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Hers, Hers, His and Hers

April 2, 2006

BY ANDREW HERRMANN Staff Reporter - Chicago Sun Times


For a sliver of America, HBO's "Big Love," a Sunday night television show about a man "married" to three women, isn't just a weekly hour of drama. It's the way they live.

They call themselves "poly people" or "polyamorists'' -- people who say they have marriage-like commitments to more than one person.

The idea conjures up images of group sex, though it's not always a free for all: Not all of the partners necessarily sleep with each other, but they do have what they call deep emotional connections. It's negotiated non-monogamy where the goal is falling in love. A lot.

In "Big Love," the husband shares three adjacent houses, alternating nights with his trio of wives. In real life, the poly life isn't always so neat. Many report living with their "primary partner'' but spending lots of time with the "secondary'' partner or partners.

A 36-year-old Oak Park man who calls himself Minx lives alone. His male partner is married to a woman, and those two live in Madison, Wis. Minx isn't involved physically with the woman, but he talks on the phone with her about once a week, and they text message each other more than that.

When Minx marked his four years with the male partner, the woman helped celebrate. Minx, on the married couple's anniversary, made the two breakfast "just as you might do for a very good friend."

"It's a lot of work to make all the relationships work harmoniously, to be sure. But the payoff is in the depth and breadth of emotional connections that stem from the communication required,'' said Minx, who hosts a weekly podcast -- an Internet radio show -- on the poly life.

Not driven by religious beliefs

Manelqua Hinton, 61, has two women he calls "wives'' -- Mary, 52, and Kristi, 26 -- though none of the three is married in the eyes of the law. After being with Mary for six years, Hinton invited Kristi to join them in what polys call a "triad.'' About 18 months ago, Kristi gave birth to a girl; Mary calls the child her stepdaughter.

Just outside of French Lick, Ind., the three live on a 175-acre site dubbed "Our Haven,'' which will be the site of the Heartland Polyamory Conference scheduled for May. The four-day meeting will include seminars for polys on "clarity of communications'' and "poly parenting.''

The characters in "Big Love" are portrayed as renegade Mormons. But Hinton, like many polys, isn't motivated by religious beliefs.

As a 17-year-old married Marine heading off to fight in Vietnam, he and his wife gave each other permission to sleep with other people while he was away. And they did. When he came home, the two split up, but not because of any hard feelings regarding their extramarital affairs. "Combat made me a 40-year-old, [and] she was still a kid,'' explained Hinton.

Ten years ago, he met Mary, who had also previously lived in poly arrangements. Hinton said his promise with Mary is "for eternity.'' The promise to Kristi is to stay with her "as long as love lasts.''

They share one bedroom. He's sometimes asked by the women to leave them alone together, he said.

The secret, Hinton said, is to "be totally open and honest. If something bothers you, you have to say it now and not later. It takes a lot of love and trust.''

Kristi declined an interview. But, said Mary, "I'm lucky to have two very supportive, good friends.''

Hinton says he is open to adding another man to the group, should one of the women desire that. Mary doesn't rule it out, but she has no desire now.

Polys, like Lisa, 46, an Evanston woman with two male partners, argue that with divorce levels at nearly 50 percent of new marriages and, in some surveys, 15 percent of married people admitting to cheating, their lives are more honest.

"Lying and hurting people [is] immoral. Everyone I'm involved with knows about everyone else,'' says Lisa, who works in publishing.

Critics say polygamy is not "Big Love'' -- it's big selfishness.

"It's all about 'my wants.' It's radical individualism,'' said child and family psychologist Bill Maier, a vice president with Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based Christian ministry.

Maier said the polys who consider themselves married are anything but because marriage is about "putting the other ahead of you.''

"Polyamorist relationships [are] about 'me-me-me.' And that's why they're bound to fail,'' Maier said.

In poly arrangements "women are objectified -- they're collected like a commodity. Women always lose in a poly society,'' Maier said.

In HBO's "Big Love," jealousy marks the relationship among the three wives. For real poly people, that part of the show rings truest.

'Not a choice for me'

"There's a myth out there that polyamorous people are beyond jealousy ... I'm not so blessed,'' says Lisa. With two men, says Lisa, "I manage my emotions, and I try not to let them influence my behavior too much. But I do get very jealous at times.''

But, New York poly relationship psychotherapist Nan Wise argues, "Jealousy is not terminal.''

Wise, 48, and her husband each have a partner. She confirms that jealousy is common but that it comes from envy -- one partner feeling left out of the group, which, she said, is an easily remedied situation. Instead, she teaches "compersion," a poly-created word defined as the opposite of jealousy in which partners learn to enjoy the pleasure a partner has with someone else.

"You can have your cake and eat it, too,'' said Wise.

Most polys, particularly those raising children, shy from outside attention. They don't want problems at work, and they fear child welfare officials may try to take custody of their kids.

For Maier, polys having children is horrifying. "Think about it from a child's perspective: 'Who is my mom? Who is my dad?' The kids need a family tree just to figure out who's who.''

Wise's children are now 21 and 18, but when they were younger, one asked her and her legal husband, "Why can't you just be like other parents and get divorced?'' Today, she says, "largely, they're very accepting of who we are.''

Robyn Trask, the publisher of Loving More, a magazine for poly people with a circulation of about 1,000, has a husband with female partners, while she has two other male partners. Her 18-year-old son believes he, too, will be poly, she said. But her 15-year-old son thinks poly is "weird" and is angry about it, she said.

Trask, whose car sports a "Got Intimacy'' bumper sticker, says being poly "is not a choice for me.'' After breaking off seven marriage engagements -- the promise of monogamy kept derailing her -- she met her like-minded husband. Today, she says, she can live no other way.

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