Polyamorous Families, Stigma, and Families of Origin

How poly families handle the impact of stigma on/from their families of origin.

Posted Oct 28, 2013

Like other sexual and gender minorities, polyamorists often have to navigate prejudice and stigma within their own families of origin, as well as in external society. Often less socially recognizable than people in same-sex relationships, polys tend to blend in to the background and often experience less public or external harassment than do other more visible sexual minorities. In some cases, the same lack of social awareness allows them to hide within their own families, and in others polys either come out or are outed to family members. How do families of origin react when they find out some of their members are having polyamorous relationships?

 Some Will Never Know

Those polys with religiously devout and/or conservative families of origin often remain closeted: If they are certain that grandma would flip her wig if she found out that little Davy had a boyfriend as well as a wife, then they simply do not inform grandma of said boyfriend (or wife’s boyfriend, either). These folks are generally not that close to their conservative family members anyway, so hiding their chosen poly family is often fairly easy. 

Black and white photo of statues of 3 monkeys, covering eyes, ears, and mouth.

Families can silently agree to talk only about "nice" things, no uncomfortable topics.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

It is a time-tested strategy for some families with sexual or gender minority members to pretend that there is nothing unusual with sweet old bachelor Uncle Leroy and his "roommate" of 23 years. Similarly, polys somtimes have "close friends" for many years who always seem to be spending the night, and relatives might raise eyebrows but refrain from commenting (at least in front of the suspected polys).

Ahhhhh FREAK OUT (le freak, c'est chic)

A white man looking angry and yelling, standing outside in yellow shirt.

Polyamory can seem extremely threatening, and even immoral, to some people.

A white man looking angry and yelling, standing outside in yellow shirt.

Polyamory can seem extremely threatening, and even immoral, to some people.

In some cases, families of origin become very upset when their members come out as poly, occasionally stigmatizing their poly members as unclean, immoral, or bad parents. Others become quite concerned for the wellbeing of their poly family members, fearing that they are being exploited or manipulated into doing something that will bring them heartache from their lovers and social stigma from others.

No Problem

Far from freaking out, other families embraced their poly members with open arms and welcomed their multiple partners in to the fold. These tended to be socially liberal or open minded families, some of whom had gay, divorced, or single-parent members.

Five white adults smiling and standing arm in arm, man on end holding small dog.

For some it is really no big deal if their children, siblings, or cousins are polyamorous.

The Large Gray Area

As with other sexual and gender minorities, families of poly folks react in a variety of ways that shift and change over time. One sibling will have no problem with it at all while another cuts off all contact; Dad freaks out at first but calms down and becomes more accepting over time; Aunt Jasmine tells a story about a couple she dated when she was in college and how they broke up but it was fun while it lasted. That fact that the family members are poly either blends in to the larger background of all the other things happening in the extended family, or if it remains highly contentious then family members lose contact, avoid each other, and grow apart.

How Does that Work with the Kids?

Children growing up in poly families experience their interactions with extended family members in a variety of ways, largely dependent on how the adults interact with each other. Kids in poly families that are accepted and embraced into the extended family have a wealth of grandparents, aunts/uncles, and cousins, and often mention the extra birthday and holiday gifts as a fun advantage to poly families. Sometimes aging parents who had given up on becoming grandparents are delighted with their instant-grandparent status when their children who did not have kids themselves enter a relationship with someone who is a parent. True to poly form, this becomes an expansion of love for the kids, the adults, and the grandparents.

In other cases, kids in poly families report their grandparents trying to get information about their adult children’s relationships from their grandchildren. When grandma or grandpa asks the grandchildren about mom and dad’s relationship with that young woman who seems to be at the house all the time, things can get sticky. Younger kids often have no idea what the grandparent is talking about, but tweens and teens are generally well aware of exactly where this uncomfortable line of questioning is leading and will routinely either feign ignorance, be obtuse, or direct the grandparent to speak to their adult children about it.


An older white couple playing with a little white baby on a bed

Babies can be irresistible, crumbling grandparent defenses with gooey smile

Finally, kids in poly families who have been rejected by their families of origin generally don’t know their grandparents because the families have little to no contact. Occasionally the arrival of a grandchild will make recalcitrant grandparents who had previously shunned their poly children reconsider their positions and decide to accept the family in order to be able to see their grandchildren.