Polyamory, lots and lots of love

Deirdre Cusack (left), Kala Pierson, and Jeremy Peirce at their home in Glenside. Says writer Gaylen Moore, "Polyamorous people choose to . . . celebrate what they regard as the full depth and breadth of human love."
Deirdre Cusack (left), Kala Pierson, and Jeremy Peirce at their home in Glenside. Says writer Gaylen Moore, "Polyamorous people choose to . . . celebrate what they regard as the full depth and breadth of human love." (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 18, 2013

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 14 states and Washington D.C. An estimated six million children are being raised by gay or lesbian parents. More than twenty million are growing up with a single mother or father. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the traditional nuclear family - mom, dad, children - accounts for only 20 percent of households. This is the first in an occasional series of stories about the new modern family, one that may be living next door to you.

On Sept. 10, 2011, Deirdre Cusack, Jeremy Peirce, and Kala Pierson got married. To one another.

More than 60 friends and relatives attended their marriage ceremony at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. They smiled as the two brides, both in traditional white wedding gowns, and the groom, dapper in his tuxedo, passed Noah, their 18-month-old son, from one set of arms to another.

Today, two years later, the foursome appear to be an ordinary family living with their cats, Moonstone and Dandelion, in a single home in a Philadelphia suburb. Noah goes to a progressive day care center where he is learning Hebrew and Spanish. He loves pasta, albeit topped with brussels sprouts, and squeals with delight when he is rewarded with a chunk of licorice after success on the potty.

All three parents hold prestigious jobs - Jeremy, Noah's birth father, with degrees from Amherst and Princeton, is a biotech scientist; Kala writes classical music that has been performed in 28 countries. Deirdre, Noah's birth mother, is a data analyst. Deirdre's sister, Deborah, and Jeremy's mother, Marie, usually laden with gifts for Noah, visit often.

Still - When Kala describes her ordinary, extraordinary family, she shrugs insouciantly and says, "We make dinner for each other . . . we have sex with each other."

And that isn't all. Jeremy, Kala, and Deirdre all have "sweeties" (most of whom attended their wedding) outside their close-knit trio - two each at the moment - with one another's blessings.

All of their sweeties are also polyamorous (from the Greek and Latin "many loves"), a word defining a lifestyle that, if not increasing, is certainly more visible than ever before.

The online magazine Loving More claims more than 100,000 hits a month. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a singer, songwriter, and former first lady of France, has said, "Monogamy bores me. I am faithful . . . to myself." Each February since 2005, an annual national conference on polyamory, given by Loving More Nonprofit, is held right here in Philadelphia.

Since polyamorous "marriages" are not recognized legally and the lifestyle is not understood by much of society, most poly families walk in the shadows. Research is sparse, but studies by Terri Conley, professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, estimate that 4.5 percent of Americans - about 13 million people - may be engaged in some form of non-monogamy including polyamory, swinging, or open relationships.

Studies by Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist formerly with Georgia State University and author of The Polyamorists Next Door, found that those who are polyamorous are likely to be well-educated, often with graduate degrees, and strongly feminist in their beliefs. As with Kala, Deirdre, and Jeremy, the vision of their primary family is usually one of commitment, deep love, and the determination to raise their children into happy, productive adulthood.

The cornerstone of polyamory is "ethical non-monogamy," involvement in intimate, loving relationships with more than one person at a time. They are not "swingers," those who casually swap partners or engage in sex as recreation. They are not polygamists, men with several subservient wives. And they disdain those who take solemn wedding vows pledging fidelity, only to betray their spouses with secret philandering.

"In our relationships, the key is honesty," Jeremy says. "I am not monogamous, nor do I want to be, and I'm up front about it. Deirdre and Kala feel the same way."

Moreover, all of them make it as easy as possible, given the formidable logistics, for the others to visit with their "sweeties." After all, their lovers, too, must juggle their own polyamorous connections. "If I want to spend some time with Amanda in Colorado, I can't just hop on a plane next week," Jeremy says. "Maybe January or February is more realistic." His plans depend not only on the schedules of Amanda and her partner, but also on the availability of Deirdre and Kala to be there for each other, and mainly for Noah, who is the highest priority for all of them.

This trio is center stage in a phenomenon polyamorists call "compersion," deriving joy from seeing your partners' needs met whether by you or by someone else. Kala, speaking for herself, her husband, and her wife, says, "We have a strong vested interest in each other's happiness, and it gives us pleasure when each of us has as much of what we need as possible." Jeremy quips that when polyamorists meet for their initial dinner date, the first thing they do is grab a napkin and draw a diagram of their relationships.

In some ways, the polyamorous family seems poised between the mind-set of the past - "it takes a village" to raise a child - and the mystery of the future, with emerging family styles certain to surprise, shock, and alter our views of what is acceptable and perhaps even welcome.

Given a reality where half of all marriages end in divorce - more than 55 percent because of infidelity - where presidents, sports stars, and celebrities make merry with women who are not their wives, where an Off-Broadway show like Domesticated is based on the premise that men simply can't keep their pants zipped, might candid non-monogamy be a healthier, more pragmatic choice?

"It may be, but polyamory is not for everyone," says Kenneth Maguire, a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist for Philadelphia's Council for Relationships. "Not everyone can have the low levels of jealousy [required by polyamorists], and not everyone could feel comfortable with their partners' sharing intimate experiences with anyone but them."

Powerful messages from our culture - literature, music, movies - reinforce monogamous relationships, Maguire says. They propel us toward romantic love, reaching for that one soul mate who will satisfy us forever and meet all of our needs. "That's not possible," he says, "but that's our expectations."

"The point of poly," says Gaylen Moore, a philosopher/writer who is working on a novel with a poly theme, "is that it is possible to love more than one person at a time. Rather than letting this aspect of human nature lead to pain, insecurity, and emotional trauma, polyamorous people choose to . . . celebrate what they regard as the full depth and breadth of human love."

"I commit myself to you, not forsaking others, but keeping primary and sacred our love, our trust, our fire, and our beautiful life together. I commit to cherishing this union: loving you fiercely, freely, and with all my heart."

These were Kala's wedding vows to Deirdre and Jeremy. She says she honors them every day, along with her intense emotional attachment to her sweetie of five years with whom she texts daily.

Their relationship works, they say, because they communicate. It began with a negotiated agreement about how they would live and what each person's responsibilities would be, to one another, to themselves, to their sweeties.

"My agreement doesn't include anything like 'You won't sleep with someone else,' " Jeremy says. "It says, 'You won't take away your emotional commitment to me, your love for me. You won't lie to me about where you and this other person are emotionally.'

"Jealousy happens when someone is worried that his or her needs will be ignored for another person . . . and you will lose something. In our relationship, we are confident that our other sweeties are not competition."

The trio talk about everything from whether they'll take Noah to the zoo next Saturday to who will be available at home when Deirdre visits her sweetie next month. They are totally open with one another - no secrets. They have a written agreement about how they will engage in safer sex that will minimize if not eliminate risk of sexually transmitted disease. And they signed an agreement about Noah's custody - one-third each - should they break up, which they emphasize they cannot foresee doing.

"Noah is their highest priority," says Marie King, Jeremy's mother, who has known her son was polyamorous since his college days. "He had talked about it for years, so it wasn't surprise, surprise, surprise!" she says. "I've loved Jeremy all his life, so why would his lifestyle make a difference to me? I want him to do what makes him happy.

"When Noah was born - and I was there - I saw all of them bonding around this life-changing event. There are so many advantages for Noah. The more people who are in your life, the more your needs get met, because everyone brings something else to the table. Noah comes in the house and there is always someone there to hug him."

While there is nothing in psychoanalytic literature that predicts the futures for children in polyamorous families, Ira Brenner, clinical professor of psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University, suggests that "where love and understanding predominate over aggression and narcissism, we should expect that the children would develop healthy attachments and have respect for others."

Kala smiles as she talks about Mark, the son of her married lover in New York. When he was 5, and was asked to draw a picture of his family, he included Kala next to his mom and dad.

"Who's that?" his teacher asked. "My daddy loves her," Mark responded. When his teacher looked puzzled, he paused for a moment, ran a chubby finger over the figures in his drawings, and said, "Actually . . . everybody loves everybody."

gloriahoch@comcast.net .

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