In the first part of this series on aging in polyamorous families, I summarized my recent data on how the respondents in my 20-year study of polyamorous families with children have been managing their relationships with their children, the polyamorous community, physical impacts of aging, and divorce. This second blog in the series details how aging polyamorous folks manage their relationships with friends and current and former lovers.
In line with the sentiments they had expressed in previous waves of data collection, these older polyamorous folks who participated in my research reported that their relationships remained central to their lives. By relationships they did not mean only romantic or sexual relationships, but rather all of their relationships that were mutually reliant, caring, and supportive through periods of difficulty. Aging research participants spoke about the importance of friendship, waning emphasis on sexuality, and insights into long term polyamorous relationships.
The crucial importance of friendship has been a constant theme in my findings. Indeed, it appears to be the strength of the polyaffective (emotionally intimate non-sexual relationships among people linked in a polyamorous group) relationships that determines the smooth running of polyamorous families, rather than the amorous relationships themselves. Aging polyamorists identified friendship as an important way they met social needs – some of which used to be met in romantic and/or sexual relationships. With the waning sex drive that often accompanies aging, these polyamorous folks reported lower interest in establishing new romantic relationships and an even greater appreciation/love for friends.
Like many others in their 60s and 70s, these polyamorous folks expressed a decreasing focus on sex. Many of them still enjoy sex and maintain ongoing sexual relationships with multiple partners, sometimes using common techniques to sustain those sex lives, such as taking Viagra, setting the stage carefully, having kinds of sex that do not center around genital penetration, and making sure the timing is right. A small minority of women declared themselves done with sex completely, or at least for their foreseeable future. Several relationships had transitioned from sexual to platonic, with affection and cuddling but no sex. In most of those cases, the older poly folks still had sex - just not with that long-term partner. The lack of sexual connection did not seem to damage the relationships, and some were incredibly close and durable through the transition from sexual to platonic.
That last point – that these aging polyamorous folks can transition from sexual to platonic relationships and still love each other, live together, and grow old together -- is especially important. The pronounced tendency for many long-term relationships to lose sexual spark but remain workable/enjoyable in other ways has led to many divorces. While polyamorous families divorce as well, some of them sustain through common difficulties that often ruin monogamous marriages. Not only do the polyamorous folks put less emphasis on sexuality in general, they allow each other to have sex with others and thus get those needs met without having to break up.
That is not to say that everything is always blissful in polyamorous relationships. Some of the older folks in the study reported that their relationships still had challenges and sometimes were actively aggravating, but that they had decided to stay anyway. Even though life with multiple partners was not perfect for them, starting over with a new relationship and trying to build a new family sounded exhausting to these folks. Furthermore, it might be pointless, because all relationships have issues and who was to say that the next one would have any less than this one does. Generally these folks decided that there were enough benefits to outweigh the negative aspects, so overall the relationship was worth the struggle for the good times. Aging polyamorous folks reported using strategies to manage the difficulties and emphasize the good parts, such as obtaining housing with separate spaces for people with incompatible sleeping styles and vacationing separately.
With their many years of experience in polyamorous relationships, older participants had developed some relationship insights that helped them function in units more smoothly. Through trial and error the older polyamorists had already made many of the common mistakes, learned from them, and did not repeat those same mistakes again. Navigating their relationship complexities often brought personal growth, and some were even able to grow vicariously by sticking with their partners through their relationship struggles with others. Old jealousies often seemed played out and less important. People either came to accept or even love each-others’ faults or move on and end or create more distance from the relationship, with much less time spent trying to change each other.
Even though communication is crucial for happy polyamorous relationships, sometimes it needs to stop. These folks in long term polyamorous relationships sometimes identified issues upon which they were never going to agree – ever. By agreeing to set aside specific issues instead of arguing about them repeatedly, these older folks in long-term polyamorous relationships were able to maintain their separate ideas and a harmonious household as well. One stated simply: “We have had this conversation 26 times and we still don’t agree on this, do we really need to talk about it a 27th time?”
These preliminary findings from the fourth wave of the Polyamorous Families Study confirm what other researchers have also found. Most notably, Fleckenstein and Cox found that, when they compared their sample of older people who engaged in sexually non-exclusive relationships to older members of the larger populace in the General Social Survey, the sexually non-exclusive elders had more sex with more partners, better health, and were significantly happier than their counterparts in the General Social Survey.
The association of an open relationship orientation with health and happiness in a sample of older US adults
James R. Fleckenstein · Derrell W. Cox, Sexual and Relationship Therapy · January 2015 DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2014.976997