By Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell
Non-monogamy is a loaded topic, especially within most Christian contexts. This seems to be due to church teachings that monogamy is the only righteous, sanctified option for sexual activity. It used to be one man and one woman; now, it is one person for one person.
But there is a problem with all this certainty. It is not grounded in reality. Most clergy are well aware that there are many people who are not monogamous in their congregations, as well as in the wider world. Some of them, of course, slip, and are filled with regret, remorse, and even shame. Others, however, choose to live non-monogamously.
It is time we got real about this. It is time to talk, openly and honestly, and to listen to each other (not just to those who advocate for, even live in, monogamy).
I remember the first time I encountered intentional non-monogamy. It was 1974, I was newly married. Judy and I were living in my hometown, a very conservative community 40 miles northwest of Detroit.
Three 20-something men moved in next door. They were unlike other young men in my experience. I never saw them kiss, but I did see them hug, fairly often, and their hugs went on longer than I was used to—actually there was not much male-to-male hugging of any length in those days!
One day, two of them were sitting outside when I came home and they called out to me. One of them said, “We’re sort of newlyweds, too.” I was taken aback, but I swallowed and said some sort of congratulations, as I admitted not ever knowing men who were married. And then I asked, assuming the two of them were the happy couple, how their friend felt about this. They laughed and said all three of them were married to each other. One said, “We sleep together and everything, just like you and your wife.” I have no memory of what I said, except I know I was in some sort of shock.
Sadly, within two months they had been asked to leave, because some violence arose when one or more of them became very angry. I can admit now to being fascinated—I was well in the closet in those days (even though I grabbed looks at the centerfolds in Playgirl whenever I could).
About ten years later, when I was in seminary in Massachusetts and well out of the closet, I met three young neighbor men who identified themselves as lovers. They also did not last too long as a unit/family—they seemed like nice guys, and I remember wondering what it would be like to be sexual with some combination of them.
I had one other opportunity to experience non-monogamy, what might be called polyamory. After I came out in seminary, my first steady male lover was a visiting scholar who taught classics at a prestigious small Midwestern college. We became what felt to me like boyfriends, although we had not yet attached a label to “us.”
After a couple of months of seeing each other regularly, Jim (not his real name) told me his lover was coming for a visit. I had not known he had a lover until then—the way he had spoken of this man helped me to think of him as a roommate (how naïve I was). And they wanted me to join them not only for dinner but also for sex. He told me that this was their way: Jim traveled a lot and had lovers in various places and when Roger (not his real name) visited, they would have a three-way. Several years later, I met another friend of Jim who confirmed that he had lovers in many places and this was their regular practice.
I was hurt by what felt like Jim’s betrayal and insensitivity. So, I declined the request, and I also told Jim I did not want to stay connected with him. I think I was right in my reaction—at least to what felt like Jim’s inability to be honest with me up front.
But there is more: I had seen pictures of Roger and his appearance really turned me off. So that was another reason I said, “No thanks.” Yes, I was hurt by Jim keeping secrets from me, but, had Roger been a hot guy, would I have decided to give it a try? I cannot be certain. I was sexually adventurous in those days—the delayed adolescence often experienced by gay men who lived as straight in high school—and I well could have said yes.
I have known others who live in various non-monogamous configurations. Several very dear friends, including professional colleagues—people I know to be honorable, loving, and faithful—have been or are in long-term non-monogamous relationships/marriages.
This is real. I accept the legitimacy of their choices, even as I affirm and cherish my own monogamous marriage of 18+ years with Jonathan. And I can say that I have learned from these friends about honesty and relational integrity.
I am tired of being quiet about all this, of colluding, even passively, in the shaming of good people, not to mention wanting to be true to God who creates us for love in all sorts of ways, conditions, and practices.
I was first introduced to the concept of non-monogamy when I was in my early twenties. I met a cute guy while out dancing who mentioned his girlfriend early in the conversation. Although I was trying to be respectful that he was in a relationship, the sexual tension built between us as the night went on and we exchanged numbers before parting ways. Not long after, I received a text from him that said something along the lines of, “I’m not necessarily off-limits. Want to get together and talk?”
This experience led me to be in the first triad of my life. With no real understanding of what I was doing, I found myself in a relationship with two individual people, as well as in a relationship with their relationship. Although there were three of us involved in the relationship, we practiced something I now understand is called “poly fidelity”: the relationship was closed to the three of us. I did not date outside of the two of them, and they did likewise.
The various relationships dissolved for a number of reasons, but that experience started me down the path to understanding and accepting myself as a non-monogamous person. But it was a complicated and often-murky path forward; I was working without a framework and didn’t know who I could talk to that might have some supportive, helpful advice. I had never met anyone that was non-monogamous before, never mind someone who was successfully non-monogamous. Now, in a successful 5-year non-monogamous relationship, I feel like I have a much better foundation to work from, but part of that has been the explosion of resources and conversations around non-monogamy in the past 8-10 years.
We need to be a part of these conversations. The reality is, as people of faith, it is necessary and important that we have frank, open dialogue about both monogamy and non-monogamy. Both are perfectly valid premises from which to base our relationships; one is not better than another. So often, those who practice non-monogamy treat it as though it is an enlightened state that anyone can reach if they would free themselves from petty emotions like jealousy (a stance with which I wholly disagree). Others who practice monogamy are sometimes made to feel as though it is an outdated concept and fight against that, delegitimizing non-monogamy in the pursuit of defending monogamy. In reality, both are perfectly viable approaches to relationship. Yet without dialogue around non-monogamy, it remains a secret part of who we are, and those secrets are part of what keep us from authenticity and a sense of belonging. Your relationship is not my relationship, and that’s ok. There is room at the table for all of us.
Interested in participating in the discussion? Please join us Friday, March 18th at 2 PM EST for an ongoing conversation on Sex and Spirit, led by Metropolitan Community Church. This month, Malachi will be facilitating the conversation on non-monogamy. All are welcome and encouraged to attend, regardless of religious or denomination affiliation.
Click here* to join the call!
(*Please note: this is a teleconference on AdobeConnect that allows for webcam feed as well as audio. You do have the option to opt out of the webcam feature; however, please be aware that others will not. If you have a headset, that allows for minimal feedback and echo during conversation.)