Polyamory Families

Polyamory Families: 5 Challenges and How to Navigate Them

As society becomes ever more accepting of non-traditional family structures, an increasing number of parents and families are identifying as polyamorous or poly. Not only that but there’s a corresponding rise in ostensibly monogamous couples admitting to consensual non-monogamy

But while people might be increasingly accepting, we still live and work in a society geared towards the monogamous. This can pose logistical and often challenging problems for polyamory families

It Takes a Village 

One of the primary challenges of being a polyamorous family is that there’s a popular misconception that atypical family structures, like multiple partners or parents, is somehow detrimental to the children raised in polyamorous families. But there’s nothing to back this up. 

Young children, in particular, often don’t think of family structures beyond their own. The oddity is not that they have multiple parents, but that other people only have two. 

This changes with the approach of elementary school because children begin to develop a broader worldview. But it’s not until middle school that children begin to fully realize the differences in their poly family compared to more traditional, monogamous relationships. 

And while the realization that their poly family is different from their friends’ home life can have ramifications for their emergent sexuality, children from poly families are no more likely to overthink their parents' romantic relationship than other children. 

In fact, children are more likely to see the advantages of polyamorous parenting. They see their poly parents as:

  • An extensive support network
  • Multiple sources of attention

Legal Parents and Poly Parenting 

Where the family model does have ramifications, however, is for poly parents. Despite increasingly accepting not only poly relationships but open marriages and relationships, many states still favor monogamous family unity. 

For a third domestic partner to take on legal responsibility for the children in poly families, one of the legal parents must surrender their rights. 

And the problem isn’t limited to polyamory families or those practicing consensual nonmonogamy. It’s also an issue for children closely involved with both their biological and step-parents who might have raised them. 

Consequently, there’s a careful balance that the monogamous and polyamorous struggle to keep between maintaining everyone’s parental rights and allowing for active and open parental participation. 

However, this isn’t always the case. At least 12 states have re-assessed family law and adoption law to expand the definition of parenthood and facilitate co-parenting by multiple partners

But this only helps in a situation where all domestic partners live in the same state. Ideally, they would, but sometimes relocating to a place that has adjusted its family and adoption laws isn’t a viable option. 

In that situation, co-parenting agreements can be invaluable to poly families. A co-parenting agreement solidifies what to expect from all domestic partners, including:

  • child care
  • financial contribution
  • Daily routines and logistics 

They can also help if something happens to change the relationship, such as:

  • Illness
  • Death
  • Partner(s) leave(s) the relationship 

Although co-parenting agreements aren’t legally binding, they can help polyamorous families navigate some of the pressures of a predominantly monogamous family model. And while poly people may not feel the need or want to quantify their relationships with their children through co-parenting agreements, they can be helpful if extended family object to the arrangement.  

Coming Out to Family 

As with any relationship, what a poly person tells their family about their personal life is a matter of personal choice. The decision to come out to family is no different and making it can be difficult. 

And while many polyamorous families can and do thrive, research suggests they face added prejudices due to:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity

All of these impact partners' decisions in multiple-partner relationships to disclose their relationship status to family. The generational gap created between polyamorous people and grandparents, for instance, can be challenging to navigate. And a poly person’s decision to disclose their non-monogamous status to them will depend on the grandparents' convictions on monogamy

How to navigate the question of disclosure is a deeply personal choice for each polyamorous household and significantly affected by the perceived safety or otherwise of revealing the relationship status

Children in poly families may not suffer adverse effects from their parents' polyamorous lifestyle, but if disclose goes wrong or causes a familial rift, they may feel the effects of the fallout. 

This is particularly true if a grandparent is less than enthusiastic about a non-biological grandchild. While polyamorous families hope for tolerance,  many people couch their concerns about the ethics of polyamory and consensual nonmonogamy in terms of their grandchildren’s well-being.

Helpfully, while polyamorous families that opt to come out strive for a tolerant extended family, there’s a wide familial support network available. 

This allows them to pick and choose which connections children are exposed to until the polyamorous person is satisfied the whole family is a safe and welcoming place. 

When the extended family does express concern for the children in poly families, many members of the poly community take their cue from the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to fielding concerns over child welfare.

 In the ideal scenario, a poly person’s parent adapts to their child’s multiple partners over time. But when that doesn’t or can’t happen, many polyamorous people turn to the surrounding poly community, as well as the LGBTQ+  community for support. 

Parenting Techniques for Polyamory Families 

For poly families that can and do safely disclose their relationship status, that still doesn’t solve every problem. 

Another polyamorous family problem for poly parents is conflicting parenting styles. This can be especially difficult for solo poly parents or poly people who parent with a primary partner but have other secondary partners who help parent their children. 

As with monogamous families, it’s common for one polyamorous partner to be stricter than the others. But whereas a monogamous couple would negotiate the best way to parent between the two of them, for polyamory families, the dialogue widens to include the other domestic partners. 

Communication is Crucial 

Successfully juggling multiple opposing opinions requires honest and open communication. Indeed, this is the bedrock of many successful polyamory families since it helps:

  • Build intimacy
  • Set boundaries
  • Share feelings
  • Negotiate agreements 

The subsequent communication fosters closeness and connectivity between the members of the polyamory family as a result. While no one sets out to be brutally honest, the successful polyamorous relationship relies on creating a safe, emotional environment that allows all family members to parent and thrive.

Benefits of Polyamorous Parenting 

Moreover, while polyamory can pose logistical challenges for poly parents and families, it also allows them greater freedom. With multiple people navigating the relationship, it’s possible to transfer traditionally gendered roles from person to person. 

Because a predominantly monogamous family outlook has no inbuilt roster for multi-partner relationships, the question of how to divide parenting roles becomes less about who is expected to do what and more about who is best suited for the job. 

Consequently, children from polyamory families are less conditioned to certain gendered expectations than their peers and demonstrate more flexibility when adapting to changing environmental norms.  

Navigating Break Ups 

But not every polyamory family lasts forever. One of the disadvantages polyamorous parents cite when discussing poly parenting is the multiple break-ups children experience if and when domestic partners leave.

However, children are naturally adaptable and with the right guidance, can take many things in stride. Consequently, many polyamorous people tackle this problem by modeling good break-up behavior to the best of their ability. 

What’s more, to help children adjust, members of the poly community often frame break-ups not as permanent severances but as transitions. This kind of flexibility means that while a polygamist may leave the family unit, they don’t disappear altogether. 

It’s not unusual for a former partner to remain involved with childcare or even as platonic partners of a former fellow polyamorous family member. 

And the children? When handled well, these transitions help teach them that love comes in all shapes and sizes and doesn’t have to be romantic. 

Conclusion 

Polyamory, and particularly polyamory families are rife with benefits. Children thrive on the extra attention and can draw on a larger support network than their peers to fulfill their emotional needs. 

And poly parents report a more flexible division of labor between work and childcare, not to mention more sleep for everyone. 

But it’s not without drawbacks, either. Polyamorous families run the risk of encountering logistical difficulties:

  • Becoming legal parents
  • Deciding whether to disclose the relationship
  • How to parent 
  • Handling break-ups 

Some states have begun tackling the problem of multiple partner adoption. And for those families where partners live out of state or simply aren’t in a state that can accommodate their polyamorous lifestyle, co-parenting agreements help facilitate some of the legal logistics. 

For almost everything else, open and honest communication is vital. Knowing how a partner feels and what they need is integral to successfully navigating a polyamorous relationship

Many say it’s equally crucial when dealing with children in polyamory families and regularly check in with their children to ensure they aren’t experiencing the stigma that comes with an atypical family structure or have questions about the nature of their parents' relationship

Most children, however, find they have no questions. Family, after all, is family, irrespective of the number of people it encompasses.

If you are struggling with your polyamory family situation, there are experts who specialize in these matters and can help make things easier, so feel free to reach out.

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