When Chris Dutton moved to Denver from Arizona at the age of 30 to escape the monotony of monogamy, he didn’t expect to find himself embroiled in the perils of polyamory. “I was a serial monogamist, I had been with one woman at a time since I was 17,” he says. “I wanted to date casually, hook up with a lot of women. I thought you were either committed or not committed — I didn’t even consider a third possibility, that you could be committed to someone who was also committed to someone else.”

What Chris didn't know at the time, is that it happens often. One study published in the "Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy" estimates nearly 21 percent of adults have participated in a non-monogamous, yet committed relationship.

And that number is growing.

“Before I knew Nikki was polyamorous, what I liked most was there was no pressure. It wasn’t until several weeks in to it that she came out of the closet with the reason,” says Chris.

Their relationship had all the hallmarks of an epic romance. “The first time I realized I liked her was over coffee — we were discussing our ‘monsters’ — our dark sides, the things that keep us down. She started going off on the things that were right about life — I loved that she pivoted to this, and she mentioned blowing bubbles so I suggested we buy bubbles and have an afternoon of it. We made our way to the top of a parking garage to blow bubbles and make memories.”

That night, when the spontaneous date was over and Chris walked Nikki home, he went in for the kiss and was denied. “I didn’t think much of it, I just thought we weren’t there, yet,” he says casually. “I just turned around and started walking back to my place.”

A block from his apartment, he heard someone running towards him. It was Nikki. She changed her mind, ran after him, grabbed him and gave him the kiss. “It was the most romantic afternoon I had ever had,” he says. Little did he know, their end-games were entirely different. 

“A few days later she explained to me that she was polyamorous. She said she had a ‘primary’ that she was committed to but they were allowed to have ‘satellite’ relationships with other people that could be equally as committed.”

The concept shocked Dutton. Boundaries in polyamorous relationship are remarkably varied. They range from permitted singular hook-ups to full-fledged romance with four or five people at a time. While it seems like a free for all, in actuality, there are a lot of rules that govern the health of these relationships — the most important one, according to polyamorists, is complete honesty and continuous communication with everyone involved. 

“She told me that if her ‘primary’ liked me as a friend then there was a huge chance it would work out between her and me,” Chris continues. “That creeped the hell out of me!”

For a while he just ignored the situation. Chris held the belief that he would eventually get her to change her mind and choose him. The process at first was simple — he would shower her with romantic gestures and attention and she’d have no choice but to submit to his monogamous mindset. The tactic proved to be fruitless and eventually he just gave in to the idea that they were destined to casually date and that was it.

“She would tell me about her ‘primary’ and even about the woman she tried to seduce and I just ignored the whole conversation,” explains Dutton. “She became irritated I wouldn’t talk about my other experiences with other women with her, but that whole ‘honesty’ thing — that was her rule, not mine. She was polyamorous, I was casually dating — in my mind, my obligation was different.”

The rules for a polyamorous relationship vary and you might think it’s a breezy way to avoid real feelings, but in truth, when the rules are followed, they can be remarkably stable and rewarding. Melissa Mitchell, a graduate student of psychology at the University of Georgia conducted a study of nearly 2000 polyamorous couples and found that people were closer to and felt more supported by their primary partner once they entered into a polyamorous relationship.

“We tend to assume that if you have some of your needs met by someone outside your relationship, some kind of detrimental effect is going to result. That’s not what we find here,” says Mitchell.

The casualness of the relationship was sustainable for Chris, and he could easily ignore the situation, until one fateful night when everything changed. “We had just finished having incredible sex and were laying in bed. She turned to me and said, ‘I love you.’

"I was pissed!” 

What pissed him off wasn’t the fact that she said she loved him, but the fact that he felt like she had changed the rules. While combining intimacy to their set-up seemed like a natural progression to the polyamorist, it seemed nonsensical to the monogamist. “I could deal with something casual. It made no sense to me when she started being honest about her feelings. If she didn’t love me, I could deal with that. If she loved me, then she needed to love only me,” he says. 

That night Chris told her he couldn’t see her anymore. 

But while actions can be compartmentalized in a relationship, feelings can not. After reconciling, Chris and Nikki continued to talk and sleep together. The difference now was that Chris had a new arrow in his armory of love — he knew how she felt — and he was determined to beat her at her own game.

“I became a huge slut,” he laughs. First he met up with a girl from Tinder, and within 24 hours they found themselves in a pile of drunken debauchery in Las Vegas. Then there was the midget rock-a-billy girl with giant sized style and flair. He jump started the decade of sexual dormancy for a needy 44 year old MILF, and even spent time with a nerdy wine geek who wore Star Wars panties.

“I slept with about a dozen women in two months,” he says. “Since Nikki and I worked together, I made sure to talk about it at the restaurant so it’d be sure to get back to her.” 

When asked how Nikki reacted he explained, “I knew it was affecting her because she wasn’t reacting. She always had something to say about everything, and her lack of reaction was the biggest reaction.”

And while this is what he envisioned his sex life to look like when he decided to move to Denver — meaningless sex with lots of women — the monogamist in him still pined for Nikki. The consummate polyamorist in Nikki continued to pretend to not care. Later Chris would learn that during this time, Nikki had already begun to end things with her ‘primary’ — possibly in an effort to accept her feelings for Chris.

In every relationship with unsustainable dynamics, when each partner is playing the same song but at different speeds, there’s always a breaking point. The breaking point for Chris and Nikki happened at a company Christmas party when Chris went home with a waitress who worked with both Nikki and him.

He had broken one of the rules, he slept with someone from work.

“That was a line that she decided we couldn’t cross because in that situation, she had to actually see it, she had to look at it, and it killed her,” he says. In the absurd logic of the male mind, her jealousy finally offered the possibility that she wasn’t a polyamorist after all — not in her heart anyway. 

Nikki said she couldn’t see him anymore.

“I found it ironic that the thing that killed our relationship for her was the thing I had been dealing with since day one!” Chris reflects. “Witnessing the indiscretion was more painful than the indiscretion.”

Chris began to spiral. He was over-drinking, over-sexing, bought a tattoo gun and started branding his foot with all measures of ridiculous graffiti. “She heard about my tattoos through co-workers and eventually came to the conclusion I was off the rails. I was. I wanted her but didn’t want to want her.”

The romantic in Chris decided to tattoo ‘Nikki’ on his foot, snap a picture of it and text it to her. “She showed up on my doorstep in minutes. She said she was concerned about me, but I know she really just wanted to see me,” he says. “She loves me and only me, there’s really no doubt in my mind, anymore.”

Chris learned that during the time he was being a slut, Nikki was being committed to him. What didn’t make sense about this was he thought he was playing by her rules by sleeping with many people. That isn’t polyamory according to sex sociologist, Jillian Deri.

“People think that if you look elsewhere, it represents your lack of love for that person," Says Deri. "That's dangerous, because it can ruin a real connection and bond. I'd think you'd be less tempted to cheat if you could be open with others about your attractions. In poly, cheating is breaking a rule, it's not necessarily sexual exclusivity.” 

While attitudes are changing about polyamory and people are becoming more accepting of the arrangement, the question remains: Are we socially and emotionally groomed for it?

Chris is adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude. “She’s behaving committed, but she hasn’t actually said it, until she says it, I’m not fully buying it.”

[originally published March 29, 2018]