Rachel Ruvinsky, 22, enjoys a polyamorous relationship, with friends in Germantown, Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn.
Rachel Ruvinsky, 22, enjoys a polyamorous relationship, with friends in Germantown, Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn.
Bennett Marschner, 26; enjoys a polyamorous relationship, with friends in Germantown, Md. Friends in the group carry on multiple relationships simultaneously. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn.
Bennett Marschner, 26; enjoys a polyamorous relationship, with friends in Germantown, Md. Friends in the group carry on multiple relationships simultaneously. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn.

Washington - Rachel Ruvinsky thought she was a lesbian.

As a teenager, she'd fallen into a serious relationship with her best friend. She was one of the few students at her high school to be out; she joined the school's gay-straight alliance but quit because the group was too cliquey. “I didn't feel like I fit in,” she recalls.

When she gradually realised she was also attracted to men, she was surprised. “I remember being very much in denial,” the now-22-year-old says.

Then about a year after she and her girlfriend broke up, Ruvinsky felt ready to look for a new relationship, and to try dating men as well as women.

When she created her first OkCupid profile at age 19, she listed a few of her interests, such as art and videogames, and included a poor-quality photo of herself. Back then, she says, she responded to every message in her inbox.

One of the first was from Bennett Marschner, a 23-year-old videogame technical artist who described himself as a “shameless vehicular vocalist.” He seemed funny, she thought.

Ruvinsky wrote back, saying she also enjoyed singing while driving. They met for dinner at an Indian restaurant in Germantown, Maryland.

“I was really nervous and trying not to fidget,” she recalls. But she quickly felt comfortable around Marschner. After dinner, they watched a few episodes of “Firefly,” a sci-fi television show they both like, until well after midnight in Ruvinsky's parents' basement. They kissed.

The next morning, Marschner texted, saying he wanted to be upfront: He wasn't looking for anything serious.

Ruvinsky didn't want anything super- casual, so she figured that would be it. But Marschner persuaded her to keep seeing him, reassuring her that it wouldn't be a booty-call thing. They could both see other people. “I was like, 'Okay, I like hanging out with you,' “ she remembers saying.

The next time they discussed their relationship status was a few months later. Marschner told her his other relationships, with two other women, weren't so casual; there was an emotional attachment. He'd been reading about polyamory, he said, and he thought it applied to their situation.

Ruvinsky did, too: “We knew it was more than casual, but we didn't have a word for it.” Since then, the two go out with other people separately or hang in a group. “A lot of times,” Marschner says, “if you get more than one of us together, we're going to sit on a couch and cuddle and make out.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines polyamory as: “The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners involved.”

Polyamory in the United States has roots in the 19th-century Oneida Community in upstate New York, where all members were considered married to one other, according to Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory In The 21st Century. Modern versions came out of the free-love movement of the 1960s, but the term “polyamorous,” combining the Greek and Latin words for “many” and “love,” wasn't coined until 1990 and was added to the OED in 2006. It draws adults of all ages, and online dating has made it easier for the polyamorous and poly-curious to find one another.

In January, OkCupid recognised the growing prevalence of polyamory among its users, who are generally 35 or younger, by allowing people to search the site as a couple. According to the site's data, 42 percent of its members would consider dating someone in an open or polyamorous relationship. Marschner and Ruvinsky haven't searched as a couple, as she's looking for new partners but he isn't.

Ruvinsky and Marschner keep each other in the loop on their other dates and relationships. Sometimes Marschner will screen OkCupid messages for Ruvinsky, deleting anything unwelcomingly vulgar, prompting her to jokingly call him her “sexcretary.”

All that sharing was harder in the beginning, Ruvinsky says: “I felt so inadequate, and I would feel kind of jealous.” But then she learned Marschner talked about her, positively, to his other partners. The jealousy dissipated, and the relationship, she says, felt less hierarchical and more equal.

If one of them feels jealous, they try to pinpoint what insecurity or self-esteem issue might be to blame. “It's important to realise that it's valid” to be jealous or envious of another partner, Ruvinsky says, “but not necessarily true.”

More than jealousy, though, the emotion they talk about is “compersion,” a feeling of joy when one's partner finds happiness with another. Ruvinsky says she feels it when Marschner texts her after a good date with someone else. He says he feels it when he meets women he thinks Ruvinsky might like and those instincts turn out to be right.

Over a year ago, Marschner introduced Ruvinsky and Hannah Schott. They gathered for a night of figure-drawing, each taking a turn as a nude model. Schott now lives in New Zealand, but Ruvinsky still has the picture Schott drew hanging in her bedroom.

Within the “web” of partners, one-on-ones, threesomes and orgies have been known to happen. (They test for sexually transmitted diseases every three months or when a new person joins the mix.) But Marschner says “polyamory isn't necessarily about sex. Polyamory is about being in love with multiple people.”

Marschner and Ruvinsky say they are thrilled to be free of the constraints that can come with monogamy: They don't have to be everything, sexually or emotionally, to each other; they can be open about their attraction to others. It might be fuelled by youthful idealism that will crash and burn as she and Marschner get older, but for now they seem happy.

Ruvinsky's eyes light up as she describes having so much love to give, and receiving it, too. “Even the love you feel, feels different,” she says, “not in terms of quantity or quality, just in how it feels.”

“Part of me thinks I'm just making up for lost time,” Marschner says. “I didn't have much of a social life at all, growing up. Then right out of college, I moved in with my girlfriend - and I knew all of her friends, but they never really became my friends.”

Now Marschner has a romantic and social web that revolves around him. “I probably spend more time on it than I should sometimes,” he says of his two primary relationships (one with Ruvinsky, another with a boyfriend) and three less-serious ones.

Asked to map it out for a reporter, Marschner drew a diagram of dozens of people. Straight lines connected people with ongoing relationships; long dotted lines for former relationships; short dotted lines for people who have “sexy times,” as Marschner put it, but aren't in a relationship.

The connections are fluid, too. An ex of one of Marschner's former partners is now housemates with one of his current partners.

When members of the web get together, it's as if a group of high school or college friends is reuniting. Primary, secondary and past partners piled into a booth at Bar Louie in Rockville, Maryland, in late December.

Some are meeting for the first time. “Are you a hugger?” Zia Frazier asks, and waits for the go-ahead before embracing Sam Brehm, a 21-year-old model and fire performer who met Marschner at a medieval camping trip. (The poly community is big on consent, starting with something as simple as a hug.) At different times throughout the night, Marschner keeps a hand on Brehm's leg while deep in conversation with Ruvinsky.

Ruvinsky compliments Frazier's makeup: “I'm just watching your eye shadow,” she says with awe in her voice. “That blending.”

Marschner asks Frazier, who is 23 and just finished her first semester of grad school in San Francisco, about a new guy she is dating who's poly and straight.

“Is he pretty?” he asks.

“He's tall as s---,” she says.

Before moving west, Frazier said she had connected with Ruvinsky and Marschner separately on OkCupid, and the three came together just a few weeks before Frazier's move.

“We were going to keep in contact so much more,” Marschner says.

They order extra cocktails before happy hour ends, eat off each other's plates and offer one another sips and cherries out of their drinks.

When Frazier complains about having to write so many papers and the long lines at the DMV, Marschner says: “That's what you get for going to California and leaving us all behind.”

Frazier says she has a couple of dates set up for when she returns to San Francisco. “Girls, too,” she says. “I'm excited.”

Ruvinsky wishes she could say the same. Sometimes, she admits, she still feels lonely.

“It would be nice to date someone outside of the web,” she says. “Mostly everyone inside the web is more established with other people in the web, and I would like to find someone who isn't ... especially a girl.”

Lisa Bonos is a writer and editor for Solo-ish.