Poly Stories

A Package Deal

By Cascade Spring Cook

Based on interviews with Fred and Mary
(These are pseudonyms)
(My comments are in italics)

Some couples do all or most of their sexual explorations together. They find that bringing another person or couple into their relationship creates more juiciness that they both enjoy, and it also creates a sense of safety because they know what’s going on. Since they are part of the action, they don’t worry about the connection that’s developing when they are not present. Fred and Mary are examples of this.

When he went off to college, Fred had no idea that group sex would become such a rewarding part of his life, actually enhancing his marriage. Now 52, he’s been with Mary, 43, for 13 years.

They both express a great deal of closeness to the other, and say that their relationship keeps getting better and better. Loyalty, trust and commitment to each other are very important to both of them, and Mary comments on a sense of being equals. Like all couples, they have their fights, but they don’t last. Fred explains, “The thing that happens with us, one thing that's really different about my relationship with Mary than any other relationship I've been in, is that when we fight, we get to a certain point and we just stop fighting, because it's just, we love each other, what are we doing this for, let's not fight. And it's like that takes priority.” Fred can’t imagine splitting up with Mary.

Fred and Mary don’t have kids, since neither particularly wanted children. Their professional, technical jobs keep them busy.

Early explorations

When he met Mary, Fred didn’t feel that sharing sexuality with others was a requirement, but he was aware of it as an interesting option. He had had some experience with sexual threesomes in earlier relationships. His first such encounter occurred after his girlfriend in college developed an emotional and sexual relationship with his roommate. Fred was very upset about this involvement, but decided to resolve the situation by having a threesome. He stayed friends with both of them, though he broke up with his girlfriend some time after that. At that time, he still had a preference for monogamy, but a woman he became involved with for a couple of years after he graduated was adamant about having an open relationship, and so he reluctantly agreed. Fred notes that having multiple relationships was not uncommon in Berkeley in the seventies, at least in the circles he ran in.

Then came a long term relationship with Candace, his longest partner before he met Mary. During the ten years they lived together, they had a number of other relationships. Fred was mostly looking for sex rather than a deep emotional relationship. However he did want to know his lovers and not just hop into bed with strangers, so swinging didn’t work for him. Their sexual partners were also their friends, and some of the relationships lasted for several years. In fact, he says, some of these people are still friends. His relationship with Candace broke up when he went off to grad school. It had been unstable, and Fred doesn’t think that polyamory had any affect on it. “It really had no impact. It didn't make the relationship better or worse, it was just as dysfunctional no matter what was going on.”

Lots of female friends

At the time that Fred met Mary, he had a good friend with whom he used to sleep – at least he often slept at her house. They tried being sexual a couple of times, but that didn’t work well, so they just considered themselves best friends, and gave each other support in their romantic relationships. By then he didn’t particularly have an agenda about monogamy, so when he started dating Mary, he simply told her about his history. He has always had a lot of female friends, which whom he often talked about emotions and relationships. In spite of his early desire for monogamy, those friendships led to an openness to nonmonogamy. He explains,

“I don't know that I've ever had one of those friends that I wouldn't have wanted to have sex with, because if I have that kind of closeness with somebody, why wouldn't I want to be sexual? It doesn't make sense to me, because attraction for me is more about the emotional part than the physical part. It's not about how somebody looks. But it's about sharing your insides, sharing who you are and just being vulnerable in that way, and so being physically intimate is just more of the same in a way.”

In some of his previous relationships, Fred’s closeness with other women was a source of conflict, even when he wasn’t sexual with them, because he was doing a lot of emotional sharing.

Mary had never even thought about doing anything outside the sexual norm until they started talking about threesomes as a form of fantasy. Attending the Human Awareness Institute workshops together helped Mary broaden her view of sex and relationships. They opened her to thinking that “Relationships and sex can mean more and different things than our current society would typically value.”

The challenge of their first time

Then a friend of Fred’s came to visit. Fred had known Ethan for many years. Mary found that she liked him and got good vibes from him. Fred was already comfortable with him, since they had had some good experiences together with Fred’s former girlfriend, Candace. So Ethan seemed like a good candidate to share their first sexual explorations beyond monogamy. Good choice - the attraction has persisted over time, and Ethan is now a good friend to both of them, and a sexual partner on the rare occasions when he visits from out of state.

However, Fred and Ethan’s shared past also created some challenges. Candace had found Ethan particularly exciting, and had been more passionate with him than with Fred. That had put Fred in touch with the “male fantasy [or nightmare] of the stud who comes along and steals your woman.” Some of the complexity of poly relationships becomes evident in Fred’s description of what happened.

“Having Ethan be the first one that Mary was sexual with other than me was scary, because that had been my experience. But I knew also that Ethan was a good person and Mary just said, that's not going to happen with me, because I had told her all about this, and I basically just decided that I believed her. And so it happened, and I definitely had a reaction. I don't know if I would call it jealousy, I would just call it fear. I was just scared and I was afraid that she was going to leave, and I really felt like, I can't measure up to this, and how can she still love me, but then I saw that she did, and that was actually a real healing for me. So I'm really glad it happened with him, because it wouldn't have had the same impact with somebody else. And the great thing was that it healed the whole thing that had happened with Candace, because then I understood it was about her. It was not about him or me, it was about Candace. So if you call that jealousy, then I definitely experienced jealousy.”

A package deal

From that first experience with Ethan, they’ve moved on to other relationships. They’ve considered themselves to be a “package deal.” Instead of separate dating, they like to do things together socially and sexually. They’ve had a clear agreement that any time they are sexual they are both in the room, although they’ve had a few special case exceptions. Fred notes that the agreement never to exclude the other was what created safety for them. This is an agreement they take seriously. Mary’s commitment to the agreement was demonstrated recently when Ethan was in town on a rare visit. Fred was out of town, so Mary and Ethan found nonsexual ways to enjoy their time together until Fred returned and joined them.

Mary describes them both as bisensual, comfortable being physically affectionate and willing to touch someone of the same sex, but more attracted to the other sex. This relaxed attitude towards physical contact helps create ease in the group sexual situations they enjoy. Emotional closeness is important to Mary, and it’s a turnoff if the guys are avoiding touching each other. As she says, “Yes, that's a penis and you have it and he has it, and it's okay to touch it.”

Strange as it may seem to the monogamously inclined, some people find that sexual sharing in a group adds to their closeness with their partner. Fred is a good example of this: he very much enjoys and gets turned on by watching Mary being sexual with someone else. He says it gives him more of a feeling of Mary as a sexual being, and makes him more attracted to her. Mary isn’t specifically turned on by watching Fred enjoying someone else, but she’s happy that he’s having a good time.

The slowest common denominator

Mary appreciates Fred’s respect and understanding of her desire to move slowly in the direction of sexual intimacy with others. Their guideline is that you move at the pace of the slowest person (which Mary refers to as the slowest common denominator). Usually this has been her, but they’ve been friends with another couple over a period of five years where it took years before they were fully sexual together because the woman wanted to move very slowly. Mary and Fred were a bit annoyed at the other man because he seemed too pushy, wanting to move ahead even though his wife wasn’t ready.

Sex parties aren’t just for having sex with strangers. Fred and Mary sometimes go to play parties, but only occasionally. When they’ve been sexual at parties, it’s always been a continuation of an existing sexual connection. This suits Fred; he only wants to be sexual with people he cares about, who are friends, whom he loves. Mary has some ambivalence about sex parties. She is not an exhibitionist, so she can feel quite inhibited in that type of situation. In addition, she prefers a deeper, ongoing relationship that combines friendship with the sexual relationship. However, she has sometimes had fun when they have gone to a sex party with a group of friends with whom they have already shared some sensual energy.

Love is important, but Fred makes a distinction between loving someone and wanting to combine your life with theirs. He loves easily and can love people whom he sees only occasionally. He cares about his partners, and tries to be sensitive to the power differential that is created when they are involved with a single woman who would like to have a primary relationship. He encourages such a lover to break a date if she has an opportunity to go out with a potential primary partner. Her long term happiness is a priority.

Intensity with another couple

For many months Fred and Mary had a very intense relationship with another couple, Bill and Sue. For some time they spent most weekends as a foursome, doing everything together. Within that relationship they decided it was helpful to spend some one on one time with the other couple, because “The dynamics are different, and you can have different conversations and different experiences one on one than in a group of four.” Fred notes that it felt weird to have a deep intimacy with Sue, without ever having a private conversation with her. They also recognized from this experience that having some time alone with another lover can bring energy back into the primary relationship. Mary feels they went too deep too quickly, without knowing the other couple well enough. Fred fell madly in love with Sue, but Bill and Sue called off the whole situation rather abruptly.

While the four of them were seeing each other, Fred tried to be very attentive to Mary, and make sure she was feeling okay. He thinks the New Relationship Energy (NRE) that he was experiencing with Sue was probably a benefit for Mary, because she likes seeing him happy, and he was happy a lot. Mary and Bill were not nearly as close; Mary feels that Bill was emotionally closed. Fred says that he was the one who did a lot of processing, who brought up feelings and wore his heart on his sleeve. By his perception, he talked more than the other three put together.

The breakup was very hard on Fred. Currently, when he sees how excited Mary is with the man of a couple they are seeing, it reminds him of how much he misses Sue. He also sees how much Mary enjoys the other man’s enthusiasm. This brings up his insecurities. He refuses to be dominated by his fears, but he still experiences echoes of his anxiety during their first time with Ethan - it’s hard for him when he’s not sure that he’s clearly Mary’s best lover. He’s still in the process of figuring out how to acknowledge his insecurities without giving in to them, and how to work through them.

Mary doesn’t feel she’s a very jealous person, but she also admits that she hasn’t been in the kind of situation that would make her jealous. Since she and Fred do things together, she doesn’t have to wonder what’s going on. She did have some discomfort during the intense relationship, because Bill was not emotionally available, and she wished she could have some of the excitement and connection that Fred and Sue were experiencing. She was also frustrated at the fruitlessness of her efforts to create a deeper emotional connection with Bill. There’s an awkwardness that occurs in situations like this, where Fred and Sue were quickly passionate and easily sexual, while Mary and Bill took a long time negotiating and having awkward conversations about what they would do. However this is one of the hazards of trying to bring two couples together: often one of the new couples is more attracted to each other than the other new couple. This can lead to tensions that cause a breakup, whether of one of the original couples or of the foursome.

Imagining the ideal situation

The foursome provided some elements of what Fred and Mary would really like, and a vision of how things could be. This perhaps allowed them to overlook the obvious flaws, something that Mary now feels embarrassed about. Mary comments on “how nice it would be to have a couple where everybody really gets along and to be able to do things both together and apart.” Her ideal would be to live very close to another couple that they both were close to, and be able to do a lot of things together or in various combinations, but still have their own private space. This would leave her the opportunity for alone time, something she desperately needs.

Fred’s ideal is also to have a quad, and keep their other relationships as friendships rather than sexual connections, but without withdrawing from them as much as they did during the intensity of the time they spent with Bill and Sue. He’s uncomfortable with the way they unintentionally ignored their other friends, because they spent so much time as a foursome that there wasn’t any time left over for other people. Polyamory always provides time challenges. You may be able to love many people, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.

Finding another couple where everybody connects well has been a challenge. They’ve usually found that they connect more with one member of a couple than with the other, so that makes their ideal harder to reach. One of the advantages of a foursome that Fred and Mary point out is that they can combine time with each other with time with their other lovers. They don’t have the time conflicts and scheduling problems experienced by couples who date separately. However, as they start experiencing some separate times, they’ve discovered that it can add some juice to their relationship. They like to talk about everything that happened on the separate date. Mary explains, “I think both of us are the kind of people who want to hear everything, what did you do, what did you talk about, what did you do then, what positions were you in, whatever. I guess that's also why we've been the package deal thing, because we want to be there, we want to be part of the experience.”

Benefits and challenges of polyamory

Polyamory has clearly been a growth experience for Mary. It has helped her loosen up

and let her hair down. She’s been rather guarded, a private type of person, and through their sexual explorations she has become more comfortable with herself, more sure of herself. It has helped her get a better sense of who she is. It has also helped her relationship with Fred, because it has forced them to communicate more, and she sees how appreciative he is when she’s dealing well with a difficult situation.

Although he greatly enjoys being polyamorous, Fred isn’t driven to do it. He and Mary like doing the same types of things, so he’s not meeting an otherwise unmet need.

“I think that my interest in having other relationships comes more from just feeling attraction and feeling like, why not be sexual if that's what we want to do? It's a why not thing, it's not like there's something missing. It's not to fill a gap, it's like, let's do this because it's nice to do. I don't really feel like we have any big gaps, actually.”

However, he did enjoy the way that Sue was loud during sex, and since Mary is not very interested in oral sex, he enjoys receiving that from other partners.

Fred thinks one of the most important things for people who are doing poly to know about is NRE (New Relationship Energy), because it’s such a universal phenomenon. It’s good to enjoy it, but don’t go crazy, “don't make major life decisions based on it.”

Although early in his adult life, Fred would have preferred to have monogamy, he has found he really likes group sex. He even dreamed about it when he was 12, and about something he now interprets that way when he was 6, so polyamory suits him very well. He says polyamory is a good thing because it helps people avoid sexual frustration, something he thinks is the source of a lot of evil in the world. He also appreciates the ability to create an extended family, and the shared intimacy and deep connection that’s hard to create even with good friends. In addition to jealousy, one of the challenges is that “You get plenty of material to work on yourself.”

© 2009 by Elaine Cook

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