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By Alex Stedman

At a glance, the Henrichs are a typical American family. Rami Henrich even describes her family as bland. Since meeting in 1974, Rami and her husband, Tom, raised two children, now ages 34 and 22. On a Monday afternoon, Rami, a psychotherapist, has several phones ringing in the family’s Evanston home and scrambles to sort out the situation. Tom, who is more relaxed, ignores the ringing. Together, they make a balanced couple. The only part missing from their relationship currently is Cindy, Rami’s partner since 1983, who is in Portland for work.

For many, monogamy is the simplest, most honest way to have a relationship. However, plural love exists, and it’s becoming more popular. Using the latest statistics, Newsweek estimated that there were 500,000 people in polyamorous relationships in the U.S.

in 2009.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom defines polyamory as “the desire for and conduct of responsible, non-monogamous, consensual, romantic relationships with more than one partner.” The group explains that the difference between polyamory and cheating is the honest communication in relationships. It’s also different from swinging, where a couple may engage in sexual relations with other people.

In Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” he boldly sings, “Love is cursed by monogamy.” Maybe it’s the commonly held belief that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce or, according to Judith Eldredge, a Chicago clinical sexologist, the fact that sex is more widely discussed than it used to be. Whatever the reason, polyamory isn’t so under wraps anymore.

It isn’t very hard to find the polyamorous community in Chicago. Rami estimates that there are about 800–900 people involved in the Chicago Polyamory Meetup Group. She said the local support group she has organized for the past three years has seen hundreds of people in

polyamorous relationships.

For some, polyamory might sound like a nightmare. The jealousy, social mores—polygamy is illegal in all 50 states—and time management issues could make such a relationship seem nearly impossible. Polyamorous lovers can’t even have their relationship statuses on Facebook include all of their partners. But it’s the chosen option for some, and if the Henrichs’ long-standing relationship is any indication, it’s one that holds validity.

“We never decided to be polyamorous because we never [had] heard that word until the last five years or so,” Rami said.

When Rami met Cindy in 1983, she and Tom were already married. However, the two women began a relationship, and the three of them have been a polyamorous family since Cindy moved in with them in 1992.

Their relationship is what is called a “V” in the polyamorous community. That is, Rami is in a marriage and a committed relationship. The three of them are not in a romantic relationship with each other, an arrangement that is called polyfidelic. Neither Tom nor Cindy have any external relationships. Despite getting together before the days when polyamory was even a word they knew, having a plural relationship didn’t seem odd to them.

Tom said he and Rami lived in many “spiritual communities” where there was plenty of love to go around. In a place where people were opening up to each other so much, plural relationships were not so uncommon.

However, throwing children into the mix made things a bit more complicated.

“Relationships are systems, and the more people you add into the system, the more complicated the dynamic becomes,” said Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, a Chicagoland counseling group. She explained that the challenge lies in deciding how much to share with

the children.

With Cindy living with the family, hiding the relationship isn’t an option. Rami said that her daughter never had many issues with the family dynamic. Cindy didn’t move in until Tom and Rami’s daughter was 14 years old, Rami said. Their son had a more difficult time with it.

“I remember when he was a kid, he had a friend over, and his friend said, ‘Who’s Cindy?’” Rami said. “And my son turned to me and said, ‘Who’s Cindy, Mom?’ She’s not his mother, she’s not his father, who is she [to him]?”

Rami said their son doesn’t have the same problem with his parents’ relationship now that he’s an adult, but the family dynamic took some time to nail down.

“The beginning was like, ‘oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’” Rami said. “We had no idea what we said yes to.”

Tom said when Cindy and Rami first got together, there was no model to look to. They had to figure it out on their own. In a way, they’re still figuring it out. Tom said that he never feels jealous when Cindy contributes to Rami’s and his children’s lives in a way that he sometimes can’t. Rami said that Cindy might still have some trouble.

Because both polygamy and same-sex marriage are illegal in Illinois, Cindy and Rami can’t get married. They don’t have children together, and Cindy has been in Oregon since December. Rami doesn’t describe Cindy’s feelings as jealousy, but rather of being on the outside.

Rami and Tom attribute their relationship’s success to their willingness to communicate and be aware of each other’s and their own feelings. Eldredge described how crucial this factor is in making a plural relationship work.

“Polyamorous relationships are very transparent,” she said. “Everybody else knows what’s going on, and everyone has signed on and agreed to all the different relationships.”

Eldredge said that not everyone turns to polyamory for healthy reasons. According to her, some use it as a way to solve problems in their monogamous relationships that have roots in other issues.

One of those issues could be that their relationships lack honesty, said Rivanna Jihan, a polyamorous woman who is a Chicago school teacher and mother of three daughters. She described some of the factors that come up when she introduces polyamory to a potential dating partner.

“They think, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, we get a threesome,’” she said. “Or they think, ‘That’s awesome because I’m cheating on my partner anyway.’”

Jihan said that she has normally been in a “V” relationship like the Henrich’s. Currently, she has one partner, a man, who has another partner not interested in having a relationship with Jihan. The problem comes in trying to find people who not only say they’re willing to try polyamory but are actually serious about it and understand the type of honest communication that goes into it, she said.

The polyamorous community suffers from a stigma of dishonesty, according to Jihan, even from others who practice non-monogamy. That stigma has made certain conversations difficult for Jihan. She said most people have been cheated on, so the idea of accepting a relationship with multiple partners is difficult.

Jealousy is another issue that comes up, though she’s not the jealous type.

“My partner’s happiness doesn’t make me upset,” she said. “That’s what jealousy is, right?”

However, many of her partners have become jealous, an emotion she said is often used as a scapegoat for other problems her partners simply don’t want to address, such as a lack of confidence or feeling she has done something to hurt them.

Ironically, being polyamorous can be lonely, Eldredge said. Many people in relationships look to their friends and family for advice. Jihan said that her friends often attribute her problems to the fact that she is polyamorous, something Eldredge said is not uncommon.

“[Not having a support system] can be very isolating to folks,” Eldredge explained. “They don’t have anybody [whom] they can talk to about [relationship trouble].”

She said the lack of a support system can make the problems in polyamory a “double whammy”: the lack of good models of their type of relationship and not receiving support from their own community. Jihan said she believes polyamory and monogamy share many of the same problems.

“[I] get to say things [to my friends] like, ‘Well, remember when you had the same problem last year with your boyfriend?’” Jihan said.

J Francis Nash, a 23-year-old directing major at Columbia who does not identify as male or female, claims never to have had trouble talking to friends about it but has run into other problems. Currently, Nash is in a relationship with two men and is pursuing a male-bodied, female-identified person. While polyfidelic, Nash’s current relationships are not, despite wishing they could be.

The concept of polyamory wasn’t acknowledged when Nash was growing up in South Dakota. Raised in a monogamous situaion, Nash always tried to repress the crushes that interfered with the idea of monogamy.

“I tried to be like, ‘OK, this is impossible. That’s just being selfish. You have to be monogamous,’” Nash said.

It wasn’t until sophomore year of college that exploration of polyamory began. Now, Nash has been with one partner for one year and four months, and the other for eight months. Unlike Tom and Jihan, Nash admits to feeling jealousy “all the time,” as the other partners in the relationship have external partners as well. However, Nash said jealousy has been socially ingrained in humans.

“For me, it’s about being able to externally process what a manifestation of societal norms is,” Nash said, noting that it comes down to intellectualizing feelings, which isn’t necessarily encouraged in this society.

Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute who studies romantic love, believes jealousy is rooted in our culture and biology. Garcia said there is evidence to support the theory that humans have a unique trait to form socio-sexual bonds in a process biologists call “pair bonding.” He said this evidence is found in human brains, hormones and genital anatomy.

Garcia made the distinction between social monogamy and sexual monogamy, pointing out that humans are primarily socially monogamous, meaning that emotional and romantic monogamy is more important to most people. There is less sexual monogamy, which can lead to some of the infidelity in committed, monogamous relationships. According to him, this is some of the allure of open relationships. However, he doesn’t think monogamy is going out of fashion anytime soon.

“We still recognize there’s something unique about [social monogamy],” Garcia said. “I think that throughout America, people are still craving that, still trying for that love relationship.”

Polyamory isn’t for everyone. Marter said that someone who needs the security of a monogamous relationship is not a good candidate for polyamory. Both Nash and Jihan said they have run into people whom it hasn’t worked out for.

Though many may have good and bad things to say about polyamory, there’s no denying it’s another facet of Chicago’s vast sexual culture.

“[Polyamory’s] all about communication,” Nash said. “It’s all about being open and honest with and [being] able to make sure everyone’s getting what they need and is happy

and healthy.”