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Beyond Ménage

You want to know how it will be,
Me and him, or you and me.
You both stand there, long hair flowing
Eyes alive, your minds still growing
Saying to me
"What can we do now that we both love you?"
I love you too.
I don't really see,
Why can't we go on as three?

“Triad” by David Crosby
as sung by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane
“Crown of Creation”, 1968

I've always loved that song, especially Grace Slick's rendition. Her husky contralto voice shimmers with sensuality as she invites her two lovers to consider the possibility of a three-way relationship. I recently read that the Byrds declined to record the song because they viewed its subject, a ménage à trois, to be too controversial. In fact, the topic of this song is beyond ménage, which to me carries the implications of a one-time encounter. This is a song about polyamory – a long-term, committed, sexual and emotional relationship involving more than two people.

Polyamory appealed to me before I ever knew the word. I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, the era of communes and free love. I read Stranger in a Strange Land in my teens and recognized that Valentine Michael Smith and his “water brothers” had multi-way sexual relationships without jealousy. I found the notion both intensely exciting and inherently reasonable.

Society and the romance mythos both suggest that one can find a single individual who satisfies all one's needs: intellectual, emotional, and physical – one's “soul mate”. This fantasy rarely proves true, many literary HEAs not withstanding. In fact, this ideal of exclusivity is responsible for the destruction of many relationships. One slip, one infidelity, is often enough to shatter a marriage. Suspicion, jealousy and possessiveness can do terrible damage even when there's no actual “other man” or “other woman”. A polyamorous perspective recognizes that life may not be as neat as traditional romance – that you can truly love more than one person at the same time, and that in fact each relationship may provide different, but equally valuable, benefits and pleasures.

Although I've been married for nearly 27 years, I don't think that I am naturally monogamous. At one point in my life I was simultaneously (and openly) involved in serious relationships with three different men. I can honestly say that I loved them all. In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I actively pursued the notion of finding another woman or couple with whom we could bond emotionally as well as sexually. (We were not successful. I have a feeling that polyamory is not something you can create deliberately, that it has to evolve.) Even now, I am in close communication with several former lovers, though at this point (perhaps luckily) I live half a world away from them.

Polyamory may be reasonable, but in Western culture at least, it is anything but easy. We're conditioned to think in terms of possession, to use the terms “my” and “mine” in discussing our partners. Even more problematic is that fact that we've been brought up to believe that a person's capacities for love and for sexual attraction are finite. If my husband feels desire for another woman, does that decrease his desire for me? If I take a lover, do I love my husband less? “Infidelity” may sometimes be triggered by dissatisfaction with one's current partner, but that's by no means always the case. A man can love both his wife and mistress, and be in agony because he feels forced to choose between them.

The ultimate source of jealousy is self-doubt. You're worried that your partner's interest in a third person is in fact a sign of your inadequacy. You're not sexy enough, smart enough, educated enough, whatever, to hold his or her interest. A successful polyamorous relationship requires all the people involved to trust not only each other, but themselves. Each one needs to feel worthy of love.

It's a tall order, and that's one reason, I think, that polyamorous relationships are relatively rare. (The other reason is societal disapproval.)

My new TEB release, Truce of Trust, which comes out tomorrow, deals with polyamory. Some women might think Leah's existence heavenly. She shares her home with two sexy men who both adore her. Ten years married to lusty, artistic Daniel, she still enjoys the discipline and release offered by Greg. But her lovers' jealousy and possessiveness have made Leah's life a hell. Truce of Trust is the story of three people struggling to overcome their insecurities in order to build a life together.

Here's an excerpt demonstrating the perils of polyamory.

Now the three of them sat out on the deck, finishing off the second bottle of wine and enjoying the residual warmth of early September. The air still smelled of summer, ripe raspberries and sun-browned grass. In the woods that edged of the yard, night birds called. A crescent moon rose over the tree tops. The strains of Bach’s “Musical Offering” filtered through the screen from inside, mingling with the bird song.

At least Daniel and Greg shared the same taste in music, thought Leah dreamily. She leaned back in her chair, finally relaxed. She glanced over at her husband. His eyes were closed. He was lost in the glorious melody. As though he felt her scrutiny, he turned to her, his handsome face luminous with joy.

Greg was watching her, a gentle half smile on his full lips, with no hint of his usual mockery. Leah smiled back, grateful that he was acting like such a gentleman.

I’m incredibly lucky, she thought. Most women search all their lives for one true lover. I have two. Perhaps I should feel guilty, knowing that they have agreed to our ménage in order to please me. But all I feel is gratitude.

Hope and relief washed through her. Maybe this would work after all. They just had to adapt, to get used to living together. To give up some of their individual selfishness for the sake of group harmony. She’d been selfish herself, expecting them to suppress their natural jealousies and insecurities just to please her. She needed to be more understanding. It had to be difficult for them, sharing her. Both men were so dear to her—she needed to work harder to show them.

Greg stirred in his chair. "It's late, and I've got to work tomorrow. Finish your wine, Leah, and come to bed."

Daniel looked up abruptly. "Wait a minute. Tonight's my night."

"No, it's not. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she's with me. In case you've forgotten, this is Friday."

"That's not fair. She was away last night at her seminar. So she and I should be together tonight as compensation."

"Sorry, old man." (Daniel was three years older than Greg, who liked to rub that in.) "You know that's not how the system works."

"Well, perhaps we need to consider changing the system. Somehow it always seems to work out that Leah is away from the house on my nights."

"Please..." Leah stood up, trying to intervene, but it was as though she wasn’t there.

"I'm sorry, but that's not my problem. Anyway, you shouldn't be such a bad sport. After all, you had her to yourself for years."

Daniel snorted in exaggerated disgust. "To myself? Hardly! I couldn't make love to her without wondering if she was fantasising about you. I couldn't look at her without seeing the marks that you had left."

"Marks she asked for, don't forget."

"That's what you claim, at least." Daniel was sexually adventurous, but he had no interest in BDSM. Leah knew that he was truly perplexed by the power dynamics between her and Greg.

"Believe me, I can make her beg to be beaten," Greg said smugly. "Isn't that true, little one?"

Leah blushed fiercely, as embarrassed as she was angry. Of course, Daniel knew this about her, but still she didn’t want to admit it out loud.

Both of them stared at her in mute accusation.

"Answer me, Leah." Greg put a hint of steel in his voice. Shivers of anticipation raced through her in response. Her deepest instinct was to obey him, but she resisted, silent and rebellious.

"Why do you put up with him?" Daniel donned his wounded boy expression, pouting under his moustache. "All he does is hurt you. He has no respect for you. I can give you all the love and tenderness that you need."

"You have no idea what she really needs," said Greg softly. His aim was true, as always. Daniel slumped in momentary defeat, then roused himself.

"If that's so, then why did she marry me?" he asked, playing his own trump card.

Leah had heard it all before, and suddenly, she couldn’t take anymore. She turned her back on them and headed for her room, ignoring their voices calling after her.

Her overnight bag was still packed from her business trip. She pulled out the dirty things and threw in some clean underwear, jeans and jerseys. She was debating whether to bring a dress when her door opened. Stubbornly, she continued her packing.

Greg towered behind her. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around to face him. "Where are you going, little one?"

"Away. Away from the two of you and your constant bickering."

"He started it, after all, with his claims about things being unfair." He bent to kiss her. She turned her head away, unwilling to be mastered, but he grasped her chin and pulled her mouth to his.

Leah didn’t want to surrender, but she couldn’t help it. She was dizzy with instantly kindled lust. He nipped at her lips, probed her with his tongue. He drank her in, consumed her. Between her thighs everything melted. The room began to smell funky, as though he already had her naked and open before him.

Without taking his mouth from her, he grabbed her nipple and twisted it, hard. Her body arched against his, the familiar pain quickly transformed to shimmering pleasure. He broke the kiss and looked down at her, shaking and helpless with desire.

"You're mine," he whispered. "You'll always be mine. You just keep him around because you're afraid to give yourself completely to me. Afraid of going too far. You don’t trust your own desires."

Leah had a vision of Daniel, his wine glass filled to the brim with vodka, filling page after page with angry, aching prose. There was a wrenching pain in her chest. They've grabbed my heart and they are rending it into bloody pieces, she thought.

This pain that had no sweet after-echoes. She tore herself from Greg's grasp.

"You're wrong." Her throat tightened into a sob. "I love him. It's different from the way we are, but it's just as real."

"If we were together, by ourselves, you'd forget him."

"NO!" His arrogance, sometimes so exciting, was nothing but frustrating to her now. "You don't understand. He's a part of me, just as you are."

He reached for her again. "I'd make you forget him, Leah. I'd beat him out of you." His voice was gentle, contrasting with the violence of his words. Underneath his bravado, she felt his need.

Of course, it all ends happily. Pick up a copy of Truce of Trust and sample the joys of a polyamorous romance.


Alex Draven said...

I sometimes wonder if the relative lack of good poly fic is to do with authors not being comfortable writing it, or to do with authors / editors / publishers being comfortable finding it a market. Personally I find it really hard to calibrate to 'normal' especially on the topic of poly, where I am unusual amongst my circle for having 'monogamy inclined' as part of my orientation

Claire said...

Lisabet, I loved reading about your experiences and opinion on menage and polyamorous relationships. I don't personally know anyone who 'openly' admits to having that kind of relationship, although I do know people who have experimented plenty.

Regardless of whether society dictates that a polyamorous relationship is not acceptable or 'normal', it doesn't stop women (and men) fantasizing about, and being curious about, having a taste of that kind of relationship.

Alex, you mention whether publishers know where to place these storylines but I can say having read lots of them, that they are well published both in eBook and print, by lots of publishers including some of the biggest, and written by NY Times best sellers too. There's a big market for it.

Randall Lang said...

As you demonstrate, a fully polyamorous relationship is a tenuous situation at best. Inevitably the small personal irritations and frictions will arise even without jealousy. To live in a stable two-person relationship and seek out other compatible couples for excitement and exploration is much less volatile.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Alex,

Do you know the work of Alessia Brio? She writes wonderful polyamory stories.

I do think that polyamory can work, but it takes mature, self-confident individuals. And it's not for everyone, clearly.

As I said in my post, I'm not sure that you can seek out such a relationship - the way you can seek out other people for swinging or more casual exploration. It sort of has to emerge. That's what happens in "Truce of Trust".

Thanks to all of your for commenting!


Sedonia Guillone said...

I've written a bunch of m/f/m menage but I've always worked the relationships in such a way that the jealousy part of it is minimized by the depth of love and ocmmitment between all three, including the two men who are sharing the woman.

I know that what you're talking about is very possible between people and there are those who achieve it. I think that's wonderful. I know fo rmyself, however, that I'll admit to being VERY possessive and so unable to open up to that situation. And yes, I believe it's due to what you're saying, Lisabet, about my own insecurities around being loveable. I think that my discomfort has certainly contributed to the fact that I've really petered out on writing menage, even though the ones I write are m/f/m/. Perhaps, someday I'll go back to it. People do change. :-)