by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE
In this fourth part of the series on children in polyamorous families I offer a sneak peek into my preliminary findings from my ongoing research on poly families with kids. Part one explains the age-dependent experiences that children experience in polyamorous families, part two of this series explores the advantages and disadvantages these kids report, and part three lists four of the strategies these kids use to deal with disadvantages. This fourth blog in the series details my emerging findings about some of the emotional impacts, creating community, relationships, and sexuality for the young adults (18 – 25 years old) in my 20-year study.
When I began the study in 1996, I fully expected that (when I could finally talk to children – it took me years to get IRB permission) kids from these families would tell me that the primary disadvantage was getting emotionally attached to parents’ partners and then being heartbroken when the adults break up and the kids don’t get to see the ex-partner any more. Although some kids reported missing their parent’s former partners, it was not the primary disadvantage they identified. To my surprise, the children reported missing their parents’ ex’s children much more than missing their parents’ ex-partners. The kids explained that they would hang out together and have fun kid sleepovers in one part of the house while the parents had an adult sleepover in a different part of the house, so the kids spent more time (and had more fun) together than they spent interacting with the adults. If the relationship broke up, it was primarily the other children’s company they missed.
Young adults from polyamorous families noted their ability to create emotionally intimate relationships where ever they went. This provides a sense of safety and connection for these budding adults when leaving home for college, a new job, or a move to a new city. While remaining connected to their parents and friends from home, they reported that they could establish new community connections and recreate their own social safety net. 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.
Relationships & Sexuality
Characteristic of others in their age group, these young adults express quite a bit more gender and sexual fluidity than their parents and have much less love for labels. While all but two of the older-adult respondents from the study are cisgender (not transgender, comfortable with the same gender they were assigned at birth) heterosexuals or bisexuals, some of their children identify as non-binary gender, genderqueer, or transgender. Almost all of the young adults in the sample identify as pansexual and/or queer (even if their experience has been primarily or solely heterosexual), with a few identifying as gay or asexual.
Only two of the young adults I have spoken with so far this round label themselves as polyamorous. One other identifies as asexual/aromantic and does not anticipate having sexual relationships, polyamorous or monogamous. The rest do not identify with a specific relationship label, and instead have a flexible attitude that their romantic relationship will evolve in response to their partner’s and their own needs. It may be open at one point, monogamous at another, polyfidelitous initially and then become polyamorous, or whatever the situation and people involved require. For these young adults, polyamory is but one of the many relationship styles they could consider, and they are in no hurry to identify with a label or create permanent boundaries at this early stage in adult life.
In the US today, very few people grow up with a mother who only does unpaid work at home (“stay-at-home mother”) and a father who works for pay to support the entire family financially, and who remain married in a monogamous/sexually faithful relationship until one of them dies. Even though we think of this as “the” traditional family, it is not reality today for most people who grow up with parents who work for pay, single parents, or blended families that combine kids with new/step/adoptive parents and step/half/adoptive siblings. Ironically, “the” traditional family was not even the reality of most people in the hallowed 1950s: Poor and working class women have always worked for pay outside the home, parents have always died and left single-parents raising children or orphans, and people (especially men) have always cheated on their partners and flouted the rules of monogamy.
Now, the US has experienced broad changes in everything from increased life-expectancy and the availability of birth control to women’s greater legal equality and economic imperatives requiring multiple incomes to sustain a family. These changes have resulted in many people abandoning classical monogamy in favor of serial monogamy, remaining single, and a range of other options including consensual non-monogamy. Family diversity both results from and creates social change. Divorce – which used to be anathema, something to hide and speak of only in whispers, reason enough not to have a child over to play or attend a birthday party – is now so mundane that it provides a convenient social excuse for why a child has multiple parents. Instead of hiding it in shame or hoping no one notices, kids from poly families can rely on divorce as such a plausible explanation for multiple adults in their lives that teachers, coaches, and peers’ parents don’t even ask about it and simply assume the parents are divorced and get along well with each-others’ new spouses.
Even though these significant social changes have created a wide array of different families, they have not been sufficiently reflected in current laws. Until fairly recently, sex and gender minorities have not enjoyed the legal recognition accorded to cisgender heterosexual married couples. In the last 20 years that has been changing, and same-sex marriage has created marriage equality for some. The new cutting edge of family law and sexuality has moved to the custody of children from other sex and gender minority parents, including polyamorous families. In my next blog, I explore custody of children from polyamorous families.