Polyamory and Child Custody (Guest Post by Gracie X)

Six years ago when my husband and new boyfriend all decided to cohabitate under the same roof– I felt pretty smug. I had created a situation where I got to have my husband of 20 years and a new lover as well. We converted our single-family home into a duplex. My husband and his new girlfriend moved into one side of the house, while I lived on the other side with my new man, Oz. Our children had their bedrooms under >But not everyone was thrilled for us. When Oz, told his ex-wife he was giving up his apartment permanently to move in with me, she slapped him with a custody suit. She was determined that their two children would never live in my home. She accused us of all kinds of perversities and insisted the household was unsafe for their children. During the hearings, we were basically investigated for being polyamorous. Thus began my painful education into the fears and bigotry surrounding my alternative chosen family.

It was a baptism of fire. We were evaluated by the courts for over year then suddenly the kids were allowed to move in– almost on a fluke. I wrote about this “best of times & worst of times” in my memoir “Wide Open”.

But even after Oz’s children moved in, we all felt vulnerable. Until there are laws that protect polyamorous people, swingers and those with any openness in their marriage—we are unprotected from people who would use our sexuality to attack us.

Here are three things that I would advise you do if you are confronted with child custody issues:

1) Shift the Focus off Your Sexuality

There are lousy polyamorous parents and lousy monogamous parents, there are also fantastic polyamorous parents and fantastic monogamous parents. Your sexuality does not determine your effectiveness and goodness as a parent. One mistake we made was trying to justify and explain our lifestyle to the courts. In hindsight this further put our sexuality on display. Better to do just the opposite. Focus on your excellent parenting skills. This is assuming you are a good parent. If you aren’t—you’re in trouble. Because similar to other bigotry– you will have to be a better parent than the average monogamous parent.

Your sexual habits will be under scrutiny. But my advice is to respond to attacks and queries in the reverse context. Describe how your bedroom has a lock on it and is on a separate floor. Subtext: Of course we do not have sex in front of our children! Describe your community, your village which supports your excellent parenting. Subtext: We do not have orgies in the living room while the kids play with Legos—we are a kid-orientated responsible family. Get letters of recommendation from teachers’, friends, co-workers, anyone who has witnessed your parenting and can accurately describe your parental strengths.

2. Hire a Good Lawyer.

But don’t stop there– educate your lawyer. Utilize local LGBT organizations for legal strategy. Gay rights activist groups have already dealt with the kind of situations and bigotry that you may be confronted with in court. You will likely need to work with your lawyer on a game plan. Don’t turn your case over to your lawyer without thoroughly discussing how they will represent and fight for you. Don’t hire a lawyer just because they’re polyamorous. This is a mistake. Hire a very sharp, aggressive lawyer with a proven track record in custody cases. Someone who pays attention, is open to collaborating on methods/strategy, understands your situation and will advocate for you with clarity and intelligence.

3. Take Really Good Care of Yourself.

When I look back at this time it was one of the most stressful of my life. I was on edge for the entire two years that we were embroiled with the courts and their appointed evaluator. Reach out to your support network, find ways to calm yourself down and deal with your stress. It’s extremely challenging to deal with the courts and even more so with the potential of losing your children– my heart goes out to anyone going through it.

You can e-mail Gracie X at GracieX.com.


This post is part of the Raising Children in Polyamorous Families blog series

Gracie X

Gracie X
Gracie X is a Writer, Director, and Actress. She is the author of “Wide Open: My Adventures in Polyamory, Open Marriage and Loving On My Own Terms” now available wherever books are sold.

She started a relationship odyssey nearly a decade ago that inspired her to create an unconventional polyamorous chosen family. For the past several years the idea that people can authentically construct their relationships, marriages, and families while meeting the needs of everyone involved– has cracked her wide open. She can’t stop writing, talking, or thinking about it. Her main message is do it your own way. “There is so much more spaciousness in our relationships to get our needs met—and there’s not one correct way to do it. There are a spectrum of options from monogamy to polyamory and all the nuances in between.” She encourages people to create a unique ‘relationship mission statement’ and set up their marriages, poly relationships and families in the way that works best for them.

She has been a principal on “Nash Bridges”, and numerous local TV and commercials. Her short film which she directed and co-stars premiered in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. It has played at “The Outfest” in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Germany, Seattle, Orlando, and on San Jose’s Public TV channel KTEH. Her plays have been produced by ‘Brava! For Women in the Arts”, The Climate Theater, Solo Mio, The Chi Chi Club, The Fringe Festival, The Marsh and Josie’s Juice Joint. Gracie X has toured throughout San Francisco, Vancouver and Los Angeles. A graduate of Bard College, she has worked with Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver at the WOW Cafe in New York City.

Roots of Abuse: Intent, Insecurity, and Shitty Boundaries

In popular imagination, abusers are fully aware of what they are doing. They are horrid people who act with full intent to control and destroy the people they claim to love. A modern monster for a modern society.

The reality of abuse is much more complicated. While some abusers make a conscious decision to abuse, others are acting from the best of intentions and see themselves as the “good guy” in their relationships. Today we are going to look at three possible roots of abuse: intent, insecurity, and shitty boundaries.


Some people just plain are shitty people. They deliberately seek out partners they can dominate, overwhelm, and control. They make a conscious decision to separate their victims from all support and help. They may or may not think of themselves as abusers, but they their right to control the lives of their loved ones as a given. Their abusive behavior is done with the intent of getting and keeping their partner(s) under their thumb.

These abusers can be extremely charming, sociable, and enticing. They often know how to play social dynamics to make themselves the “good guy” that no one can pin anything on. They probably know that their behavior is not socially acceptable, but they don’t care. These abusers may be classic sociopaths, unable to really see others as people, they may “just” be entitled control freaks.

My grandfather, who definitely fell into this category, saw everyone in his family as an extension of himself. Therefore A) as parts of himself we were all his to control and dictate to, and B) everything we did reflected on him in a very personal way. Therefore he “needed” to control everyone to protect himself and his standing.


Of all the abuse I have seen in polyamorous relationships, insecurity has been the most common root cause. Insecure abusers don’t think in terms of trying to control their partners. Instead, they think they are protecting themselves. The problem is that they try to “protect” themselves by imposing their will on the people around them.

The “good news” for this type of abuser is that they are usually easy to identify. Both their partners and the people around them will be able to see clear signs of their attempts at control. Unfortunately, it is also very easy to get taken in by them. We don’t want our loved ones to be scared or feel threatened, so we bend over backward to reassure them. In the process, we give in to emotional manipulation and other forms of abuse. In time, we give up all control of our relationships, and sometimes our lives, for someone who is willing to harm us in order to protect themselves.

Abusers acting out of insecurity are all over poly forums and discussion groups. One of the best (and most) heartrending) fictional depictions of this type of abuse is in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Komarr.” Tien Vorsoisson, in fear of losing his wife, uses gaslighting, accusations of affairs, and even their son in order to separate her from all family and friends, and force her to back down every time she tried to question or challenge him. Another character describes Tien as “One of those parasitic individuals that leaves their spouse scratching their head and asking ‘Am I crazy? Am I crazy?’ ”

Shitty Boundaries

This is an interesting and disturbing case, because the abuser actually believes they are acting for the good of the person they love. They aren’t trying to control their partner(s), they aren’t trying to protect themselves. They are acting out love and care. But as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In my (limited) experience, this type of abuser is actually the one you are most likely to be able to salvage a healthy relationship with. Boundaries can be learned, but you very much need to be willing to enforce yours. These abusers are harder to recognize than the insecure abusers, but easier to catch than many of the intentional abusers. Their ability to cast themselves as the hero protecting their loved ones gives them a camouflage of sorts. However, if you are aware of boundaries and the difference between support and control, you can usually catch the signs.

I first recognized this type of abuser in an “Ask Dr. NerdLove” blog post. The letter writer was concerned because his girlfriend had a very unhealthy relationship with her family. He wanted to prevent his girlfriend from contacting her family anymore because of how they were harming her. I’m pretty sure that every partner I’ve ever had, and many of my friends, can emphasize with this person’s desire to protect someone he loved from her toxic family. But when he decided he had the right to dictate whether or not she could see her family, he went too far.

There are probably other roots to abusive behavior, these are the three I have run into and recognize. And these types don’t exist in isolation. Shitty boundaries and “for your own good” can go hand in hand with the belief that someone has the right to control their partner (intent). My mother acted both from insecurity (fear that I would grow up and leave her/choose my birth family over her) and a belief that I have shitty judgment and she needs to save me (and my children) from myself.

If you are familiar with other roots of abusive behavior or have had experiences dealing with these, please share in the comments.

Legal Options for Multi-Parent Polyamorous Families

(This blog post is based on my knowledge and experience in the US. My research suggests that the same general options apply in many parts of Europe and the Anglosphere. If you have knowledge of other countries, please share in the comments!)

Our social and legal systems are set up on the assumption that a child has two parents. These systems have difficulty handling step-parents, never mind poly families. So it is no surprise that polyamorous families with three or more parents raising kids together often run into red tape.

Whether your family is co-parenting together with all the adults having equal say, or you generally raise kids as couples, but want your poly partners to have some official place in your kid’s life, the social and legal systems are just not set up to work with you.

Luckily, there are a few ways you work around the system.

Doing Separate Paperwork for Each Situation

Most things activities and bureaucracies your kids need to go through will have an option to designate other adults who are allowed to participate, be informed, and interact. At the doctor’s office, you can fill out a form that gives your poly partner the right to take your child to the doctor and get information about your child’s health.

At school you can fill out a form that allows your poly partner to pick your child up, meet your child on school grounds, or participate in class activities.

Hospitals, after school activities, summer camps, and clubs usually have a similar system.

You will need to jump through a slightly different set of hoops for each area of your child’s life you would like your poly partner to be involved in. This has significant hassle but also allows you to pick and choose what access you give your poly partners.

In Loco Parentis

In loco parentis is a legal method of designating another adult to act on your behalf in regard to your child. In the US, when children go on field trips with their school, parents need to sign forms allowing the school to act in loco parentis on the trip—this allows the school to take the child to the hospital in the event of an emergency.

In loco parentis is simple to set up. All it takes is a paper saying that this adult stands in loco parentis, with the right to act on the parents behalf. Sign the paper and you are good. You can set a time limit—for instance giving a babysitter in loco parentis standing for one week while you are on vacation. You can also specify specific rights. For instance giving a poly partner in loco parentis standing for medical care, but not for things related to school or legal matters.

If you want to be a bit more formal about it, you can ask a lawyer to draw up an in loco parentis statement. If you have concerns about relatives or other people who disapprove of your relationship challenging the in loco parentis, this may be a good idea. It is not necessary.

Setting up in loco parentis is the easiest way to give a poly partner some standing regarding your kids. They will need to keep the paper with them and show to officials anytime they are speaking on your behalf. If you don’t set a time limit on the original form, you can revoke their standing at anytime.

Legally Adding a Third Parent

A few (a very few) legal jurisdictions have set a precedent allowing three people to have legal standing as a child’s parents. This is definitely something you will want to speak with a lawyer about ahead of time, and be prepared for a lot of scrutiny and legal hassle.

If you live in a jurisdiction that has not yet allowed 3-parent families, you can attempt to set such a precedent, but expect even more hassle, expense and scrutiny.


Abuse, Boundaries, and Incompatibilities in Mono/Poly Relationships

A commenter on this blog recently mentioned their frustration with the way much of the writing about polyamory is by poly-folk, for poly-folk. This leaves monogamous people in mono/poly relationships in a difficult situation.

I may at a later time attempt to go into a detailed discussion of mono/poly relationships. Today I want to at least briefly address abuse in mono/poly relationships, and the difference between abuse, boundaries, and incompatibilities.

As I discussed earlier, the defining trait of abuse in control. This is true whether our partners are trying to control our jobs, our friendships, or our intimate relationships.

On the opposite side of relationships from control is setting boundaries. Instead of our partners telling us what WE are allowed to do, they are telling us what they require in a healthy relationship, and what is and is not acceptable to them.

For many mono/poly relationships, the greatest challenge in adjusting to a huge change in boundaries. When a member of a monogamous relationship comes out as polyamorous, they are drastically redefining their boundaries. How they redefine them varies a bit, but here are some examples.

  • I am willing and open to having multiple relationships. I’m not saying I need or want to have them, but I no longer need our relationship to be monogamous.
  • I’ve realized that I’m polyamorous, and monogamy has become unhealthy for me. In order for our relationship to meet my needs, I need to be able to have other relationships as well. I realize how big a thing this is, but I really hope you will be able to accept this change in my needs.

Of course, people rarely actually talk like this, but these general ideas, and others like them, are often behind a poly partner coming out to their monogamous partner.

An important part of these boundaries is that they are expressed as what the poly partner needs and what is healthy for them. They are not asking their monogamous partner to change or do anything. Only that their partner accept that this is what they need.

It is then up to the monogamous partner to decide, can I accept these new boundaries? Can a relationship with these boundaries be healthy for me?

If the answer is no than the mono and poly partners are incompatible. Especially in cases of long term relationships, this can be absolutely heart breaking. It can tear apart families, and destroy lives. But it may be healthier and less destructive than trying to force the relationship to continue.

Sometimes, a poly partner comes out in a way that is not setting boundaries, but exerting control:

  • I’m polyamorous, I need to have more than one relationship, and I need you to be involved in my other relationships.
  • I’m polyamorous, and monogamy is not healthy for me. I can’t be with a monogamous partner, so you need to be polyamorous too.
  • I know you are attracted to other people, you were telling me last week how hot Johnny Depp is. So you can’t object to my being in a relationship with other people.

Several of these statements are structured as “I need,” but in all of them the poly partner is dictating to the mono partner what the mono partner will and will not do, will and will not feel. This is not setting boundaries. This is abuse.

When this happens, the question of compatibility is irrelevant. One partner is trying to control the other partner and dictate their life. This is not a healthy relationship, full stop. Sometimes people choose to stay in abusive relationships, for various reasons (and I’ll be addressing this in a few weeks). Whether you stay in this relationship or leave it, this isn’t an issue of polyamory or monogamy. This is an issue of one partner being controlling and ignoring the other partners right to decide for themselves what they want.

Abuse can go both ways in a mono/poly relationship. Franklin Veaux’s the Game Changer depicts a monogamous partner using emotional abuse to control not just Franklin, but his other partners as well. On the flip side, I have heard disturbing stories of sexual abuse, where a poly partner forced their monogamous partner to participate in threesomes.

Navigating a mono/poly relationship is difficult at the best of times. Both partners (and I do mean BOTH) will need to make accommodations to make the relationship work. (Check out Hard and Soft Boundaries for a starting point in these discussions.) Especially in long term relationships becoming mono/poly, it can be tempting to try to preserve the relationship by insisting your partner toe your line or to giving in to your partners demands.


When you try to control your partner, or when your partner tries to control you, the relationship you are trying to preserve has crossed the line into abuse. Once that happens, what is really left to preserve? Either you need to confront the abuse and find a way to heal and start over, or the relationship is already dead—it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

When Your Kids Discover Your Closeted Polyamorous Relationship

(To keep things simple, this post has been written in terms of two parent households. The most of the same issues and choices will apply regardless of your family set up.)

The big problem with being closeted is that you can be outed. While some folks managed to stay closeted for decades, that’s the exception rather than the rule. And relationships that do stay closeted long term are usually not trying to hide the truth from people they live with. Sooner or later, many poly parents will need to deal with their kids learning the truth.

Kids who discover you have other relationships will likely be tweens or teenagers. Younger children generally don’t have enough awareness of social conventions and adult interactions to know the difference between their parents having friends and their parents being in intimate relationships. Tweens and teens who discover their parent’s relationships will make their own assumptions about what is going on. At best they may assume or hope that you have an open relationship. At worst, they may assume that you and/or their other parent are having an affair or are on your way towards divorce.

Unfortunately, not all kids will come to you about what they know or assume. This creates a difficult situation–you think your relationships are secret and their assumptions are running wild. If they are assuming affair or divorce, this can put a huge amount of stress on your kids.

Hopefully, if your kids do discover your relationships, they will be comfortable enough to come to you or your partner about it.

You best approach at that point is just to be honest. Make it clear that no one is cheating, no one is sneaking around, and that your kid’s family is not going to be torn apart by your relationships. They may have questions, they may be upset or feel threatened, they may not care once they know that nothing is going to change for them. Give them some time to absorb everything.

If possible, I recommend giving them an idea of who they can talk with. You being in the closet should not deny your kids a chance to have a support system. They need to have a family friend, relative, therapist, someone they can talk with (who isn’t you). Unless you intend to come out, in general, your kids will need to know that you are in the closet and why. That means they will need to know who is and is not safe to talk with.

If your kids do not come to you, you may notice changes in their behavior, mood, and how they treat you or your partner. Of course, that also describes stereotypical teenagers. It is always hard to tell when tweens or teenagers are dealing with a major problem that needs their parent’s intervention, and when they are dealing with the regular stresses of being a teenager.

If you suspect your child has discovered your relationships, but they say nothing to you, you’ll need to decide how to approach them. You might take the head-on approach of outing yourself. This will make it easier to discuss your relationships and any concerns they may have. However, if they hadn’t yet discovered your relationships you may have outed yourself unnecessarily. Or you can try to get them to tell you what is wrong. This is notoriously difficult with teens, and only slightly easier with tweens. If they have discovered your relationships, or if something else is going on that damages their trust in you, it will be even harder.

“There’s no right way to do polyamory!” (But there’re lots of wrong ways)

I mentioned last week that often good ideas or positive statements can become tools for abusers. Within polyamory, “There’s no right way to do poly” has become one of these tools. In theory, the idea that there is no right way to do poly is meant to be an affirmation. You don’t need to fit yourself into a box. You don’t need to do poly in a way that other people approve os. You can find a version of polyamory that works for you.

In one sense, this statement is meant as a response to criticism. No one can tell you how to do polyamory, because what works for other people may not work for you. Unfortunately, some criticism is valid. Some ways of having relationships are flat out unhealthy. Some ways of “doing” polyamory are wrong.

And for many people who do polyamory in a way that harms others “there’s no right way to do poly!” has become a useful tool to shut down conversation and deflect attention. As soon as someone says “There’s no right way to do poly,” the person confronting them has to defend their right to express their concerns. The conversation becomes about polyamory theory rather than whatever is concerning the person who spoke up.

This tactic can be used to shut down a secondary upset with the way their voice is being silenced, a mono partner who has agreed to try polyamory and is uncomfortable with the direct the relationship is going, other people in the local community calling out abuse or unethical behavior, and much more.

My suggestion is to see this idea as a red flag in discussing personal relationships. “There’s no right way to do poly” is a powerful idea in discussing the theory of polyamory. It has no place in discussing a specific relationship or relationship network. Shut it down hard.

“Yes, there is no right way to do polyamory, but there are wrong ways. I’m worried by XYZ in this relationship and how it is harming people. If we can’t at least discuss my concerns, then this is not a healthy relationship for me.”

Talking with Your Child’s Teacher (or other professional) about Polyamory

Going to Your Kid’s Professionals

Sometimes you are going to need to approach your children’s teachers, doctors, and other adult figures in your kid’s life about polyamory. For instance:

  1. If your children have more than 2 parental figures who will be coming to parent-teacher conferences
  2. If you want one of your poly partner’s to be able to take your children to the doctor’s office
  3. If your child needs therapy for one reason or another–
    1. The therapist will need to know about all the child’s parental figures and/or other adults living with you.
    2. If your child knows about your relationships and it is likely to come up during therapy, you are better off telling the therapist yourself. Otherwise, they may get garbled information and draw the wrong conclusions from what your child says.

Most of the time you will only need to go to your kid’s professionals if you are out about being polyamorous. Whether or not you are closeted, there is one time I highly recommend starting a conversation about polyamory. If you are facing a potential custody battle that will involve polyamory, you need to go to your child’s therapist. By doing so, you ensure your child has the best support possible during a difficult time (custody battle) and may be able to help your case.

Before talking with your child’s professional, read over the post about educating your own poly-friendly professionals.

Start the conversation simply and frankly. Dancing around the topic is not helpful, and may irritate some people. “Our family includes three parental figures, myself, my child’s father, and [third parent]. [Third parent] will sometimes be bringing in Child in to their appointments. What paperwork do I need to fill out so you can talk about our child’s health care with [third parent].”

“Child may mention my boyfriend. Boyfriend spends a lot of time at our house and he and child have a good relationship. Lately, we’ve been talking about my boyfriend moving in with our family.”

“Child doesn’t know this, but Spouse and I have an open relationship. I am dating … and Spouse is dating … Our relationships don’t impact child at all, but I’m worried they might come out in the custody case.”

Try to let the conversation develop naturally from there. Don’t become defensive or apologetic. Answer questions that aren’t too personal or that are relevant to your child’s care or wellbeing. And always remember: you are the parent. If they respond in a negative, prejudiced, or dismissive manner, you can almost always find a different doctor, therapist, and even teacher.

When Your Child’s Professional Comes to You

Sometimes you don’t go to your kid’s professional—sometimes they come to you. If you are in the closet, most conversations with your child’s professionals will start this way.

Professional’s aren’t going to approach you just because they are curious. They are going to be coming to you with a problem.

A call from your child’s guidance counselor: “I’m worried about Child. They’ve been getting in a lot of trouble in class and been in several fights lately. When I tried to talk with them about it, they said they are scared you and Spouse are getting divorced. They think someone is having an affair.”

A therapist in a meeting: “Child is uncomfortable with So-and-So. Child, can you share what you told me?” Child tells you that they don’t like how much time you are spending with your SO and feel like you are neglecting their other parent and your family.

Since these conversations are already starting on a problem, you are going to need to not just explain your relationships, but address the problem. Sometimes this will be relatively simple.

To the guidance counselor: “Oh, I know why they might think I was having an affair. No. No affair, and no divorce. I’ll talk with Child tonight and explain everything. Since they’re already comfortable talking with you, let me give you the full story.”

Others will be more complicated. Explaining polyamory to your child and their therapist might help them understand WHY you are spending so much time with So-and-So. But it does nothing to address your child’s feeling that you are neglecting their parent and your family. You will need to take action—starting with an honest assessment of whether or not you are neglecting your family (remember, NRE can make you do the wacky). If you are neglecting your family, you are going to need to correct that as a first step to helping your child. If you aren’t, you still need to help your child come to terms with your relationships and understand that you can have a life of your own without neglecting your family. Hopefully, your child’s therapist will understand and support you in this.

If one of your child’s professionals is coming to you about something related to your relationships, you will probably need to out yourself to both the professional and your child. It is sometimes possible to avoid outing yourself. Doing so requires first finding a way to address the problem without revealing how the problem relates to your relationships. Second, it requires getting the professionals support in implementing your solution. And many professionals are very good at seeing through bullshit. If they think you are hiding the real cause of the problem, you will have a hard time getting them to work with you.

Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships

In dealing with abusive relationships, it is important to recognize that playing the victim can be an extremely useful tool for the abuser. A classic example of this in polyamory is when one person tries to control their partner’s relationships. When their partner objects to this attempted control, the abuser responds with, “There is no one true way to do polyamory—you are just trying to control me and force me to do polyamory your way because you don’t like rules.”

Or as Franklin Veaux recently put it:

Abusers can take high-sounding ideas, like “there is no one right way to do polyamory,” and turn them into weapons, like “if you object to anything about the way I do polyamory, it’s YOU who is abusing ME.”

For both the victim and those on the outside looking in, this can be extremely confusing and make it hard to sort out what is actually going on.

Franklin recently proposed a very simple solution to this problem. Look for vectors of control. What direction is control moving in?

Let’s take a look at two different scenarios involving someone saying they want to leave a relationship.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob wants to be able to date Cindy. Every time Bob tries to go on a date with Cindy, Sandra has a breakdown and tells Bob that she is going to break up with him because of the way he treats her. If he really loves her he’ll reschedule the date with Cindy and stay home with her until she is feeling better.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob has been increasingly critical of Steve and insists on more and more restrictions in how Sandra and Steve spend time together. One day, after another fight about her time with Steve, Sandra tells Bob that if he doesn’t stop trying to dictate her relationship with Steve, she will break up with Bob.

Both scenarios involve Sandra saying she will break up with Bob unless…

The critical difference is the “unless.” In the first example, Sandra says she will break up with Bob unless he doesn’t see Cindy and stays home with her. Sandra is trying to control Bob through emotional abuse. In the second example, Bob is placings restrictions on Sandra’s time with Steve. Sandra says that if Bob doesn’t stop dictating her relationship with Steve, she will break up with him. Bob is trying to control what Sandra does (probably through various kinds of psychological abuse) and Sandra is resisting him.

When you are facing an abuse situation, ask yourself this: who is acting to control someone else’s actions or choices, and whose actions or choices are being controlled. Control is always exerted by the abuser and felt by the abused.

Helping Our Kids Talk About Polyamory

In an ideal world, no one would be asking our kids about our relationships because private stuff is private stuff and grown-up stuff is grown up stuff. But as one of my favorite authors points out:
“No thinking adult would ask a kid about this stuff, but that just means you’ll need to deal with questions from unthinking adults.” (paraphrased, Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Affair)
If we are open about our relationships, sooner or later our kids will be fielding questions, either from other kids are school or unthinking adults who should know better, but don’t.

Young children will need guidance from us on how to deal with the questions that come their way. Older kids, and especially teenagers, will be able to come up with their own strategies for dealing with questions—but providing support and ideas ahead of time is still a good idea.

Fielding questions about polyamory

In general I suggest one of three basic approaches, depending on the situation and the kid’s comfort level.

1) KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)—Your kid may not be stupid, but any adult asking a kid these questions IS. So kids can keep their answers simple. “So-and-so is part of our family.” “Yes, Mom goes out with a friend some nights.” “No, I don’t want to talk about this.” “You’ll need to ask Dad about that.” One short sentence then go back to what they were doing.

2) Pull the privacy card—It really isn’t anyone else’s business, and it’s okay for your kids to tell people that! “I don’t want to talk about Mom and Dad’s personal stuff.” “That’s my family’s business.” “It’s rude to ask about private stuff.”

3) Open up a bit—if your kid is comfortable with the question, isn’t being put on the spot, and wants to share stuff with friends, that’s okay. “Yes, So-and-so is kind of like my uncle, and he lives with us. We go bowling sometimes.” “Dad’s date night is Thursday, so he goes out with Such-and-such and Mom and I have a special movie night.” Your kid needs to know it is their choice who they open up to, and that they don’t need to talk about your home life with anyone they don’t feel comfortable with. But if you are open about being polyamorous and they want to talk with friends, there is nothing wrong with that.

Teachers and Other Authority Figures

Okay, caveat. While most adults should know better than to poke at kids about your relationships, teachers, doctors, and a few other adults have an ethical and legal responsibility to watch for signs of abuse and neglect. And that means sometimes it is their job to ask prying questions. It would be nice if ethical non-monogamy was universally accepted and people didn’t jump to conclusions. Maybe one day we’ll get that ideal world, but I’m not holding my breath!

In the mean time, the above strategies will generally work in these situations as well. However, if your kids pull the privacy card here, they need to direct the adult to you. An answer of “That’s private stuff” may just make the questioner dig harder. “That’s my parent’s private stuff. You’ll need to ask them about it,” on the other hand is less likely to sound like something is being hidden—and in need of being uncovered.

Types of Abuse

Abuse can take several forms, and being able to recognize abuse when it happens is the first step in addressing it. So today we are going to look at some types of abuse, and a couple examples of how they might occur in polyamorous relationships.

Not everything here is always abusive. Yelling, for instance, is a form of verbal abuse, but most of us yell sometimes when we are upset or angry. Yelling, on its own, is not abusive. But if yelling is being used to coerce or intimidate someone, whether that happens only once or all the time, that is abuse.

Physical Abuse

This is the one that everyone thinks of first. Physical abuse can include everything from physical threats to beatings. Physically restraining or restricting someone—for instance planting yourself in a doorway so someone can’t get out—is also physical abuse. Destroying someone’s belongings is another common form of physical abuse. Any physical action or threat taken to control, coerce, or manipulate is abuse.

Some forms of physical abuse are both abuse and assault. Hitting, pushing, throwing things at someone and other assaults are the most immediately dangerous form of abuse. If you ever find yourself in a relationship where these things happen, please get somewhere safe as quickly as you can.


Paul and Cindy are fighting. Paul is getting angry and wants to leave to cool down before he says something he regrets. Bret plants himself in the doorway and says no one is leaving until this is worked out.

Jenna and Carol are both dating Sam. Jenna finds a time when she and Carol are alone, grabs Carol’s arm hard enough to leave bruises. Jenna tells Carol that if she ever tries to come between Jenna and Sam, Jenna will kill her.

Ryan wants to open up his relationship with Dan. Dan is reluctant. Ryan uses his body to pin Dan against the wall and says that they are opening their relationship and Dan better not cause any problems.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is any form of coercion, manipulation or force used to control someone’s sexual choices. The most talked about types of sexual abuse also involve physical abuse—physically forcing someone to have sex, threatening someone physically to make them have sex, etc. But there are a lot of types of sexual abuse. Everything from groping someone without their permission, to blackmailing them for sex, to making them watch while you have sex with someone else.

Sexual abuse can be a particularly pervasive problem in polyamorous relationships. Having multiple people opens up areas of abuse that aren’t possible with just two people. Worse, these types of abuse are not well known or recognized, so abusers often get away with it for a long period of time.


Mark isn’t comfortable with threesomes. His girlfriend, Susan, is also dating Jack and doesn’t want to hear “no.” Susan tells Jack that Mark too shy to say anything, but wants Jack to join in the next time she and Mark are having sex.

Paula and George open up their relationship after Paula meets Ray. George has problems with jealousy. He tells Paula that she has to have sex with him every time she has sex with Ray or he’ll know she doesn’t really love him. He counts the condoms in the bathroom when Ray comes over to visit, to be sure they aren’t sneaking behind his back.

Ann and Donna live together. They’ve been dating Wanda together and separately for over a year when they invite her to move in with them. Once Wanda gives up her apartment and moves in with them, Ann and Donna tell her that she isn’t allowed to have sex with anyone else. If she does, she will be kicked out of their home.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse includes emotional, mental and verbal abuse. Psychological abuse is the most common form of abuse, and can be the hardest to recognize. Other forms of abuse almost always happen alongside psychologcial abuse.

Psychological abuse can include gaslighting, to threatening to out someone, belittling them, name calling, twisting things around so the other person is always at fault and the abuser is blameless, deliberately embarrassing someone in public, constant criticisms, and much more.


Diane constantly compares Ken to her other boyfriends. Nothing he ever does is good enough. If she ever thinks he’s considering leaving, she reminds him that he is lucky to have her. After all, he hasn’t had any luck finding any other girlfriends (unlike her, with all the men lining up to date her). He’d better not leave or he’ll just end up alone and miserable. Who besides her would ever put up with all his failings?

Nick is dating Jane and Pamela. He plays them off each other—breaking a date with Jane and blaming Pamela or telling Pamela that he’d love to go to X event with her, but Jane won’t let him. He tells both of them how important it is for them to be friends and get along.  Then he manufactures fights between them and plays the loving, forgiving boyfriend who can’t understand why they have to make everything so difficult. As a result, Jane and Pamela both cling to him, terrified that their “rival” will convince him to leave them at any time.

Ed starts dating Maura and Dwayne. At first everything goes really well. Maura and Dwayne are just opening their relationship, and Ed is happy to be patient and give them time to get comfortable with his presence in their lives. However, Maura and Dwayne keep putting more rules and restrictions on Ed. If Ed ever asks for anything, they belittle him or attack him for being unreasonable. After all, they’ve already opened their relationship and let him into their lives. Isn’t it presumptuous for him to ask for anything else? He should be grateful for what they share rather than constantly demanding more. He can always leave if he doesn’t like it.

Economic Abuse

Economic abuse uses money and access to money or other resources to control someone. Economic abuse is almost never seen alone, but usually accompanies other forms of abuse. Economic abuse usually occurs in live-in relationships, but can take place even when the abuser doesn’t live with their victim.


When Jessica moved in with Harry and Irene, she agreed to take care of the house while they worked to support the family. She quickly found that this left her with no money for her own needs. She had no say in how money was spent, no access to any bank account, and needed to beg for $5 to go out and get coffee with friends. Harry insisted that paying for her car was a waste—he or Irene could drive her anywhere, so why pay for another vehicle? Jessica started looking for a job of her own, but resumes she brought home to fill out kept disappearing or “accidentally” getting drinks spilled on them. Before she found a job, her car was repossessed. Now Irene is starting to ask why she needs a cell phone, after all they have a house line, and she never goes anywhere…

Gary, Elena, and John live together. Early on they agreed that George would manage the finances for the family. Elena didn’t want to be bothered and John didn’t feel like fighting about it. Gary filled out the direct deposit forms for Elena and John’s jobs. He didn’t tell them he was having the money deposited into an account only he had access to. All the utilities and other bills also went in his name (and only his name). John and Elena quickly found themselves with no access to their paychecks. They could have canceled the direct deposit—but then Gary wouldn’t pay the utilities. And without account numbers or access to any information about the bills (all paperless, linked to Gary’s email account), they have little choice unless they are going to move out with (at most) the money from one paycheck to get them moved and settled into a new place.

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to take a close look at how abuse can occur in poly relationships, ways to recognize abuse, and a great deal more.