The couples who tried polyamory – then changed their minds: ‘I never expected my husband to fall in love’

When Sara Kragness’s partner Kadence Porter started dating a new person, they weren’t breaking any rules. The couple, who live in Northampton, Massachusetts, had agreed to try polyamory – they were both free to pursue sexual, intimate relationships with other people. But when Kragness struggled to make an extracurricular connection of her own, she began to feel jealous of Porter’s budding relationship.

“I’d get snappy or grumpy right before they went on a date,” Kragness said. “I would pick a fight, get isolated or cold. None of that is healthy or positive.”

Things worsened. The couple spent less time together, avoided talking and slept in different bedrooms. At a family wedding, the bubbling drama boiled over, and the couple confronted their issues head-on. “A decision had to be made: are we going to continue together, or are we going to part ways because of the poly lifestyle?” Kragness said.

Kragness didn’t want to come off as manipulative. If Porter wished to stay poly, that was fine by her, but they would have to break up. “People said we were done for,” she said. “I think the view was that when people open their relationship, it all falls apart.” But after some soul-searching, Kragness and Porter decided to stick it out – and close their relationship.

Sara Kragness, right, and her partner Kadence Porter. Photograph: Sara Kragness

Polyamory (having multiple partners at once consensually) and open relationships (where couples pursue other sexual relationships but tend to stay emotionally connected to just each other) aren’t anything new. The anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman advocated for “free love” in place of “that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage” in the 1910s, while many in the queer community practiced open relationships long before “polycule” became a TikTok buzzword. But Covid changed conceptions of love and intimacy on a wider scale.

This year saw the release of More, a memoir by Molly Roden Winter, in which the white, upper-class Brooklyn mom recounts juggling polyamory with parenting. Peacock’s salaciously named reality show Couple to Throuple follows four pairs who, while living together in a tropical resort, mull adding a third party into the mix. (What could go wrong?) And last month, New York magazine released its “practical guide to modern polyamory”, which included rules and tips on how to ethically open up a relationship.

It can feel like everyone’s open now – according to a recent Match study, one-third of respondents had experimented with consensual non-monogamy. But what if it doesn’t work out? A failed attempt at polyamory might lead to a devastating breakup, even when some couples, like Kragness and Porter, might not be ready to call it just yet.

“Being open started and ended with an agreed mutual decision: we were advocating for our personal needs, and we had a willingness to try,” Kragness said. “But ultimately, we decided that we want each other in our lives, and that’s not something that’s possible for me if we’re poly.”

There were awkward moments during the repair process: when Porter broke up with their other partner, it was difficult for Kragness to support them as they grieved the loss of another lover. For now, the couple – who are getting ready to celebrate their sixth anniversary – describe themselves as “monogamish”. They’re not actively pursuing sexual relationships with other people, but they might in the future. Deeper, emotional connections with other people remain verboten.

Struggling with the ‘Olympics of relationships’

Shai Fishman is a Pennsylvania entrepreneur who also runs an online community for the polyamorous called Leveled Up Love. He says the lifestyle has helped him learn to better communicate with partners and advocate for his sexual desires – but he doesn’t believe it’s for everyone. Fishman often sees open relationships close, especially if a couple rushed into it or thought that trying non-monogamy might serve as a Band-Aid for pre-existing problems.

“I joke that polyamory is like the Olympics of relationships,” Fishman said. “Some people are going to struggle. There are these idealistic approaches to polyamory, and when jealousy and insecurity smacks someone in the face, they could run for the hills.”

In Massachusetts, the Puritan state, of all places, three cities allow more than two people to be in domestic relationships, and two of those cities have laws on the books protecting polyamorous families from discrimination. In California, Berkeley and Oakland have introduced similar bills. And in New York, the therapist Daniel Rich says half his clients are couples who engage in some sort of non-monogamous structure. When things go wrong, about half of those couples break up.

“These relationships can stir up so many big feelings,” Rich said. “It’s easy to attribute the end of a relationship to it being open. But a lot of times, it really ends because of issues that were already present in the relationship, such as a lack of communication or trust.” He says the couples who do tough it out can have a long road of rebuilding after closing their relationships back up.

At first, Jeannie, a 53-year-old administrative worker from New York, enjoyed opening her marriage. She’d never been with people other than her husband, whom she’s known since high school and had gone through long dry spells with. The sex drought was so prominent, in fact, that Jeannie once spoke to the women’s magazine Self for an article about not having enough sex. (Jeannie is a pseudonym.)

Opening up the marriage felt like the “capstone” of a process during which Jeannie became more comfortable with her sexuality. She took pole dancing lessons and courses on women’s empowerment. One night in 2018, Jeannie kissed someone who wasn’t her husband at a party; the couple calls that date their “polyversary”.

Jeannie thought this new period of self-discovery and erotic exploration was fun: “I went on tons of dates, went to parties, and met lots of people.” But her husband wasn’t as successful and found dating hard. That was, until he met someone he really liked – and eventually, loved.

Gradually, the tables turned on Jeannie. “I never expected that to happen,” she said. Her one night stands began to feel like a “revolving door” of lovers who weren’t satisfying. Meanwhile, her husband was falling deeper in love with his new girlfriend. “Is she another soulmate?” Jeannie wondered. “It was jarring to my reality, and I didn’t know where I fit.”

Things came to a head during the fall of 2020: “I told my husband that if he was poly by nature and needed that in his life, that was OK, but I couldn’t do it,” Jeannie said. They agreed to give their closed marriage another shot by rebuilding their relationship and clarifying their desires. “We did all of the things: couples therapy, individual therapy, medicine journeys,” Jeannie said. It wasn’t easy, and there was collateral damage. Jeannie’s husband harbored resentment for having to break up with his girlfriend, whom he never intended to hurt; she was devastated. But he and Jeannie still made a point to commit. “We had breakfast together every day and learned how to be better communicators,” Jeannie said.

They also wrote up a “relationship agreement” – it’s 20 pages long, with an appendix – that breaks down their priorities as a couple, what’s OK to do, and what’s not. After a few years closed, Jeannie and her husband opened up again with that agreement in mind.

No regrets about trying polyamory

Sometimes, relationships start out polyamorous. Such was the case with Rome, a 24-year-old bookseller from New Mexico who has dated his partner Andi for about a year. For the first six months, they agreed to be open. Both wanted to explore relationship anarchy, an ethos that prioritizes autonomy and community over monogamy’s rules for romance. The couple scheduled monthly “check-ins” to talk about their feelings and discuss how things were going. (Rome and Andi asked that their last names not be used.)

“We had a rule where we’d only tell each other what we needed to know: for example, we would only tell each other about a new relationship if we thought it was going to be an ongoing thing,” Rome explained.

There were times when they’d accidentally reveal “too much” to each other: “I was at a concert with someone else, and I told my partner how we were having a really great time, and they said, ‘I don’t want to hear about that,’” Rome recalled. For his part, Rome found himself feeling “on edge” when he thought about Andi going out with other people.

Andi, who is 27 and works as a graduate teaching associate, said they had grown exhausted with the pace of dating outside of a relationship. “The thought of having the door open for romantic connections grew less of a priority, given my energy and emotional capacity,” they said.

Still, when Andi thought about having the “let’s close up” conversation, they felt anxious. “We met on a dating app that’s used by non-monogamous folks, and Rome reads a lot about polyamory and its benefits. I had this fear that my asking for monogamy might be read as a control or coercion thing. I worried that this person I cared about so much would think that I was trying to limit the meaningful connections he can have for other people.”

But there were no tears or big, blowout arguments. In fact, the scene could have been straight out of a romcom: during one of their check-ins, Andi told Rome they weren’t seeing anyone. Rome told them he wasn’t either. They came to the conclusion that it should stay that way.

None of the couples who spoke to the Guardian said they regretted being open, or believed monogamy to be the only way to date. It’s just what is best for them at this time.

“Society hands us these boxes and says, ‘These are the only options,’ and certain compulsory behaviors are so ingrained in our society,” Rome said. “But I do think it’s OK to change your mind.”


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