In 1987, I took a job at the University of Oregon where I was instantly attracted to a woman named Ellen who conducted the group orientation for new employees. A former alcoholic, Ellen was also a movie buff who decorated her apartment with black and white glossies of yesteryear’s stars. She had grown up in a small Willamette Valley town and, after marriage, had moved to an even smaller town in Oregon’s Great Basin Desert. Her marital unhappiness and her hatred of the area’s provincialism led her to leave her husband and move to liberal Eugene. It was here that she embraced feminism, and it was here that she found inspiration in a 19th century Swedish ancestor whose rejection of women’s assigned roles in society caused her family to disown her (she then made her home under an overhanging boulder, enabling Ellen to claim that she descended from a woman who crawled out from under a rock). When we met, Ellen had won acceptance into doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, and was cashing in her retirement savings to fiance her education. She would be leaving Eugene in three months, and so it was that—with Peggy’s knowledge and consent—she and I spent as much time together as possible.
That fall (1987), I flew to Minneapolis. Ellen having no car, and the weather being bitching cold by Eugene standards, she laughed merrily as we walked about the downtown area, and locals stared from restaurant windows because I was wearing every piece of clothing I had. When it came time to discuss the future of our relationship, I brought up the possibility of group marriage. She reacted angrily until I assured her that modern polyfidelity was egalitarian. I then described my relationship with Peggy in order to convince Ellen that gender oppression was the furtherest thing from my mind. The following two paragraphs summarize what I said:
“Although I work as hard as Peggy, what money I earn comes from jobs that are temporary and/or part-time, my ‘real work’ consisting of housework, yard work, and home improvement projects. Just as Peggy is bored by working at home and finds fulfillment in her nursing career, I prefer the independence that comes with working at home. The gender roles that society demands of us don’t fit, but going our own way is also hard, especially for me because while the public envisions a housewife as being deficient in skills, intelligence, and ambition, it regards a househusband as a despicable sponge who is a man in name only. My own mother called me a loser, a failure, a kept man, a disappointment, and a good for nothing who will never amount to anything. She calls Peggy my better half (and means it), and says that Peggy is a good woman who married beneath herself. Yet, I thrive on hard physical labor, and I’m so driven to get things done that I stay busy every waking moment. I even limit my reading to practical nonfiction. What’s more, when Peggy’s 36-hour work week ends, her time is her own, but because I live on my job site, I’m driven to keep working. At the same time, I’m in charge of my life in ways that are impossible for those who work for someone else.
“At the other end of the spectrum from my mother, Peggy’s career-oriented women friends complain that their husbands dump all the housework and childcare on them. They tell Peggy that she’s lucky to have a husband who mows, cooks, bakes, launders, shops, pays bills, mops floors, raises a garden, cans food, makes beds, services cars, irons her nursing uniforms, takes on home improvement projects, and makes money on the side. They ask to borrow me, and laughingly warn her that some woman will try to steal me.”
Because Ellen scorned conventional lifestyles, she was intrigued, her greatest concern being that Peggy and I agree to the eventual addition of another man. She spent the following summer back in Oregon with Peggy and me, and the two of them got along famously. By then, Peggy also had a reason for wanting to live in Minneapolis. Specifically, she wished to trade ICU nursing for L&D, but Eugene was experiencing such a nursing glut that Sacred Heart required previous L&D experience. Minneapolis’ Abbott Northwestern had no such requirement, but their only opening was in antepartum. That was close enough to satisfy Sacred Heart’s requirement of prior experience.
For my part, I had no desire to move to Minnesota after less than two years in a place I loved, and I was further discouraged by Minnesota’s harsh winters. I shared my feelings with Ellen and Peggy, but they were both so excited about the move, and they both so needed to move for career reasons that I felt I had to go. They suggested that I think of living in Minnesota as an adventure and promised we could return to Oregon when Vicki graduated.
So it was that in August, 1988, we made our marriage vows—and ate our wedding cake—in the company of Eugene’s polyfidelity community. On the legal front, Peggy went back to using her maiden name. On the nonlegal front, we declared ourselves the Speedwell Family, a name which was inspired by the flower. More aptly in our case, it was also the name of a leaky ship that the pilgrims of 1620 were forced to abandon on their voyage to America.
The closer we came to moving, the more hesitant I became. On October 2, I got word that my mother was dying, and I arrived in Mississippi just in time to hold her hand as she breathed her last. Two days later, I was back in Oregon renting a Ryder Truck and a car carrier for Peggy’s Ford (my Datsun truck was already in Minnesota, and we took turns driving a third car). Prior to the move, Peggy and I sold our house in Oregon, and the three of us bought a house in Minneapolis, yet everything within me screamed, “Don’t go!”
Yellowstone National Park—which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined—burned that summer—and we narrowly avoided a very long detour by exiting the east gate just before it closed. Peggy and Ellen got along famously and enjoyed themselves immensely, but the best light that I could put on the situation was the hope that things might not go as bad as I feared.
Snow fell on Minneapolis the day after our October arrival, and by Christmas, night-time lows were in the -20s F. No matter how cold the weather, I felt duty-bound to take our sweatered schnauzer on her daily walks, but I shortened the walks when she tried to enter every house we passed. Yet, I found that windless, sunny days were actually pleasant if the temperature stayed above zero. The worst part of Minnesota winters wasn’t the snow and cold per se, but the slippery roads, the city filth that settled on the snow, and the grimy, salt-encrusted cars. I had always prided myself on how well I cared for cars, and every rust-bucket I passed was a reminder that my cars would soon look like that. Like many people, I tried to minimize the damage with frequent washes, but was discouraged by the fact that cars looked as bad six blocks after being washed as they looked before being washed. So it was that car care—like the rest of my life—seemed like a lost battle, and by now, Ellen and I did little but battle.
Yet, I found a lot to like about Minneapolis. We started a support group at our house; made friends at the atheistic First Unitarian Society; found respite from winter at St. Paul Conservatory; fell in love with old Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis Institute of Art; enjoyed the trails at nearby Wood Lake Park; and found pleasure in estate sales. Despite all this, my mental state had so deteriorated by our second winter in Minnesota that I started seeing a psychoanalyst who put me on an antidepressant called Norpramin.
Peggy and Ellen decided that a winter trip to Arizona would do me good, and I needed no persuasion. Peggy and I flew down in January, 1990. The weather, the scenery, and our time together were heavenly, but Ellen and I continued our fights over the telephone. Once back in Minnesota, our relationship so deteriorated that Peggy never left for work but what she feared that we would become violent in her absence, though we never did. When she switched from staying out of our battles to taking my side, our homelife deteriorated even further. On one occasion, she shook her fist in Vicki’s face. Soon afterward, she came home from work and found Ellen naked and screaming while I held her from behind for fear she would wreck the house. That was it for Peggy, so she arranged for a job interview back in Oregon. Because I had felt trapped in the marriage from the outset and never wanted to be in Minnesota in the first place, I prepared to follow. Ellen also wanted to call it quits.
By the time Peggy returned to Oregon in March 1990, the nursing glut was over, and so the hospital would have hired her to work in L&D even without her antepartum experience in Minnesota. This meant that her work in Minneapolis had not furthered her career and that, as she saw it, she had given up her seniority for nothing. We were also shocked to discover that housing prices had risen by over a third, the market being so hot that we had to compete in a three-way bidding war for the house that we have occupied for the past 32-years. As for her living arrangements in Oregon—prior to my return in May—she and a friend named Elaine, who was also leaving a failed marriage, moved into the Lincoln Street home of a mutual friend named Shirley, laughingly calling it “Shirley’s Home for Wayward Women.” Both women had attended our marriage to Ellen.
In closing, I will anticipate a few questions…
Are participants in a mixed gender marriage necessarily bisexual?
This is up to the people who form the marriage although everyone in a group marriage considers themselves married to everyone else.
What did you tell your families about your relationship?
Ellen had scant contact with her father and none with her mother, so telling them was a non-issue, but my father and Peggy’s parents visited us in Minneapolis. Peggy knew her parents would be horrified, so we allowed them to assume that Ellen was our housemate. I had always been open with my parents, so I told my father, although he persisted in thinking of Ellen as a live-in lover.
What was the hardest part of your marriage to Ellen?
Because I don’t feel comfortable detailing the reasons Ellen and I argued so much, I’ll just say that the second hardest part was having to defend our marriage’s validity. Some examples: It rankled me that we couldn’t legally share a last name… I went to war with the Minnesota Zoo because they refused to issue us a “family membership…” I complained to the minister at First Unitarian about a sermon in which he described marriage in traditional terms… I felt called upon to explain that, no, we weren’t old style Mormons, and, no, I wasn’t putting together a harem. Living on the defensive wore me down, but because I was unwilling to hide the nature of our relationship, I didn’t know what else to do.
Are you in contact with Ellen?
Peggy and I haven’t been in contact with her since 1990. When I googled her today, I was pleased to learn that she is still working and is prominent in her field.
Was this your only group marriage experience?
Two years after our return to Oregon, Peggy’s lover—who was also my best friend—proposed that we start a group marriage with him. On the upside, Walt was generous, playful, humorous, spontaneous, versatile, intelligent, optimistic, energetic, and possessed of unlimited self-confidence. On the downside, he never mowed his lawn; his house was dirty and unorganized; and he spent money as fast as he made it. He said he would change, but we doubted he could, and it was obvious that he didn’t realize how profound our differences were. For example, after he brought his wok over and cooked for us, I spent the next day cleaning grease off the floor, the cabinets, and the ceiling; and whenever he showered at our house, he made such a mess that I cleaned the bathroom when he was gone. When I surprised him by cleaning his Land Rover, he complained that he had liked the moss that grew in the window tracks, and he became equally upset when I mowed his yard.
How do you now feel about group marriage?
Traditional marriage being so difficult despite public acceptance, I have come to have serious doubts about the feasibility of group marriage. Personal limitations have also led me to lose interest. Specifically, age and chronic pain have left me fragile and robbed me of strength, energy, boldness, and optimism. My basic belief in the core abilities of myself and others has also plummeted. In closing, I can but say that I respect what Peggy, Ellen, and I tried to accomplish all those years ago, and I also respect the courage and boldness we showed in making the effort.