Be mine, and hers, and his; Valentine's Day for the open and polyamorous
By Annalee Newitz
February 11, 2004

JUST FOR THE record, I don't celebrate Valentine's Day. Lucky for me, my lovely partner Charlie could care less about getting flowers and candy. She thinks V-Day is silly. Same goes for the boy I've been dating for the past few months. But my partner Jesse is another matter. He adores romantic, mushy stuff (one of the many reasons he's so lovable). If I don't take him out for a special dinner, he's going to be sad and then I'll be sad, which will make Charlie sad, and who knows who else will be sad before the weekend is over.

Welcome to the psychologically complex and wacky world of polyamory, where people have romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. While there are many kinds of people in open relationships swingers, polygamists (hello, Utah!), and orgy enthusiasts just to name a few polyamorists identify themselves as people who can love more than one person at once. We aren't poly just because we want sex with multiple partners, though admittedly that part is great. Ultimately, we're in it for the love.

With all the extra amour going on among the polyamorously inclined, you'd think Valentine's Day would be our holiday, kind of like Pride for the nonmonogamous. But for some weird reason Hallmark hasn't made any cards you can send to your husband's boyfriend; and there are no candy hearts that say "Be ours." And so on V-Day all of us who are in nonproprietary relationships with our sweeties have to improvise.

Heather, a self-described "poly newbie" in the East Bay, said this is her first year celebrating V-Day with more than one partner. "The way that my sweeties and I have solved holiday-type issues has been to celebrate either before or after," she said. "It's still in the spirit of the day, but the crowds aren't so bad, and you get unhurried quality time." Sarah, a more seasoned participant in the poly scene, said she and her "poly family" will be taking a group vacation and going out to dinner together on the 14th. All told, there will be nine people in the dinner party: this will include Sarah's sweeties, plus sweeties of her sweeties, and perhaps even sweeties of sweeties of sweeties.

People in successful open relationships have to be masters of scheduling and relationship negotiation. Like a parent with multiple children, the poly person divides her or his attention and adoration among several equally lovable and attention-desiring humans. Valentine's Day for the polyamorous is similar to Christmas for big families. One has to make sure to give each child a gift that is special and individualized and yet also feels equal to the gifts all the other children receive. Luckily for the polyamorous, though, all the myriad relationships they need to maintain are with adults. Unlike children, adults are occasionally coherent about communicating what they desire and generally will respond to disappointment without screaming, refusing to breathe, or running away from home. It may be hard to believe, but fully grown humans have the potential to behave in a mature fashion in romantic relationships.

Kathy Labriola, a nurse with a private counseling practice in Berkeley, caters to the poly community. She estimated that about half of her clients are interested in polyamory and explained that it's rare for poly people to take all their partners out with them at once. "It does happen," she conceded, "but most people don't want to share their partner with somebody else on Valentine's Day. You want to spend time alone with that partner and don't want the others there." Asya, a poly woman in San Francisco, said she would recommend having V-Day dates with different partners on different days. "It's probably better to do one dinner on the 13th and one on the 15th, using the 12th and 16th if one has even more sweeties," she suggested.

A successful poly relationship depends on maturity in delicate situations in which more than two people's tenderest feelings are on the line. That's why Labriola advocates that people in poly relationships should "do research" before V-Day. She isn't talking about watching a zillion Diamond Store ads or surfing She means asking your partners what they want to do on V-Day. "Try to find out from [your partners] or their other partners or friends what they actually want," she advised. "Is a gift important, or a nice card, or do they want you to spend time with them?"

RJ, a man with six partners who lives in the South Bay, said these kinds of little negotiations are the stuff of everyday life for him. He lives with one partner, while two others live nearby. The other three are long-distance. "Each relationship finds its level," he said. "And that goes for the time we spend together, as well as what we like to do. One of my partners likes to go to Cubs games with me; another doesn't. Each person has her own notion of how to have meaningful expressions of intimacy and affection." He explained that he schedules his time with his partners in ways that are as flexible as possible. "One partner recently had a patch of time when she was really busy," he recalled. "So we talked occasionally, she updated me on her life by phone, but we didn't see each other for a couple of months. And it was just fine."

As unusual as RJ's situation might sound to the vast majority of monogamous people, there are actually quite a number of things mono people could stand to learn from poly ones especially with everybody's favorite culturally sanctioned day of love right around the corner.

One of the dogmas about romance is that it has to be spontaneous or it isn't any fun. The trouble is, this myth often leads to the idea that your partner should be able to read your mind and figure out what you want from her or him on your designated day of shmoopy devotion. Thus, without any preplanning or discussion, said partner will magically come up with the perfect romantic evening for the two of you.

But poly people have no time for that kind of starry-eyed bullshit. We have schedules to keep, and we can't afford to p*ss off or disappoint one partner when we're going to be with our other partner the next night. I don't have the time to have a two-day fight with Jesse about what I didn't do for him on V-Day; I've got to go to an art opening with Charlie at some point. And I need at least a half hour in there somewhere to write a sexy e-mail to my other sweetie, who is traveling in Europe. So I simply asked Jesse what he wanted to do on V-Day. The fact that he told me in advance he wanted a special dinner didn't ruin the sweetness of our date. I made a reservation at Delfina, our favorite special-occasion restaurant, and bought us tickets to a show afterward. By the time the day rolls around, Jesse isn't going to be worried about whether my plans were made spontaneously or not instead, he'll be happy I listened to what he wanted and made it happen.

Mono people deal with these issues too. Busy couples often have jobs and kids to deal with. They can't devote days to melodrama without damaging their ability to get work done while also making sure the kids aren't eating sharp objects. For these couples, a little honesty and advance planning for romance is crucial.

In preparing for a date with your partner, whether it's V-Day or any day, everyone can benefit from Labriola's two most important rules of polyamory: "prioritize and compartmentalize." In other words, get your priorities straight and don't try to do too many things at once. For polyamorous people, this means figuring out if you want to have a "primary partner" whose needs come before those of your "secondaries." Or, if you have nonhierarchical relationships like I do, it means determining how to parcel out your time in ways that keep your sweeties content without driving yourself insane with sleep deprivation.

For the monogamous among you, prioritizing and compartmentalizing means realizing that sometimes your lover comes first. I don't care if you have a zillion lines of code to write before the big ship date next week. Your sweetie needs you to give her or him a hot bath with one of those nice-smelling bath fizzies. She or he needs you to take a long walk in Golden Gate Park and talk about something other than your kids' SAT scores. Sometimes you need to section off a chunk of time and devote yourself entirely to love.