When asked about the uptick in reporting on polyamory, Kari Collins of West Philly tells me that she is "ambivalent."
It's exciting to not have to explain what polyamory means over and over again, but the representations are really limited.
"A lot of times it still seems like 'this couple is poly' or 'these three people are poly' and it doesn't go beyond that," she says. "It's as close to a monogamous family as we can get. It's presented like this wild thing they do on Saturday nights. But there are so many forms that poly is taking."
Kari (who is genderqueer and identifies alternately using "he" and "she"), for instance, currently only has one partner, but his partner currently has four other relationships, and several more people with whom they share an undefined friendship-romance. Those folks, in turn, have their own network of significant others.
The web forms a polyamorous community of metamours, and nearly all of them hang out together, often playing board games. "It's like the #1 poly hobby… It's an easy group activity."
For Phil Weber of Bensalem and Mae Esposito of Fishtown, board games were a major activity at a recent poly network camping trip.
This group took up four cabins – a crew of about 14 metamours and friends, hiking, making meals, and playing games. A month prior, Phil had seven partners, but one moved away and two "stepped back" – a much healthier way to describe amicable separation than "broke up" or "dumped."
He now has four partners scattered around the Philadelphia area, including Mae, with whom he's been serious since Halloween.
"I don't really do casual," he says, mentioning that one of his most informal experiences was a "two-week stand." He came to polyamory when he and his longest-term partner (with whom he's been committed for six years) decided to open up their relationship.
For some, open relationships are something into which they stumble. For others, relationship anarchy is a conscious choice to reject a system that has proven to be untenable. And for many, polyamory is as intrinsic to their sexual orientation as their preference for men or women.
Mae explains she'd "never been great friends with monogamy." Whether through her "fault or someone else's" it always ended poorly, without equal agency and choice for both parties. She notes that past boyfriends might, for instance, be looking for the "next best thing" and ditch her after finding what they considered an upgrade.
With polyamory, "people can always leave," she says, but everyone is pushed to be honest about their needs and she "didn't have to edit" herself.
"Honesty is easy; it's hard to figure out what others expect to know," she says. What might be relevant information to one is unnecessary to another.
Jealousy works similarly.
What is challenging about sharing a lover may be wildly different, depending on the individual.
"I'm not saying I don't get jealous," Mae says, "I just find that jealousy is useless; it pushes away the people that I love."
She, for instance, is most sensitive to sharing time. A pet peeve of hers is when a partner has a date before meeting with her that runs long, pushing back into the hours they had scheduled together.
"Time is the primary resource, and you can't get it back," she adds.
"Google Calendar is my best friend," says Kari, echoing a sentiment that most people in the poly scene express. While Kari is big on planning, his partner is the opposite, which can pose a problem. She points out, "Even if we were monogamous this would be a conflict." It requires a lot of flexibility and understanding, as well as group texts.
One thing that isn't always helpful to negotiating non-monogamy is a strict set of rules. While having hard-and-fast parameters used to be a common feature of polyamory discourse, it's falling out of favor in the community.
"Rules are really limiting in a lot of ways, says Kari. They "prevent people from being open to what they are feeling now and what is important to them. Those things tend to feel like they're coming out of a place of fear and usually it's better to say, 'This kind of thing hurts me, what can we do to avoid this?' Rather than saying, 'You can never hold someone's hand on a Tuesday,' or whatever."
Another facet of language that has shifted in recent years is the idea of hierarchy, having a lover who might be "primary" while others are "secondary" or "tertiary." Phil explains that those ideas were more important when polyamorous relationships "had to be on the down low." If a person's job or child custody was in jeopardy, it may be prudent to maintain one public partner and the rest had to be "friends of the family."
He says most poly people discard those titles and begin focusing on the commitments made to each other. Phil, considers the title "partner" to be a designation for someone "who has a social and sexual draw on my time." He shares a mortgage and house chores with his partner of 6 years, but they have no set policies on how many nights a week they'll spend together and their network of partners is continuously fluctuating.
What do these experienced folks advise to others who are considering ethical non-monogamy?
Mae emphasizes the necessity of finding an open-minded doctor with whom a patient can be entirely honest, as well as building a support system of like-minded people. Phil accentuates the need for full disclosure about not only his sexual health but that of his partners (and the partner's partners).
All of them pointed out that there's a learning curve to open relationships, much like there's a process of making mistakes while dating in general.
For Kari, who just finished seminary, it's important to free everyone, monogamous or otherwise, from the constraints of the Relationship Escalator (the notion that dating requires a series of milestones at a specific pace) or shopping for a checklist of desired traits in a mate.
"It's never going to look like the romantic comedy ideal," she says. "The goal is to get away from the shame and the guilt about not conforming to that totally ridiculous thing that love songs put forward to us."
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.