It is a typical Thursday evening for David and his wife, Felicity, who are preparing dinner while their two children play at the kitchen table. After dinner, David begins the evening bath routine with the kids while Felicity gets dressed for a night out with her boyfriend.
The Petersons are a poly family. David and Felicity are committed to each other as husband and wife while also maintaining other romantic relationships. You may be thinking, “I can hardly get a shower squeezed in, much less handle another partner!”
For the Petersons, being poly isn’t something extra that is squeezed in like a hobby, but is an essential part of a happy, healthy and fulfilled life.
“What exactly is polyamory?” you may ask. It has often been described as consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy. Contrary to a traditional marriage or monogamous relationship there is no dominant model for polyamory. Poly groups must forge their own structures and boundaries based on the comforts and needs of everyone involved, and honest and frequent communication are key elements of healthy functional poly relationships.
Polyamory is a relationship option that is gaining traction. There are many books to help beginners: “Opening Up, “ The Ethical Slut,” and “More Than Two, “ just to name a few. However, I was curious about what when a couple decides to have children. Or what if a couple who already have children decide to open their relationship? Are poly families more rare? Or are they just hiding in plain sight? I did some sleuthing and found 3 poly families who have generously agreed to be interviewed for this article.
David and Felicity met 15 years ago. She was poly and he was not. They married and had 2 children but an opportunity for anything extra hadn’t presented itself until Felicity developed a mad crush on a co-worker when the children were 2 and 3 years old. Felicity and David were at a crossroads in their relationship. After long conversations and careful consideration, they decided to expand the circle of their relationship to allow Felicity to pursue her interest in another man. In a traditional marriage this might have been the beginning of the end. Instead, it was simply the next chapter in what would become a richly satisfying part of their life together.
In the ensuing months, Felicity felt the stomach flutters of budding romance, enjoyed taking special care with her appearance, and also relished returning home to the comfort and support of her partner. David found himself privy to the private romantic world of a woman. The new experiences brought a vitality and focus to the couple as romantic partners, not just co-parents.
It was a year later that David found a special person he wanted to date. The couple already had structures in place to accommodate this extra dimension to their married life. David and Felicity became even closer as they saw new facets of each other and shared new adventures. The experience brought both of them to a deeper level of intimacy and understanding with each other. Felicity and David have found that polyamory has allowed them to change and grow together, bringing their whole selves to the marriage.
Where David and Felicity are very careful is around their children. The children, now 8 and 9, have no other experience of family life beyond the polyamorous family unit they are in. That does not mean they regularly see their parents jump in and out of bed with different partners. On the contrary, partners outside of the family unit are allowed to interact with the children only after the relationship has withstood the test of time, integrity, and innocuous social encounters. After this, the children know that adults have sleep over friends just like kids do. The children never wake up to a stranger in the house but rather a known and trusted friend.
It is interesting to note that Felicity and David’s children find many current movies and television programs confusing because the plots are based on relationship problems stemming from jealousy and breakups over monogamous ideals. This seems ridiculous to the children who know that love is not a finite resource that can only be doled out one person at a time. If that were true, how could parents love more than one child at a time?
When I asked David and Felicity about the difficulties of raising young kids and having several relationships they said, “When you have young kids it seems like you are having your biggest adventures with someone else (because the other partner is taking care of the kids). On the other hand, our non-poly friends don’t seem to be having adventures at all. They are tired and we are tired, but we are tired for different reasons.”
While David and Felicity live in an urban environment where polyamory is not terribly uncommon or taboo, Karen and her partners live in a small midwestern town where polyamory is so far out that no-one even questions her seemingly typical family structure. Karen and Roger had been married 13 years before Karen met Jill, the woman who would later enter into marriage with them. Jill was a fellow writer. Karen and Jill began as writing partners but over several years, as Jill’s marriage to her husband, Derek, fell apart, Karen and Jill became lovers. Effort was made to forge a bond between both couples but Jill’s marriage was already failing. Jill was facing life as a single mother of three boys in Arizona when Karen and Roger suggested she move to the midwest and join forces. The love between the three adults became the foundation for what can be described as a marriage of three, or in poly terms, a closed triad. The family consists of 3 adults and 5 children.
The assumption of their surrounding community is that Karen and Roger have kindly taken in a single woman and her sons. The reality is that each of the adults is an equal partner in the household, raising kids, keeping house, and sharing finances, as well as one large bed.
Because Karen is a writer, she can arrange her schedule to be available to the children and takes care of most home related tasks. Roger and Jill work outside the home. The benefits of having 2 steady incomes and an adult who is always available to the children are enviable. Another benefit of their family structure became evident when Karen was ill for a prolonged period. In a traditional family when Mom or Dad becomes incapacitated, the family suffers greatly from financial stress, and children are often
neglected unless extended family can be called upon. For Karen, Jill, and Roger, however, there was enough adultage to pick up the slack. Karen could relax and get well knowing that everything was taken care of.
Their children, being teenagers, are more interested in themselves than their parents’ relationship. There was little issue with judgement or difficulties within the family. The drawback for this family is that they have no supporting community. To their knowledge, there are no other poly families or even couples in their area. To the surprise of the adults, the children have elected to share details of their unusual family setup with some friends. So far there have been no negative repercussions. Karen says that the adults realized they must trust their teenagers to share family information appropriately with friends they trust and leave it at that. So far, so good.
Finally, I interviewed Steve, a quiet, assured, divorced father with two children. While married, he was not polyamorous. Currently he has two significant partners. One of his partners lives with him and fills the role of step-mother. Steve’s ex-wife is openly poly as well. When asked about how open he is within his community he says, “We don’t want to shove it down anyone’s throat, but also don’t need to hide.”
Steve’s youngest child doesn’t remember anything different but he also has a preteen daughter. Steve says his daughter doesn’t want to talk about “relationship stuff,” and disclosure of poly life choices can be awkward with teenagers. However, Steve is committed to polyamory as an ethical and more humanly viable social structure that closely mirrors the way humans have lived for the greater part of history. In particular he sights evidence from “Sex at Dawn,” the Old Testament of polyamory. Steve also posits that, “A polyamorous family structure minimizes issues of power and ownership thus relieving stress in the relationships. Anything that reduces stress is good for raising kids.”
I asked Steve what he would recommend to people considering polyamory.
“Read a bunch of books. Go as fast as you want or as slow as you want. There is no right way but lots of shitty ways to do things. Don’t make one person your guru. Newbie mistakes are easy to avoid if you get information. Date a bunch of different people. Find out what works for you. Our strength as humans is community, trust, communication and planning.”
So far polyamory family life sounds great for the adults; more variety, more resources, more support, more fun! Poly relationships seem to weather storms that capsize less flexible setups. The kids have more adult attention and don’t seem the worse for the unconventional set up, but are the kids really okay? I wanted data and research not just anecdotal evidence. I found Elisabeth Scheff, the foremost academic expert on polyamorous families. She is the author of the blog, “The Polyamorists Next Door,” about her long-term study of poly families.
Elisabeth (Eli) says, “Children only understand or care about polyamory to the extent they can at any age.” For young children, it means more adult attention, which means more possibilities for fun and presents. As the children get older they appreciate parents who are patient and calm because the work of helping with homework or driving to sports practice or other childcare related chores are shared among more adults.
Teenagers appreciate having close adults to talk to who are not their biological parent. The honest communication, caring negotiations, and close community that are the hallmarks of polyamorous relationships and families helps teens feel closer and safer with their families than is usual for the angsty teenage years.
Eli says about the grown children of poly families, “Even though these young adults learned relationship skills from a specific romantic configuration among the adults, the grown kids transfer the skills to other (often non-romantic) relationships and build emotionally intimate friendship networks wherever they go.”
They also seem to be more fluid in their relationship structural choices. As their own needs and the needs of their partners evolve over time, these young adults choose everything from traditional heterosexual monogamy to polyamory in all its varied forms. There is no more or less kink than in any other population. The ratio of gay to straight to fluid people also does not deviate from the norm. The difference is that there is less shame or stigma around sexual choices.
After interviewing these three families I realize what a small sample it is. My curiosity is perhaps keener now than when I started. The nature of polyamory is such that no two relationship structures are identical and therefore no two families are the same. The creativity and bravery of these families fascinate me as they forge their own paths. I did, however, come away with some questions answered. How do poly parents juggle everything? The same way any parent juggles everything. The only difference is what one chooses to juggle. Are the kids okay? Children in loving, supportive, safe households are okay no matter the orientation of the parents.
Curious? Want to learn more? Here is a list of resources to start you on your way!
Book: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality is a book dealing with the evolution of monogamy in humans and human mating systems. First published in 2010, it was co-authored by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
Blog: The Polyamorists Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff Ph.D. Using empirical information based in academic research, this blog explores the issues facing polyamorous relationships and families. It covers topics as diverse as sexuality to parenting, jealousy to coming out to families of origin, and employment and housing discrimination to online dating.
Book: More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory by Franklin Veaux, Eve Rickert
Practical, and compassionate explanation of polyamory and its place in everyday life.
Music: First poly American country and western song: Second Favorite Man by Tight Pajamas.
Closed Triad: A group of three who are only sexual with each other.
Compersion: The opposite of jealousy. Feeling joy at your partner’s satisfaction with another lover.
Infinity Heart: Poly Symbol.
Metamours: Your partner’s partner, for example a woman’s husband and boyfriend are metamours.
OSO: Other’s significant other.
Polyamory: The practise of having multiple relationships in an ethical way that emphasises honest communication and transparency.
Polyfidelitous: An intimate relationship structure where all members are considered equal partners and agree to restrict sexual activity to only other members of the group.
Poly monogamy: A closed group that is sexual only with each other.
Primary: One’s most important relationship, usually a spouse or live-in partner.
Secondary: relationship that is subordinate to the primary relationship
Solo-poly: A polyamorous person with no primary.
Wibbles: A word for jealous feelings that excludes blame or possession.
About the Author
Elizabeth Little is a writer and educator in California, USA. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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