Resilience in Polyamorous Families

When the going gets tough, what doesn't bend will break.

Posted Oct 13, 2015

The first in a series, this blog applies family resilience theories to an understanding of polyamorous families.  

Given the level of social stigma under which polyamorists and other sexual and gender minority families labor, it would make sense for readers to interpret my use of resilience theory as a defensive posture taken against imminent attack. In fact, the data from my 15-year study of polyamorous families with children and the characteristics of polyamorous families led me to resilience theory, which is primarily a psychological theory and not one with which I, as a sociologist, had been familiar with prior to researching polyamorous families. It was reading others’ research on stigmatized families that I came across the family resilience model, and was struck by how perfectly the emphases on communication and flexibility matched poly priorities of honesty and negotiation. 


Resilience is the ability to survive and even thrive through difficult life events. As a psychological famework, resilience is a strengths-based perspective that looks at the ways in which families deal with crises and develop adaptive behaviors. Researchers who study families that survive hardship with support and love for each other find some common protective mechanisms that help people through adversity—especially communication and flexibility. Resilient families are the ones that can sustain a constant process of creation and recreation as they adapt to changing circumstances. These same traits appear in polyamorous families, with their emphasis on flexibility via negotiation and honesty through communicaiton.  

Photo by B. Geurts/GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0.
Source: Photo by B. Geurts/GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0.

Flexibility and Negotiation 

Because polys have few roles models, they are forced to innovate their own relationship structures. Once they have departed from recognized family blueprints, polys have freedomn/necessity to consider how they want to live, parent, work, and playh. Being able to negotiate who works for pay and who takes care of the kids or goes to school gives these poly families the elasticity to flex with life's surprises. 

Communication and Honesty 

Polyamorists use communication to negotiate relationship boundaries, discuss feelings, and resolve conflicts. Communication and honesty are such important aspects of polyamorous life that it is difficult to overemphasize them. Together, they are the most popular coping mechanisms that assist polyamorists in dealing with the potential difficulties in their complex relationship style.

Polyamorists routinely face the possibility of jealousy, hurt feelings, and miscommunication among many partners. While monogomists experience these same difficulties in their own relationships, the increased number of people in polyamorous relationships multiplies the opportunities for miscommunication significantly. Polys have developed a number of techniques to deal with these potential pitfalls. One such mechanism is radical honesty, a practice of being completely honest in all situations, even when it was not “nice” or convenient.

CC0 image via Gratisography.
Source: CC0 image via Gratisography.

Many long-term polys practice and even seek training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC) techniques, such as listening compassionately to the other person while they are speaking instead of preparing mental notes for a rebuttal, subverting the desire to argue by calmly repeating what the other person said back to them to make sure everyone shares the same understanding, and speaking in “I statements.”  

Poly folks also tend to value persistence and the ability to deal with conflict compassionately, in large part because the humane practice of those traits contributes to effective communication. Communication helps polys deal with the emotional complexities of polyamorous relationships, as well as negotiate boundaries structuring those multiplistic relationships.

While there are plenty of role models for people in monogamous relationships, they are fairly scarce for polyamorists, who create templates for their own relationships. Negotiating safer-sex agreements, boundaries structuring relationships with a variety of partners, and even the domestic division of labor among multiple partners and co-parents requires extensive communication skills, and the poly families who perfect these skills exhibit impressive resilience.

In the next blog, I will detail some of the ways polyamorous families manifest this resilience, and demonstrate how it can be useful for divorced and blended serial-monogamous families.