When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket looks at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own.
Josie Kearns is a 33-year-old queer, polyamorous, white, trans woman living in Chicago. She has been married for 12 years and also has a long-term girlfriend. She just left her job as a production manager for a local theatre for a hiatus, which she’s spending mostly with her two kids (ages seven and one). She also lives in an intentional community and helps organize Chicago’s poly scene.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Carolyn: When and how did you start to explore polyamory?
Josie: I started exploring it about five years ago. My wife and I had been married monogamously for seven years prior to that, and after we read Sex at Dawn, a book on non-monogamy, together and decided it fit us. A friend recommended it, and we brought it on a trip not even really knowing what it was. Then we started reading it and were like, “oh shit…” We ended up trading off the book the whole vacation, and on the plane ride home made the decision to give it a shot.
It was boring at first. We spent six months or so not doing anything but talking about it. Doing more reading, etc. Then I got on OKCupid and the first person I messaged blew up into a crazy intense relationship overnight. That made it harder. ☺
Carolyn: What is your relationship situation now?
Josie: My wife and I are still together, in a relationship that’s evolved into something that’s mostly platonic (though still really awesome). I also have a serious girlfriend, we’ve been together nearly two years, and a third person who lives far away but we keep in touch and flirt and get together when we can. My wife also has a boyfriend who lives with us and helps raise our kids, so even though we aren’t partners he’s really part of my relationship situation too.
“I find it much more meaningful to say, ‘I’m choosing to do this because I care about you and I know it will feel good to you,’ than to say, ‘I’m doing this because it obeys our rules.'”
Even though I dislike the pretentiousness of the label, I identify pretty strongly now with the idea of relationship anarchy. To me it means that my partners and I don’t control our relationships with other people — we set boundaries, but we don’t ask to enforce rules on each other. I find it much more meaningful to say, “I’m choosing to do this because I care about you and I know it will feel good to you,” than to say, “I’m doing this because it obeys our rules.”
Carolyn: What do you find most exciting about that approach? What’s about it is a struggle?
Josie: For me the most exciting part of it is that freedom. I probably romanticize it, but I feel a deep connection with someone when we are both in essence saying to each other, “hey, we’re defining exactly what we want this relationship to look like, and we’re both choosing every part of it of our own free will.”
I think the biggest struggle is that anarchy is a scary word. If a partner is feeling insecure it’s easy for them to say, “well you believe in relationship anarchy, that means you’re just going to do whatever the hell you want regardless of how it affects me.” I don’t view it that way at all, and I dislike the term for that reason. But I’ve had that conversation a couple of times.
Carolyn: Do any of your other partners or metamours practice different styles of poly? What’s it like negotiating between them?
Josie: I think we all have our own views on it. Most of my polycule doesn’t identify with the anarchy term, and there can be hurt feelings stemming from the differences in how we view things. But at the end of the day all of our styles are so much more similar than different, it’s not something that has a big impact on our relationships. If someone gets into a relationship with me they do so knowing that I will never give them the right to control me, and I might do so knowing that they may have another partner who does have that kind of control. It’s still a choice we both make to be together.
Carolyn: Tell me about your polycule! What relationships are there between metamours? How did it develop? What drew you to that more family-style poly network instead of a looser arrangement?
Josie: The family-style network is the main reason I was interested in polyamory to begin with. I love, love, love the concept of having a big intimate chosen family. I live in an intentional community for the same reason.
I don’t know how the family aspect will end up looking long term. At the moment my main group is a big string of people — to one side my wife and her boyfriend, to the other my girlfriend, her husband, and his long-term girlfriend. Most of us have some less serious relationships too, but those are the biggies. And on that string I’d say everyone is super close with their immediate metamours — the ones two steps away on the chain — but as you get farther away on the chain the bonds are less tight. The two extreme ends of the chain haven’t even met each other, I don’t think. So as a group we aren’t really a family at this point.
The intentional community came from my wife and me as well — we both were really drawn to the idea and bought a big house a couple of years ago. It came with five bedrooms and we built three more, so now there are eleven people living here altogether. Not everyone is poly, or queer, or genderqueer, but we have a lot of all three of those categories, and everyone is super sex positive. It’s a pretty fun group.
Carolyn: That sounds incredible! But also potentially challenging. When issues come up, how do you handle them?
Josie: It’s a LOT of talking. But for us it’s worth it.
Carolyn: Above, you mention you and your wife have children together and your wife’s boyfriend lives with you and helps raise them. What’s it like practicing polyamory and having children? (And it sounds so normie to ask “what do the kids think” but I’m also genuinely curious, what do they think? I’m imagining one extra person and then the rest of the intentional community to maybe get attention from but also in trouble with.)
Josie: Ha, yeah. The kids are seven and one, so the older one is just starting to register that our family doesn’t look like everyone else’s. But he still views adults by their relationships to him more than each other. So he basically has three parents and then some really close adult friends. Last year he didn’t want to invite any other kids to his birthday party, he just wanted the adults.
But overall we don’t hide anything from them, and we don’t go out of our way to explain it either. We just act like it’s normal, because for us it is, and then if he asks questions we’ll answer them.
Carolyn: How do your relationships or family shift when you date/sleep with/build a relationship with someone new?
Josie: The shift just sort of happens naturally. If one of us starts casually dating or sleeping with someone new, it doesn’t affect the family any more than it would if one of us started hanging out with a new friend. The existence of sex in the dynamic is pretty irrelevant to anyone who’s not actively participating in it.
If one of us starts building a new relationship, then the person would gradually start being around more and getting to know everyone more. When my girlfriend and I started dating, we spent a lot of time alone, but then she’d come hang out with me and my wife, or my roomies, or my kids. Now she has stuff in our bathroom, my kids get excited when she visits, and when she walks into the kitchen for coffee in the morning the roomies all ask her about her husband and her dogs and her job. It feels pretty boring and normal, to be honest.
“I think people get ideas in their heads that we have raucous sex parties, or elaborate drama, or something. Most of the time our days look just like anyone else’s — get the kids to school, get to work, whose turn is it to make dinner. There are just more people involved.”
Carolyn: That also sort of sounds like the dream though!
Josie: Oh it’s incredible! There’s so much love.
I think people get ideas in their heads that we have raucous sex parties, or elaborate drama, or something. Most of the time our days look just like anyone else’s — get the kids to school, get to work, whose turn is it to make dinner. There are just more people involved.
It’s more complicated in some ways, but in others it’s quite a bit simpler. It’s a lot easier for my wife and me than it is for most couples with small kids to get out on a date night.
Carolyn: How does polyamory function within your understanding of yourself?
Josie: I used to be really closed off to who I was. This, to me, is about honesty. I’m someone who wants lots of people around, who wants to be intimate with lots of people, who wants a huge family and sexual exploration.
When I was monogamous I had walls up — I’d hang out with someone but there were things I couldn’t do, couldn’t say, couldn’t think. There were rules. Now, if I want to kiss them, I do! Or whatever. It’s much more honest. And from that honesty comes intimacy, and from there, community.
It’s also freed me up to be a lot more honest about other aspects of my identity too. The whole experience has been incredibly liberating.
Carolyn: What do you want your future to look like? What vision are you working towards or hoping for?
Josie: I’m not sure! There are lots of different scenarios I could picture living in and being completely happy. Most of them, though, revolve around this idea of family. Having a tight network of life partners and their life partners, living our lives together. Maybe it’s in this house, maybe a bunch of us move to a farm together, maybe we still have little groups that keep separate lives long term but come together in specific ways. I don’t know. It’s less about a specific vision than it is a feeling. Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, somewhere, someday, and having this loving, intimate family with us. That’s the kind of stuff I think about.