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
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.
More Often it is Not a Big Deal
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.
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.
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.
Staying In Touch
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
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.