“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” – Mae West
In this post, we’ll look two alternatives to monogamy: an “anything goes” sex club and living with three lovers at once.
It’s very graphic, definitely not suitable for work (NSFW), and guaranteed to offend most of you.
If you’re chomping at the bit to express mock outrage, please check this out instead. For the rest of you, I’m hoping the below is hilarious and somehow helpful.
Lifestyle design is, after all, about a lot more than work.
And if anything below shocks or appalls you, please ask yourself: why does this make me so uncomfortable? Dig into the discomfort. Looking inward before lashing outward is good for the world.
Now, on to the taboo.
As some of you know, I’ve been conflicted about monogamy for a long time. I love intimacy, but my biology craves novelty…
So, what the hell is a guy to do? There is reality as we’d like it to be, and then there is reality.
This is where Neil Strauss often enters the picture. I’ve known Neil for years. He’s a seven-time New York Times bestselling author, arguably best known for The Game. In that book, he enters a subculture of pick-up artists as a hopeless nerd and comes out able to conjure threesomes on demand.
Not surprisingly, Neil went on a tear of sexual hedonism after his transformation, and many men read his book hoping for the same.
Then… Neil fell in love. Things got complicated once again.
On this blog and in the podcast, he and I have talked about kickstarting creativity and his genius writing process. But at night over drinks, we still discuss what two guys usually discuss: women. The same questions come up a lot:
– Are humans really designed for monogamy? Is it possible or even desirable?
– Should you choose excitement over intimacy?
– If you’re a driven type-A personality, can you really have both with one person?
– Would life be better if you could sleep with anyone you liked at any time?
– What if you could get a hall pass every once in a while?
Neil has spent the last six years attempting to answer these questions, and the result is a brand-new book called The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. I’ve been reading drafts for months.
This post includes two of my favorite stories from his experiments, adapted and embellished for this blog.
It’s written from the perspective of a male, of course, but many women grapple with similar questions. These are challenging times.
MY SELFISH REQUEST: Please share in the comments what has worked for you! I’m a simple animal living in a confusing world. How have you navigated the above questions?
AND ONE IMPORTANT NOTE (added after much confusion): The below is written by Neil Strauss! It covers his adventures, not mine.
Now, enjoy the debauchery…
Enter Neil Strauss
Several years ago, I was in a relationship with a fantastic person. She was great. Yet I was miserable. I felt trapped. Being romantically and sexually with one person for the rest of my life–at least four decades, barring any cruel twists of fate–made no sense.
First, there was the science: I had interviewed evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, historians, geneticists, and more. I could not find a single shred of evidence supporting the theory that monogamy was natural. And when I talked to a professor who wrote the only major research paper I could find suggesting monogamy was good for civilization, even he admitted, “If humans, just by nature, mated for life and there were a very tight pair-bond, then we wouldn’t need all these marriage customs.”
As Stephanie Coontz, the world’s leading marriage historian, explained when I spoke with her: ”…Now you don’t have to [accept traditional marriage and family as a package deal]: It’s literally pick and choose. Cut and paste the kind of life you want. Family life and love relationships are essentially becoming a build-your-own model.”
So I decided to build my own relationship, and after some thought, this is what I came up with:
- It can’t be sexually exclusive, which rules out monogamy.
- It has to be honest, which rules out adultery.
- It has to be capable of developing romantic and emotional attachment, which rules out being a permanent bachelor.
- It has to be capable of evolving into a family with healthy, well-adjusted children, which rules out unstable partners and lifestyles.
Then I started experimenting. Some turned out far better than others. Let’s start with one of the winners.
THE “ANYTHING GOES” SEX CLUB
Everywhere I look while traveling to Paris, I see young couples pushing sleeping children in strollers, carrying blanket-wrapped babies in their arms, hurrying along superhero-backpacked toddlers.
Each family makes me think of Ingrid, the girlfriend I broke up with, and the future I ruined. I wonder what Ingrid’s doing, who she’s doing it with, and if she’s happier living without my wandering eyes and ambivalent heart.
In Paris, however, everything will change. I will finally find the freedom I’ve been looking for.
First, there is Anne, a woman who’s been flirting with me on Facebook. She’s waiting in the hotel room when I arrive. She’s slender and toned, with dirty blond shoulder-length hair, minimal makeup, and boyish clothes. As I approach her, she looks deeply and mutely into me with quivering brown eyes. I take a step toward her, brush her hair aside, and we kiss.
We disrobe. Get in bed. Make love. Spoon. And then she says salut. It’s the first word we’ve exchanged.
Then, there’s Camille, an open-minded Parisian who some new swinger friends made me promise to get in contact with.
“Hi Neil. I’m meeting my friend Laura, who’s American just like you,” she texts. “She wants to go to a great switch club and I promised I’d get in trouble with her. Do you want to come with us?”
“Is it okay if I’m with a date?”
“Dump the girl. There’ll be plenty of dates for you there! And they all want to have sex :)”
This switch club sounds like a goldmine of open-minded single women. The only problem: I want to bring Anne.
“If you have to bring her, use the ‘We’ll just have a drink and watch’ technique,” Camille relents. “That’s how my boyfriend got me there in the first place, and look at me now! The club is by Montmartre. Give me a call after dinner.”
In my monogamous relationship last year, my credo was to say no. Only by saying no to others could I protect Ingrid’s heart. But now, I am saying yes—to everyone, to everything, to life. Because every yes is the gateway to an adventure. Whatever I am heading toward, it is a relationship that operates out of a place of yes.
At dinner that night, I do exactly as Camille instructed. Anne and I are with two women I met on a European press tour a few years earlier: a German fashion photographer and a Swedish designer. They spend most of the meal gossiping about people I don’t know.
“We don’t have to do anything,” I explain to Anne. “Let’s just plan on having a drink and watching, and we can leave right away if it’s lame.”
“I’m a little tired,” she replies, her voice barely audible. Throughout the day, she’s barely spoken. Instead, she’s attached herself to me energetically, gazing at me almost constantly with big, vulnerable, barely blinking eyes. I get the sense that she wants something from me or may already be getting it from me. “Is it okay if I go back to the hotel?”
“Can we come?” the fashionistas interrupt.
“You can go with them if you want,” Anne tells me softly.
It’s hard to read Anne. I’m not sure if she’s legitimately tired or just uncomfortable with the suggestion. “Are you sure it’s all right for me to go?”
“I don’t mind,” she replies.
I study her face to make sure she’s sincere, that it’s not a test to see if I’ll choose her. She appears placid and unconcerned. I ask three more times just to make sure.
“She said you could go!” the German photographer snaps at me.
We drop Anne off at the hotel, and she gives me a deep kiss and walks off. It’s a good sign: Letting your lover go to a sex club alone is actually a much more open-minded feat than going with him. As the taxi speeds away, the German photographer loops her arm in mine.
I’m determined not to wreck this orgy like all the others [Editor’s note: elsewhere in the book].
We arrive at the club just after midnight. I spot Camille instantly. She has long brown hair worthy of a shampoo commercial and skin so smooth and flawless that a metaphor to an inanimate object, like a pearl, would hardly do it justice.
She’s standing with two other women: Laura, her American friend, who looks like a burning candle—long and narrow, with a white pantsuit and a shock of short blond hair. And Veronika, a haughty beauty from Prague with lips like cylindrical sofa cushions, flowing brown hair, an overdeveloped nose, and a tall, thin, sensuous frame that reminds me of the actress Jane Birkin.
“Do we have to put on robes or towels when we go in?” I ask Camille, unsure what protocol is for places like this.
Camille looks at me like I’m crazy. “No, we just wear our clothes.”
That’s a relief. Despite my desire to be open, evolved, and shame free about sex, I’m still not totally comfortable with the sight of my own body. The first time I ever had sex, I was too embarrassed to remove my shirt. And the second and third times as well.
Behind us in line, there’s a Frenchman with a shiny suit and slicked-back hair. He looks like a shady businessman who snorts a lot of cocaine. “Since you have so many girls, is it okay if I come in with you?” he asks.
The club has a rule that all males must enter with a female—and I’m standing there with five of them like a glutton. I suppose this is what I missed when I was dating Ingrid: options, variety, adventure, discovery, novelty, the unknown.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “It’s my first time here.”
As we wait, Camille and Laura discuss sharing toys, by which they mean boys. “Is your boyfriend coming?” I ask Camille.
“Does he know you’re here?” I’m asking not to judge her, but because I’m curious how their relationship works.
“No.” She smiles guiltily. Clearly, having an open relationship is no cure for infidelity. Almost everyone I’ve met in the scene so far has transgressed even the minimal rules of their supposedly open relationship.
Perhaps the problem with most relationships is that the rules start to become more important than the values they’re supposed to be representing.
Eventually two of Camille’s toys arrive, both in designer jackets and skinny ties. They introduce themselves as Bruno and Pascal. Bruno looks like a clean-cut college athlete, while Pascal, with thin-framed glasses, tight curls, and slow, well-mannered gestures, looks like an intellectual dandy.
Unlike the highly sexualized crowd at Bliss [another sex party], the men and women here aren’t divorced weekend warriors dressed like porn stars. Aside from the slick-haired businessman behind us, everyone here seems young, hip, well dressed, and silicone free. They don’t look much different than the crowd outside an exclusive nightclub. Evidently, after a night on the town, they come here for dessert. As the line starts moving, Laura takes pity on solo slick guy and invites him to come in with her.
“Do you know how I can tell these people are barbarians?” the German photographer says to her friend. “Look at their shoes. I wouldn’t wish a single pair on my worst enemy.”
I glance back nervously and think about ways to slip away from them. But it’s too late: We’re being let inside.
When we enter, a hostess asks us to check our jackets (which for some reason leads to sniggers from the fashionistas), then gives me a card that she explains will serve as my tab for the night. Veronika removes her blazer to reveal a loose-fitting backless dress that, when her stride is long, would get her arrested. “She will be my first fuck tonight,” Pascal tells me confidently as I stare mutely at the tan expanse of Veronika’s back.
We walk downstairs to an empty, low-lit dance floor dotted with stripper poles. The twenty or so people in the room are clustered against a bar, drinking away their inhibitions. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is playing. It seems so . . . obvious.
At the end of the anteroom, there’s a black door that leads to the fun. After her friends have drifted into the rooms behind it, Camille takes my hand and offers to show me around. “What about my friends?” I ask.
“They’ll be fine. Are you coming or not?”
I look over and they seem deep in snide conversation, concealing their discomfort by increasing their arrogance. I should invite them to join us, especially since I brought them here. The last thing I want to do, however, is walk around the orgy with them making obnoxiously loud comments about how everyone’s sexual techniques are so last year.
• • •
Behind the black door, Camille and I slowly wander through sunken living rooms and small porthole-fitted chambers, all in copious use, until we arrive at a space that consists of just an enormous bed and a narrow walkway along the front wall.
Most of the women on the megabed are completely naked while the men are still wearing dress shirts, ties, and pants. However, their pants are all unzipped or lowered and their junk is hanging out. Dicks are everywhere. Even the guys who aren’t with women are walking around the room with expectant cocks dangling in the air in case someone has a need for them. I’m the only guy who’s zipped up.
In the bottom right corner of the bed, Laura is on all fours with her dress up. Bruno pulls out of her and parks in Camille’s mouth while Pascal, true to his word, fucks Veronika against the wall. She’s standing up, facing frontward with one leg raised and her face flushed, in a pose that, if photographed, would incite a million sticky nights.
I don’t know what to do, how to get involved, or what the rules are. This is the closest to a free-for-all I’ve ever seen.
So I sit in the empty space on the mattress in front of Laura, who’s still posed on her hands and knees expectantly. “Thanks for letting me come here with you guys,” I tell her, because I feel like I need to say something.
“Is this your first time at a switch club?” she asks astutely. This is probably the stupidest place I’ve tried to make small talk since the last orgy.
As we’re talking, the creepy businessman from outside the club materializes behind Laura and rubs her pussy. Then he scoots under her like he’s repairing a car and starts eating her out.
“Is that cool with you?” I ask her. “I can tell him to stop if you’re not comfortable.” Here I go again: taking care of everyone’s needs but my own.
“That’s so American of you to say,” she laughs.
“What do you mean? How is that American?” I don’t even understand the comment: She’s American herself.
“No one’s ever asked me that before.”
“But I thought maybe—”
“I just want a cock in me.”
This is the kind of woman I fantasized about as a teenager: an indiscriminate one. And more than anything I’ve experienced so far, this seems like free sex–because there’s no spiritual baggage, drug baggage, or even much relationship baggage around it. In fact, there’s no baggage or encumbrances whatsoever, just randomly intersecting body parts. And now that I’m in the midst of it, I’m terrified. It’s so shockingly . . . open.
It’s not society that holds us back, it’s ourselves. We just blame society because not only is it easier but it’s a nearly impossible weight to move. This way, we don’t actually have to change. I thought I was fighting the system, but perhaps all I’ve really been doing is fighting myself.
Meanwhile, the slick-haired guy stops licking Laura and appears to be going for a home run.
I realize this is very crude, but the story takes place in a sex club. What else am I supposed to describe? The chandeliers? There’s nothing going on here but sex.
“Can you make sure he puts on a condom?” Laura asks.
“Okay,” I reply over-enthusiastically, grateful for the opportunity.
I have a job to do now. A purpose. I am the condom police. I watch him carefully to make sure he puts the rubber on. Then I worry that I’m creeping him out. But I won’t be swayed from my very important duty: no protection, no service. That’s right, sir, roll it on all the way. Otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the bed.
“It’s on,” I tell her with an air of authority,
As he thrusts inside her, Laura’s face swings closer to mine. Now’s my chance, I think, and I start making out with her.
And that’s when I realize: No one else here is making out. How many dicks has she had in that mouth tonight?
So I pull away. It’s time to say yes and unzip. I kneel so that my crotch is level with her head. And sure enough, she takes it in her hands, guides it into her mouth, and starts sucking.
“What do you like?” Laura pauses to ask.
Good question. I like this. What’s better than a blow job? Or does she want more specific instructions? Perhaps they have names for different blow jobs here—the spit-shine, the round-the-world, the confused American.
Like anything, I suppose sexual freedom is a learned art. I still need more experience to get comfortable.
Suddenly, I see Pascal’s head appear over mine. He whispers in my ear, “Veronika wants you.”
It’s music to my ears, especially since things with Laura feel awkward. I know she has an any-cock-will-do attitude, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my cock isn’t quite doing.
When the businessman finishes, Laura makes her escape. But instead of Veronika appearing, Camille kneels in front of me and takes Laura’s place with more enthusiasm. I’m not fully present because I’ve been stuck in my upper head, so I look around the room and notice a woman lying spread-eagled in front of me. I take her hand and start massaging it, and she massages my hand back. I move my hand between her thighs and start playing with her.
I’m starting to get comfortable here. Finally, I’m actually part of an orgy—awake, accepted, alive. I rear up tall and look around. Everyone is fucking and sucking.
Perhaps my previous disasters in CNM (consensual non-monogamy) have actually been necessary experiences to get comfortable at these things, learning lessons on the road to orgy mastery.
Suddenly I hear a guy’s voice exclaim loudly, “Tu es sur ma jambe.”
Nearly everyone on the megabed starts laughing.
Evidently I’m kneeling on some guy’s leg. I slide out of his way and notice Veronika crawling toward me on the mattress. I drink in her unique amalgamation of devastating beauty and awkward innocence, and I instantly harden.
I make out with her passionately. I don’t know why I keep touching people’s filthy lips, but I crave the intimacy and connection more than the anonymous sex. Maybe I am polyamorous—because it’s not just free sex I’m searching for, it’s free romance, free connection, free relationships, free getting-naked-with-someone-you-enjoy-and-who-enjoys-you-and-then-getting-to-know-each-other-even-better-afterward.
I seriously need to gargle with Listerine when I leave this place.
Meanwhile, Bruno has appeared out of nowhere and started having sex with the spread-eagled woman.
I pull back and look at Veronika’s face, and she bites her lower lip in response. There’s so much heat between us and we’ve only just met. I hope it isn’t because she was abandoned by her father (long story).
I run a finger across her lips and she sucks it into her mouth and . . . oh god, I feel like I’m about to . . .
But I don’t want this to end, so I pull out of Camille’s mouth.
“Let me suck you!” she begs.
This is the best night of my life.
I’ve finally entered the world I’ve been reading about in porn magazines and watching in adult movies since puberty. Just as women are trained by the media and society to look for their Prince Charming, men are conditioned to look for their nasty slut. Not for a marriage, but just for an adventure. Both are fairy tales, but a Prince Charming is nearly impossible to find, because it’s a lifetime illusion to sustain. It takes only a few minutes to play the role of nasty slut.
The only thing keeping me from fully enjoying this sexual paradise is the guilt: that Anne is in the hotel worrying, that the fashionistas are angry, and that because I’m liking this so much, it means I’m a sex addict, as is everyone else here. The counselors back at rehab have really done a number on my head. I used to be worried just about sexually transmitted diseases, but they’ve turned sex itself into a disease. And now, any time I’m giving myself over to pleasure, I hear a therapist’s voice in the back of my head telling me I’m avoiding intimacy.
Just as I promised my friend Rick Rubin I’d go all in on addiction treatment without doubt, I need to go all in on freedom without guilt. The answer will become clear over time: Either I’ll hit bottom, as others predicted, or I’ll find a solution that works for my life, as I hope. I need to get out of my head and be present for this experience. And to remember why I’m here: not just to have a lot of sex, but to find my relationship orientation and like-minded partners.
As my eyes meet Veronika’s again, I notice a dick hanging in my peripheral vision like a cloud covering the sun. Its owner says to me in a thick French accent, “All the girls here, they have been sucking your dick.”
“I guess so.”
“Do you like having your dick sucked?”
It seems like an obvious question, but I reply anyway, “Yes.” I try not to make eye contact. This conversation definitely isn’t helping my staying power.
“Would you like that I should suck your dick?”
“Oh, no thanks.” I don’t know why, but the situation seems to call for politeness. “I’m good.”
I suppose if I technically wanted total freedom, I’d let him go to town. But, I realize, the goal isn’t sexual anarchy. It’s that I want the rules around my sexuality to be self-imposed, not externally imposed. That’s the key difference—perhaps in everything.
The goal, then, is liberation: to be the master of my orgasm. I don’t want my partner to own it, which would be monogamy, but I also don’t want the orgasm to own me, which would be addiction.
My new admirer has inadvertently given me a gift. Though he doesn’t say anything else, I keep seeing his dick—on my right side, then my left, then a foot above me—as if he’s hoping that by just dangling it around me, at some point I’ll decide to show my appreciation. That seems to be how things work here. Maybe this is where all the women hang out who actually like it when guys text photos of their dicks.
A Valkyrie with long blond hair and missile breasts clambers onto the bed with her boyfriend. I eye-fuck her to get back into the spirit of the orgy. She holds my gaze. But before I get a chance to do a thing about it, Bruno appears out of the blue and starts fucking her.
I don’t know how he does it. This must be his tenth woman. Suddenly I remember that Camille has been down there sucking me for half an hour straight. I put on a condom, lie down, and move her on top of me.
Camille rides me as Veronika positions herself over my face. I am smothered in woman. If this is happening right now because my mother smothered me, then I owe her a serious thank-you.
Suddenly, a loud, condescending German voice fills the room: “Where is he?”
I tilt my head back and see an upside-down image of the fashionistas standing against the wall, staring into the mass of bodies.
“It’s just like him to do this to us!”
I try to shield myself underneath the women so the fashionistas don’t spot me.
“Let’s just leave without him.”
Their voices cut through the room, killing all sexuality in their path.
For a millisecond, I consider stopping. I should probably get back to the hotel and check on Anne anyway.
Then I think, No. This is amazing. I don’t want to stop this. So I’m selfish. Let me be selfish. They can leave and I’ll deal with it later. I’m learning how to take care of my own needs for a change.
In moments like these, the true nature of one’s soul is revealed.
“Let’s switch,” Veronika suggests. This is a switch club after all, so I slide out of Camille so she can swap places with Veronika. However, as soon as Camille’s lower orifice is free, Bruno is in there. The guy never misses an opportunity. I’m sure he’s a great businessman in the outside world.
Veronika slides her body over mine, her skin rubbing against my clothing, her back arched so we can see each other’s faces. I switch condoms and slowly enter her. We move against each other sensuously. Time slows. We fall out of sync with the rest of the club and into each other.
I gaze deeply into the world in Veronika’s eyes and she into mine—and it feels like love. Not the love that is a thought that comes with expectations of commitment and fears of abandonment, but the love that is an emotion that makes no demands and knows no fear. I’ve found, for a moment, love in a swing club.
Connected sex is a spiritual experience, but not in the way new-age western Tantra devotees describe it. It is spiritual because it’s a release from ego, a merging with the other, a discorporation into the atoms vibrating around us, a connection to the universal energy that moves through all things without judgment or prejudice.
Thus, orgasm is the one spiritual practice that unites nearly everyone on the planet, and perhaps that is why there’s so much fear and baggage around it. Because they were right both in rehab and the pseudo-religious sex cults: It is sacred.
And every orgasm. Is in itself an act of faith. An attempt to reach out. And just for a moment. Relieve our separateness. Escape from time. And touch eternity. And, yes!
As she drenches the mattress, I fill the condom.
Not only did I find love at an orgy, I think I found enlightenment.
ENLIGHTENMENT COLLIDES WITH “REAL LIFE”
A MONTH LATER, IN SAN FRANCISCO
“I moved in with three girlfriends and it’s been a complete disaster. No one’s getting along.”
That voice is, unfortunately, mine. I am making an emergency call to the smartest person I know in the world of polyamory. I would caution against, however, judging his level of intelligence from the name he goes by. It is Pepper Mint.
Months have passed since I made the decision to find a free relationship, and I eventually found three of them. So with a relationship roster that looks like a visit to Disney’s “Small World” ride–Anne, from France; Belle, from Australia; and Veronika, from the Czech Republic–we all decided to move into a house in San Francisco together.
And while months have passed since my decision to broaden my relationship horizons, unfortunately only a day has passed since we all moved in together. Problems came up that I just couldn’t anticipate, that weren’t covered in any books on the subject, that even the experts didn’t mention.
Like this one: The four of us traipse down the stairs, hungry and excited for a good meal. I get in the driver’s seat of the car. And… three women stand in front of the passenger seat of the car, looking confused and uncomfortable. They look to me to make a decision. But how can I pick favorites? That’s not going to help us live in equality this weekend. Eventually, we decide on a rotational system for the front seat: Alice will take the front seat now. Next time, Belle gets the front seat. Then Veronika.
It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.
The automobile was clearly designed by monogamists.
And that was just the beginning: Even though all three women were excited about being in a group relationship, and two of them had already had related experiences, by the end of that first night all together, I felt like I was on an episode of The Bachelor. Competition reared its ugly heads at a party that night, at which all three of them wanted to leave at different times, Anne became jealous when anyone else touched me, Belle became upset when I told her to be careful about touching me because of Anne, and Veronika was irritated with all the drama.
There’s a term popular in the poly world: compersion.
It was coined supposedly at the Kerista commune in San Francisco decades ago. And it’s the idea that if the person you love is with another partner, rather than feeling jealous, you can feel happy for them because they are happy. And if you love someone, you should be glad that they’re happy, whether or not they’re experiencing it with you, right?
Compersion is evidently a lot harder to feel than it sounds. And it already seems pretty difficult to feel.
So that night, in light of the clear and total absence of compersion, I ended up sleeping on the couch so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
The moral thus far: Be careful what you wish for.
So now, the next day, I was on the phone with Pepper Mint, begging for help. Things could only get better from here.
“You’re trying to run before you can walk,” he informed me.
“What do you mean?”
“How many people are in the house?”
“Four of us.”
“So mathematically that’s six relationships. And it’s hard enough to make one relationship work.”
I had thought of it as a single relationship, or three at most. But I do the math—n(n-1)/2, with “n” being the number of lovers in a poly pod.—and he’s right.
“But there was this guy Father Yod,” I protest, “who had fourteen wives and it worked for him . . . I think.” I realize I don’t know much about how Father Yod managed his relationships. In fact, I just looked at the pictures.
“Who’s Father Yod?”
“He’s like Charles Manson, but without the killing.” Actually, that’s not totally true. I recall reading online afterward that Father Yod was a judo expert who murdered two people with his bare hands in self-defense.
“What I can tell you is that a shared living situation is what we call an advanced skill,” Pepper says, unfazed. “But trust me, it can work. I just went on a weeklong vacation to Hawaii with my partner and her boyfriend. And it was totally smooth because the three of us had spent so much time together.”
“Right now, I can’t see us ever getting to that point.” I suppose after a few years, one can get used to anything.
“Do you want me to come by and talk to them?”
When Pepper arrives an hour later, we gather in the living room, desperate for a miracle. I dare not sit on the couch in case it looks like I’m favoring whichever girl drops down next to me, so I take an armchair instead. Veronika and Pepper sit in the other chairs while Belle and Anne share the couch.
I introduce Pepper to everyone and list all the problems we’ve had so far. He listens carefully, then responds as if telling preschoolers to play nicely with each other. Unlike with monogamy, our culture offers no schooling on how to make a group relationship work, no real role models to look up to, and few—if any—friends to turn to for advice. Even in movies, when couples decide to open their marriage, the results are usually disastrous and the moral of the story is to stick with what you’ve got.
“Here’s your first lesson in going out together,” he begins. He is a sharp-featured, pale creature with long black hair, a black choker, and a slow, measured voice. I wonder if he was always this calm and deliberate or if it’s something he learned from years of managing multiple relationships. “You need to talk before you leave and have a plan for party protocol. If someone gets tired, do they take a cab home alone or do you all leave together? And if it’s a sexual situation, decide ahead of time whether you want to watch or leave or join the sex pile.” This makes perfect sense, yet it never occurred to me: The art of group relationships is logistics. “I want to encourage you to do little check-ins with one another constantly, with the knowledge that you don’t know each other very well. This way you can start to build a team feeling together.”
We nod in agreement. I suppose I was naïve to assume we would all just instantly become attached and live in relational utopia together. I’ve made mistakes in every monogamous relationship I’ve had, but I learned from them and that made the next relationship better. So it makes sense that my first multiple-partner relationship isn’t going to be a runaway success. It takes experience and failure to get good at anything. This is my opportunity to learn.
“I want to add something that’s important,” Pepper continues. “You”—he points to me—“are the fulcrum. This is a long-known poly situation. The fulcrum is the only person in a relationship with each partner, but because of that, you end up torn in a lot of different directions. It’s a very uncomfortable thing, because you’re empowered and disempowered at the same time.” He turns to the women. “So I would like to recommend that you all try to de-center Neil a little.”
I heave a hopefully imperceptible sigh of relief. I watched several documentaries on poly pods before coming here, and many were led by people with a pathological need to be the focal point of everyone’s love. They didn’t seem to care whose feelings got hurt as long as the empty space in their own hearts was kept filled. But for me, it’s no fun being the center of attention when it results in collateral damage to other people’s feelings.
“So how do we de-center me?” I ask Pepper.
“The three of you”—he gestures to my partners—“should hang out without him and also start negotiating decisions that don’t have to go through him first. The easy part of the situation is you and Neil, and you and Neil, and you and Neil”—here he points to each woman. “The hard part of the situation is your relationships with each other. I have a saying: Poly works or fails on trust between metamours.”
“What’s a metamour?” Veronika asks.
“A metamour is a partner’s partner. So if Neil and I were both dating you, then Neil would be my metamour. And it succeeds between him and me, because we have the hard part but not the good stuff. So when you build trust among metamours, everything comes together and the group starts functioning. Does that make sense?”
We were in the dark before. This pale Goth guy is the light. He’s a relationship pioneer, mapping new realms in interpersonal space.
He tells us about the burning period, which is the length of time (usually two years) it takes couples who open up to deal with the issues and challenges that occur as a result. I learn about the joys of theoretical nonmonogamy, which is when two people say they’re in an open relationship—but instead of actually sleeping with other people, they just get to feel free knowing they have the option to do so. There’s the jealousy test, which you pass if you’re able to have a serious relationship with someone who’s sleeping with other people or in love with someone else. Then there’s fluid bonded, which refers to partners who feel safe having unprotected sex with one another, and veto power, which means that one partner can ask another to end an outside relationship—an agreement that Pepper feels can cause more problems than it solves. Finally, there are the wearisome cowboys and cowgirls who get into the poly scene, date someone’s partner, and then try to rope that person into a monogamous relationship.
“So what do I do if I want to spend time with Neil alone?” Belle eventually asks. “Every time I try to do that, he says it’s rude to someone else.”
“Try not making the request to Neil. Make it to Anne and Veronika. And if they both say it’s okay, then you can do whatever you want with Neil.” The corners of Belle’s mouth turn up in an unsuccessfully repressed smile. Pepper spots this and adds sagely, “But be willing to hear a no.”
Veronika sighs and uncrosses her legs. “It’s so hard to share a person,” she says. “It would be easier if we didn’t have strong feelings. But there’s always going to be this mental fight to have him.”
Although having three attractive women fighting over me may seem like an ego trip, in reality it’s nerve shattering. Whatever interest they had in me before they arrived seems to have been exacerbated by the competition. According to a copy of O magazine I once read, polygamous men live nine years longer, on average, than monogamous men. But I wonder how Oprah could possibly be right. Because this is definitely not good for my blood pressure.
Pepper turns to me: “What you can do to get them past that point is reassure them. I’ve seen really jealous people and people with a lot of abandonment issues get past their shit once the fear of loss goes away. A good nonmonogamous group is like a flock of geese, which is to say it separates and comes back together.”
Anne opens her mouth to speak. The words escape soft and unsure. Everyone leans in to make sure they catch them. “For me, I was really surprised last night because when everybody was touching, it was hurting me.” She takes a pause so long it seems like an intermission. “I have a complicated family history, so maybe I get more possessive. But I understand now that we have to make things work so this can be a relationship.”
Pepper’s talk seems to be straightening everyone out. The metamours are remembering that they didn’t come here to be in some reality-show competition, but to live, learn, and grow in a mature relationship together. “I would recommend letting go of expectations and trying to get to a place of comfort with everything,” Pepper tells her. “If things get weird, let them be weird. If you can all get to a high communication level, and learn the process of negotiation and setting boundaries and talking through discomfort, this will start working much better for all of you.”
Before Pepper leaves, the girls and I agree to hold house meetings every day, during which each person gets a turn to speak uninterrupted–like in the talking-stick circle I made fun of back in sex rehab.
As a sense of calm and understanding descends on the house afterward, Veronika makes egg salad sandwiches and we sit around the table, all on the same page for the first time. Then, with Anne taking the front seat of the car without incident, we visit Alcatraz. As we walk from the ferry to the island prison, Belle holds my left arm while Anne clutches the other. Veronika wanders behind, taking photos.
“I feel like I’m a third child whose mother doesn’t have enough hands to hold,” Veronika says as she catches up to us.
She takes Anne’s hand in hers as a group of frat boys walks by and gives me a thumbs-up. For the first time, there’s a group energy connecting us. Perhaps all of us just needed to let go of our expectations like Pepper recommended, adjust to being somewhere new, and allow the relationship to set its own course.
And that’s when something unexpected happens: I’m overcome by a powerful sense of unworthiness. It doesn’t seem fair that these women have to share me. Any one of them could easily have her pick of the guys here who keep looking at us. But instead they’re settling for scraps of my affection.
When I imagined living in a freewheeling love commune during my monogamous relationship, I thought I’d be adrift in a blissful sea of pleasure, excitement, and feminine energy. But instead I only feel embarrassed that I’m monopolizing three hearts.
I spent my childhood starved for the love of the adult figures raising me, feeling like most of their positivity went to my brother and their negativity to me. So being in a position where I’m actually getting so much positive female caring is a new experience. Maybe the real purpose of this relationship for me is to break through my walls and feel worthy of love—or whatever this is.
This was the quiet before the storm: One of the worst relationship storms I’ve ever experienced.
The situation lasted roughly a week, then turned into a triad with just Belle and Veronika, then turned into me alone.
The lesson: If a relationship with one person is difficult, then a relationship with three people is going to be three times as difficult—or, according to the Pepper sum, six times as difficult.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am not a quitter. I decided that if I couldn’t make it work with three other people, then I’d definitely be able to make it work with ten.
After all, what could possibly go wrong?
But that’s a story for another time.
Want more stories and more of the lessons learned? Of course you do. Check out The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. I have my own dog-eared early copy.
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