Adventures in Polyamory


A champion of sexual freedom, Henry Vandenburgh navigates an open marriage and doesn’t miss a beat.

She was lovely. She looked a lot like Mary Louise Parker in Fried Green Tomatoes. She was actually prettier—her smile made a golden feeling run through me. Thin, medium height, soft brown hair. Her name was Mary, and she came from a St. Louis family where the dad was a cop and her mom a housewife.

She was also married. My wife Ginger and I had known them as a couple for about a year. We met them through Bay City National Organization for Women (NOW.)  Bill was an aerospace engineer; Mary a graphic designer who did toy boxes. We liked them– although, as friends also said, they were the most politically compulsive people we knew. They’d come out of some Catholic young people’s group back East, and could be counted to stay up late almost any night printing leaflets, licking stamps, and bundling bulk mailings.

Ginger and I had been through that when we’d been at Sonoma State College. I was sick of it: the meetings, the sentiments, the study groups, radical people playing status games. I think Ginger didn’t care. She was friendly and liked a group, any group. We helped out some in Bay City NOW, but we mainly just did the monthly meetings and the big demonstrations.

Bill and Mary went on a trip back to their undergraduate campus in Illinois. As feminists, they went to some of the talks there given by various social change groups. One was a group specializing in advocating bisexuality and pansexuality as ways to break down sex roles and the oppression of the nuclear family. The talk opened their eyes.  Bill told Mary that he was still attracted to men, and had had an experience with a fraternity brother in college. Mary confessed that she was attracted to other men sometimes, and curious, too, since she had had little experience. Mary had sex a day or two later with one of the men in the group, accompanying him to his little bungalow to spend the night. He was only the second man she had slept with, Bill being the first.


I was working evenings at the local state mental hospital as a licensed psychiatric technician. I’d get home at midnight, and sometimes Ginger would come home even later, having spent the time at Bill and Mary’s.  One night, she called and said she’d be home the next day. I didn’t think much about it. We were recovering hippies, not bound to schedules, although our hair was now short and our clothes were neater than they’d been in the early seventies.

When Ginger turned up the next day, she was flushed and smiling. She’d fucked Bill, she said, “…but he was a lousy lay.  He has a huge dick, though.”  (Ginger and I were in the habit of communicating very directly.)

(This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened in our marriage. She’d slept with her guitar teacher a month or so after we were married in 1976. She’d come home at four in the morning. Waking, I’d said, “Where the hell have you been?  Did you sleep with him?”

“He’s leaving tomorrow, anyway.”

I went back to sleep. The next day, it was as though it had never happened.  A few months later, I drove Janet, a woman friend, home from school, and ended up having sex with her.  When I told Ginger, she didn’t seem very perturbed. I did it a few more times, but then it was time to graduate, and Ginger and I moved back to Southern California.)


“Maybe you and Mary should go out,” Ginger said.  “We talked about it last night, and she’s interested.”

“You and Bill didn’t do stuff with her in the room, did you?”  For some reason, this bothered me more than the idea of Bill being intimate with my wife alone. One of Mary’s most appealing points was her patina of innocence.

“No, no.  She slept in the guest room.”

But I was interested too. Mary and I had done little personal talking up to that point. When Ginger and I spent time with them, Ginger took up most of the psychic space, keeping everyone entertained, flitting from one subject to another. Ginger could be obnoxious with this, but she was usually interesting enough, and it took a lot of the burden off others to talk. I didn’t particularly like Bill—he was pious and more feminist than just about anyone, and a language cop–but I liked Mary a lot. Like me, she was gravid, but very frank and direct. For over a year, I had noticed, though, that I was always very aware of where she was if we were in the same room.

Next weekend, Mary and I went to see The Black Stallion while Bill and Ginger presumably got it on. We kissed hungrily all during the show. Mary drove me to Ginger’s and my apartment, and we kissed outside for half an hour, hardly taking our lips away for a second. We didn’t consummate that night, but we did a week later, when Ginger had to go out of town.

I was considerably more experienced at 35 than she at 25. But she proved extremely responsive and avid. Naked, she was more beautiful than I could believe. Thin, radiant, and white—she hadn’t spent much time at the beach.  I stroked her body for minute on minute. Irish and Hungarian, she had an immense bush of pubic hair, which I could barely penetrate with my tongue, when it came time for that. But she was very interested, however innocent, and looked down at me, eyes slitted with pleasure as I ate her.

We established our pattern. We’d have intercourse to two orgasms for each of us—then go to sleep. In the morning, we’d repeat. Then she’d drive away. Once she phoned me and said in the enthusiastic voice I’d come to love, “You have no idea how beautiful the world looked on my drive home!”

I had no idea how much in love with her I was until I noticed that I barely needed to eat or even sleep for very long. My usual small layer of belly pudge disappeared overnight. I was thoroughly happy all the time.

It helped too that I’d quit the state hospital to enter graduate school, but the relationship with Mary had me walking on the clouds. And I’d call her every day. After a few weeks, though, Bill told Ginger he was breaking off their relationship. I didn’t care one way or the other. Ginger and I were as we’d always been even after seven years together—best friends, great bed partners–even after I started with Mary–and great communicators. One thing that made me queasy, though, was that most of our conversation was now about Bill and Mary—their characters, their backgrounds, what they were thinking and doing, all the little details of their lives.

Another issue that irritated me almost beyond words was that both Ginger and Bill were very legalistic. So, when the four of us were together, my wife and Mary’s husband spent much time discussing the rules for these new relationships.  Should Friday nights be reserved for the new partner, with Saturdays for the old?  What were the rules for group activities?  (We never came close to the latter, of course.  Bill’s sense of judgmentalness was palpable. I could have never trusted him in a sexual situation, and I was aware that he probably had a moralist’s contempt for me—as Dionysian and egalitarian as I was. )

One day, though, Mary called me and told me we’d have to stop the sex.  Bill had told her, “It’s not working.”  So she was going to stop having sex with me.

I didn’t start feeling lousy right away. Mary told me she wanted me to keep calling her every day. And I did. Much of our conversations had been her telling me problems with Bill’s arrogance, and my listening to her in this vein continued. I didn’t feel empowered under the circumstances to say anything against him.

One night I called her and said the words: “I love you.”

She waited a few seconds. “You are loved,” she said.

That’s when the pain started. Oh, we slept together a couple more times during that year when her husband decided to take someone on a date. But by the ten month mark, when Mary proposed this, I said no.

photo by megawheel360

About Henry Vandenburgh

Henry Vandenburgh is a professor of sociology at Bridgewater State University. He is particularly interested in issues of sexual freedom.


  1. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    HIV was not to emerge for a couple more years. We were spared any other STDs.

  2. STD’s? Herpes? HIV? Any worries concerning these issues?

    Jealousy? When I have suggested or even joked about any remote interest in another person my partner would become rabidly offended (although it was okay for him to look at other women)….

    • Nick, mostly says:

      In 1980 HIV wasn’t on the radar, and it was a “gay” disease for some time after that.
      I think, for the most part, herpes isn’t that big a deal except during outbreaks (although I can’t speak from personal experience).

      I’ve let my wife know I’m fine with her having other partners, but she’s (thus far) not interested.

  3. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I was always the phoner, except for a few times. By the ten month mark, I phoned her rarely. This was all a long time ago (1980.) We continued to see them socially for a few years. Since I usually get limerant (fall in love with) women with whom I’m sleeping, I’m not sure habitual polyamory would work for me. I usually am not all that interested in continuing sex with women with whom I’m not limerant. (Oh, that’s wrong. There are two notable exceptions.)

  4. after you said, ‘no’. did you immediately stop phoning her, did she try to phone you?

Speak Your Mind