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It's Not Swinging If You're Committed!

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For some, being polyamorous provides more love and support for the kids than does being in a monogamous household.

two women and one man

Ronda Kaysen: Most nights, Matt Bullen's 7-year-old son sleeps at home with his mom and dad, except for the nights when he sleeps at his dad's girlfriend's house. The arrangement works well because his mom's boyfriend lives there, too. Actually, his mom's boyfriend is married to his dad's girlfriend. Confused? Don't worry, that's just par for the course in polyamorist households.

Polyamory -- the notion that committed love relationships can involve more than two consenting adults -- is a bit like swinging, with one key difference: Love and commitment are  the focus, not sexual hookups. For some, polyamorous relationships involve three or more adults, and no other new partners ever enter the equation. For others, polyamory becomes an even more fluid family dynamic.

Polyamory is relatively new terrain for Matt and Vera, who have been married for 14 years and live in Seattle. Three years ago, they decided to try having an open marriage wherein they allowed each other to have casual sexual relationships with other people. But when Matt met Terisa Greenan through Facebook, the situation quickly changed.

"It became clear to Vera that this was something more than just casual," says Matt. "This was polyamory.... Pretty obviously, I was falling in love with Terisa."

Soon enough, though, Vera was dating Terisa's husband, Larry. Terisa, the creator of a web series about polyamory called "Family," lives with two life partners: Larry and her longtime boyfriend, Scott. (To protect their identities, neither Scott nor Larry wished their last names to be used in this piece.) Terisa considers Matt and Vera to be extended family, and their son now has a room in her house.

Raising kids in a polyamorous household has its advantages, say polyamorists. After all, more adults means more hands to help with household chores such as doing laundry, making dinner, getting kids ready for bed and scheduling playdates. With more adults, there's also more money to go around. Kids enjoy the benefits of a large, extended family network. Polyamorous parents insist that their kids also learn valuable communication skills simply from watching their parents navigate the tricky terrain of managing more than one lover at a time.

"It's actually more natural than nuclear families, to tell you the truth," says Dossie Easton, a psychologist and author of The Ethical Slut, which is considered the polyamorists' bible. "The kids are startlingly able to discern between the different adults."

Easton, who found herself a single mother by choice in 1969, raised her daughter in an ever-changing polyamorous household in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a time, she lived with two other single mothers and hosted regular luncheons for all their various lovers, so everyone could get to know one another. Raising children, she says, was always at the center of the equation. If a lover didn't feel comfortable in a child-centered world, he didn't last long.

"I don't think it's any different than raising [kids] in a monogamous family," says Robyn Trask, Managing Director of Loving More, a polyamorous magazine and nonprofit organization based in Colorado. "You just have to really talk and communicate with your kids, which is important anyway." Trask raised three kids in a polyamorous household. When her oldest son was 10, she broke the news to him that she and his father had other lovers, expecting it to be a difficult conversation. To her surprise, he rolled with it.

"I explained that we had an open relationship, and that that didn't mean [his father and I] didn't love each other very much," she says. "I asked him how he felt about it, and he said, 'That's kind of cool.'" Now 22, her son identifies as poly and currently has two girlfriends.

For Trask's kids, growing up poly meant they had a large network of aunt- and uncle-like figures to call on. "We have more adults that we can lean on, who can be there for us," says Trask. "That kind of extended family, where there's an intimacy, is really nice."

The unusual family setup does have its drawbacks. Poly kids have to deal with judgmental peers, hiding their true family structure from friends, and the sudden absence of parental figures they have come to love and trust (if their biological parents break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend du jour).

"Kids have certainly talked about feeling sad when partners leave," says Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist at George State University who is conducting a long-term study on children raised in polyamorous households. "That's a source of pain for them." 

Although polyamorists are quick to point out that monogamy doesn't shield kids from breakups and abandonment, Sheff notes that the turnover in poly households tends to be higher simply because more adults are involved in the equation.

Extramarital hookups are nothing new. Free love dominated the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the 1970s brought the concept of swinging into the mainstream. Recently, actress Tilda Swinton raised eyebrows when she unabashedly admitted to having two male partners, one of whom is the father of her twins.

Biologist David Barash contends in his book The Myth of Monogomy that humans are a mildly polygamous species by nature, with a strong penchant for the occasional extramarital hookup. As for whether we're naturally inclined to be polyamorous, he doubts it.

"There is typically a biological payoff for both men and women in engaging in the occasional extra-pair copulation," says Barash. "But at the same time, there is a strong disinclination to have one's partner doing the same thing. So, just as a tendency for extra-pair copulation is 'natural,' so is a tendency for sexual jealousy."

There are no hard numbers on how many Americans identify themselves as polyamorous; however, Trask estimates that as many as 60,000 people are poly in the U.S. Her organization's database represents about 26,000 families.

There are large polyamorous communities in cities across the country that host poly potlucks, retreats and social outings. Online social networking sites like Facebook have played a major role in creating these poly communities.

Sheff found that the people who identify as polyamorous are overwhelmingly white, highly educated, middle and upper-middle class and politically liberal.

While poly families don't express concern about how living in a poly home will affect their children, they overwhelmingly worry about what would happen if a judge had a say in how they choose to raise their kids. In the handful of custody cases that have involved poly families, the polyamorous parent usually lost custody of his or her child, which indicates that kids in poly households may be vulnerable to a court system that is largely unsympathetic to non-monogamy.

"There's a little saying in the community: 'If you have kids, don't do publicity; don't do things in public,'" says Matt's girlfriend, Terisa. Although Matt and Terisa spoke to momlogic for this story, they did not want Matt's son's name to be used, in order to protect his identity. "We don't want our kids to be harassed," says Terisa. "We don't want our kids to be taken away."

40 comments so far | Post a comment now
sharon February 9, 2010, 5:34 AM

EEWWWWWW!!!! I weep for the future.

Pam February 9, 2010, 7:07 AM

Yuck…totally agree. This is disgusting. It seems to me that these people couldn’t stay faithful if they tried and so they’re looking for excuses to justify having several relationships at once (“my kids have more parents”, etc.) and that makes it OK.

Kel February 9, 2010, 11:27 AM

While I am not polyamorous, simply because I get jealous, I absolutely agree that the more positive role models you can have for your children, the better. My recent ex and I were living in a rented home with two friend of ours who were also dating. When we broke up, he found a new partner who moved in with us. We raise our children together as siblings and have no issue with the communal living situation. I doubt that I would be comfortable in any other. It takes a village, you know.

Nicole February 9, 2010, 3:35 PM

My husband and I are in a poly-amorous marriage. He and I both share a girlfriend, he has another girlfriend, and I have a boyfriend. Our children are raised in a very loving family where they know they have plenty of people to care for them. We keep mainly to ourselves and honestly it is not based on sex. It is based on love. I can be faithful and I have held a monogamous relationship for years. However, my husband and I have been happy with our poly-amorous marriage for over 10 years now. I feel like I simply have too much love in my heart and I can’t help but love my girlfriend and boyfriend just as much as my husband. We are a very happy family and we are honestly very normal people!

egene February 9, 2010, 5:20 PM

Sorry, but regardless of what titled nitwit condones this practice leaves a foul tastes in my thoughts. This is little more than sexual promiscuity and clearly shows the children it is okay to have multiple sex partners. I do not agree this is a positive message for anyone except the consenting adults who practice it.

Julie February 9, 2010, 7:15 PM

Both Sharon and Pam have no idea what they’re talking about. If either of them took the time to actually learn about polyamory, they would understand that it is no way related to mere sexual promiscuity; that belief is only held by prude, ignorant people who have no desire to acquire knowledge about different ways of living.

It’s 2010, ladies. You have no excuse to speak so ignorantly.

Anita Wagner February 10, 2010, 6:46 PM

Though Julie said it more bluntly than I’d have, I must agree that the negative and hostile responses here reflect a keen lack of awareness, not to mention a rather breathtaking negative attitude toward the legitimate pleasures of sexual variety between consenting adults.

As to the kids, let’s be clear here - as long as poly parents raise their children in stable, loving homes, what the kids learn about that matters most is love. Not sexual love, because that would be inappropriate, but instead what love looks like when it is given freely without possessiveness. They thrive under the abundance of resources that hard-pressed one or two parent households just can’t provide. There is often more financial security, more help with homework and more loving adults to listen, read bedtime stories, and give rides to ballet lessons. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that poly families are bad for children.

Lucius Scribbens February 12, 2010, 11:32 AM

I agree completely with Anita, and this is from personal experience. While my wife’s boyfriend lived with us there was much greater resource of time given to the children. I was working two jobs and my wife one and he was unemployed at the time, so he took care of the house, the laundry, cooked dinner every night, made sure the kids got picked-up from school and that they did their homework and also did their chores. Something children in many two income family’s, or single parent households simply don’t get because the parents are at work until 5 or 6 PM or even later. The children got far more adult/parental-like attention during this period than they did prior to him moving-in and since he’s moved-out.

Marie February 12, 2010, 2:10 PM

I am one of the 60,000 polyamorous individuals, and our family is one of the 26,000 families that are a part of the polyamorous organization mentioned. I have personally been inclined toward responsible nonmonogamy ever since I started having romantic feelings and dating. I never understood why one had to give up loving one person because they also grew to love another. I consider most polyamorous families to be more stable and loving for children than families who engage in serial monogamy. Our family consists of myself, my husband of 24 years, our 4 children, my husband’s otherlove of 4 years, and her 3 children, and my otherlove of 3 years. We are reasonably out about our family to family, school, friends, and neighbors, but what keeps us from being even more visible is the fears mentioned in the article about the legal syatem not being in support of polyamorous families.

Andrew V February 12, 2010, 7:44 PM

It’s odd how most of the negative comments are notably inarticulate; all they seem to say is “ooh, ick”. (Pam, your comment says very slightly more.)

I’ve seen kids brought up in a poly household (at the time, I didn’t know the name; I just knew that there were two guts living with one woman in a conjugal relationship; to this day I’m not sure who the biological father is), and it sure didn’t do any harm.

An extended family is historically the most normal way to raise children, and more adults living together and considering themselves “family” provides exactly that.

As for egene, how many sex partners have you had?

I think I’m at the low end; I’ve only had sex with two people in my life. I just didn’t break up with the first when I started seeing the second.

Before anyone accuses me of promiscuity, please count up your own total.

Christel February 12, 2010, 10:16 PM

Polyamory is not generally practiced by people who have been unable to maintain monogamous relationships. In fact one of the guiding factors for success in polyamory is having had a healthy commited monogamous relationship before approaching polyamory.

Why? Because it takes good relationship skills to practice polyamory. All the effort and commitment one pours into a monogamous relationship more than doubles the moment that relationship is poly.

To me it makes ample sense that if someone has a successful poly relationship he would probably be a suitable parent. Why? Because this is an individual who has mastered the skill of conflict resolution and negotiation. They are careful to learn to be fair to their partners. They value kindness, consideration and respect. They take a concious deliberate approach to ensuring the emotional wellbeing of their family.

The term compersion ( defined as finding joy in the joy of others) was a term coined not by a monogamous society, but by polyamorists.

For such a concept to flourish in what society often considers a morally aversive lifestyle is very telling to me.

Polyamory is not about sexual gratification or compensating for a dissatisfying monogamous relationship. If that is what drives YOUR polyamorous relationship, you’re doing it wrong. I bet it won’t last.

What drives MY relationship is the fact that I feel joy at my husband’s joy, and when he is in love with another woman, the happiness he experiences becomes my happiness too. Jealousy just doesn’t occur to me.

Polyamory is not Polygamy and paternalism. It is not about greed. It is not about power. It is not about lust. It is not about infatuation. It is about love.

Polyamorists are often MORE responsible about the sexual side of things. My poly friends who have a little girl of four refuse to have sex with anyone who hasn’t been approved by both their partners ( The husband, the wife and the girlfriend must agree to it). Furthermore that person has to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before hand.

How many monogamous people are that careful really?

They never engage in casual sex. The only sexual partners they have are those few individuals who get along well with the rest of the group and are open to becoming a long term couple and abiding by the rules that the others follow.

How often do you think that happens, really?

Hardly promiscuity then. Sounds almost…conservative!

Corinne February 15, 2010, 2:24 AM

I was involved with a couple who had children and I know first hand how much easier it is to look after the kids, cook, clean etc with extra adults around.

They are not together anymore but being part of a poly community means there is always lots of people around to pitch in rather than having two lonely single-parent households struggling to get by.

christine February 15, 2010, 11:58 AM

I’m poly in theory, but don’t have the guts to raise my kids in such a situation. I also couldn’t face the criticism of the closed-minded masses who would discriminate against us because we chose a different relationship dynamic. Many of these same people hypocritically cheat and subject their children to the hardships they accuse poly families of promoting.

When we finally do find another partner, it will be a clandestine affair. I applaud those who raise healthy happy productive adults.

J February 17, 2010, 2:30 PM

I have been in a poly relationship for two years and was married for 8 years before we entered into it. It is a closed relationship. My husband and I have two children and our partner has 1 child. We were open about the relationship from the very first..All of our families are supportive and get along well. 99% of our friends are fine with it too. It takes a lot of dedication to live like this and very HONEST open communication (you have no idea unless you are in one the honesty, compassion and self realizing it takes to live this life.) everyone thinks it’s about sex at first it’s not. Nor is it all about that in healthy couples relationship. Our kids are doing fine, and are happy we check on their well being often which is any good parents top priority. You get over jealousy (one of the first negitive feelings that come up) and it’s amazing what kind of person you can become after you do. This type of relationship is not for everyone. It may seem strange in a society that in based on couple relationships, but just like couples we just live to be who we are and in this case it just happens to be people who are honest about loving more than one person at a time.

Deborah February 20, 2010, 12:31 PM

I see the proverbial “What about the kids?” as just another smoke screen like the excuse that “jealously is normal” for critics to hide behind instead of closely examining their lack of happiness in their own personal relationships and families. From my observations and experiences, after living openly in a polyamorous relationship with my second husband for the last 7 years in stark contrast to my first marriage that was suppose to be monogamous, that it is the complete honesty and the emphasis on total communication between the adults in polyamorous relationships and families is what many people basically cannot tolerate, accept and/or understand.

shannon March 8, 2010, 11:53 AM

I’m in a poly-fi relationship. My husband and I have been married for 11 years, together for 12, known each other for 22. We have 4 children, 18,13,10,2.
My boyfriend and I have known each other for 17 years. He’s been with no other woman but me in 10 years. He’s lived with us for the last 7 years.

My sister lives with us as well, though she is not sexually involved with the guys like I am.

We are definitely not the “sleeping around” type of people.
We’re busy raising kids. We all four identify as parental figures to the kids. The kids refer to my sister and my boyfriend as aunt and uncle.

We’ve been OUT as poly in our community for 6 months.
Honestly-our kids are easy going, confident and happy. Other people are amazed by how well behaved, friendly, intelligent and down to earth the kids are.

Most of our friends are in “normal” monogomous marriages, but none has anything bad to say about our situation as they can all see how devoted, committed, and true we are to each other and to the kids. Our number one priority is the kids, we spent years working together to ensure the kids were never left in the care of a daycare and always with someone who loved them personally, and it eventually evolved into this poly-family.

K.K. May 24, 2010, 3:14 PM

It’s odd (and actually rather sad) that polyamorous parents are regarded with all these really mature “Ewwws!” and “Icks!”, yet somehow divorced single moms and dads who have to bounce their children around like pinballs between ‘paternal visits’, hunt for babysitters, and leave work early to attend to Junior (letting single co-workers pick up their slack) are perfectly acceptable.

Get a clue, people; children are safer with more guardians than less. And virtually no marriage vow even mentions children.

Linden July 20, 2010, 7:33 AM

My husband’s expressed desire to live a polyamorous lifestyle has destroyed our marriage of 14 years and hurt our children. If being polyamorous wasn’t about sex, poly people would be satisfied with close, committed friendships. But they aren’t. It’s just swinging, dressed up with a bit of “love” to seem more acceptable.

Science Fair Project For Middle School November 24, 2010, 11:33 PM

If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone. A man should keep his friendships in constant repair.

Hemorrhoid Cure November 27, 2010, 11:17 PM

Very helpful reading. Great post, I absolutely enjoy reading your post.

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