A new book, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-partner Relationships and Families (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), takes readers beyond the myths to explore the true lives of real families. For this month’s column, I had the chance to find out more from the author, sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., an expert witness, educator, speaker, and consultant on polyamorous families with children who also writes for Psychology Today.
Adina Nack: When I think of non-monogamy I think of pop culture portrayals of polygamy or men with some sort harem. Is it a common assumption that non-monogamy is simply an excuse for one man to have many female sexual partners?
Elisabeth Sheff: The media rarely portrays the full variety of non-monogamy. I study polyamory, a style of openly conducted non-monogamy that emphasizes emotional intimacy, honesty, and negotiation. In polyamory, both women and men can have access to other partners, which is very different from polygyny, the most common form of polygamy in which one man can have several wives. In contrast, polyamorists, with intentions of creating emotionally intimate relationships, differ from mainstream swingers who emphasize sexual variety with emotional exclusivity. In fact, many couples who swing set boundaries that expressly prohibit people from developing strong feelings for someone outside of the committed couple. Then, cheaters have non-monogamous relationships but lie about them or keep them secret, which runs counter to the polyamorous emphasis on honesty and negotiation.
AN: It sounds like polyamory is a very different experience, especially for the women?
ES: Yes, poly women say that they relish the opportunity to have multiple partners. The equality of allowing everyone access to multiple partners, regardless of gender, means that polyamory has a significantly different impact on women than polygyny. Women in poly relationships tend to be highly-educated and able to be financially independent if circumstances require – a significant departure from women in polygynous marriages who are typically denied education and access to paid work. Poly women generally chose the relationship style as adults, rather than entering arranged marriages as adolescents who may not have even been consulted about their wishes. Results of this gender parity are evident at the community level, in which most of the high-visibility leaders, activists, writers, and researchers are women.
AN: With more gender equality among poly people, how does this impact the division of labor in households?
ES: Even though poly people are often liberals who try to avoid sexism, their families tend to be surprisingly traditional when it comes to the division of household, paid, and emotional labor. Some of this is because the gendered wage gap that makes it easier for men to earn enough money to support a lower or non-paid worker.
AN: What are the experiences of children in polyamorous families?
ES: Children in the poly families who participated in my 15-year study are generally in great shape: they were articulate and intelligent, precocious and thoughtful, poised and self-confident. Not that kids from poly families are perfect – they can be just as obnoxious, defiant, and irritating as children in other families. Even so, kids from poly families are a strikingly robust group, in part because their parents’ racial and class privileges give them advantages in life. Having all of the extra attention and resources that come with multiple-adult families helps as well.
AN: During different ages, what are some of the experiences that tend to be common for children growing up in poly families?
ES: Young kids, up to 7 or 8 years old, who are growing up in poly families often don’t even question their family form, partially because little kids generally take their families for granted as the norm anyway, and also because the adults save the sexual interaction until the kids are in bed. In families with openly polyamorous parents, tweens from 9 to 12 are often more aware that their families are different and will frequently ask their parents what is happening. Parents who are divorced or fear losing custody of their children for some other reason (surveillance from in-laws or authorities) if they are outed as polyamorists tend to either dodge their children’s questions or hide their sexual interactions so the kids think their partners are “just” friends. Poly parents who are not worried about legal threats generally respond to their kids’ questions with truthful and age-appropriate answers, avoiding oversharing by waiting until the children ask for clarification before providing more information. Teens are generally aware that their families are polyamorous and, in true teenager fashion, tend to be defiant against outsiders who scorn the family style. Very few of the teens I interviewed had decided to be polyamorous themselves, most often because they felt they were too young and inexperienced to make that kind of decision.
AN: How do kids in poly families talk to their peers and other people about their families?
ES: Because divorce and serial monogamy are so common, many kids have multiple parents which allows kids from poly families to simply blend in. If children from poly families did not correct their peers’ and other adults’ assumptions, then they could pass as “normals” fairly easily. When the kids from poly families have close friends they can trust, they will often tell their friends about their poly families. Sometimes poly kids would use ‘filter’ questions — asking friends what they thought about same-sex marriage or some other issue pertaining to sexual minorities — to gauge the safety of disclosing their poly family status on the basis of friends’ reactions to these questions.
AN: Thanks for taking the time to share more about your research. During the holidays, there’s a lot of focus on “the family,” and your book is an important addition for those who want to better understand and support healthy families who may deviate from mainstream norms.