When we received this question about beginning a polyamorous relationship as parents, we asked Anie (author of this post and frequent Offbeat Families commenter) to weigh in:
I am part of a couple who is considering bringing a third person into our relationship — not just in a relationship, but fully integrated into our family. As three intelligent, consenting adults, we have few problems with moving towards making this arrangement a reality, and we intend to live together.
However, my husband and I do have a young child, and this would be both a big change for her and something that would require a good talk since up to this point this isn’t something she has a frame of reference for. I’m wondering: can you guys give us some advice on beginning a poly relationship when children are already involved — or if you could share resources you might know of on the topic?
When it comes to the romantic entanglements of adding a third partner to an existing relationship, I’m afraid you’re mostly going to have to figure it out through trial and error and drama and crying and family meetings and lots and LOTS of talking. Once you get it all worked out, though, there are some practical aspects of integrating a new person into your family that I can happily give some advice on.
When it comes to moving in together, the advice isn’t that different from moving any significant other into a pre-existing home. Make sure that the new person has their own space (usually their own bedroom), but also make sure that they are integrated into the public spaces so they feel like this is home instead of just a place they are camping out for a bit. If your new paramour is particularly attached to an old Lazy Boy Recliner they’ve been toting around since college, this may mean sticking the unsightly thing in the midst of your perfectly matched living room set rather than relegating it to their room. These are the sacrifices we make for the people we love. If you just can’t bring yourself to sacrifice your cohesive design scheme (I personally get kind of weird about wanting everything to match), then you may need to save up so that the three of you can all go out together and buy new furnishings that represent everyone’s tastes.
As far as making someone feel like part of the family, both to themselves and to people looking at your home from an outside perspective, I usually use pictures. To various degrees, our “coming out” to our extended families has pretty much been through our family portraits . To me, nothing says “This is my family” like getting your pictures taken together and/or hanging pictures of them on your wall.
Of course the trickiest part of your question is how to navigate things with your child. The truth is, it’s probably not as complicated as you think. For a young child (under eight or so), social conventions are not as understood and accepted as they are for us adults. If you raise a child in a polyamorous home, they will probably never really find it odd.
I recently went to a panel by Dr. Sheff on poly families. One of the points she made that really stuck with me is that young children are very self-centered. They define everyone in terms of how they relate to themselves. Your new partner will not be “Mommy’s Boyfriend” or “Daddy’s Girlfriend”, they will be “The one who gives back rides” or (in a less positive possibility) “The one who takes Mommy’s time.” If your new partner is already an established part of your lives, chances are they already have an established relationship with your child. Make a conscious effort to build on that. Your child won’t really need much more explanation than that this person that they like is now going to move in. Age-appropriate questions will come up organically and should simply be given age appropriate answers as they happen.
Of course, you still need to consider all the usual step-parent questions. Who has the right to discipline your child? What are acceptable methods of disciplining (time-out vs spankings, etc)? Exactly how should discipline be administered? What is the protocol for dealing with a disagreement between parents about whether a child deserves disciplining? A lot of parents have an “Always back each other up” policy that prevents them from contradicting each other in front of the kid, but poly families are time sinks, and you don’t always have a chance to talk later about why you think sitting on the counter doesn’t deserve time-out.
There are also non-discipline questions to consider. Who is expected to make it to soccer games and school plays? Do you need a Writ of in Loco Parentis so your partner can make medical decisions if your child is hospitalized and you aren’t available? Will your will grant your partner custody if something should happen to you and your husband? A lot of these are more long term questions, but they should definitely be simmering in your mind.
For some more general poly resources, let me recommend the following:
- Polyamory Society
- Polayamory/Forum — like any forum on the internet that isn’t run by the Offbeat Empire, it can get nasty at times, but it can also be really supportive. At least, this was the case when I last went there a few years back.
- Fetlife — Fetlife is Facebook for those with alternative sexual lifestyles. I would avoid getting involved in any of the poly forums here until you’re a lot more confident in what you’re doing, but it might be worth reading through and using for networking purposes like private messaging people who say things you want to explore further. As someone who actively avoids the darker, meaner places on the internet (Thanks for making that possible, Offbeat Empire!), I am often appalled by the amount of vitriol and snap judgments that occur on these forums, even though they may be pretty tame by the greater internet standard. Don’t try to talk until you know you can hold your ground.
- PolyFamilySupport — A Facebook group specifically for poly families with an emphasis on stable groups with children.