I recently discussed Polyamory and Non-Monogamy with two local therapists who facilitate a group that focuses on open relationships.
Jezzie Fulmen works at the LGBT Resource Center on campus and has a background in marriage and family therapy, “working primarily with queer folk, polyamorous folk and doing some sex therapy.”
Adam Zimbardo is a therapist with years of experience in sex therapy and often works with “people who come with a little bit of extra sexuality stuff in their suitcase.”
Fulmen recently updated the Davis Wiki page for the Polyamory/Non-Monogamy group. I contacted her shortly after and we arranged to have the following (abridged) conversation.
- What is Polyamory and how did the group form in Davis?
Adam: We live in interesting times and the Bay Area has been sort of the epicenter for alternative sexual lifestyles for 40 years. One of those lifestyles has been open relationships, which has its roots in 60s open marriage and open love. It evolved in the 70s into swinger culture and in the 80s and 90s it evolved into its own little thing with its own little identity label, which is Polyamory.
There’s a lot of information on the Internet and in the Bay Area, but not so much in Davis. As soon as I opened my door here, I got a whole bunch of folks saying, “We’re in a relationship that is not just two people.”
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so it’s extremely useful when you can come together (in a group) with folks who are actually practicing this kind of life. Poly folks have the same problems other folks have, but it’s compounded. It’s much more complicated, often.
In monogamous relationships, we’ve got a clear sense of how that’s supposed to work. In Poly relationships, people are kind of making it up as they go along. There isn’t a thousand-year tradition.
- How often do people come to Polyamory as an attempt to remedy an existing relationship?
Adam: People do, but it tends to be a bad idea. That’s sort of like the people who go, “Oh, our relationship isn’t working, so let’s have a kid.” It rarely helps. Your life is going to get more stressed out.
There are folks who are in a preexisting relationship and want to do some experimentation. There are also folks who are out there and saying, “I’m really committed to getting into a relationship that is not monogamous.”
Jezzie: College is a really normal time to be dating around. We often have a humorous moment saying, “Polyamory is what used to be called dating.”
It’s pretty normal to be dating multiple people at the same time. Polyamory just emphasizes a set of values around that.
- What’s the current status of the group?
Jezzie: I’m pretty out on campus as being a queer woman and as being in a Poly relationship and having a Poly family. As students naturally learned that about me, they would come and talk to me about it. So many came to me that I said, “We can have a group if you want to have a group.” It was really student-driven.
Activity went up and down and then we hit summertime and it sort of went on hiatus. It didn’t pick back up this year because nobody had picked it back up, until recently when I had a slew of students coming into my office saying, “Hey, didn’t there used to be a group? Can we resurrect it?”
Now we’re in the phase of figuring out if there’s enough interest.
Adam: In a college town, everybody appears and disappears each semester. It’s not like the real world where people have a more steady work life and existence. That’s standard UCD stuff.
- What’s the distinction between openly dating and identifying as Polyamorous?
Adam: The core difference is the identity part. Of people who are in relationships, the overwhelming majority will be monogamous and they’re going to be fine with that. One step up from that are people who think it’s an interesting idea, but probably too much trouble. One step up from there are people who are in a mostly monogamous relationship, but they have a little arrangement of some sort.
Only the tip of that pyramid says: “This is my identity. This is who I am and it’s important for me to have a community around this.” If you’re a couple and you sometimes have a threesome, you might not really need to have a support group.
- Is the number of people who identify as Polyamorous growing?
Adam: I think, tremendously.
Jezzie: The divorce rate of this generation -- with so many kids growing up watching their parents get divorced -- has really contributed to a cultural shift around the idea that maybe 50 years of marriage isn’t the best option for everybody. This (current generation) is the generation after divorce went up.
- What does a Polyamory group meeting look like?
Jezzie: It’s really student-driven, so it could look like anything. What it looked like last year was super informal. We were hosted by the LGBT Resource Center on campus, so we would meet there. It really was just sitting around on couches. We started off with a check-in to see what was on people’s minds and then opened it up to a conversation for an hour. Mostly a discussion, really.
Adam: There’s a huge relief in just hearing that other people are struggling with this. A lot of information out there says “Yay, yay, go Poly. Everyone can do this; everyone should do this. It’s healthier. It’s more evolved.”
A lot of the work I do as a therapist is with people who say, “Something’s terribly wrong with this,” and they need somebody to tell them that it’s totally normal (to struggle).
Jealousy is a part of this. It’s not, “Are you doing it right or are you doing it wrong?” It’s more like, “What parts are working well for you and what parts aren’t?”
Is the solution to do this differently, or to not do this at all.
- Do you ever recommend that certain people not do it?
Adam: The good version of that is when the couple ends up deciding as a couple, “You know what, this is not going to work for us.” Especially for those who have this fantasy in their head about having another person in bed and then in reality they decide, “this is horrible, we fight all the time.” It can be difficult to put that back in the fantasy file. The thought is fun, but it’s a logistical nightmare.
The slightly sadder outcome is when one partner is having the best time of their life and the other partner really is not, and that is common. Usually one partner brings up the idea and the other gives it a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. It can work out great, or it can become a huge clusterfuck.
Jezzie: We’re not automatically Poly advocates. We have to be really clear with people that Poly’s not for everyone, and that’s cool. It’s not like better people are good at Poly and worse people are too insecure for it. I’m for it for people it works for and I’m for monogamy for people it works for. I’m careful to explain that I’m pretty neutral on it.
- Are relationships ever formed in the group?
Adam: We don’t really have a history of relationships blossoming because of the group, but we have people who have hung out together and become friends. I’d be happier to have a group where people aren’t there for hooking up. It’s not a singles bar.
It’s great to interact with people who are going through something. Having a whole range of people in one room is super helpful.
- Tell me a bit about jealousy in open relationships.
Jezzie: People often struggle with what they perceive as Poly issues, but they’re really just relationship issues. A lot of times people say, “We have jealousy issues because we’re Poly.” It can be useful to remind them that it’s really just normal relationship issues. There’s no reason Poly would be exempt from that.
- What about having kids in a Poly relationship?
Jezzie: People do it. A lot of folks we’ve worked with are couples with kids and are in an open relationship. A lot times the kids have no reason to know about the structure of mom and dad’s relationship or mom and mom’s relationship. But the parents have got to be conscious of that.
Other times there are different structures of three people having kids, but that’s pretty rare.
- What would you like people in Davis to take away about Polyamory and open relationships?
Adam: There are so many different ways to be in a relationship. The further away you get from (the typical boy-girl marriage), the more complicated it is to have the relationship -- to find role modeling, guidance and support, both positive and negative.
A lot of things work and a lot of things don’t work. The process of evolution is finding out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. That’s especially hard when you’re taking the complex path where it’s much harder to tell if you’re doing it right.