Intimate affair … Darren Ramsey with his fellow polyamorists – and lovers – Jennifer Lee (at left) and Melissa Coller. Photo: Randy Larcombe
Forward for The Age
For polyamorists, two’s company, but adding one more is definitely not a crowd. Jacqueline Maley meets those enjoying relationships with multiple mutually consenting partners.
Darren Ramsey is a consultant, life coach and relationship coach whose methods include talk therapy and neuro-linguistic programming. He also occasionally does therapeutic hypnotism, or “installing learnings into the mind”, as he characterises it, speaking in his upbeat, can-do style. His tiled, Italianate home in Devon Park, in Adelaide’s inner north, has a well-kept garden (it’s that kind of suburb), a concrete driveway and a couple of dogs out the back. Inside, the walls are decorated with inspirational sayings like, “Do ALL you can/With WHAT you’ve got/From WHERE you can.”
This epigram, and its implication of abundance, sums him up well. Because Ramsey, a 50-year-old divorced father of two whose interests include scuba diving and wine appreciation, is a polyamorist. Which means he has multiple concurrent relationships with different partners, who all know about each other, and some of whom may be involved with each other, too.
Ramsey is part of what’s known, in the “poly” world, as a triad. He has two female partners, 28-year-old Jennifer Lee and 35-year-old Melissa “Melly” Coller, who are also lovers. They sometimes have sex as a threesome. “There are three separate connections, so each has its own dynamic and own little cocoon,” Ramsey explains. “It’s just that it’s more open when we’re interrelating.”
Defined broadly as “ethical non-monogamy”, polyamory – distinct from swinging (which emphasises recreational sex rather than love), polygamy (marriage with multiple partners) or good old-fashioned adultery – is an increasingly vocal and active movement.
Polyamorists say that jealousy is learnt, not innate, and can be overcome. They believe a person’s capacity for love is infinite and, just as a parent’s adoration for their first-born does not limit the love they have for subsequent children, so the heart expands with numerous sexual partners. Polyamorists even believe jealousy can be transmuted into a feeling of joy, experienced when you see your partner enjoying the love of someone else – a feeling so uncommon, polyamorists had to make up a word for it: “compersion”. (It’s not in the Oxford Dictionary.)
When I visit the Ramsey ménage, it is a light-filled evening and the burghers of Devon Park have turned sprinklers on in their gardens. All three householders greet me on the patio. Ramsey, slight, fit and silver-haired, puts his hand out first, and introduces me around. Lee is creamy-skinned and pretty, with dyed-red hair and a Goth-lite aesthetic. She has a tattoo on her calf and a quiet, shy manner. Over the ensuing hours, she frequently defers to Ramsey in conversation, as though not quite confident she has landed on the right word. Coller is friendly and self-confident but also hangs back, perhaps out of deference to the group dynamic. Ramsey does most of the talking.
Settling in a sitting room that doubles as a waiting room for his clients (he works from home), Ramsey explains that he and Lee have been together since March; Coller, who lives on the NSW north coast but is visiting Adelaide, is the third and last to enter the arrangement. Ramsey found Coller on a social media website called FetLife (“fet” is short for “fetish”).
Lee always knew that Ramsey’s ambition was to form a triad. He was “burnt”, he says, from past experiences at the centre of what is known as a “V”, where one person has two separate concurrent relationships with two people, who are not connected to each other. “I made it clear I was no longer interested in a ‘V’ relationship,” Ramsey says. “I had been there, done that, and it was exhausting, extraordinarily taxing.”
So he set about creating his ideal scenario. A previous partner had not coped well when he brought Lee into their relationship as a “third”, so she left the group (with some acrimony, it seems) and Lee stayed. He says, “You just tell people, in no uncertain terms, ‘This is my view of the world, this is what I like. This is what I expect. If you want to be part of it, get on board. If not, step off the train at the next station.’ ”
Lee and Coller wanted to get on board, and both profess a wish to stay there long-term.
Before meeting Ramsey, Lee had never been in a group relationship before, and while she identifies as bisexual and had “experimented” with women, she says she had never had sex with one before Coller joined the triad.
Now Lee and Coller have a sexual relationship, too. They love each other, they tell me, reaching across Ramsey to join hands.
A recent article in the American magazine Details estimates there are 500,000 polyamorists living in the US. There are no figures for Australia but, thanks to the internet, people interested in the lifestyle can meet up more easily than ever.
The word “polyamory” is said to have been created by a woman named Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, who used it in a 1990 magazine article, “A Bouquet of Lovers”. The lifestyle was elucidated more fully by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy in their 1997 book, The Ethical Slut. The how-to book lays out the principles of managing multiple concurrent sexual relationships, including the need for strong communication and agreement on ground rules.
It also contains a lot of information on scheduling – the polyamorist’s greatest headache. As Ramsey says, “Love is abundant. The only resource that is finite is time. By having people cohabit, sitting around the table with all your lovers, that’s effectively leveraging time.”
By phone from California, Janet Hardy explains polyamory as “ways of structuring a relationship that are not about ownership. There are a whole lot of ways to love and be loved: the romantic, the sexual, the intellectual. The chances of finding all those in one person are small. In the [poly] lifestyle you have all these people you connect with in different ways. It just feels a lot more fulfilling. I don’t have to give up anything.”
More than the scandal of sleeping with multiple partners (which, as many polyamorists point out, is rife in the so-called monogamous community anyway), this lack of sacrifice seems the most heretical part of the polyamorous world view. We are constantly told that lasting relationships require compromise, but polyamorists don’t agree, which makes their lifestyle – depending on your view – either the purest extension of personal liberty or rank individualism.
For his part, Darren Ramsey says he doesn’t “play the compromise game. Compromise is a game of lose-lose … it means both people have to give something up in order to get very little,” he explains. “I firmly believe everybody can have everything they want.”
For Ramsey, Lee and Coller, this means having written agreements with each other and constant communication. (“I get accused of overcommunicating!” jokes Ramsey.) They have a room in their home where anyone can go, no questions asked, if he or she needs time out. Lee, a self-confessed introvert, uses the room to read, listen to music and draw.
Chris is 25 years old and a circus performer. Short and wiry, with dark hair and side-burns, he does contact juggling and live shows, and mixes in an alternative community of like-minded artists and students in Sydney’s inner west. I meet him at a cafe near his share house in a converted factory. “I was never particularly comfortable in monogamous relationships,” he says. “I always found myself getting emotionally invested with people outside the relationship.”
While studying at university in Bathurst, NSW, Chris hunted down a book he had “heard whisperings of”: The Ethical Slut. For Chris it was a new philosophy, one that resonated deeply with him, and soon afterwards he met one of his partners, Kitty, a Perth-based social-work student.
“It was like a whirlwind,” he recounts. “We ended up spending the day talking about science fiction and how societies are built.” When Kitty went back to Perth, they began chatting on the phone. Chris was finishing his studies and was often up late. Kitty was a “good lifeline to call”, Chris says. From the outset, Chris says, “we both identified as poly. She had a couple of other occasional lovers over in Perth. She is pansexual, so …” He stops. “You know the definition of pansexual, don’t you?”
I lie and say yes. Chris chimes in over my attempted explanation. “It’s just like, ‘You’re a person. I like you. Oh, you happen to have bits.’ That’s pansexual,” he says.
Two years into his long-distance relationship with Kitty, now 26, Chris met Natalie, an admin assistant and aspiring artist who is the third member of the trio. The pair met through mutual friends and Chris was upfront about his relationship status. Previously Natalie, who is 23, had only ever been in a monogamous relationship, so Chris introduced her to the lifestyle.
“She knew I was a poly from the get-go and she was pretty comfortable with it, but not having had any interactions with that kind of thing she didn’t know if she would be picking up other lovers or not,” he says. “It’s only over the last eight months or so she has been more comfortable in exploring that, which is fantastic.”
Natalie describes the beginning of their relationship. “It required me to get my head around, not just having a casual person to sleep with, but actually having someone who was my partner but was also sleeping with other people, and who also had another primary partner,” she says.
Although she says the thought of Chris sleeping with other girls was “not difficult to think about”, Natalie says that “it was a bit of a struggle getting my head around being one of two or one of many. I could not make him my whole world. I was forced to be a bit more independent.”
Chris does not remember the first time he introduced Kitty and Natalie, but Natalie does: “I thought he just wanted some sexual adventures; I didn’t realise he was actually introducing us, getting us accustomed to each other. A few weeks after, he mentioned to me, ‘I want this to be a triad.’ That very much touched me; I realised this was much more than a sexual adventure for him.”
But although the two women got along well and conversation flowed easily, Natalie says there was no sexual spark. “Kitty and I looked at each other and thought, ‘We both love Chris, but we’re not really into each other.’ ” Despite this, Chris says the three have enjoyed “kinky fun threesome things” together.
In researching this article, I was asked constantly by friends and family whether polyamory wasn’t just a way for a man to enjoy multiple sexual partners without any consequences. Most people, for whatever reason, doubt that women have the time, patience or inclination to have lots of partners on the go. In the small and unscientific sample I interviewed, it seemed only bisexual polyamorous women were truly interested in having partners outside their primary relationship.
Niko Antalffy, 38, is one such woman. “I kind of knew from about 23 that I wasn’t monogamous,” she says. “After a few turbulent years, I realised I could either be happy but unethical, or ethical and unhappy. You either cheat on people and you’re horrible, or you are monogamous.”
Antalffy insists it’s not just about sex. To her, polyamory is more a “life philosophy”. “Life is full of potential connections and possibilities. I did not want to miss out on those. I didn’t want to say no to connections because someone else expected me to,” she explains.
Antalffy has a live-in partner, Chris Wotton, 31, with whom she has just had her first child. She also has a girlfriend she has been seeing for a few months, whom she met through Sydney’s poly community. The logistics of who is with whom on which night can be tricky. “We try to arrange it so my partner is seeing his other partner at the same time I am seeing mine,” she says. The couple also have “mutual lovers” and casual encounters. “All of that is up for negotiation,” she says. Wotton had been in non-monogamous relationships before. It was just that the other parties didn’t know their relationships were non-monogamous. “There wasn’t full disclosure. With polyamory there is full disclosure.”
Wotton has a “secondary partner”, a woman he sees occasionally. “We hang out, drink red wine … sex is generally involved,” he explains. He also has an online dating profile and sees other people on the side. To minimise the threat of sexual transmitted infections, Wotton and Antalffy are “fluid-bonded” to each other, meaning they use protection with other lovers.
Antalffy sleeps with her occasional lovers in the house they share, but tries to schedule it on nights when Wotton is elsewhere. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Polyamorists acknowledge the necessity of keeping a tight diary, and stress the need to take time for themselves, rather than allow their lives to be consumed by dividing time between relationships.
Speaking before the birth of his child with Antalffy, Wotton said he didn’t expect to change his lifestyle. “If you got pregnant, would you suddenly stop playing golf with your golfing buddies?” he asked. A few months after the birth, he is more circumspect. “We’ve talked about the fact that polyamory is very much still part of our lives,” he says. “But practically it’s hard to find the time for ourselves, let alone other people.”
Polyamory enjoyed publicity last year, thanks to the gay marriage debate in general and hardline Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi in particular. Last September, a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage introduced by Labor MP Stephen Jones was considered by federal parliament. It was defeated by 98 votes to 42, and some parliamentarians expressed fears in the lead-up to the vote that gay marriage might lead to the legal acceptance of polyamorous relationships. Bernardi said the “slippery slope” from gay marriage could lead to legalised polyamory and bestiality – a statement that led to him resigning as Tony Abbott’s parliamentary secretary.
The same-sex rights movement has a tentative relationship with polyamory. Polyamorists were refused their own official float in Sydney’s Mardi Gras last year, but were allowed to participate as “supporters” of the gay and lesbian festival. And Darren Ramsey says the defeat of the gay marriage bill has cruelled any prospect of having polyamorous relationships similarly recognised: “If you look at the whole [gay marriage] campaign, as it got closer to the vote they were throwing polyamory under the bus. ‘Oh no, no, we have nothing to do with those group marriages and that polyamorous open stuff!’ We were the sacrificial lamb.”
Authorities have trouble “viewing” open relationships, particularly the issue of child guardianship by multiple people, says Ramsey: “That is an area where I can make a bigger difference.”
Chris says he would be happy with a “civil ceremony and making sure I have a well-worded will”. Natalie doesn’t like associating with polyamorous activists at all, not least because she has received unwelcome sexual attention at some polyamorous community events.
To most people, the idea of seeing their partner have sex, or even receive an intimate cuddle, from someone else is as appealing as being skinned alive with a blunt potato peeler. But polyamorists insist that jealousy is a pointless emotion that can be worked through and dealt with, if not completely cured.
“I don’t know that you would find a child born that feels jealousy. It is a learnt behaviour,” says Ramsey. “We didn’t pop out of the womb saying, ‘Damn that next kid coming along.’ It just doesn’t happen that way.” Parents of warring small children may disagree, but Ramsey is insistent. “Jealousy is an indicator that something else is going on … it is coming from a place of insecurity.”
When Lee tells me about the first day she left Coller and Ramsey alone together, and how anxious she felt, she does not describe the feeling as jealousy. “I was worried maybe I wasn’t coping with poly properly,” she says. “It wasn’t jealousy, it was more … how do I?” She looks to Ramsey.
“Fear of failure is what you had,” he states.
Ramsey tells a long story about a previous poly relationship, in which his female partner told him she wanted to take up again with her ex-boyfriend. When she went out at night to meet him, Ramsey endured agonies. Which sounds like straight-up jealousy, I insist. “Well, on the surface, yes,” he concedes. “Did I get through it? Yes. Am I okay about it? Yes. Awesome!”
Ramsey, Lee and Coller are planning a move to the NSW north coast. Coller’s children, who live primarily with their father, accept her lifestyle. “Children are very adaptable,” she says.
We move into the kitchen to drink wine and chat as Lee prepares dinner. Conversation moves easily between the trio, with Ramsey darting between kitchen and fridge to refill wine glasses and set the table, pausing on occasion to massage Coller’s shoulders or stroke Lee’s hair.
They tell me about the difficulties of booking hotel rooms for three, and Lee discusses her wish to have a baby with Ramsey before her 30th birthday. “Nature be willing, then she will achieve her objective,” says Ramsey.
The balmy Adelaide night wears on, and Coller begins to yawn, setting off Lee, and we finish our wine. I realise it’s time for me to go. It’s a school night and the trio probably want to get to bed.
I have to know, so I ask.
Ramsey sleeps in the middle.