The Polyamorists Next Door

Exploring the world of consensual non-monogamy

When Partners Leave Polyamorous Families With Children

Parents' and children's strategies for dealing with shifting family members.

The larger poly groups get, my research indicates, the more often they experience a change in membership. It makes sense —the bigger the group, the more likely it is that someone will leave or others will join. What happens when the group includes children who become attached to adults, and those beloved adults are the ones who leave? 

Sometimes it Really Sucks

 

small white boy crying in black and white photograph
Kids can feel devastated when a beloved adult goes away.
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Some kids in my study of poly families reported feeling quite upset when their parents broke up with partners whom the children had come to love. The kids missed their former adult companions, and occasionally compared parents’ subsequent partners to others they had known and loved before, refusing to get close to new partners because of the old hurt they experienced when they bonded with an adult who then left. 

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More Often it is Not a Big Deal

Stone statue of child in woman's arms kissing woman on cheek
The kids in poly families I interviewed routinely reported that they felt safe and secure with their parents.
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While some children experience painful loss and disappointment when their parents’ partners leave, for others it is rather anticlimactic. Like divorced parents and others who form blended families, poly parents use a number of strategies to lessen the impact of their dating on their children.

Slow Introduction

A turtle on a rocky beach with the word slow written above
It is best not to rush poly relationships, and parents are especially careful when introducing their partners to their children.
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In order to minimize the potential for kids to bond with someone who leaves, parents in poly relationships routinely use extreme caution with new partners. Poly parents use strategies like meeting partners outside of the home, courting for significant periods of time before having sex, asking around poly communities about their prospective partners’ previous relationships, and in some cases even doing background checks. As a result, many children are not even aware when some partners leave because they never met those people in the first place.

Blend In

A group of people smiling and chatting on a beach at sunset.
Dinner parties, group camp-outs, movie nights, and support groups are common in poly communities and often include children.
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Because poly people are often quite social, they tend to interact with lots of friends and community members. With all of these people around, parents’ partners can blend in to social background and do not stand out in children’s lives. Parental sexuality is often irrelevant to (especially younger) children because it happens behind closed doors, after the kids are already in bed. As relationships deepen, people spend more time together, and eventually it becomes clear to the children that the partner is particularly significant. Parents generally wait until their relationships have lasted long enough that people are emotionally committed to each other before allowing partners to stand out to their children as family members.

A party of people standing around a kitchen talking and drinking.
Poly communities often host potlucks where kids go off and play while the adults chat.
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Staying In Touch

Three adult elephants standing around baby elephant, trunks lovingly entwined
When adults are friendly or at least civil and supportive it is easier for kids to stay in contact with beloved adults.
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In many poly communities, the ideal is for adults to bond with children and continue that link even if the various adults no longer maintain a sexual relationship. In this idyllic vision, adults and children form lasting emotional connections that are independent of any others’ relationships. When breakups are especially hurtful it can become difficult for adults to live up to this ideal, and in those cases kids and former partners often lose touch with each other. In other cases, poly adults can transition from romantic relationships to friendships or polyaffective (emotionally intimate and platonic) relationships and mutually help the children spend time with valued adults.  

Creating Chosen Family

A statue of four silver people holding up an oddly shaped box together
"Chosen kin" are usually friends who become family members, such as honorary aunts/uncles, siblings, or cousins.
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Children in poly families often observe their parents cherishing emotional connections that are outside of conventional relationship configurations, which generally rely on biological or legal (biolegal) links to determine who is a “real” family member. Following suit, children in poly families frequently establish their own connections with people, completely independent of their parents’ social lives. By forging emotionally intimate relationships based on mutual reliance and support, kids and parents in poly families expand beyond biolegal kinship into what scholars call chosen kinship (something common among many gender and sexual minorities). In this way, children in poly families can take charge of constructing their own chosen families and social circles.
Three young white women smiling and laughing, rough-housing outside.
Sisters 4ever. Polys value emotional bonds, often above sex. Friends are very important, and some become family.
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Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., is an expert on polyamory and sexual-minority families with children.

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