The Open Hearts Project


A couple of decades ago, at the perhaps too-impressionable age of 13, I picked up a copy of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Being a voracious reader even then, I polished it off rather quickly -- the approximate literary equivalent of chugging a quart bottle of Jack Daniel's at the same age. When my eyes re-focused again, it was clear to me that the book was twisted, perverted, and obviously quite blasphemous.

I immediately re-read it.

I'll admit that it was partly purient interest that caused me to go back for more -- it's tame by some standards, but it was the raciest thing I'd read at that point. But there was more to it than that. It asked questions that I wanted to ask, and many more that I'd never thought of. It asked questions about religion, relationships, and other societal norms. I had asked some of the questions -- in particular, I'd asked Sunday School teachers some rather pointed theological questions. Most of the responses I had gotten boiled down to the idea of Faith, which wasn't very satisfying to me. I got even less far with relationships -- the phrase "painfully shy" had special meaning to me. There were no adults that I trusted enough to talk openly to, and I knew better than to bother asking my peers -- what conversational snippets I'd overheard made it clear that they knew less than I did. As for my parents, they'd clearly and wholeheartedly bought into all the social norms, particularly the more conservative ones.

The whole town (a more-or-less typical farm town in northeast United States) seemed to have bought into those norms -- if there was anybody who hadn't, they were being very quiet about it.

That was clearly the point in my life when I started actively questioning assumptions. In some very real sense, I feel as if I radically redesigned myself within a year or two. For one thing, I realized that I'd soaked up some very sexist and racist ideas, and not only did I figure out how messed-up they were, but I did my best to make it a habit to check myself for sexist and/or racist reactions. (While I'm proud to say that I still have that habit, I'm chagrined and sad that I still -- occasionally -- need that habit.) For another thing, I realized that Faith didn't work for me, and that there didn't seem to be sufficient proof for the existence (or nonexistence) of a Greater Power. I also realized that not only was I attracted to women and men, but that it was not something to be ashamed of.

And -- more to the point here -- I realized that while I might end up in a monogamous relationship, there also might be ways of relating that were more to my liking.

The idea of relating intimately to more than one person appealed to me, and not just for the obvious hormonal reasons that a teenage boy might have. The idea just seemed warm and friendly and fun. It was clear to me even then that I would prefer to be honest and open about such things, talking to lovers about my other lovers and hearing about theirs. Even -- when and if appropriate -- sharing lovers.

The first time this came up for me was with the first person I dated -- call her Sherry. We were more like pals than anything else, though we had occasional sessions of very hot kissing. I knew she was "dating" one or two others in what I assumed was the same way, but she didn't really talk about them and I didn't ask. At some point she more or less disappeared for a couple of weeks, and eventually it became clear that she was avoiding me. I finally confronted her and she grudgingly admitted that she was "seeing someone else." Puzzled, I told her that this was hardly news to me and asked what difference it made. She said that they had "gotten serious." I replied that as she and I weren't serious, it didn't seem relevant. The discussion went on for a while, but it boiled down to the fact (to her) that we couldn't "see each other" on any level because she was in a "serious relationship" with someone else. We could "still be friends," but it would clearly be a much more distant connection than it used to be.

I really had trouble understanding this. I knew -- intellectually -- that this was the way many people handled things, but it didn't make sense to me. Oh, I knew that time was a limited resource, and that I'd see less of her if she was seeing somebody else "seriously," but that clearly wasn't the issue to her. "Seeing somebody seriously" obviously meant -- to her -- not "seeing" anyone else at all.

My next relationship -- with Lori -- turned out to be my first serious and committed relationship. We, too, started out more as pals then anything else -- "hanging out" as much as "going out". Again, there was occasional sessions of hot kissing -- including, a couple of times, a mutual friend of ours. At some point she and I "got serious" and he seemed to step back. I was never quite sure why.

Later on in our relationship, our friend Jeanne made it clear to me (while we were both very drunk at a New Year's party) that she'd be interested in being sexual, but she knew I was "taken". I told her that if she still felt that way when we were sober, I'd talk to Lori about whether I really was "taken". Eventually she did, and I did, and after some discussion, Lori and I decided that we would try opening up our relationship. There were some minor rough spots, but mostly I remember it being fairly friendly all around, if a bit confusing to our friends. (At one point, someone sat down with Lori and gently broke it to her that I was "cheating" on her. Somewhat amused, Lori explained what the situation really was.)

Eventually, Lori proposed marriage to me and I accepted. For some reason that isn't very clear to me, I almost immediately stopped being sexual with Jeanne, though I seem to remember Lori insisting that it wasn't necessary. Perhaps I had decided that being engaged was "serious" enough that I had to be monogamous, but I really don't remember.

Lori and I didn't set a date, but we did move in together. A few months later, a mutual female friend of ours made a pass at Lori. Because her attraction to women was something that Lori wanted to explore further, it seemed like a good thing to follow up on. Over the next few months, Lori slowly came to the realization that she was a lesbian and that our relationship would not work. This was one of the most painful periods in my life, mostly because she would not (or could not) talk to me about what was going on. This, on top of my family dynamics, has made honesty and communication in relationships very important to me.

After Lori and I broke up, I had a series of lovers -- nothing "serious" and all clearly non-monogamous. Though I generally had one lover at a time (when I had any), I was very specific about wanting to be free that way -- and wanting whomever I was with to be free that way too.

That changed when I met Cathy. She definitely preferred monogamy, and I felt a special enough connection between us that I agreed to it. (And found myself on the other side of the story, telling a couple of "casual" lovers that I was going to be monogamous.) When Cathy and I broke up, it was clear to me that while I could be happily monogamous with the right person, I preferred being non-monogamous.

For a time after that, my dance card was full. Warm friends, hot sex, no strings -- other than "play safe" and "don't lie". Just what I needed. Once or twice somebody would stop being sexual with me when they got "serious" with someone else, but I'd gotten used to that.

Then I met Lynn. In an astonishingly short time, I was closer to her than I'd ever been to anyone in my life. One of the many things we strongly agreed on was that we preferred being non-monogamous. We worked out ground rules -- "play safe" and "talk about it". Not just "don't lie," but active communication. We talked about the people to whom we were attracted, why we were attracted to them, with whom we flirted, who flirted back, whether something might happen with so-and-so, and -- later -- if something had happened with them. It was fun sharing this. On occasion, we played together with one or two other people. We went to a small and friendly sex party. There were incredibly few rough spots, easily smoothed. We trusted each other, we picked playmates carefully, we communicated. It worked.

Almost two years ago (as I write this), Lynn introduced me to her old friend Chris. Chris and I hit it off well. Really well. We fell in love.

Now, Lynn and I had talked about this possibility, that one of us might go beyond affection and come to love somebody else. I kept telling her how I was feeling about Chris as things progressed. I told Lynn that I loved Chris before I told Chris. Luckily, Chris and Lynn were close friends. There were some doubts, but Lynn trusted Chris and vice-versa. (Amusingly enough, Chris also told Lynn that she loved me before she told me.)

Eventually -- partly because they were spending more time together -- Lynn and Chris built on their friendship, and became partners and lovers as well. Because this whole idea of responsible non-monogamy was so new to Chris, we agreed to be fidelitous, at least temporarily. (And again I had a couple of talks with "casual" lovers about my change in status, though I was clear that I hoped it would be temporary.) Over a year later, Chris broke up with both of us. There were a number of reasons, but it more-or-less boiled down to a combination of it being a long distance relationship and Chris never quite getting comfortable as part of a triad, never really feeling like an equal partnership instead of a couple with a girlfriend.

That breakup hurt. A lot. But in some ways it was easier (at least for me) than I thought it would be. Not because my relationship with Chris hadn't been serious, but because I had Lynn to share the sorrow with. Yes, she shared her sorrow me as well.

But Spider Robinson is right -- I shared my pain with Lynn, she shared her pain with me, and somehow we ended up with less pain altogether.

Going through that seemed to strengthen our connection even more. We've gone back to our original rules -- play safe and talk about it. We plan on having a commitment ceremony in a year or so, and will try to have a child not too long after that. We're still open to the possibility of having another partner or two, though it won't happen soon, and we now know that it's no simple thing. We love each other, and trust and respect each other, and we do what we can to keep communication open and honest.

That's all one can do in any relationship.

The rest is details.


I don't know why I prefer being polyamorous. It's certainly more complicated. It's not as safe, emotionally or physically (safer sex notwithstanding). It's definitely less accepted.

My bisexuality may have something to do with it. While not every bisexual has to have a lover (or more) of each gender to be happy, some of us at least prefer it. That isn't exactly how I feel -- it's more that I prefer that the possibility of being sexual with each gender remains open. That is, if I promised monogamy to a partner, I would essentially be promising to give up (except for fantasy) my sexuality with the other gender.

Another part of it is that with certain friends, I really enjoy being physical. There are different limits to which I'm willing to go with different friends, and there are various good reasons for those limits. The mere fact that I'm involved with somebody else doesn't define those limits for me -- though the concious, deliberate, agreements I have with Lynn (and other people) do.

Part of the appeal, of course, is that it's more fun. No, not just more fun, more joyful.

Note: All names have been changed for obvious reasons. This material is Copyrighted (1995) by the author (Bearpaw MacDonald), and is intended for viewing at the Open Hearts Project site on the World Wide Web. Any other use is strictly prohibited without the permission of the author.
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Last updated: 16 Dec 98
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