Polyamory: Love, multiplied
Counseling people who have more than one partner
On a list of specialties that includes life coaching, relationship issues, sex therapy and spirituality, local marriage and family therapist Adrienne Parker-Morano also includes polyamory.
For some, the word “polyamory” may conjure up images of wife-swapping, wild orgies or a Mormon lifestyle straight out of the HBO drama Big Love. But that would be wrong.
Polygamy, for instance—marriage to more than one partner at the same time—is not the same thing as polyamory.
Polyamory, explained Parker-Morano, means “having more than one love.” Marriage to one of those lovers may or may not have anything to do with it.
“I think that we’re all polyamorous,” said the statuesque 56-year-old, seated in her office on the fourth floor of the Waterland-Breslauer building in downtown Chico. Parker-Morano is married to widely known local musician Jerry Morano (see “Keeping Chico’s beat,” CN&R, Jan. 13, 2011), and is the proud grandmother of “a passel” of grandkids.
“We all love more than one person,” she offered. “It’s the possibility, the potential, the option to have more than one relationship that distinguishes polyamory.
“People who are polyamorous are nonmonogamous,” Parker-Morano continued, “but it doesn’t mean they’re having sex. They could be celibate. They are open to [having sex], but are not necessarily doing it.
“It’s important to understand,” she added, “that the focus is on the intimate love relationship, not on the sex. It’s really all about love, although sex is an option.”
Parker-Morano said that approximately three-fourths of her clients “are dealing with polyamory [issues].” Clients often “come out of the woodwork,” she said, and from as far away as Sacramento and towns north of Chico. Parker-Morano said she receives “a lot of referrals” from other therapists who do not have the expertise in the field of polyamory that she does.
Most of her clients, she said, “are married, but most are not monogamous, or if they are, they are contemplating opening up their relationship. Maybe they’re trying to be monogamous, or are having affairs, cheating, sick of lying, and are saying, ‘How can we open up our marriage without deceit, lying or hiding?’
“Betrayal in a relationship would be the No. 1 thing that tears at the integrity, the fabric, of a relationship,” she said, “It’s the lying. It’s not that the person had sex with another person—not that that can’t bring up issues.”
Most people, she said, “are more comfortable cheating inside a monogamous relationship” than becoming polyamorous, she said, “because they understand it,” it’s familiar to them. “Poly” people, she added, “don’t live inside the monogamous-relationship ‘box’—the social norm for our culture. One of the tenets of polyamory is truthfulness, honesty.”
Many sexual problems, Parker-Morano said, “come from a lack of emotional intimacy, which comes from lying or withholding information. People are afraid of abandonment, so they lie instead.
“People have to stop lying,” she said. “They have to stop making agreements that they’re not sure they’re going to be able to keep. And if they need to break an agreement—talk about it!”
She spoke of the frequency in the poly world of people who have a “primary” partner—often a legal spouse with whom they raise children and share finances—and a “secondary” relationship. In such an arrangement, a person’s “first and foremost responsibility is to the primary relationship,” said Parker-Morano, adding that’s it’s “not a hierarchy of love, but rather a hierarchy of time and energy.”
She recommends that married polyamorous couples “make a conscious effort to renew their vows yearly, and have their vows reflect their evolved views” of the relationship, so that things remain open and honest.
Parker-Morano said she first became aware of polyamory in the early 1980s when she was attending a conference and met a “quad”—two women and two men living together as a “polyfidelitous”—or “polyexclusive”—entity. Some quads have and raise children together as a married couple would. (“Triads” are yet another polyamorous configuration.)
“I was intrigued from that point on,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow—people can actually be in more than one loving relationship at a time, and they tell the truth.’ ” Parker-Morano said she was impressed by the “openheartedness and the inclusiveness” of polyamory.
“I had always just considered monogamy as ‘what people did,’ ” she said, “and this was a new concept. It just struck me, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a new paradigm for relating. And the personal growth of that kind of lifestyle, the potential!’
“Who in this culture is actually monogamous?” Parker-Morano continued. “We have serial monogamy. … People fall in love with two people all the time, but they’re torn, so they choose one or another, sometimes because they don’t want to break up their family.
“Polyamory offers people another choice,” she said. “Polyamory is a lot about maintaining relationships. As a therapist, that is one of my personal biases. Not that I am opposed to divorce—sometimes it’s the right thing. But I definitely do have a bias to sustaining the relationship. Sometimes they just need to switch things up a bit. Or a lot.”
A successful polyamorous arrangement, she said, can even make the everyday activities of life, such as taking care of children and running errands, that much easier—it can function as “an extended support system.”
“Whether you’re monogamous or nonmonogamous, you have to keep to your agreement,” Parker-Morano summed up. “If your agreement is you’re going to be monogamous, you better darn well be monogamous. But if your agreement is you’re going to have more than one sexual partner, you’re not cheating.”
“I freely admit—it’s complicated. There’s no blueprint,” she said. “If you’re a person who likes things simple, polyamory probably isn’t for you. Polyamory takes a lot of emotional maturity, and it’s not for everyone.”