Since 1996 I have been conducting the Longitudinal Polyamorous Family Study following the same group of people in polyamorous families with kids. Over the years I have collected four waves of data from this group of people, interviewing them about every five years. Some of the people in my research sample were children when I met them in the mid 90s and now have graduated from college. This blog and others to come detail the emerging findings from this longitudinal study.
When it comes to sex and gender minorities, conventional society seems to have a horrified fascination with sexuality. For people in polyamorous or other consensually non-monogamous relationships, this can translate to an over-sexualization of these folks and their families. One expression of this fascination with sexuality is the concern about the sexual orientations and identities of the children raised in sex and gender minority families. This was most evident in the discussion over same-sex marriage, when opponents of legalization pointed to the supposed damage LGBTQ+ parents inflicted on their children. Sociologists and others objected to that erroneous assertion and used evidence-based research to demonstrate that decades of research has found that LGBT families are at least as stable and healthy as heterosexual families.
My research findings indicate that the same is true for polyamorous families – with a caveat. Because of the way that I have drawn my sample (using volunteers willing to let me hang out with them and their kids and relying on people who are still willing to talk to me twenty or more years after they originally volunteered for the study), this group of people represent those families happy with polyamory, who found that it worked well for them and they continued the relationship style for many years. In brief, these happy polyamorous families show what happens when polyamory works out well. This is not to say that all poly families work out well or follow this same pattern, but that some of the folks in happy polyamorous relationships have rewarding and supportive family relationships that promote personal resilience for individual members.
When I am speaking to reporters, conference audiences, or workshop participants, they frequently ask me, “Do the kids become polyamorous themselves?” On the one hand, this question makes sense, because apparently everyone wonders about it. On the other hand, it implies that it would be an issue, potentially problematic if the kids were to become polyamorous as adults. Following that line of thinking, it would be a negative thing if poly families created poly children in the same way that it would work against gay families if they created gay children.
Are they Polyamorous?
My young respondents fell in a spectrum when it came to considering polyamory. Several said that they are now and will most likely continue to identify as polyamorous. One 26 year old man reported that polyamory had too many rules and he would most likely continue with his relationship anarchy style of attachment. At the other end of the spectrum, several people reported that they would never under any circumstance be in a polyamorous relationship, and monogamous marriage seemed the most appealing option to them. The vast majority, however, fell in the middle of the spectrum in that they are not polyamorous right now but are not ruling it out in the future.
Why Not Polyamorous?
The non-polyamorous respondents reported a few different reasons why they did not want to engage in poly relationships. Some of them felt that they were too young to make major life decisions like that yet. One young man told me, “I am 15 years old, still trying to figure out when to use my tongue when I kiss. Polyamory is just too much for me right now!” Similarly, some young people in their first serious relationship felt like it was enough for them handle at that moment, things were going well with that one person and they did not want to “mess it up” or “stir up trouble.”
Other non-poly young people said that they did not want to deal with the complexities of polyamorous life, especially the jealousy and drama. “I can be a jealous bitch!” one young woman told me, “So I don’t want to be poly, too much work with all that potential for jealousy, like you are looking for it or something. No thank you.”
Young people today – and especially those involved in alternative communities — are frequently reluctant to be boxed in to a single identifying label for their sexual orientations, genders, or relationship styles. Many prefer instead to remain fluid in how they think of themselves or use a variety of flexible labels. One outcome of this generational rejection of labels is that few of these young folks want to identify with such a loaded label as polyamory, especially because it seems for many like their parents’ thing. While they may engage in multiple, single, or no sexual relationships, they are loathe to label themselves as polyamorous.
When I asked Koe Creation, author of This Heart Holds Many: My Life as a Nonbinary Millennial Child of a Polyamorous Family, why they thought that children raised in polyamorous families did not tend to identify as polyamorous themselves, they responded that: "Simply put, why repeat the mistakes of your parents? In my experience, as young humans grow into and through adulthood, we are subconsciously learning from our parents’ mistakes and often working to shift them within ourselves. When your schema around family, love, relationships and communication is influenced by the structure (or lack thereof) of polyamory, you make associations with how you experienced that structure. Was there accountability, empathy, integrity, well-maintained and sensible boundaries? The quality of these foundational characteristics have a major impact on someone’s experience. My discovery of non-monogamy came through my family and my understanding of polyamory came through our subsequent community contact, but my critical analysis of my relationships and how I want to formulate them is all mine."
The Future Clause
With three exceptions so far, the bulk of the sample of young people left the door open at least a crack for CNM. These three exceptions included two hardcore monogamists who would under no circumstances consider any form of consensual non-monogamy themselves and one asexual person who does not anticipate ever having sexual relationships. While my findings are still emerging, the pattern towards the younger respondents taking a “wait and see” approach is quite clear. Even those respondents who initially say they want to be monogamous routinely follow it up later in the interview with “for now.”
Sometimes these respondents cast these future potentialities as sexual only, without the emotional entanglements of polyamory. For these folks, the monogamy is the focus and CNM happens later, in service of keeping the monogamous relationship fresh. A 23 year old woman happily enjoying her monogamous relationship with her boyfriend told me, “Maybe we will have threesomes after we have been married for 10 years and have two kids and things are getting stale. But nothing more than sexual, I don’t want her moving in with us or anything, just for us to spice things up together really. We’ll see what happens.”
Others are less committed to the idea of monogamy and more focused on responding to partners’ needs as they evolve. These folks reported that they are generally happy with what they are doing, and that involves being responsive to their partners. Co-creating a relationship means they may turn out to be polyamorous or something else, they are not sure yet. Faced with an expansive menu of relationship options, right now they are choosing monogamy but next time they might select something else depending on what works best then for everyone concerned.
Kreation, Koe. 2019. This Heart Holds Many: Thorntree Press.