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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."


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