You might not meet a more straightforward couple than Stefani Skidmore and Jeff Altemus. She checks with him first before she dates another man and he asks her directly if he can have sex with another woman.
The unmarried couple, who live together in Ashland, say being happy for your partner's bliss is an outcome of practicing polyamory, a hybrid word that joins the Greek word "poly" — meaning "many" — with the Latin word "amor" or "love." It describes a nonmonogamous, committed relationship that involves more than two people.
Although quiet in Ashland and most other communities, polyamory is now in the news. A Brazilian trio was recently granted civil union status. Some practitioners gathered over the past weekend in New York for the 26th Annual Polyamory National Retreat, and Showtime just completed airing episodes of its half-hour documentary reality series "Polyamory: Married and Dating."
"It may shock some," says the voiceover in the Showtime trailer. "But with American divorce rates hovering around 50 percent, these families are on the front line of a growing revolution in the traditional monogamous relationship."
Says the show's director-producer, Natalia Garcia, "A lot of people's jaws will drop and they may wonder, 'Am I poly?' "
Since the word "polyamory" was created in the 1990s, other terms have popped up to explain open-marriage situations: A trio is called a "triad," a foursome a "quad." There are "primary" and "secondary" partners to describe hierarchy, "poly fidelity" means being faithful to the group and "compersion" is feeling empathetic happiness for a partner instead of jealousy.
The ultimate betrayal in polyamory is lying, practitioners say.
"If a partner has permission to sleep with someone else and there is still secrecy, that hurt is at a deeper level," says Skidmore, a Southern Oregon University student who is working toward a master's degree in clinical psychology. "If someone has all of this freedom and still has the need to do something hurtful, that's a bigger issue than sexual freedom."
Polyamory shouldn't be confused with polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse. Nor is it "swinging," recreational sex outside of marriage. Practitioners consider themselves committed to their partners and don't have outside sexual relations before discussing it with their partners and ensuring that everyone is comfortable with it.
People in the poly community believe that nonexclusivity in sexual and family relations improves their psychological wellbeing, says Echo E. Fields, an associate professor in SOU's sociology department.
"They argue that monogamy is inconsistent with humans' needs for free expression of personal identity," says Fields. "They aspire to relationships in which all members have equal power. They hope that by developing insight into each member's sexual and psychological needs and honestly communicating them, members can overcome jealousy and possessiveness."
In larger cities there are places such as the Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle where people who call themselves "conscientiously nonmonogamous" can find each other by attending "poly potlucks" and other events. In Ashland, people look for partners by posting on dating websites.
One 30-something Ashland couple, who are married and have a child, say their lifestyle is misunderstood and is more closeted than the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They asked that their names not be published.
"People think it's weird and wonder, 'How can you possibly do that?' " she says.
When neighbors or co-workers see one of them being romantic with another person in public, "people immediately jump to the conclusion that we're not being forthright," says the husband, adding that they have lost friends by explaining it. "It's sad that something that doesn't involve them at all ends a friendship."
He says they spent a lot of time first talking about polyamory before they acted on it and it is different than when politician Newt Gingrich's ex-wife was asked to accept an open marriage after an affair had already begun.
"You can't betray and then try to fix," he says. "If there is any small dysfunction in your relationship, it will be amplified."
People who are polyamorous sometimes have to manage the stress of concealing their identity or deal with the consequences of talking about it, says behavior specialist Fields, especially in the U.S. where the majority of straight and same-sex relationships are monogamous.
"Disapproval may take the form of ostracism from family or losing jobs," she says. Legal issues also make these relationships challenging, from child custody to property division if a member leaves the group.
But, say practitioners, that could all be agreed upon in advance.
Altemus, a graphic designer and owner of Align Visual Arts & Communication, and grad student Skidmore, who are both in their 30s, have agreed that they both can be open about their private lives since it should not impact their professional lives.
"The two worlds don't really have anything to do with one another anyway," he says.
Later, he acknowledges, "It's so on the edge of accepted cultural norms it can be difficult at times."
None of the polyamory practitioners interviewed for this story would agree to have their photographs taken.
Altemus describes a past monogamous breakup "as a death of a shared dream, a shared life" and says there are no guarantees in any relationship.
Skidmore says it's "freeing" to be more transparent about her private life.
"All the poly people I know have a need to be authentic and honest about what is going on in their life. When I communicate about what I need, even when it's terrifying, I am being honest."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.