In the world of polyamory, relationships are concentric, overlapping, fluid and unbound by numbers. The ancient practice is getting a modern boost from the Internet.
Cherie Ve Ard is worried. As she waits for her burrito at an Orlando Tijuana Flats, she wonders if she’s giving her three boyfriends enough attention.
There’s Franklin Veaux, 40, her long-distance love from Atlanta, who has surprised her with a visit. He’s holding her left hand and kissing her neck.
Her longtime live-in boyfriend, Fritz Neumann, 40, cradles her right hand on his knee.
And she gazes googly-eyed across the table at her newest love, Chris Dunphy, 34, of California. They met in a Toyota Prius chat room in June, and their conversation was so intense he drove cross-country to her doorstep one day ago.
Ve Ard, 33, knows people may think she’s a swinger. But these aren’t casual sexual relationships, she says. They are a natural outcome of her belief that there’s more than one true love out there for her at any given time.
"I feel that there is no one person out there who can meet all who I am," says Ve Ard.
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History is replete with people who, like Ve Ard, participated in relationships with more than one love, each lover aware of the others. Financier Warren Buffett, beatnik Jack Kerouac and William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, come to mind.
Now the practice has a name: polyamory. Researchers believe the phenomenon is growing, and certainly it has become more visible, thanks largely to the Internet.
The word polyamory only last year joined the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. But already it is seeping into the popular culture; it was mentioned recently on the NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
The term is used to define an entire range of relationships. Some polyamorists are married people with multiple love interests, and others practice informal group "marriage." Some have group sex, and others have a series of one-on-one relationships.
Polyamorists around the country gather in support groups formed on the Internet; Meetup.com has about 6,000 polyamorous members nationally. A half-dozen groups meet in Florida, including Gator Poly at the University of Florida and PolyTampa in the Tampa Bay area (178 members).
Heather Wilson, 32, the mother of a 12-year-old girl, organizes local polyamory meetings on Meetup.com. In December, participants discussed how to handle polyamorous relationships during the holidays.
"Most people don’t realize there’s a phrase that’s been coined to cover the relationship style," says Wilson, who once was married and dating another man. She is now divorced.
Polyamorists also attend conventions with seminars called Jealousy Management and Polyamory 101. A dating site, Polymatchmaker.com, claims 6,500 members, and a book on the subject, The Ethical Slut, sold 60,000 copies. There are even books that polyamorists give their children, including one called Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies.
"The majority of polyamorists are white middle- and upper-class professionals," says Elisabeth Sheff, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. She’s one of the few academics who has studied polyamory, interviewing hundreds for her research.
"Many work in the computer industry, so there is a strong online community. They tend to gravitate toward urban areas," she said, "much like gays and lesbians."
The woman with no fewer than four men at her beck and call has long, curly red hair and steel blue eyes and has been on a lemonade diet to lose weight.
Ve Ard calls herself "Smoocherie" online and organizes a Central Florida polyamory retreat. She runs a software business out of her home near the beach in Melbourne, rails about the "design concept and flimsy hardware" of her smartphone and uses phrases like "child-free by choice" and "intentionally unmarried."
Her parents have been married 36 years, but she says she always felt she was wired differently. When she was in high school in Texas, she wondered why she couldn’t have relationships with both her boyfriend and his friend.
At 19, she met her future husband and they began a relationship with another couple, practicing polyamory even before she knew the word existed.
Later, she and her husband got into a serious relationship with a different couple. Neumann, a technology project manager at a hospital and Ve Ard’s longtime live-in boyfriend, was the other man in this "quad."
Ve Ard met Neumann on a couples message board, and they arranged to meet and bring along their spouses. Their first date was like any other, times two: The couples met at an Italian restaurant. Afterward, they went for a walk on the beach and talked all night as they watched sea turtles lay their clutches in the sand.
"It’s just like in the monogamous world," Neumann recalled. "Some people jump in the sack, but that just wasn’t us. We wanted to talk and get to know one another. We found a lot of synergy between the four of us."
Eventually they bought a house near the beach together. Then both couples divorced to give each member of the quad equal standing.
But the quad did not last. Within a year, the four divided into two sets of two, but not the sets they started in. Ve Ard’s ex-husband married Neumann’s ex-wife. And Ve Ard and Neumann moved into a new home together.
Ve Ard said the experience did not sour her on polyamory.
"However, it did lead me to question the concept of marriage and making ’till death do us part’ sorts of commitments."