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About Nan Wise

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The True Confessions of a
Responsible Non-Monogamist

I, Nan Wise, am a practicing polyamorist.

For those of you not familiar with the lingo, polyamory, (a.k.a. responsible non-monogamy) means that I have sexual-love relationships with more than one person, openly and with consent of all partners.

I’ve been with the same partner for thirty years—legally married to him for more than two decades. He was my first boyfriend, my first sex partner and is the father of my socially adept and academically successful teenagers. The fact that we love each other AND include additional partners in our intimate lives really seems to piss off those who heartily endorse traditional family values at time when it’s hip to be square.

What is it about what we are doing that pushes so many buttons? What rules are we breaking? What are traditional family values anyway?

If we consult the anthropologists, what others claim to be traditional in the way of families—mom, dad, and the kids in the bosom of a nuclear family—is not traditional and in actuality is an aberration. Human beings historically have lived in community— extended family or tribe—related by blood or by proximity—since we stood upright and figured out new and interesting things to do with our opposable thumbs and souped-up cerebral cortexes. The bottom line is that we are not meant to live in isolated nuclear families —don’t take my word for this—just take a look around—the nuclear family is struggling to survive.

Besides being a relationship revolutionist, I have been a psychotherapist for the past twenty-five years. I’ve witnessed the suffering of many who try to live up to ideals that are less than ideal. We prescribe to monogamy and the vows of “till death do we part’ and yet few of us practice what is preached. More couples than ever are divorcing. More kids than ever are being raised in single parent households. More people than ever are living alone. Meanwhile, I have a partnership with my husband that has stood the test of time. And along the way we have learned that we can include others—really include them-- as intimate, sexual life-partners. And this has been deeply disturbing to others and I’m still in the process of figuring out why.

We are not given many choices about how to do our partnerships, nor educated that successful relating requires skills that can be cultivated. Unlike nearly every commodity in our consumer culture, marriage is manufactured in only one model—the shape and size presumed to fit all. And the worst part is that we continue to make people wrong for how they are actually living and loving, rather than to encourage the exploration of various models of marriage and family that may better serve. So instead of openly communicating about what works and what doesn’t, we hide—shutting our hearts down, relegating our shameful intimate lives to the sanctity of the shrink’s office or the divorce court. We are not taught to examine how we are being with each other; how we can make our roles more flexible and contribute to the kind of partnerships that are sustainable and make for families and communities that function well.

I’ve come forth to speak on this topic because of the hysteria around family values. It is sobering to witness how reactive some people have become upon learning that my husband and I have other partners that we love and have SEX with. And that we all co-exist quite peacefully and contribute to each other’s lives appears to add insult to injury. These folks seem primed to accept the notion that sexual jealousy is reason enough to run down the wayward spouse with a motor vehicle—but have real trouble getting their minds around the idea that you can actually learn to enjoy your spouse’s pleasure in loving someone else. I‘ve become alarmingly accustomed to the raised eyebrows and the judgments of those who are practicing what is considered the norm—serial monogamy (with a side order of infidelity)--who feel entitled to assume that my lifestyle is harmful to my marriage and my children.

I find so many of these assumptions fascinating. Isn’t it interesting that we automatically assume that having more than one partner will harm a marriage and hurt the family? Isn’t the belief that we can only “love” one person at a time curious? And what is it about sexuality that gets us so jazzed up in the first place? And finally, isn’t it interesting that these automatic assumptions override the experience of seeing with our own eyes?

Our family looks just like any other family. I don’t consider myself part of the fringe. I don’t live in a trailer park. I’ve never appeared on the Jerry Springer show, had a child out of wedlock nor had sex with animals. I have a full set of my own teeth as well as a graduate degree. I adore my husband. I have straight friends who would rather not know that I have sex with other people.

In the words of one, “it’s not so bad that you fuck around, pretty much everyone does, but why do you have to talk about it?”

First of all for the record, I don’t “fuck around.” That’s for the practitioners of traditional serial monogamy who begin one relationship before ending the other, or for the apparently high percentage of monogamists who have clandestine affairs that don’t really count because they are not acknowledged.

I have relationships, the full-boat kind that include breakfast.

And also for the record, I don’t recommend that anyone try this at home. It’s hard work. Without maps to follow, we were left to figure out the new territory by trial and error. In retrospect there are easier ways to expand relationship —for example the “Swing” community—a group largely misunderstood even by others who practice alternative relationship-offers couples who wish to explore sexuality beyond monogamy a safe space, guidelines and mentorship to do so. I want to take a moment to dispel one of the most common misconceptions made about “Swingers.” First of all those in the “open lifestyle” as it is also called often do have relationships—real, caring relationships with those who they have sex with—and there is far more overlap between those who call themselves polyamorous and those who are “Swingers.” After a decade of observing and counseling people who are responsibly non-monogamous I’ve observed that very rarely is ‘just sex” just sex.

That being said, sex is hot stuff and intimacy troubling for many people struggling with conventional relationship. Even if some of the difficulties experienced in marriage have much to do with the unrealistic expectations we hold, going beyond the limits of monogamy will likely turn up the flame on the cauldron of neurosis, bringing to a hard boil long-standing insecurities and self-doubt. As my own mother said, “it’s difficult enough to have a relationship with one person–why would chose to make your life so complicated? You’re playing with fire.”

She had taken a long sip of red wine and told me about the bumpy road she and my dad had traversed with their own version of monogamy–the kind that had included a number of affairs on the part of both partners, accompanied by devastating feelings of guilt and betrayal.

While we are on the subject of monogamy, I want to be clear in expressing my abiding respect for those who practice it. I was monogamous for twenty years and never felt anything was missing. My husband was the center of my universe and I liked it that way.

Given the above, what happened to divert us from the path of Ozzie and Harriet? After all, didn’t we have it all: The nice house in the suburbs, the happy marriage, the two kids, the two cars, the two careers? We had won the lottery and taken home the proverbial American Dream.

We met a couple and fell in love.

This was not premeditated polyamory. This was accidental, serendipitous, mind-blowing, boundary- busting, head-spinning life unfolding.

It certainly isn’t unusual for couples to collide. You meet new friends at a party and they’re especially attractive, highly intelligent and after a few beers or martinis, you’re flirting and having mad fantasies that you just might dare to share with your spouse if you have permitted “intellectual infidelity” within the bounds of your marital agreement. And if not, you can allow the private and forbidden fantasies to fuel your lovemaking at home.

Or, of course there’s always the option of acting out attractions without informing your partner–the way it’s typically done. Unfortunately the price of keeping such secrets is often devastating to a relationship—the energy required to hide the truth tends to deplete the vitality and authenticity of the connection.

Why did we choose to go the step further and venture out onto the thin ice of multiplicity? And how did we end up featured in an Esquire magazine article just a few years later entitled, “Scenes from a (Group) Marriage?” And then go on to become the subjects of a number of documentaries, including Canadian Discovery Channel’s, The Sex Files’ “ Beyond Monogamy, a Cinemax Documentary called “Loving and Cheating,”-- and an episode of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” for Showtime.

(An aside: It’s obvious that we’re up to something based on the attention we are getting from the media. Change is definitely in the air—and people tend to get outraged about what they fear. The controversy over gay marriage which until recently wasn’t even a possibility could be viewed as the death rattle of the status quo. This is also explains in part why polyamory is distressing to many.)

On a personal note, our openness to polyamory had much to do with my husband and I having such a good time with our own relationship. It seemed quite natural to share love with this couple. Going the extra distance to sexual-romantic-love was a huge leap—one we took in slow motion as we negotiated the baby steps needed to go where we never thought we’d venture. Our marriage and our lovemaking had been sacred ground: I recall thinking our playmates were delusional when they first suggested we get down and funky. And yet, we were drawn to explore—and did so like hormonally driven adolescents—and once we did we were hooked. We sincerely thought we’d ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after as a cozy foursome. It was wonderful to feel the group relationship coming into being: the intimacy we had with them added great value to our lives. Most people contemplating non-monogamy don’t consider the huge resource these relationships can afford in the connections between those of the same sex. My husband’s current partner, Amy, is the best wife a girl could have—I trust her with my life—and although we aren’t lovers she is very much my life-partner as well.

In the larger picture as to what motivates us to go beyond convention, human beings are not naturally wired to be monogamous. The sexual anthropologists say that serial monogamy with a side order of infidelity is our biological heritage. I like to make it even simpler and say that we are wired both to love and explore. (And it is my belief that we can love and explore TOGETHER while keeping the home base happy).

But isn’t culture supposed to keep us in line? Aren’t our biological urges dangerous? All that loving and exploring could get us into big trouble. And besides, I was a GOOD girl—I colored in the lines, got straight A’s and married the man who took my virginity. How did I end up so far off the beaten path?

Guess I was just more curious than afraid. I’m an interpersonal adventurer. That is my job as well as my passion. As a psychotherapist, I dive headfirst into the deep waters of the psyche. Endlessly fascinated by the experience of being human and the intricately woven tapestries that occur when one soul encounters another, I followed my heart and my body came along for the ride.

Why was I not content to know people in the deepest of ways without extending into carnal knowledge? Why not leave well enough alone?

I said YES to the universe.

After falling in love with the couple, I found that I had a deep yearning to manifest the physical aspects of love–to experience making love with them--to see what it was like to go beyond the limits of my conditioning–to accept the gifts of intimacy they were offering. And in doing so, I made an earth-shaking revelation: I could open my heart and my body to other people and still love my husband.

In other words, as far as marriage goes, you truly can have your cake and eat it, too. It is possible to enjoy all the benefits of a stable, passionate marriage and still have the freedom to explore sexual-love relationships with others.


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