Parents going poly: how to begin a polyamorous relationship when you already have kids

Guest post by Anie

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:

Polyamorous Trio on #SF Muni

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?
— Nova

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.

Comments on Parents going poly: how to begin a polyamorous relationship when you already have kids

  1. We’re coming up on our 1 year anniversary with our quad – one couple with one kid plus another couple with their kid. We cohabitate on weekends, and do dinner together most week nights.

    I will second what Anie said about kids taking it in stride. Both of ours never blinked at the addition of extra adults. The “bonus parents” on each side have taken it slow and conservative when it comes to parenting the other kid, with lots of talk, but the kids have been just fine for the most part! (Ours are 6 and 6 1/2). They will make as much of a big deal of it as you do.

    Good luck! In my opinion more responsible loving adults in a child’s life can only be a good thing.

  2. Awesome answer to the question.

    When my wife and I became poly, the person wasn’t moving in but definitely established a relationship with the kids. It didn’t phase them at all. It did prove to me kids are way more resilient that many would like to believe. Now 10 years later my oldest’s first girlfriend and him were poly, and to him it was just normal. It definitely will give your kids a wider world view when they become old enough to date.

  3. I grew up in a co-parenting mini commune. While my parents were not poly, we did have new parents join our home and family. I loved having extra parents. Oooh, I just wrote a whole super long comment which got a little intense! To sum up, what I think my family did really well is that they were very explicit about what role and committment each person had to us kids independant of their relationship/s with each other. If you’re interested in more detail, let me know!

  4. so, we’re not in a poly relationship, but i just wanted to say a big “yes!” that little kids (ours are 2 and 3) don’t care about adults relationships with each other (as long as they aren’t traumatic), they care about adults relationships with *them*.

    our kids, at their age, would never know the difference between our best friend and a third in our relationship, because they just don’t care (as long as they like having him around, which, they like our bestie better than us). after all, they never mention *our* relationship unless they’re jealous of the hugs and kisses, in which case, well, they can have hugs and kisses too. that will change drastically as they get older, of course – and kid-to-kid as well, but with little dudes, i would be surprised if they notice (unless you make them call him “dad”; they might want to know why…or not – but again that is about *their* relationships, not yours, so they care).

  5. I actually grew up in a poly family. At first, I just had two moms, then there was mom, mom, and daddy (Not my biological father). Eventually, I had my moms, and my (bio) mom also had 3 boyfriends, and my other mom had at least one girlfriend of her own. I had questions, of course. I went to school with more mundane families involved, so I wanted to know if it was cheating. The one thing Daddy always said was, “It’s not cheating if you don’t break the rules.”

    Eventually, I grew up to have my own poly family, which in the long run didn’t work out, but my (Then 2 year old) son never really questioned it. He wanted to see my girlfriend and boyfriend just as much as I did. He loved to play with the three of us together or with pairs of us. My son still sees the other people in the former relationship, so he still keeps his happiness seeing them, and we agreed not to talk bad about eachother in his presence because he doesn’t need to be around the negativity.

  6. I’ve wondered about this. I really like the idea of having an extra parent around… probably more than I like the idea of having an extra lover around. Both before and after kid, we’ve only had relationships with those who live outside the house. It seems so hard to sustain a triad over a long period of time. Like a dyad, but twice as hard. I’ve seen it happen many times with friends that what started out as a balanced relationship ends up leaving one person out of the triad, and usually not the one who was last to join. In the case of someone moving out, I’d fear it would be just as hard for the kid as if monogamous parents had a divorce. So I guess this isn’t advice. Just saying that I’d be too fearful to try it with all the many potential complications.
    As a side note, I was confused by the phrasing of the question. I’d imagine the poly relationship began long before the person moved in?

    • As a single dad of 3 I totally am with you about the extra parent around, or an extra 2 or 3. 🙂

      When i was married and in a poly relationship we never tried living with partners. And all the splitups were extreemly amicable so many of them my kids stayed in touch with since they were still a friend of mine. Like any relationship ending the results vary a lot.

  7. “What are acceptable methods of disciplining (time-out vs spankings, etc)?”

    If one of the partners actually needs to discuss whether spanking is appropriate or not, I would highly recommend to rethink your plans of moving together… I know that it can happen when someone is upset, but it should never be worth a discussion to integrate it intentionally into your education.
    (btw, spanking or not is not a question of personal opinion in my country – Germany, violence against children is totally agaist the law!)

  8. My husband and I have a near 7 year old and have been poly for 18 months; I have a boyfriend and he has a girlfriend. So long as we schedule to ensure that when we’re balancing our time we make sure our son is not losing out, things seem to work out pretty well. I think this article is spot on and I’ve bookmarked it for future discussions, as at the moment we’re not all living together but are starting to think about it.

  9. I’m not sure why this is phrased as starting a relationship/moving in. I think that a poly relationship is just that, a relationship, and when kids are involved its usually not a good idea to move right away, integrate into the family right away, etc. There is no reason against, and every reason for, a long non-residential relationship before one even thinks about moving in together.

    Its not like poly people who all live together have reached some magically high level of poly and that’s the only way to do it.. there are lots of ways to be a polyamourous relationship.

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