Chicago magazine

Married With Benefits


I knew Kate wouldn’t be there. She was gone for the weekend, attending an out-of-state polyamory conference with her boyfriend. David and Kate live in a single-family home they renovated in Pilsen. As David showed me around, he mentioned that the small carriage house out back was one of the features that had attracted them to the property. He told me Kate liked to joke that eventually they could have one of their other partners move in. It was the perfect setup: a shared space, shared lives, a feeling of community and connection. Separate but close.

I’d had coffee with Kate a few weeks before, and she’d expressed a similar sentiment. “My parents are married, they stayed married, but they hated each other,” she’d told me. “They didn’t want to spend time with us. I didn’t get along with my brother and sister. So I had a family, but I felt so alone. I always envied the families where they had cousins and aunts and uncles over all the time, a whole tribe of people.” Polyamory — the practice of having multiple sexual partners where all involved are willing participants—seemed to offer what she’d long felt was missing from traditional family structures.

David found a vase for the flowers and told me Kate would appreciate them. “She loves that sort of thing,” he said. He made us margaritas, and we talked for a while, though not too loudly because David and Kate’s 18-month-old son was asleep in the nursery. We’d planned it this way, that I’d come over in the evening, after bedtime. We’d order from his favorite Mexican place, listen to music, maybe watch a movie.

David and I had met several times for coffee and once for lunch. Our conversations had been warm and friendly. Now, though, I was nervous and a little nauseous. The house felt like another woman’s home. True, she knew I was there, but that didn’t assuage my sense of discombobulation. What was I doing? I had my own home with my own family. I had my husband of 15 years, and there was also the man I’d been dating for several months since my husband and I had opened our marriage. I was in love with that other man, but he was out on a date with another woman he’d been seeing. My husband was also dating other women. I imagined the man I’d been seeing on a date with someone else, holding hands at a party, kissing. I imagined my husband in our bed texting the woman he’d been dating long-distance. I tried to focus on David and enjoy my drink, but I kept thinking of these other men in my life, wondering what they were doing. I felt insecure, jealous, panicky.

A year or so earlier, I hadn’t really known about consensual. Also, . I didn’t think it was morally wrong. I just didn’t understand the motivation or the mechanics. Wasn’t maintaining a romantic relationship with one person hard enough? It seemed like the sort of thing that might work on a feminist commune, or in Portland, or in a Stanley Kubrick film, not in the Midwest. This is all to say that I’d always associated open marriages with hippies and key parties and sex dungeons and Champagne-steeped orgies.

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