Alt Parenting #3: Poly Family Research with Dr. Eli Sheff

Decades of research into polyamorous families

I met Dr. Elisabeth Sheff earlier this year while attending a small conference at U.C. Berkeley called “Polyamory: Resilience in Families and Empirically-Informed Clinical Practices.” Sheff has been tracking polyamorous families for decades, and has written multiple books about polyamorous families. She generously agreed to a long interview so that I could ask her literally every question I could think of.

Some fascinating things I learned from the interview:

• Examples and stories of polyamorous families that have been together over the long haul… and one that broke up after having a child together

• Common patterns, structures, and negotiations in polyamorous families

• Fun fact: Everyone talks about poly triads that feature a man plus two women… but triads formed from a woman plus two men are far more common… especially over the long term! I was so surprised to learn that!

Read on to learn more…

Photo: Dr. Elisabeth Sheff

This interview is part of Lydia Laurenson’s Alternative Parenting Project.

Subscribe now

Housekeeping note: I’m experimenting with a new platform to host this newsletter. If you see any tech glitches or weird text problems or anything, please do email me and let me know: lydia dot laurenson at gmail dot com.

Anyway interview!

LYDIA: I'm really excited to talk to you because you are, as far as I know, the longest-term researcher on polyamorous families. Is that true?

DR. ELISABETH SHEFF: As far as I know, yes. I think I have the only longitudinal study of polyamorous families with children. The only other researcher I know that’s looked at poly families with children is Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, in Australia, who wrote a book on how they interacted at school.

In your research you must encounter definitional creep — the question of what counts as poly and what doesn't. Do you focus on poly families that live together?

It's broader than that. If someone considers themself a member of a polyamorous family that has children in it, then I consider them as well. They don't necessarily have to cohabitate with their partners or the children.

Generally, I've been looking at whoever is important in the children's lives — and the children interpret not only their parents' partners, but other people as important in their lives as well.

When I saw you speak at Berkeley, you mentioned that the children often seem totally cool with the poly arrangement, and there are lots of advantages for them. For example, the parents’ other partners are sometimes people that the children can get a lot out of, because the partners are trying to impress the kids’ parents.

Yes — the parents’ partners try to impress the children, or try to be friendly with the children, and simultaneously, they’re not invested in discipline. They generally leave that to the biological parents, and to be more fun and supportive of children. When the kids get a bad grade, they go to their regular parents and not their parents' partners or chosen family members.

Very interesting. So, the perspective from which I wanted to do this interview is one of curiosity about practice. My community in San Francisco wants to do outside-the-box stuff when it comes to becoming parents. This isn’t an academic interest for us, it’s personal. A lot of people ask me for best practices.

Who does this work for, and who doesn’t it work for? I remember you mentioning when you gave the talk that you don't know for sure how many polyamorous families don’t work well, because people drop out of the study and you don't know why. But do you have an instinct about who it works well for and who it doesn’t?

Poly families are much like other families — the way it works out depends almost completely on how people handle themselves. Polyamory seems best to me for people who are willing to put significant effort into learning how to negotiate, how to communicate, and how to improve their relationships with their family and themselves.

For some people, relationship maintenance is not something they are interested in, even if they know it’s necessary. So for folks who know they don't enjoy that kind of thing, I’d suggest they choose a more simple and straightforward relationship style.  

What sort of negotiations do you see coming up specifically in poly families with kids?

Having children at all! Are you going to have kids or not? If you are going to have kids, who are the biological parents? Who's going to be the social parent? Who’s going to make the money? Who's going to do which part of parenting?

Negotiating those things up-front can be incredibly useful. It’s already hard to parent with two people, given that two parents often have different ideas about what to do. Add more people in there, and it's incredibly complicated.

So when the child is quite small — both before you have the baby, and when the baby is small — I advise poly parents to talk a lot about who takes on which roles. For example, perhaps if there’s a stalemate over education, then you have someone who's the educational stalemate-breaker — a person in the family designated to be the educational specialist. If one of the adults is a teacher, then they might be suited to make final calls about education. Or if one of the adults in the family is a doctor or a nurse, then perhaps they should be the primary healthcare person. Distributing some responsibilities along skill guidelines seems to work pretty well.

Have you seen a lot of situations where the biological parent is separate from the social parent, or other roles that get split in unusual ways?

Definitely. I'm thinking of a specific quad I observed, where the social father made way less money than the biological father, so the social father tended to be around a lot more and did more childcare. The biological father had the primary wage-earning job for the whole family. All four of them had various ways to make money, and they did, but the biological father by far had the biggest income. So the non-bio-dad — he was a poet and a woodworker, not super highly paid positions — tended to be the social dad, especially when when the kid was small, through pre-school and elementary school.

In that example, the social dad was the primary caretaker because the social mom and the bio mom started a business together. That was super consuming for the moms. But things shifted over time. When the kid got a little bit older, then the social dad went back to school and the two moms' business had settled in a bit, so they could be around more and the kid could come there after school.

Is that family still together?

They divorced one of the dads, or he divorced them. So today, it's both moms and the bio dad still together, and the social dad is now semi-monogamous with his partner. (They are still poly in theory — they didn't decide to be monogamous — but they had partner attrition and haven't been looking for more partners. They're tired.)

So is the social dad still involved with the kids’ lives?

Oh, definitely! Quite a bit. In fact, after the divorce, and before the first kid could drive, the social dad and the bio dad put a lot of effort into hanging out every Saturday. They would get together and go out for lunch and talk about what had happened that week.

It’s interesting to pattern-match on stuff like this. One pattern I've observed with quads is that there are many situations where a situation starts out as a quad, and becomes a triad.

Poly people sometimes call that "two plus two equals three," or "a quad makes a great triad."

I haven't heard those sayings before! But yeah, it’s a pattern that’s come up frequently enough that I've noticed it.

Me too.

So... given that there are common patterns that end with people getting left out... I know you can’t predict the course of love, but I find myself with the urge to develop a better sense of what the likely modes are, or where things are likely to end up. For my future kids’ sake, if nothing else.

One way some poly folks handle that is by committing to the child, independently of a sexual relationship with that child's parent, which I think is appropriate for everyone.

That makes so much sense. I also think it’s interesting that we see this point of failure in mainstream society with serial monogamy, not just poly relationships.

For example, I have a close male friend who is monogamous. He's really attached to the children of a woman he dated a while back, but now he never sees them. It’s really sad.

Right. Continuing to see the children after a sexual relationship between the relevant adults has ended can be very challenging.

Sometimes people plan ahead for that eventuality — they say, “We’re going to stay connected to the children no matter what.” But often, it turns out to be more challenging than they had anticipated, because they often don't want to see each other.

Back to the example of these two dads who get together for the kid: I have found that the polyaffective partners have much more success staying together afterwards, in terms of socially or for the children’s sake, if they were never lovers in the first place.

Polyaffective? I haven’t heard that word. Do you mean metamours? [Note: a metamour is a partner of a poly person’s partner.]

I made up that word, “polyaffective,” to describe relationships such as the ones between metamours — the non-sexual relationships that are part of polycules. [Note: a polycule is a system of interconnected non-monogamous relationships.]

But it’s not just metamours, because “polyaffective” also describes relationships among adults and children, or between extended family members and other members of the polycule.

I found that those polyaffective relationships are not only the glue that holds the family together when it's together, but also the bridge that keeps the kids connected to adults who are no longer lovers with their parents.

That makes a ton of sense, because a romantic relationship is more likely to deteriorate in a way where you don't want to talk to somebody anymore, as opposed to another type of relationship.

Again, going back to that quad where the dads get together on Saturdays — both women were once lovers with the social dad. And then when they all broke up, the women were both really pissed at him. But the two dads had never been sexual partners in real life, so they never developed that, you know, special hate that can come with being someone's ex-lover.

Have you seen any other common patterns?

I've seen a very common pattern of unicorn hunters, where a female-male couple comes into the scene saying, “We’re looking for that semi-mythical free-floating female who will join our existing female-male couple.” [Note: some poly people call the idea of the female “hot bi babe who wants to join a couple” a “unicorn.”]

And that's really hard to find.

For the folks who stick around, they tend to broaden what they're looking for — they don’t hold out for a single female who wants to join the couple, they tend to start dating independently and not require that the single female join in with them together. Folks who stick around also usually become more willing to join in other people's lives and relationships.

In short, I think people who last in the poly community become more realistic. The unicorn hunters who don't expand their category often leave quite verklempt, because they didn't find the specific woman they were looking for, and they're mad.

Oh, yes, I’ve seen that so many times! And it’s funny — unicorns do seem to be a real thing, just rare. And they’re especially rare in comparison with the number of couples that want them. There are so many couples who come up with the “hot bi babe” fantasy, often on their own and without much contact with non-monogamous communities. Perhaps the commonness of this fantasy hints at something structural.

I mean, people want what they want. It's a common thing to want. But once they realize that they're coming across as obnoxious to others, do unicorn hunters reconfigure, or do they double down? That's the question. And if they double down, then they tend to not get dates. Rarely, I think they do find the unicorn, but for the most part they don’t.

Totally agreed. But I keep thinking about how common the fantasy is. So many people want a unicorn, and they want the unicorn to do very specific things. These fantasies are so common that anyone who's been in poly-land for a while can tell you exactly what they are: Many couples want the unicorn to have sex with both the man and the woman; they want her to be submissive...

They want her to raise the children and milk the goats.

Exactly. And that person seems to be very rare. Which makes me wonder: What else is out there that many people want, that doesn't usually work out that way?

Going back to the quad thing, a lot of people want what they call a “cross-couple quad,” where it's two couples coming together and blending seamlessly, where everybody gets along. Often, in their fantasy, everybody's also heterosexual, and having relationships with each other. Frequently that ends up with someone feeling left out, or someone feeling like it doesn't work. So the quad breaking down into a triad happens incredibly frequently, as we discussed.

Also, the man-with-two-women triad gets a lot of attention. But I found in my research that the woman-with-two-men triad is actually a lot more common. Way more common. Especially in terms of a lasting configuration.

What?? That is so interesting and so different from how most people perceive it — that the woman with two male partners would be the most common form of the triad that lasts.

Although, come to think of it, I’ve certainly seen that a lot.

Also, another pattern: the woman-with-two-men does not generally have a one-vagina policy. Often people in those triads date others as well. Whereas in many man-with-two-women triads, the man wants to institute a one-penis policy.

Have you seen situations where people reproduce with a non-primary partner? Like, they have a primary partner who is romantic, and then have children with a non-primary partner?

I haven't seen that much in my sample. I’ve seen it with solo poly folks, who may say, “I'm having a kid on my own, and my partners can be involved to the degree that I allow them to be, but this is my child.”

But generally, in poly families I have observed in the last couple decades, if people are having babies they're having them with their primaries. Sometimes they have more than one primary, but I haven't seen people having babies with non-primaries.

Solo poly folks generally do not have primary partners, so if they have kids, they may or may not have one or more co-parents who are non-primary partners or not romantic partners at all.

I've seen a couple of instances of this recently; one of them is in a poly family that seems to be a few decades old, and the other is more recent. But one thing that I've noticed about the examples that I've seen is that the parents aren't reproducing by having sex, they're using assisted reproductive technologies.

So in that case, you have a bio parent — like a sperm donor or something — who's not the parent’s primary partner. And the parent stays with a partner who is explicitly primary — or who seems to be more-or-less primary, even if the couple isn’t using that word — for the romantic and sexual relationship, while meanwhile, they aren't having sex with the parent of their child.

In the cases you’ve seen, does the bio parent function as a social parent, or are they just the source of genetic material?

In one of the instances I've seen so far, the person who donated the genetic material is a social parent. But not with full parental rights — they have a parenting role, but they aren't a legal parent. In the other instance it was fully disconnected, an anonymous sperm donor.

Why are they choosing not to have the genetic children of their primary partner?

Because their primary partner doesn't want kids.

Yes, but then their partner is around while their other partner is parenting. I mean... the child exists.

The reason this situation develops is that a person who wants children and a person who doesn't want children are together, and they have an important relationship that is not negotiable to them. And so they're just like: “Okay, how are we going to do this and make sure everyone gets what they want?”

So in the examples I’ve seen, the primary partner who is not the bio parent agrees to be somewhat involved in the life of the child, but is very specifically setting a lot of boundaries on that involvement. This non-parental partner is really invested in being there for their partner and they don't want to leave, so they're figuring that the situation could work for them as long as they’re not tied down to the kid.

So they can successfully not be tied down even though their primary partner has a baby? They're like, “Okay, I'm going to go do my thing now” ?

That's what it looks like from the outside, but I haven't seen a lot of these situations yet.

I agree that it seems to be very unusual, but I am guessing it will become more common as genetic and reproductive tech becomes cheaper and more functional. So I, and people around me, are trying to get a handle on what this can look like. But there are so few examples, and certainly so few examples over the long term, that it's hard to understand what this all means.

In my research, I've seen accidental, not intentional. I’ve seen secondary partners who didn’t expect to get pregnant getting pregnant, and then being like, “What are we going to do now?” But in terms of planning to get pregnant with a non-primary partner, I have not seen that.

Have you seen situations where people had children by more than one partner?

Oh yes, definitely. I can think of two different polycules off the top of my head, where a woman with two male partners has had children with each of those partners. That definitely happens.

Have you seen it with men having children with multiple women? Or is it more women having children with multiple men?

Interestingly, I haven’t seen that. Of course, it happens in mainstream society that men have children with multiple women, but it’s one at a time. They have successive families, even.

There is one poly family in my sample where the man had children with multiple women. But again, it was more successive — he had a first wife where he had a daughter, and then they divorced, and then he had a second wife where they had a daughter, but it’s not so much the women living together and being concurrent partners.

Again, this is fascinating given that the unicorn fantasy is so common. You’d think that woman-man-woman triads would far outnumber man-woman-man triads.

But instead it seems that lots of people fantasize about woman-man-woman, yet the other form is far more common. Why is that?

Perhaps it has to do with collective memory from highly patriarchal societies. I served in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa, a country with a long tradition of polygamy. While I was there, I got a lot of key insights about how such an oppressive system — where men can have multiple wives but women can’t publicly have multiple partners — can function, and have women go along with it. A lot of it is literally about the sheer work, having someone to share the housework, especially when you have a lot of children. So the primary wife goes along with it because she has far less work to do.

Right, and in a lot of places like that, there’s so much to do for a subsistence level life. If you have to collect water and wood, that takes hours and hours.

Yeah, Swaziland isn’t at bare-bones subsistence level, but there’s definitely a lot of work at home. It doesn't make it any more comfortable to observe, because that type of patriarchy obviously goes along with dynamics that are unsettling for an equality-minded feminist Western woman to see. But you learn something profound by observing such different gender and economic dynamics.

So, what sort of set-ups have you seen in Western poly families, in terms of how people do the housing part?

Most often, it’s two people and their kids, and then they date outside of that.  Sometimes it’s three or four people and their kids, maybe even five — but generally if you hit five adults living together, that's about the cap. There may be more members, but most likely not everyone lives together. And sometimes the household will have more than five in the moment, if there are people visiting or lovers spending the night or something, but in terms of full-time residential folks, not that many people live with all of their lovers.

Many people seem to like having more scattered housing where they can go visit each other, and take breaks from each other.

Aside from polyamory, my San Francisco community is also exploring co-ops and cohousing, which isn't just a poly thing. In fact, I live in a co-op right now and there are monogamous people who live in my co-op, not just a bunch of poly people. And my primary partner is here a lot of the time, but we have an understanding that we don't sleep with other people who live with us.

My partner and I talk about these issues a lot. We’re open to each of us having other relationships, but a lot of that conversation is trying to understand the other relationships’ places in our lives. Of course, you can't necessarily enforce that, and sometimes flexibility is necessary, because sometimes relationships become more important than you expect after they begin. But we both hold the opinion that there it’s possible to shape the course of a relationship, especially if you're very clear about who is your primary partner. (I know not every poly couple uses hierarchies like “primary” and “secondary,” but we do and it works for us.)

Right now, there are people who occupy certain positions in relation to us who are off-limits — not because it would be morally wrong to sleep with them, just because it seems like playing with fire. There’s the housing thing, and also my partner and I are part of an emotional development group that's off-limits, too. And sometimes our friends as well.

There are multiple reasons for all this. If we date other people in our home, or in our personal growth group, then not only is the relationship more likely to become intense and personal in a way that feels scary for the primary relationship — but then additionally, if it goes wrong, the fallout is far worse. So I'm curious if you've seen poly families that are thinking about that sort of thing. But it sounds like there isn't very much overlap in the sample that you're looking at, with cohousing or co-ops.

I would say that most poly families that work well over the long haul take a shape and hold it for a while.

Right now I'm thinking of two different triads, which each have one woman and two men. In both triads, one of the men dates a lot, and the other man is monogamous. And in both triads, the woman is just with the two men and she does not date outside of that.

But then, in another triad I can think of — again, a woman and two men — all three of them date additional people, and nobody has veto over anyone else's partners, but they've been together for so long that they kind of know what rubs each other the wrong way. Two of the three partners have been together for 40 years. So they know each other well and know what issues could come up. They foresee that, and they're like, “Okay, we've been there before and that's how that worked out, so this time we're not going to do that same thing. We're going to do something different or better.”

Another thing I’ve found is that in long term poly relationships, outright veto power usually doesn't work. But having your partner's best interests at heart, and trying to make choices that are good for the family as a whole, does tend to work.

Veto power is a difficult and interesting topic. I've seen people use the veto in more more effective ways and less effective ways. In my experience, if veto power is not being used in a relationship, then part of what you're doing is letting situations that one partner can tell are going to end badly happen anyway, so that the other partner learns that lesson the hard way, and hopefully doesn't do it again.

In this sense, the choice of not using the veto can be an applied learning process. One just accepts situations that one foresees are going to be bad — partly because that’s a better way for each partner to learn and respect each other's boundaries than just saying no.

And in that framework, you hope that the stress that gets introduced won’t wipe out the original relationship. And sometimes, if that stress destroys the original relationship, it’s because that original relationship had served its course.

Yes, sometimes it’s a stress test.

In general, I support people including veto power in their relationships if it helps them feel secure — but there’s a lot of nuance there about what security is and what it means. And even if you start out with the veto, there seems to be an element that comes along with poly relationships maturing where people veto less, or not at all — often because their partner doesn’t ask in the first place, if they sense that the new relationship will be an issue. And I imagine that this affects relationships with kids.

Yes, when kids are involved you start coming upon issues with trustworthiness and stability. Like who's allowed around the children.

Exactly — it's one thing if my partner is seeing some person who I can only handle as long as she's not in my house. But I have to be able to say that she doesn't have contact with my children, if I don't want her to.

Some families are like, “Date whoever you want, but they don't integrate into the family unless everyone is cool with it.”

Often, whoever gets involved with the kids is whoever wants to be involved with the kids, who has already passed the litmus test of the parents dating them independently for a while. Poly parents will also ask around about the new person’s reputation. Sometimes parents will even do a criminal background check. That's pretty rare. But some parents are like, “This is the last stage, and we really need to know what kind of person you are.”

For the most part, it's just slowly getting to know that person. Frequently, it starts with having them around in a social way — not pointing it out to the kids, like, “Hey kids, Mom and/or Dad have sex with this person,” more like, “This person is coming over dinner and we're going to play Cards Against Humanity,” or “We're going ice skating,” or something.

Often, families have permeable social boundaries in general, with people who will come over a lot whether they’re lovers or not. So they’re already blending people that way.

In the talk you gave at Berkeley, you suggested that poly families have greater economic resilience. The example you gave was a story of how one family's finances went under, and then they were able to move into another house within the same polycule, and the person who owned the house didn’t charge them rent.

That’s a very concrete example. I also wonder if there is a social level on which that seems to happen — if there’s a kind of community resilience that comes along with polyamorous families.

When you can distribute needs across a broader base, those needs are less onerous in any one spot and each person is more likely to get what they want.

I mentioned earlier how the polyaffective relationships can become the glue that keeps a family together. In terms of negotiating, communicating, and thinking about how things aren’t working — polyamorous families have a huge range of options to work things out. In the mainstream, there are ideas like: If you're not living together you're not really a family — or, if you're not having sex right now, then the relationship is over, because your partner doesn’t have any other options. So I think having the diverse range of options to choose from gives poly families a lot more flexibility and resilience.

In general, having more people to contribute also makes a big difference. Of course, as you pointed out with your co-op example, it's not just polyamorous people these days who live communally with roommates. Cities are so expensive now — a lot of people live communally. I think that is helping normalize polyamorous families, because adults living with multiple unrelated others is pretty normal now. I see that propelling people into poly-esque situations that then normalize the idea of multiple adults.

Yes, that’s a key part of why I'm looking at all these trends in one place. All these different things — cohousing with kids, platonic co-parenting, and assisted reproductive technology — are separate from poly parenting, but they all feel related.

What patterns have you seen about outness, coming out of the closet? It seems like that would be regional in a big way.

Yes, it definitely depends on where you're safe. It also depends on what kinds of work people have. For example, tech tends to be a more friendly industry for poly people.

It also depends on the poly parents’ broader family situations — if the parents themselves have wealthy parents whose religious beliefs might lead them to try and take their grandkids away, then maybe the poly parents are not very out to their own parents. Whereas if they have supportive family, or family that doesn't care, it might not be as big of an issue.

And if they have an ex-spouse who might try to sue for custody if they find out about polyamory, then that can also keep people closeted.

So it’s generally either family and religion, or profession, that keeps people closeted. Friends can be a factor too, though. Sometimes when people come out, they get backlash from friends. Sometimes the friends will come right out and say, “I don't want to see you anymore,” and sometimes it's more subtle, like invitations drying up.

Well, thanks for an awesome interview. Anything else you'd like to add?

The last thing I would say is that polyamory is really not for everyone. It works great for some people and it's a complete disaster for other people — and it works well in some relationships and poorly in other relationships. Right now, poly is in vogue. But for some situations, it is definitely not the right thing.

Even though it's cool and trendy, I don’t want anyone to feel like, “Everybody seems to be poly right now, but it just doesn't sound good to me, but I feel like I have to try it because it is the shit right now.” Only the person who's living it knows for true whether it can work for them or not.

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff has a website at ElisabethSheff.com, and she also has a blog hosted by “Psychology Today” called The Polyamorists Next Door. You can directly fund Dr. Sheff’s work by signing up to support her on the crowdfunding website Patreon.

In order, Dr. Sheff’s books are: The Polyamorists Next Door; an anthology called Stories From the Polycule; and When Someone You Love is Polyamorous.

This interview is part of Lydia Laurenson’s Alternative Parenting Project.

Subscribe now