Welcome to Polydelphia!
Tiffany Adams is running late.
I saw that coming even before she texted me at 4:19 p.m., 11 minutes ahead of our arranged meeting at a coffee shop on Sydenham Street: “Hey I’m running a little late but I’m on my way!” First, she’s driving in from Bensalem, and it’s almost rush hour. Second, in our limited interactions leading up to today, she’s given off a distinctly unhurried vibe — not a lack of punctuality, but a casualness about time itself, as though her presence in this dimension is strictly voluntary. Also, she has six boyfriends, give or take a few, which is already stretching the limits of temporality.
Tiffany and most of her boyfriends are polyamorous, meaning that they’re free to pursue multiple romantic relationships at once. A very abridged overview of their situation: Tiffany, 28, and her live-in partner, Phillip Weber, 30, have been together for five years, although they don’t consider their relationship more important on the basis of longevity. Phillip has two other girlfriends, Mae Esposito and Heather (who asked that her name be changed for this story). Tiffany is going out with Josh Kerner, 31, who is also dating Mae and Heather. Simultaneously, Tiffany is seeing Jon Dodge (increasingly serious), Adam (an “intimate friend”), and Mark (not even poly). All of her partners and her partners’ partners have complicated networks of their own. As if managing these relationships isn’t enough, Tiffany runs a 200-plus-member secret group called Polydelphia, an online community for Philly’s young poly cohort. When she’s not being polyamory-extraordinaire-about-town, she works a full-time job as a nurse. Oh, and she’s in a band. Hence her inevitable lateness.
She walks in 45 minutes behind schedule, wearing a pair of gray cowboy boots that, with her round, freckled face, give her the appearance of a modern Laura Ingalls Wilder. But here’s the thing about Tiffany: When she’s with you, she’s 100 percent with you, and you’ll forget that she was late in the first place. She makes direct eye contact. She barely looks at her phone. We talk in the coffee shop until the barista shuts off the lights in the pastry case, and she ends up missing part of band practice.
This is how she manages to juggle so many commitments: She doesn’t try to be everywhere at the same time. But it hasn’t always come this easy. As she sips her coffee, she explains that she’s a recovered serial monogamist who bounced from one intense relationship to the next without giving herself room to breathe. She once broke up with a girlfriend of three years and started what would become an almost year-long relationship with someone else in the span of several hours. Being polyamorous, she says, without a hint of irony, has helped her figure out how to get her needs met without losing herself in the process.
In theory, polyamory sounds like a dream come true for a chronically indecisive generation: a plastic arrangement that promises companionship, novelty and opportunities for sex galore, unencumbered by jealousy. A growing number of people are already revising the traditional relationship script, and keeping one’s options open — for fear of seeming complacent — feels like a new cultural mandate. When Tiffany met her longest-term partner, Phillip, in 2010, she told him right away that she wanted an open relationship. Phillip agreed. With just a few exceptions, they’ve been happily polyamorous ever since.
AS THE STORY goes — at least, the one we’ve been told by the likes of Leave It to Beaver — Americans were once happily monogamous, both protected and isolated by the social contract of the nuclear family. Then came the sexual revolution of the ’60s, and that contract was broken, making navel-gazing hedonists of us all. Divorce rates shot up over the next two decades, and now we’re slowly starting to pick up the pieces. This reconciliation looks like a lot of different things: divorced coparenting, having kids without getting married, and long-term cohabitation, to name just a few nascent trends in coupledom.
But there’s still much gnashing of teeth over the halcyon days of monogamy, despite the vast body of research indicating that we’ve never been as faithful as we’d like to believe. One study found that up to 70 percent of married men and women have cheated on their partners.
It’s one thing to tacitly accept that till-death-do-us-part monogamy may not be a realistic goal; it’s another to eschew exclusivity altogether. But since the beginning of human history, there have always been people like Tiffany. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, multi-partner relationships thrived on the streets of Haight-Ashbury and in suburban living rooms alike, unbeknownst to most of the world. The word “polyamory” was supposedly minted in the 1990s by a Wiccan priestess named Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, effectively guaranteeing it would remain an obscure term until someone not named Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart started using it.
But lately, the concept of fluidity in relationships has been inching its way into the zeitgeist — through TV shows like Married & Dating, through articles in the Atlantic and Rolling Stone, through the endorsements of celebrities like Maria Bello and Tilda Swinton. This increased visibility is partly a function of the Internet and social media, where everything that was once considered niche now lives at our fingertips. But polyamory also seems to be gaining currency as we search for a relationship model that can withstand the complexity of modern life. The numbers prove there’s growing interest: As many as 12 million Americans practice some form of consensual non-monogamy today. There are poly meet-up groups in major cities on both coasts, including the notoriously in-the-box Philadelphia — which, incidentally, has hosted an annual polyamory conference since 1995. And now, thanks in part to Tiffany’s organizing efforts, polyamory is having something of a moment among Philly’s under-40 set.
Tiffany and Phillip first came up with the idea for Polydelphia about a year and a half ago, after attending a series of unsatisfying meet-ups. Tiffany doesn’t mince words in explaining what the problem was: “We were the youngest people in the room by, like, 30 years. And the most attractive. So we were this novelty, and everyone just wanted to talk to us.” Phillip gets more specific: “It was these 50-year-old women who were like, ‘My husband got me into polyamory, and now I have a really fulfilling romantic life and he has one long-distance partner and I can’t get him out of the house.’” Tiffany and Phillip were looking for an active, engaged community, not a self-help circle. So at a potluck dinner with about 20 poly friends, they floated the idea of starting a group for the younger poly crowd — a forum in which discussion topics wouldn’t include end-of-life arrangements or shriveling libidos. Instead they would focus on issues relevant to them: how to manage packed Google calendars, how to navigate sticky situations at work, how to introduce significant others to their families. And, you know, have fun. By January 2014, an invite-only Facebook group had been created, and Polydelphia was born.
That Tiffany can find time to oversee a social club defies reason. A synopsis of her typical day: She gets up around 6:15 (possibly earlier if she’s spent the night at Josh’s place in Kensington or elsewhere) to commute to her job in Langhorne. From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., she works as an R.N. at a residential facility, where she helps take care of 36 adult patients with varying degrees of neediness. From there, she usually meets up with someone in her amoeboid circle of partners, or she’ll drive to Mayfair for band practice. And then she’ll either go home to Bensalem or she won’t, depending on what she and her partners have agreed on that night. And then it all begins again the next day. Last January, there were only two days in Tiffany’s Google calendar that didn’t include a post-work date or commitment.
To preach the gospel of anything-goes while leading an exhaustively scheduled life might seem contradictory, but that’s the biggest surprise — or perhaps the biggest letdown — of polyamory: What appears to be romantic and sexual spontaneity is often a minutely choreographed balancing act, revised as needed to ensure that no one feels forgotten. Tiffany is at home in this particular world, and she says she’s never felt less constrained. Her goal, she says, is to experience real emotional freedom. She gets to be selfish at times, to focus on meeting her own needs instead of obsessing over someone else’s. She gets to date both men and women whenever she wants. She gets to use her unsurpassed gift for making new friends (“I used to have resting bitch face,” she confesses, though you’d never know it), and she can let those friendships seek their own level without imposing limits. She doesn’t do “me” time. Instead, she recharges by surrounding herself with people.
But it’s not just about being social; Tiffany says poly has given her an opportunity to “bash away at her insecurities.” “Initially it was hard for me to open up about my feelings when I was feeling jealousy or discomfort with a new situation,” she says. “Now, vulnerability is my baseline.”
Tiffany’s parents split when she was 14. At 16, she ran away from her mother’s house in Mayfair, scraping by with a job at Pizza Hut while she camped out at her dad’s place in Tacony. She basically stopped going to classes at Masterman, but through a combination of the school’s supportive guidance department and her own smarts, she managed to earn so-so grades. Then she got Lyme disease, and then she got mono from kissing a guy named Hans at Shampoo in Spring Garden. On that unceremonious note, her hellion phase reached its end. Tiffany got her act together senior year, went to Holy Family, earned a nursing degree, and landed her job in Langhorne.
Meanwhile, she was pretty much always in a relationship, and her sense of self was wearing thin. Before she even heard the word “polyamory,” she’d decided she never wanted to be in a monogamous relationship again. Then she discovered The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy — a book that summarizes itself as “a practical guide to practicing polyamory and open relationships in ways that are ethically and emotionally sustainable” and reads sort of like a 288-page letter from your stoned aunt, but more insightful.
IT’S 11:30 ON a Thursday night in February, and Tiffany and her band, Cicada Jade, are wrapping up their set at Kung Fu Necktie with an acoustic cover of “Many Men” by 50 Cent. Josh is here, sandwiched with three or four other people on a sofa. The song ends, and within a few minutes, he’s gone. Tiffany tells me later that he came to give her an organic chocolate bar. “It’s for my PMS,” she explains, offering me a piece.
I can’t help but feel a stab of envy. What would it be like to have two or three or even four people who might be available to deliver an organic chocolate bar in times of need? What potentially could be an unreasonable request of one person — a last-minute ride to the airport, a late-night pep talk — is light work for a vast network of romantic partners — a network that becomes, in effect, a family. As Easton and Hardy write in The Ethical Slut, “When you are part of such a circle, new lovers of any member are potential friends and family members of your own, so the focus changes from competition and exclusivity to a sense of inclusion and welcome, often very warm indeed.”
It sounds like a line from an Oneida commune brochure, but if you spend enough time with a poly group (or polyglot, or polycule, or whatever clever neologism they’ve coined to describe their setup), you’ll see that somehow, miraculously, it can work. And suddenly the idea of trying to accomplish anything as a mere twosome will seem boneheaded. Here’s a recent Facebook post from Polydelphia member Jessie Orsini, who lives in Collingswood with her boyfriend, Wesley Fenza; his wife of four years, Gina; and his other girlfriend, Amber: “Today Wes and Gina went and got a new couch at IKEA while Amber and I worked together to move the old, dog-eaten loveseat and couch outside. Amber and I got the job done quickly and relatively painlessly. Then Wes and Gina brought the couch home, and all the GIRLS put the couch together while Wes returned the U-Haul. We made a great team and we love our awesome new couch AND EACH OTHER! And now we’re watching Parks and Rec together.” Not quite Rockwellian domesticity, but even Rockwell probably wouldn’t have objected to polyamory if it meant he never had to face a Karlstad sofa alone.
In many respects, polyamorous relationships can be disappointingly conventional. When there’s drama, it’s often for the usual reasons: One person is spending too much time at work, someone despises someone else’s mother, another person isn’t properly thrilled by Battlestar Galactica. In polyamory, the play is the same, but there are more characters to write into the script — different personalities, different needs, different hang-ups. Balancing all of that requires virtually nonstop negotiation and compromise.
That hasn’t been too onerous for Phillip and Tiffany. Tiffany’s biggest rule is that everyone always use condoms, to which no one has ever objected. Phillip is laid-back in that geeky IT-guy way; he approaches problems with the impassivity of a moderator deleting trolls on a comment thread. (“I don’t really do emotions,” he tells me in his slight Southern drawl. “Not the negative ones, at least.”) Josh, who was once married, is more intense. Lately he’s been making a conscious effort to “go really deep with just a few people,” while Tiffany wants to remain open to meeting new partners all the time. “Josh has had more issues with my new partners coming around and feeling like he’s going to lose valuable time and attention,” Tiffany says. “So he tells me when he feels that way, and I’m getting better at responding with love, not frustration.”
In small doses, jealousy is practically sanctioned in monogamous relationships as a litmus test for passion, but the potential for psychic trauma in polyamory far exceeds what most people would be willing to endure. The Ethical Slut offers all sorts of advice for coping with bad feelings (“It can be very satisfying to get a cheap plastic tennis racket and beat up your couch”), but exposure therapy is the only lasting remedy. Tiffany, who says she’s almost immune to jealousy now, is living proof that this approach can work.
It was hard at first. Two years ago, when Phillip first started seeing Heather, Tiffany struggled to accept their growing intimacy. “It was weird to hear him talk about her to me and to know that he was talking about me to her,” she says. “When you don’t know someone but you hear a lot about them, you start to get these ridiculous ideas about who they are.” Tiffany felt strange being on the outskirts of Phillip and Heather’s relationship — privy to everything that went on between them, but unable to share Phillip’s happiness. Meanwhile, Phillip’s nerves were fraying under the strain of being the go-between. “There was a point when I realized I had to drag them together,” he says, “because my ability to communicate for them to each other was obviously falling apart.” His solution? They had to have a relationship of their own.
By all accounts, the first meeting wasn’t easy. The plan went like this: Tiffany would be out on a dinner date with someone at the Farmers’ Cabinet in Midtown Village. Near the end of their meal, Phillip and Heather would come in for a drink. The four of them would chat, share a beer, and go their separate ways. What actually happened was that Phillip and Heather showed up hungrier than they’d expected and decided to order dinner. Tiffany, not wanting to be rude, sat through their whole meal and had a few more drinks than she probably intended. It was awkward. But in the aftermath, she felt relieved. Whatever Tiffany had imagined, Heather was the opposite: normal in the extreme, with mousy hair and soft, benign features. “Is it mean to say that I was … disappointed?” Tiffany ventures. “Not like, ‘Wow, she sucks,’ but like, ‘Wow, she’s just a regular person.’”
Since then, Tiffany has come to see Heather as a cousin, more and less intimate than a friend. “In a familial sense, I would do anything for her,” she explains. “But we don’t have a ton in common, and we don’t hang out without our partners.”
Which raises the question — is this implicit distancing symptomatic of underlying jealousy? Possibly, but in Tiffany and Heather’s case, the word “jealousy” both overstates and understates their relationship, which now encompasses two shared partners (Phillip and Josh) and two years of being fixtures in each other’s lives. They haven’t completely transcended jealousy, but they’ve learned to cope with the ambiguity of their situation.
EVEN WHEN THINGS are going well in polydom, there’s another source of angst to consider: other people’s judgment. Not long after Tiffany and Heather met for the first time, Phillip took them both on a road trip to South Carolina to meet his parents as a polyamorous unit. The three of them tell me the story over dinner one night at Tiffany and Phillip’s house.
After the 11-hour drive — broken up by a stop to meet Heather’s parents, which, everyone agrees, went swimmingly — they arrived at the two-bedroom cabin they had rented for the week. When I ask how they handled the sleeping arrangements that first night, Tiffany doesn’t bat an eyelash.
“We pushed two mattresses together. We made Phillip sleep in the crack. But then Heather went downstairs. … ”
Heather nods gravely. “I couldn’t sleep. When I’m in a new space, I don’t sleep well.”
Tiffany concurs: “Heather is a really bad sleeper.”
“Tiff is tournament-quality. Pro,” says Phillip.
Phillip, apparently, had an excellent week. “I would sleep overnight with somebody, and then get up in the morning and go cuddle with someone else, because why not?”
Other than the occasional swapping of bedfellows, the trip was pretty much your standard woodsy retreat — lots of cooking, hanging out and general relaxation. And the introduction to Phillip’s family went as well as they could have hoped. His parents had been skeptical when Phillip first told them that he was dating two people simultaneously, with the full consent of everyone involved. But when they saw how, for lack of a better word, normal it all looked — no catfighting, no evidence of sexual hijinks — they relaxed considerably.
Not everyone reacts with equanimity. Coming out to family, friends and coworkers is, at best, an emotionally fraught ordeal, even when the outcome is positive; at worst, it can have major professional and personal consequences. But for Tiffany and many of her fellow Polydelphians, living out in the open is a matter of principle — not only because it separates them from older, invisible generations of practicing polyamorists, but because it’s a natural expression of their unflinchingly honest approach to all relationships. Tiffany’s parents know she’s polyamorous — her dad is basically fine with it, her mom a bit less so — and she’s told a few of her co-workers, too. “I don’t worry too much about what people at work think,” she says. “I have a certain set of skills that I’m needed for, and that’s pretty much all they care about.” There are a few people she hasn’t told, either because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself or because she knows that the person would respond negatively, but she isn’t especially concerned about what would happen if word got out. Phillip came out to his director during an informal midyear review at his last job as a software tester in the suburbs. He says he wasn’t treated any differently at the office after that, but he’s since moved on to more poly-friendly pastures: a company run by a girlfriend’s husband. Josh, who works for a company that builds store displays, is probably the least secretive of anybody in the group.
But Heather has been wrestling with the potential ramifications of coming out to her supervisors. She’s an organizer for a religiously affiliated local nonprofit, and she’s worried how the parents of the kids she supervises would react. Sooner or later, though, she wants to address it. “I’m really tired of having to conceal,” she says.
THE FIRST THING I notice when I walk into Tiffany and Phillip’s house is the five-gallon bucket of expeller-pressed coconut oil sitting by the front door. Innocently, I ask what they use all that coconut oil for. I get the answer I was expecting, and then Tiffany puts me to work chopping potatoes for dinner. Heather is already here, making a kale salad; Josh arrives later, with ingredients for dessert.
Over Tiffany’s meatloaf, I bring up the future. Apparently it’s a touchy subject. Josh leads the way.
“We don’t want to get into that right now.” He pauses, then continues: “Part of my interest in polyamory is in a social and economic construction, and you don’t get any of the social or economic benefits if you don’t leverage the group,” he says. “So that’s sort of a thing for me. But everybody’s gotta sacrifice something if we’re going to do that, and I don’t think anybody’s ready to do that right now.”
Then there’s silence, broken only by the scraping of forks and knives. What Josh has proposed — a commingling of finances, resources and, someday, maybe, childcare — represents the next frontier for them, the translation of their ethos into the terrifying and unsexy business of mortgages and joint checking accounts. Here, it seems, they’re stumped. The kale salad makes another round.
Everyone then proceeds to list all the reasons why they can’t agree on a five-year plan: Tiffany and Phillip are still digging themselves out of debt from the house. Heather hates Bensalem, but she can’t picture herself living somewhere without a yard. Tiffany never wants to leave Bensalem. Josh just finished building a house in Kensington. Heather and Phillip might want to have kids, but Tiffany doesn’t. Nobody has an answer, except for Tiffany, who’s intent on keeping things exactly the way they are.
“I’m not trying to do anything,” she says. “I just want to stay right here.”
From the May 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.