Polyamory and Children: Research Update

List has been updated with more recent work by Dr. Elizabeth Sheff. I haven’t heard back from other researchers yet, but if I do I’ll add their newer work as well. A lot of the newer stuff is publicly available, so skip to the bottom if you want something you can read and don’t have access to academic journals. Updated April 6, 2017.

Being a bit lazy this week, though I hope this may be helpful to polyam parents. The Yahoo! PolyResearchers group recently compiled this list of studies covering polyamory/modern forms of non-monogamy and its impact on children. While it isn’t the easiest thing for a lay person to get access to academic journals (they tend to run expensive and not be carried in the local library), this list may be a resource for any professionals you deal with who are seeking to educated themselves on how your lifestyle may impact your children.

I have read very few of these myself, but the general discussion on the Yahoo! group indicated that no one there knew of any study which found any harm to children raised in ethically non-monogamous families.

Barker, Meg & Langdridge, Darren.  (2010).  Understanding Non-monogamies.  London: Routledge.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria.  (2010).  Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria (2006).  Polyparents Having Children, Raising Children, Schooling Children.  Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 7 (1), (March 2006), 48-53.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria.  (2010).  To Pass, Border or Pollute: Polyfamilies Go to School.  In Meg Barker & Darren Langridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria, Haydon, Peter; & Hunter, Anne.  (In press, 2012).  These Are Our Children: Polyamorous Parenting.  In Katherine Allen & Abbie Goldberg (Eds.), LGBT-Parent Families: Possibilities for New Research and Implications for Practice.  London: Springer.

Sheff, Elisabeth.  (2011).  Polyamorous Families, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Slippery Slope.  Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40 (5), (October 2011), 487-520,

Sheff, Elisabeth.  (2010).  Strategies in Polyamorous Parenting.  In Meg Barker & Darren Langridge (Eds.), Understanding Non-Monogamies.  London: Routledge.

Older studies:

Constantine, Larry L., & Constantine, Joan M.  (1976).  Treasures of the Island: Children in Alternative Families.  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Constantine, Larry L., & Constantine, Joan M.  Group Marriage: A Study of Contemporary Multilateral Marriage.  New York: Macmillan, 1973, pp. 148-162.

Constantine, Larry L.  (1977) Where are the kids? Children in Alternative Life Styles.  In Libby, Roger W., & Robert N. Whitehurst (Eds.), Marriage and Alternatives: Exploring Intimate Relationships (pp. 257-263).  Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co.

Johnston, C., & R. Deisher.  (1973).  Contemporary communal child rearing: a first analysis.  Pediatrics, 52(3), (September 1973), 319-326.

Salsburg, Sheldon (1973).  Is group marriage viable?  Journal of Sex Research 9(4), (November 1973), 325-333.

Weisner, T.S.  (1986).  Implementing New Relationship Styles in Conventional and Nonconventional American Families.  In Hartup, W., & Z. Rubin (Eds.), Relationships and Development (pp. 185-206).  New Jersey: LEA Press.

Weisner, T. S., & H. Garnier.  (1992).  Nonconventional family lifestyles and school achievement: A 12-year longitudinal study.  American Educational Research Journal 29(3), 605-632.

(Originally posted January 2012)

New Studies and Articles

(Unlike the original list, not all of these are peer reviewed. The ones that aren’t peer reviewed are more like to be available to anyone, so use them to inform yourself and your friends. The peer reviewed are harder to access, but can be very useful when dealing with medical or legal professionals who need “proof”.)

2016 Sheff, Elisabeth. When Someone you Love is Polyamorous. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.

2016 Sheff, Elisabeth. “Resilient Polyamorous Families” in Critical Dimensions of Sex & Gender Diversity: Clinical Perspectivesedited by Karian, Previn.

2015 Sheff, Elisbeth. “Polyamorous Parenting” in The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies edited by Goldberg, Abbie. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

2015 Sheff, Elisabeth (Editor). Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.

2014 Sheff, Elisabeth. The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple Partner Relationships and Families. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

2013 Goldfeder, Mark and Sheff, Elisabeth. “Children in Polyamorous Families: A First Empirical Look,” The Journal of Law and Social Deviance.  Volume 5, pages 150 – 243. http://www.lsd-journal.net/archives/Volume5/ChildrenOfPolyamorousFamilies.pdf

2012 Sheff, Elisabeth. “Polyamory and Divorce” in Cultural Sociology of Divorce, an Encyclopedia, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fiction Friday: Why Communication Is a Good Thing

First Entry          Previous Entry

In the silence only excellent soundproofing could create, the quiet rustle of reeds was stunningly loud.

Trevor watched as Wu passed the dried stalks from hand to hand. Zi placed them on the floor in from of zir, a few at a time. Then set a handful aside before picking up the rest to start again.

Stillness had never come naturally to Trevor, but he held himself as still as possible. Only his fingers moved, tapping out a soothing rhythm on the seam of his skirt.

Finally, zir placed the last handful aside and closed zir eyes.

He’d watched Wu cast zir reeds dozens of times over the years. He’d never completely shaken the edge of fear it brought him. And tonight, the night of their first great victory, the fear was worse than ever. He had good people behind him. But he couldn’t do this without Wu beside him.

Wu opened zir eyes and smiled. “We have danger, but also opportunity.”
Trevor sighed, tension running out of him. But he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “We?”

Wu bowed, zir shoulders drawing inward. “Forgive this presumptuous one. Your servant only meant— your servant would not lay claim to what is rightly yours.”
“What?” Shocked, Trevor knelt beside the dragon. “Oh, damnit, Wu, I didn’t mean…”

Wu looked at him, and Trevor could see the confusion and hurt in zir gaze.

“I’m afraid of losing you.” Trevor reached out and took Wu’s hand, rubbing a finger across the braided ring zi hadn’t removed in over 10 years. “When you gave yourself to me, you said…”

“Your servant said many things. Do you doubt them now?”

“No! No,” He took a deep breath. “But… I guess I just didn’t believe that I wouldn’t need to pay a price for winning today.”

“Trevor.” Wu’s hand cupped his cheek. “Talk sense or I’m going to put you to bed and call a healer.”

“Your first loyalty, you said, would always be to your ’path of heaven’ or whatever it is.”

“And you thought… what? That I would leave? Now?”

“If your Heavens called you, yes. Of course you would.”

Wu sat back and covered zir mouth. Zir eyes sparkled. And every once in a while a strangled laugh slipped through their fingers.

Trevor didn’t see the joke.

“That… That’s not how it works.” Wu said finally.

Trevor leaned forward and tapped Wu’s knee. “What’s not how it works?”

“The Heavens…” Wu took a deep breath and fought down zir laughter. “They aren’t like Deborah’s God, Trevor. They don’t issue commands or expect people to serve them. They… they are. Their path is the path of righteousness. Of right conduct. Not… whatever you have been thinking.”

For a moment, Trevor was completely still.“…you mean I’ve spent over a decade worrying that one day you’d up and leave on some kind of divine marching orders for nothing?”

“Apparently.” Zir lips quirked.

“Are you smirking at me?”

“No.”

Zi was most definitely smirking at him.

“Where in the world did you get that idea anyway?”

Trevor glared. “Wu, I conquered the world on the basis of a prophecy and a vision quest. Over half the magic workers and soothsayers in the world support me, a good majority of them because they got some kind of divine marching orders from whatever it is they follow. You have not once in over a decade talked about your beliefs or faith or whatever it is you follow except to say, on the day I took your oath, that your first loyalty was to this path of heaven… thing. What did you expect me to think?”

“Oh.” The humor drained from zir face.

“It was pretty obvious you didn’t want to talk about your culture or past, and I respected that. I didn’t go researching Chinese belief systems behind your back or digging into your family and background. I figured you’d tell me if you wanted to. But… damnit, Wu…”

“Oh.”

This time Wu gave him a full bow, face pressed to the floor, hands clasped behind zir back. “Your servant most humbly begs forgiveness for zir foolishness. Your servant has… reasons for not speaking of things past. But your servant owes you the knowledge you need to make full use of your servant. And… your servant regrets, bitterly, the pain zir foolishness caused.”

Trevor grabbed a fistful of Wu’s hair and pulled zir head up. A frisson of energy danced along his nerves, stronger because of the fear and frustration which had come before. He knew why he took such pleasure in control. Knew also how dangerous it was for a man who had set himself up as a dictator and tyrant. But he and Wu had shared this bond almost since the day they met. He wasn’t giving it up unless he had to.

“Let me be sure that this time I understand.

“Your path of heaven is a guide for your actions. A code of ethics or moral strictures.

“You have given yourself to me, and there is no person, entity, being or god that can make you leave me. But your path of heaven comes before your loyalty to me, and if I tell you to do something that violates your code, you will disobey.”

He gave Wu’s head a little shake. The dragon winced but remained passive under his hand.

“Do I have that right?”

“Yes, you are correct.”  Wu swallowed. When zi spoke, zir voice shook. “Only at your word will your servant leave.” Wu met his eyes for a moment, then looked down again.

“Wu…” he released the dragon’s hair and cupped zir chin. “Do you really think I would cast you off over this?”

“No.” Zi swallowed again. “No. But one day you will learn of your servant’s past. And I fear that day.”

Trevor’s fingers tapped on his thigh, but this time the rhythm didn’t sooth. “We will deal with that day when it comes. But I can’t imagine anything from the past that would change how I feel.” He’d killed a man today because Winehurst was no longer useful to him and couldn’t be trusted not to interfere. What in Wu’s past could be so horrible zi feared to tell Trevor?

Trevor pushed the question away. It was for the future, and this was now. He pulled Wu up and into a hug. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay.” They held each other for several minutes until Trevor said. “Now, tell me about your divination.”

Next Entry

Polyamory and Children: Introducting New SOs

There’s a fair bit of revision here. Partly to make the post inclusive of single parents and LGBT families. But a lot because my view on this has evolved over the years. My opinion at this point is decidedly non-standard, but my approach has worked well with my family and other’s I have known. Like so much else, treating romantic relationships like any other relationship makes your kids and SOs meeting a lot simpler. Reposted 4/6/17.

Much like a single parent entering the dating scene again, how children react and respond to new SOs is a major issue for polyam folk. Of course, it’s also a secondary issue. First, you need to decide if you will be introducing your SOs to the kids.

This is very much a ’use your own judgment’ rule, but in general, you want to keep your children’s lives (regardless of how old they are) as stable as possible. So it’s important to keep in mind the difference between introducing your SO and making your SO a part of your kids’ lives.

Most of the time when people ask about “introducing” an SO to their kids, they are conflating the two. As if you would never introduce someone to your kids unless that person was going to be a major and long-term part of their lives.

Why?

I mean, you introduce a babysitter to your kids, you and the kids both know they may never see the babysitter again. If your new co-worker stops by to drop off chicken soup when you are sick, do you tell them to sneak in the back door so your kid won’t see them or do you have them come to the front door and ring the bell? If your kid answers it just say, “Oh, this is Carla from work, Carla, this is my kid.” They say polite how-do-yous and that’s it. If your company does those company family picnic things, next time your kid will at least recognize one other person there.

If you are in the closet about being polyam, don’t introduce your SO to your kids. If you aren’t in the closet and you and your SO aren’t talking entwinement, then if SO and kid happen to be in the same place, introduce them. If not, don’t worry about it.

The key here is expectations. If you are open with your kids, it’s important that they understand that not everyone you date is a potential new parent. There is a presumption in monogamy that anyone who is dating is automatically looking for a spouse. Do your kids the favor of debunking this early. It will make it easier for them to accept your relationships and easier for them when THEY are figuring out what kind of relationships they want.

“Hey, kid, you know how I’m doing the polyamory thing, right? Well, sometimes my SOs will be coming by to pick me up. I want you to know now that I’m not trying any of them out for a new/another spouse and if you meet them it doesn’t mean this is some big deal. It’s like when I introduced you to my friend Carl—someone you may see around and I want you to know who they are so you have a name to go with the face.”

Then when enbyfriend gets the time mixed up and comes half an hour early, it’s easy to say, “Oh, kid, thanks for getting the door. This is enbyfriend. I’m gonna park them in the living room while I finish getting ready. Go do your thing, okay?”

See? Introductions don’t need to be a big deal.

Okay, but let’s assume you and your SO have been in a relationship for a while, and you want to be more involved in each other’s lives. That can mean anything from wanting to share holidays to talking about moving in together. If your kid hasn’t met your SO yet you may want a more in-depth introduction.

A lot will be depending on how your family handles things and what you and your SO are looking to change. For instance, our family holidays, especially big celebration holidays like Passover, we invite a whole bunch of friends and family over to celebrate with us. While we have special family time during holidays, the main celebration is a (for us) large get together that always has room for one more. For polyam families with similar holiday traditions, inviting an SO to join the Seder or Christmas dinner is a non-threatening first meeting. The children won’t need to interact with them beyond saying ’hello’ unless they want to, the SO’s presence won’t be an intrusion, and any awkwardness gets lost in the fun and insanity of a three hour meal that involves origami frogs hopping around the table, singing songs, and pelting each other with marshmallows (or whatever your holiday traditions might be).

For another family, whose holidays tend to be private affairs, inviting a new person to a holiday celebration would be a horrible way to introduce them. It all depends on how your family handles things.

It can also depend on the child. For some children, bring your SO to your home to introduce them will make the child more comfortable – they are on their home turf. For others, it will feel like their space is being invaded. In that case, a get together at a park, a diner, or some other neutral space is a better idea.

Personally, I like the idea of having some activity to help people break the ice. A museum trip, a sports outing, whatever. But again, for some kids, a better idea is just to have them meet in a quiet place where they can talk and ask questions.

What to Say

Here, a lot depends on the child(ren)’s age, but in general, keep it simple.

Before your child(ren) and SO meet, sit down with your kids and (if you live with them) your children’s other parent/your primary partner(s). Just tell them that you are going to be introducing them to X, that X is important to you, but that it is ok is they don’t like X. Explain how your relationship with X is changing and how it will affect your child(ren). “X and I want to be more part of each other’s lives, so they are going to be coming over sometimes to hang out with me or watch movies together. I’m also going to be inviting them to our family barbecues this summer. You don’t need to talk with them if you don’t want to, but I’d like you to meet them.” Answer any questions they may have. (By now you should long ago have had the ’we are/I am polyamorous’ discussion.)

Depending on how your child(ren) tends to handle things, you can have this discussion a couple of days beforehand so they can think about it, or right before meeting your SO. You know your children best.

When you introduce them, keep it simple again. ‘Child, this is X. X, this is Child.’ Younger children generally aren’t much interested in strange adults, so you may want to mention something they have in common to help young children see your SO as a person, rather than Random Adult 1.

Take it slow, and keep it easy, let the children set their own pace. Remember that even if they have known about polyamory from a young age, they have grown up in a monogamous culture. They may be jealous on their other parent’s behalf, may feel (and resent) that the SO is taking time and attention away from them. Basically (again) everything that a divorced or single parent can face introducing an SO to their children, you might run into as well.

Introducing an SO to your children can definitely be a major step, especially if you want your SO to be a part of your family life. But with some thought and care, you can tone down the stress and pressure, and make it easier for everyone involved.

This post is part of the raising children in a polyamorous family blog series.

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Marginalized Polya People

Updated version of an article first published on Postmodern Woman.

What does polyamory look like when you’re poor or disabled? How do you maintain autonomy and independence when you require specific care or assistance? How do you have safe, kinky, enjoyable sex when you’re allergic to latex or have a condition that leaves your body racked in pain?

Other than being in the minority categories for my aromanticism, relationship anarchy, kinkiness, genderqueerness, pansexuality, noetisexuality, and being Black, there are other specific ways in which my polyamory does not fit into the norm. There are other considerations to make and reinterpretations of many actions and freedoms that many polya people take for granted.

The average polya person in the limelight (with the exception of Kevin Patterson’s Poly Role Models) is well-off, white or white-adjacent, and normally healthy. Solo polyamorists constantly talk about autonomy, lack of enmeshment, and independence and other polyamorists set up visits with ease. Yet there are huge and gaping holes in the polya and non-monogamous relationship conversation. Very few people know what life is like for those that fall through the cracks. There aren’t many stories of the poor, the marginalized, and the mentally or physically ill and how they navigate healthy, fulfilling multiple relationships. I’ve seen a lot of polya people say that they wouldn’t date someone with a mental disorder.

There are many people that I know who are polya and have less than perfect health. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed as autistic and has been experiencing close-mindedness and ignorance in the poly and kink communities. A blogger I follow has borderline personality disorder and writes deeply moving posts about his experiences in relationships from his unique perspective. I’ve been writing stories (and “living the life”) for nearly 20 years about the people you never hear about in the media, the situations that rarely get discussed elsewhere, and the ways that these unique people handle their circumstances.
Being poor or disabled can present their own obstacles for expressing one’s polyamorous leanings. There aren’t as many resources for people like me. But as the more visible polyamorous communities create new resources and expand the social narrative, so it is my hope that more people of color, people allergic to weird things, and those who aren’t the epitome of health can share and create resources to generate understanding, education, and community as well.
Nearly every relationship you have when you’re poor is like a long-distance relationship, or at least that’s been my experience. Unless you live in the same neighborhood regular travel and conferences and outings can become prohibitively expensive. Technology helps if you can afford it or have access to it.

You learn to treasure the moments you can be together all the more. You learn to be okay with being alone most of the time. You definitely learn to appreciate the little things. And you know with absolute certainty that you may not have all of your needs met. It takes a special kind of patience and maturity to deal with the cancelled dates, limits on time, and isolation that come so much more often when you’re poor and/or spoonie. I liken being poor to being in emergency mode more often than not.

Where the executive with a harried day has the opportunity and money to relax and unwind, the poor and disabled person has no access to the typical means with which to relieve their stress. When you don’t have the money or the means you have to get creative. When you’re not healthy you have to accept that there are times when you have to put down your superman cape and allow someone to help you and accept some entwinement, even if others label it enmeshment or dependency. Poor health and the higher possibility of an emergency can make the poor, Black, and unwell seem like high risk partners for other polya people.
Try to imagine the looks you’d get when you say you can’t use the condom your partner has brought because you’re allergic to latex. You either rush around in an effort to find the much less effective (and harder to find) non-latex condoms, call it off, or go through with it without a condom and hope that the STI test results are still accurate. I also have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder and endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which leave me subfertile — and less worried about accidental pregnancy — yet simultaneously leave me in pain more often than not.

There are times when, even if I want rougher sex, my partners have to be gentle. There’s nothing wrong with pain when you want it but the pain caused by those conditions is not the fun kind – and I’m not that kind of masochist. My PCOS and PMDD cause anxiety, which can lead to more stress, which can lead to a worsening of my conditions. These kinds of illnesses have no cure and anyone with a long-term illness knows that we have to find alternative and healthy ways to deal with them and lessen their impact on our lives. Unfortunately, the majority of people know nothing about it and when they can’t physically see what’s wrong with you it can breed resentment, disbelief, and dismissal.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You find out fairly quickly who is dependable and who is not, who is simply there for fun and who’d like to be around for a while, who is actively dedicated to anti-racism, who can healthily deal with stress and who cracks under the slightest pressure. You find support you never expected from the strangest places, you learn not to take anything for given or granted, and it makes effective communication all the more important.
Some people will see these things as obstacles or reasons not to be polya. They don’t exactly fit the “perfect polya” narrative (unless you realize that aros tend to have jealousy and compersion down pat!). But no matter who you are, life is usually only as difficult as you make it.

More Personal Stuff (and some resources)

As with last Thursday’s post, I’m mostly re-posting this one for the resources. CARAS and NCSF aren’t often able to assist polyam folk directly, but they have some good stuff for educating doctors, psychs, and other professionals you may be dealing with. Looking Through Us is sill up, it’s been on hiatus in recent months but I hope to see it become active again soon.  Obviously, I’m still a bit off schedule from March insanity. Hopefully I’ll be back on track by the end of the week. Updated April 2, 2017.

Hey all, sorry for disappearing like that. I got very caught up dealing with the custody case, which is now finished, even if the judge hasn’t given us a decision yet. (I hate waiting.)

I want to thank CARAS and NCSF for all the work they have done educating people about polyamory and alternate sexualities. My children have been seeing a therapist for the stress the custody mess has been causing them, and I had told her about my involvement in polyamory shortly before this mess went to court. She had no issue with the lifestyle, told me that my private choices were just that, and when she was subpoenaed  as a witness she told the judge and court that my ‘multiple relationships’ as the lawyer called it, were not in any way bad for my children.

I don’t know if the therapist learned of polyamory through CARAS or NCFS or not, but having the benefit of a medical professional working with my children who is accepting of polyamory has made me that much more aware of how important the work they do is.

I also want to give a shout out to Poly Anna of Looking Through.Us. I was very flattered by the review of this blog that she posted a few weeks ago (one of your favorites? Really?! – I don’t squee, but if I did, I would have). Poly Anna has an ‘Ask PolyAnna’ column on Looking Through.Us, a kind of ‘Dear Abby’ for poly and non-monogamy. She doesn’t get questions often, but when she does she tends to have good advice, and takes the time to go in depth in her answers.

I should be back (mostly) to my regular posting schedule starting on Thursday. I’m afraid the webcomic needs to go on hiatus for a while, because I lost the pen from the drawing tablet, and as bad as my artwork is with the tablet, it is absolutely atrocious using a mouse. As I am in the middle of a massive cleaning spree, I’m hopeful of finding the pen in the next few weeks and getting the comic going again.

(Originally posted December 2011)

Yay Life Insanity! (And Canadian Court Cases)

Most of this “not posting this week” posts I’ll end up deleting rather than editing and updating, because, well, a post saying “I won’t be posting today” 5+ years ago isn’t exactly relevant now, ya know? But this one also contains my immediate reaction to the big court case in Canada that challenged Canada’s anti-polygamy laws. At the time I wrote this I hadn’t yet dug into the details of the court’s decision. It was unfortunately the same tired, old reasoning that “we need laws against polygamy so we can stop child abusers” which has been trotted out time and again. As if we didn’t already have laws on the books against child abusers or something, ya know?

Also, fuck Thanksgiving. Seriously. I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize how shitty that holiday is, and if you haven’t realized it yet, stop and think about what it means to Native Americans to celebrate the arrival of Europeans on this continent. Or to black folks to celebrate the origin of a colonial empire that kidnapped, raped, and murdered their ancestors by the millions. Lovely thing to have a party about. Not.

The webcomic I referenced here is sadly (thankfully) defunct. I love webcomics and was really frustrated with the lack of polyam-related webcomics. So I decided to create my own. But I can’t draw for shit… Reposted with commentary March 30, 2017.

PS. Comments about how “I celebrate thanksgiving as a time to be with family” yada yada will be deleted. You want to celebrate family togetherness, great, how about creating a new holiday that isn’t steeped in colonialism and genocide?

So life really got away from me this week, sorry all. I’ll be posting a late update to the webcomic sometime today or tomorrow. Hope to be fully back on track next week.

I will be skipping the normal Polyamory and Children post today because of the holiday, and I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving/Turkey Day. (Even if you don’t celebrate, you can still have a good day, right?)

On the subject of things to be thankful for, the Canadian Anti-Polygamy case ruling was released yesterday. I know there is a huge mixed reaction to the ruling (the short version for anyone who hasn’t heard is that having multiple marriages remains illegal, but the judge clarified that multiple relationships, including living together/common law relationships are not illegal as long as there is no ceremony to formalize the relationships). While it is not the outcome many polyam folk and polyam-supporters were hoping for, it is indeed a step in the right direction. So let’s be thankful for small steps, even as we keep working for more progress.

(originally posted November 2011)

What About That Lovely Compersion? It’s Not Just for Polya People

Note: This is an updated version of the article first appearing on Postmodern Woman.

Whenever we hear about compersion it’s in a romantic polya context. It’s a feeling of joy that one partner gets when one of their partners is happy, usually because they’ve met someone new. To romantic polya folks compersion is held up as the opposite of jealousy. It’s something to strive for. It’s proof that you’ve beaten the green-eyed monster (even if you still feel it from time to time).

But what about those of us who have no jealousy with which to compare the feeling? Or, hell, what about instances where we feel joy over someone else’s success, even in nonromantic contexts? What about when we cheer for our favorite sports teams and celebrate them winning?

I think we naturally feel compersion in a variety of situations. But people are only applauded for it and only notice it when they feel it in a romantic or polyamorous context.

But what if American Ninja Warrior was the standard for how we treated one another?

If you’re not familiar with American Ninja Warrior, it’s the only competition I’ve seen where literally everyone-competitors, announces, and audience-support every single person going out there and doing their best. That is true competition right there. It’s never about the other players; it’s all about you doing your ultimate.

We naturally want our children, our teams, our companies, and our friends to do well. We’re supportive of them, we cheer them on, and we celebrate with them when they get what they want, when they meet their goals, or when they win. We even do this with fictional characters.

Yet when it comes to romantic relationships and transitional polyamory from the dominant culture, for some reason all of that goes flying out the window. Romantic people are even encouraged to be jealous of one another. It becomes a competition in the destructive sense of the word and everyone is set apart from day one.

People view their partners with suspicion and newcomers with envy. They’ve learned in many ways to view their partners (or their time or love) as their property to some extent. And naturally when that’s taken away they despise it. They want to do all they can to prevent it. Jealousy tells them they’re losing something that’s rightfully theirs.

So polya people work at it. Over and over. Some people give up and return to a monogamous life. Some polya people learn to work around it. Jealousy becomes this ugly never-healing sore that just kind of weeps in the background sometimes. Polya people work on stripping it of its power. When they think they’ve succeeded, when they can feel somewhat joyful about a new love or something, they get excited about feeling compersion.

But it seems like it’s mostly a case of them unlearning the typical cultural messages surrounding how our relationships should look. Why is it easier for friends and parents to feel compersion rather than romantic lovers?

A huge part of it is simply amatonormativity – the pressure and belief that long-term romantic pair-bonding with accompanying trips up that relationship escalator are the norm and are appropriate and desirable for everyone. Not even non-monogamy gets much of a pass from the effects of amatonormativity; often ideas from the underlying culture spill over.

That’s why those who seem to overcome this programming get so excited about compersion.

Even still, the feeling isn’t exclusive to polyamory and for aromantic people or long-term multilinkers it’s not some elusive goal. It comes more easily or organically in nonfamilial intimate linkings because it’s an extension of what we already feel in our other relationships. For some multilinkers or people who value friendships over romance it might be easier for us to tap into our sense of compersion and extend it to all areas 0f our lives.

Compersion isn’t something exceptional. It’s not the sole invention or experience of polyamorous people. Instead I think it’s that those romantic polya people from the dominant culture might find it more difficult to express it in polyamorous relationships. All of us have certain contexts we develop for our relationships. Built into that context are a host of expectations and norms.

It’s considered normal to feel great when your husband gets a raise but not when he gets a new girlfriend.

Maybe the key to compersion isn’t so much defeating or conquering jealousy. I don’t even believe it is the opposite of jealousy. Maybe it’s simply a matter of learning to be more friendly. Of looking at your partner with those lenses you’re able to extend to everyone else. Maybe it’s simply a matter of unlearning those divisive competitive lessons. Why is it easier for you to be happy for your friend or your child but not your lover? Is the root something you simply acquired from culture that triggers your jealousy instead of your compersion?

Either way, however you arrive at it just remember: you’ve felt compersion before!

It’s more familiar than you think it is. It simply hasn’t gone by that name outside of a romantic polya context because people tend to take it for granted.

I recommend you take it from American Ninja Warrior. It is possible and it’s not as hard as people might make it seem. They’re definitely on to something.

Remember, I’m cheering you on!

Telling Your Children about Polyamory

Not much changed here on the main topic, but original version was pretty heterocentric. I’ve tried to correct that and be more inclusive of single-parent families. Revised 3/26/17

Children who are born into a polyamorous relationship do not need anyone to explain their parents’ relationships, any more than children born into a monogamous relationship. Because they grow up with it, they understand it. It’s normal to them.

Children whose parent(s) become polyamorous after the children are born may have difficulty understanding change in their parents’ relationships. If you choose to be open about your lifestyle choices, it’s important to present them in a way that leaves your children secure in knowing that their family will not be hurt by the changes you are making.

Discussing Polyamory with Young Children

Young children are still learning the societal norms. They need things simple, and in terms they can understand, with a focus on how it affects them. They certainly don’t need a long explanation of what polyamory is, why it is ethically ok, etc.

For some children, and some relationships, you won’t need to discuss anything. Just say at dinner ‘Mommy’s going out on a date, so I’m putting you to bed tonight.’ If you’d like, make it something of a treat for them ‘Mommy’s going out on a date, so you kids and I will be having a special movie night.’ Handling it this way tells them 1) that their Mom is dating someone, 2) that their other parent is cool with this, and 3) that this is something that is normal and they don’t need to worry about it. This goes equally for single parents with several polyam relationships and families with a parent and step parent. ‘Boyfriend will be baby-sitting while Mommy goes on a date with Girlfriend’ works just as well as ‘Daddy/Mommy/Step-Parent is putting you kids to bed tonight’.

If the kids ask questions, answer them without long explanations. Best advice I ever got about explaining things to little kids – answer the exact question they ask in the simplest terms possible, and then shut up. If they want more information, they’ll keep asking.

Some children will need more explanation, or reassurance, than others. If their friend’s parents just divorced because ‘Linda’s mommy was going on dates with another man, and her daddy left them,’ you will definitely need to do some reassuring. In general, treat your relationships as normal, answer questions, and make it clear with how you behave and act that there is nothing for the children to worry about, their world won’t be changing because their parents are in several relationships.

Discussing Polyamory with Older Children/Teenagers

Older children and teenagers will definitely be fully aware of the social norms against polyamory. They may or may not have heard of open relationships and polyam from their friends and acquaintances (if they haven’t yet, they will eventually). They are also probably old enough and enough on their dignity to need and deserve a more formal approach to your decision to enter into polyamory.

I would suggest sitting down with your child or teenager (together!) and explain that you have decided you are going to start dating again, that you still love each other and have no intention of splitting up, and that you are telling them this so that they know what is going on, and don’t get surprised later.

Depending on the child the reaction can range from ‘You’re talking about polyamory? That’s cool,’ to ‘ok, whatever,’ to ‘OMG HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME!!!!’ (Yes, at this age it is all about them. Expect it and accept it. I honestly don’t see much difference between this and the way many adults act, but people seem to think it’s a big deal that teenagers do this. Meh.)

Listen to them (communication is just as important with children as it is with adult relationships). Give them a chance to flip out, ask questions, shrug it off or whatever their deal is. Answer any questions, be clear that it is your lives and your choice, but that you respect them enough to tell them yourselves about this decision. If they don’t see anything to talk about, let it be.

The most important thing about discussing it this way is it lets them know the floor is open. Whatever their reaction, they know that you are okay with them knowing about your relationships, and are willing to discuss it with them. Near equal in importance if you are married is they know that you are both in agreement on this, and no one is sneaking around or cheating.

In general, as long as they see that their lives and their relationships with you aren’t changing in a massive way, older children and teenagers will move on to something else to be worked up and angry about eventually, no matter how badly they react.

Not Discussing Polyamory with your Children

There is, always, the option to keep your lifestyle hidden from your children. Pros and cons of this one can be argued all over the map. I’m not going to get into it here. If you choose not to discuss and inform your children of your lifestyle, be prepared for them to know about it eventually. As self-centered as they are, kids are very attuned to anything that threatens their lives and families. You having other relationships will be seen as a threat, simply because they have been taught that this is a betrayal of their other parent, and may lead to divorce.

Hopefully if they become aware of your relationships without you saying anything, they will come to you to ask about it. In that case it is simple enough to say ‘yes, your other parent knows and approves, beyond that it is private.’ I suggest getting the other parent in the room so they know you are telling the truth.

This post is part of the Raising Children in a Polyamorous Family blog series.

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Fiction Fridays: That’s Some Retirement Plan…

First Entry          Previous Entry

Trevor watched the crowds hundreds of feet below. Folks on the fringes were trickling away, but most weren’t going anywhere.

Give it a couple hours of (hopefully) nothing happening, and anyone not completely dedicated to whatever had brought them here would start to move along. His supporters, at least, had mostly set their signs and amplifiers to automatic and were plugging into the ‘net, to get some real work done. Wu came up to stand beside him.

“General Winehurst wants to speak with you.”

Trevor sighed. “Might as well get it over with. Send him in.”

Wu bowed and left. Trevor turned away from the window to survey what would become his official office. Three cream-colored walls, bare of decoration, and one wall of windows rose 15 ft a ceiling that had been painted with a mural of the world and its peoples. Or at least, it’s human peoples. The floor…

Winehurst burst in before he had finished the survey.

“We did it! I told you my men were the ones for the job.” Winehursts milk-pale face glowed with excitement and the disgusting gender-erasing phrase slipped naturally between his lips.

Trevor smiled and took the general’s hand in both of his. “You did, and they did. Your people have done us all proud.

“So when do we start cleaning up?”

“Why, now, actually.” He tightened his grip, making the general wince. “I am delighted to accept your resignation general, dated immediately. You assassination and leg-breaking teams were invaluable in creating this new world, and I know you want to rest from your labors.”

Winehurst tried to pull away, but he had trained with weapons 30 years ago. Trevor trained in hand-to-hand twice weekly with Wu. He couldn’t beat a real fighter—he hadn’t kept in real training for over ten years himself. But the general wasn’t escaping him by main strength.

“What! No. Damnit we talked about this. You promised me a chance to rebuild the military make it a real fighting force again! Let go, damn it!”

Trevor timed his release so the general lost his balance, stumbling backward and nearly tripping over Wu and Deborah. Deborah wore the distant look Trevor was used to seeing when she called on her God. Wu was focused on Winehurst.

“I have every intention of keeping my promise, general. But I’m afraid you and I have very different ideas of what a “real” fighting force will look like. My idea does not look like the murders, bullies, and abusers you’ve gathered around you to abuse and extort civilian populations. It looks like a military force. With discipline and a purpose.

“So I suggest you take your retirement bonus and go. You won’t get a better offer.”

Winehurst strode towards Trevor, getting in his face and trying to loom over him. “I’m the only military office you’ve got. Without me, you can’t hold the troops. And without the troops, your brown ass will be dead before the week is out. You may be the one with the big chair, but you don’t scare me.”

“I see. Well, I admit I was warned that even if you took retirement you’d be likely to try to… meddle. Better to have everything out in the open, then.”

“Darn right I would. Now let’s talk salary.”

“Of course.” Trevor stepped back, giving way to the general. A hand behind the general’s elbow turned him toward one of the conference tables. Then the grip shifted, and the elbow lock forced Winehurst to keep moving until he walked with into—and through—the glowing 30-story window that should have held up to a shoulder-fired SAM. And had before Deborah’s cast her spell.

Winehurst screamed all the way down, of course. Trevor sighed. “Goodbye general. I told you you wouldn’t get a better offer.”

One of the security gryphons winged down to hover before the window. “Sir?”

“I’m fine. However, we need to up our weapon search procedures.” Trevor shook his head. “I don’t know what he thought he was doing, attacking me with Wu and Deborah right here. And please order a cleanup crew for the sidewalk.”

Deborah came to stand beside him and looked down at the splattered remains of the general.

“Thank you, Deborah. That was quick thinking.” Trevor shook his head. But was it necessary?

Gevurah,” she said. “It was justice.”

“Was it?” Trevor heard himself ask.

Wu put a hand on his shoulder, “Honored friend, not all the deaths on our hands will be just ones. But your servant has seen his work first hand. Even if he had accepted your offer, he would have continued doing harm to many. This death was indeed just.

“And having it known that you can defend yourself against attack at need? Your honored servant will sleep much better at night knowing that your enemies will know you are no easy target.”

With the window gone, the noise of the crowds, now punctuated by screams and shouts, came to him clearly. He looked down at them and waved, doing his best to show them that he was alive and unharmed. Camdrones zoomed towards him. “Wu, deal with those please.” He turned his back on the broken window and sat at the desk he had done so much to claim.

“I have work to do.”

Next Entry

“Talking to Kids about Polyamory” is Now Live!

Hey folks,

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I was invited to take part in the Talking to Kids about Sex interview series hosted by Anya Mayes. Unsurprisingly, Anya wanted me for my experience writing about polyamory. We had a fun time talking about how you can explain polyamory to kids, how to handle it if someone in your kid’s social circle is polyamorous, and a few other important things.

Well, that interview is live today, and you can get it free if you sign up here.

(Anya tells me the her interview with Dr. Eli Sheff is going up tomorrow. I don’t know what they talked about, but I’m looking forward to finding out!)

Text: The Talking to Kids About Sex interview series With your host, Anya Manes FREE VIDEO SERIES Keeping kids safe and whole as they learn who they are. Image: White woman with long dark brown hair, pink t-shirt, smiling, against a white background with blue-and-purple paint-spatter pattern behind series title and colored bars with remaining text on the bottom of the image.