs of envy or insecurity,” he said. “Maybe [the men doing the flirting] are really good at something I’m not, or they have an awesome job, or their life is so much cooler because they are internationally renowned underwater photographers or something.”

Those of us who are in monogamous relationships will probably never stop being jealous—and that’s healthy. What’s not healthy is the way some monogamous people manipulate their partners’ jealousy and devotion. According to Shackelford, women in monogamous relationships “are more likely to use sexual assets to induce jealousy in their partner,” while “men will manipulate access to resources.”

By contrast, the way polyamorous people tend to resolve their conflicts is more above-board. When extramarital relations are already out in the open, it seems there’s little else to hide. “A big part of what makes someone feel jealous is when their expectations for the relationship are violated,” Theiss said. “In poly situations, where they’ve actually negotiated the ground rules—‘I care about you and I also care about this other person, and that doesn’t mean I care less about you’—that creates a foundation that means [they] don’t have to feel jealous. They don’t have uncertainty about what’s happening.”

For example, as Conley, the polyamory researcher, has noted, “polyamory writings explicitly advocate that people revisit and reevaluate the terms of their relationships regularly and consistently—this practice could benefit monogamous relationships as well. Perhaps a monogamous couple deemed dancing with others appropriate a year ago, but after revisiting this boundary they agree that it is stressful and should be eliminated for the interim.”

People in plural relationships get jealous, too, of course. But the way polys get jealous is unique—and possibly even adaptive. Rather than blame the partner for their feelings, the polys view the jealousy an irrational symptom of their own self-doubt.

Cassie and Josh had been dating a woman—let’s call her Anne—for about a year and a half when all three went to a diner together. Josh, who doesn’t like tomatoes, ordered a burger. Cassie went to the bathroom. When she came back, the burger had arrived and Anne was eating Josh’s tomatoes.

Cassie loves tomatoes—and she always eats Josh’s tomatoes.

“They were my freaking tomatoes,” she said. “I had experienced the loss of my tomatoes, and that was a unique thing for me.”

“I was going to be angry and scream, but then I thought, ‘This is just tomatoes.’”

Rather than throw a tantrum or banish Anne from the triad, Cassie simply waited to cool off about the tomatoes, and the three moved on.

“I think everyone feels jealous,” Josh said. “Us and the people we’ve dated and most of the people I know feel jealous. But when I think of jealousy, I think of it more as it’s another emotion we express as jealousy. You’re not actually jealous; you’re feeling loss.”

“I had revelations about jealousy back when I was trying to be monogamous,” said Jonica, the 27-year-old living in the triad in Virginia. She realized “it’s kinda silly. It produces the opposite effect that you supposedly want. If I was jealous of my lover, and I start acting out on that emotion, it’s going to drive that person away from me.”

Stew, the man in the open relationship, says that whenever jealousy surfaces, he and his partners recognize it as “one or more specific unmet needs, like wanting more date-like time together.”

For example, his main partner, M, was recently feeling jealous that he was spending so much time with B, his girlfriend, and feared that Stew would eventually want to leave M for B. M “knows in her logical brain that this isn’t the case, but thoughts like these are worries, like ‘Did I leave the stove on?’” Stew said. “You can’t logic them away.”

So on top of reassuring M that he would never leave her, in times like these, Stew tries to lighten the mood “with a nice walk around the block, or making dinner with her, or being silly, or watching Netflix.”

“We’re in a place where, for the most part, we both are able to see feelings of envy and insecurity for what they are, and we have a deep bond of trust that is most often very easily accessible, which we can reach out to and touch when we need to remind ourselves that it’s there,” he said.

Josh and Cassie talk over and negotiate everything—“a lot more than other couples do,” they think. The tomatoes were such a big deal because their allotment hadn’t been previously agreed upon. (In the end, the three decided they would share all future tomatoes.)

Overall, Josh says sharing a life between three adults, rather than two, is not as kinky and complicated as some monogamous people might think. “The stuff in poly that’s difficult is not the sex,” he said. “It’s where the goddamn spoons get put away.”

In that sense, at least, poly and mono relationships are more alike than they are different.