The True Confessions of a
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
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
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
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
We met a couple and fell in love.
This was not premeditated polyamory. This was accidental,
serendipitous, mind-blowing, boundary- busting, head-spinning
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
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