By Arin Greenwood
Elisabeth Sheff's interest in polyamory isn't strictly academic. Or it wasn't, anyway.
"When I was 22 I met a man who wanted to be non-monogamous and it scared me," Sheff told The Huffington Post.
As an academic and "an intellectual, l intellectualize things that frighten me," said the former professor, now CEO and director of a think tank that deals with legal issues facing sexual minorities. "So once I realized how important it was to him and how much it terrified me, I thought that understanding it might tame it in my own mind, make it less threatening and thus 'fix' my relationship."
The relationship didn't last. But Sheff's curiosity about polyamory had staying power; she spent some 15 years studying non-monogamous families. The book she wrote based on her research -- "The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families" -- is a thoroughly interesting, deep look inside this world.
Sex and jealousy, when it's time to open up a family's Google calendar to a new partner, and why so many in the poly community are white and affluent: Sheff spoke with HuffPost about all this and more.
The Huffington Post: Is there a typical polyamorous family?
The most common form I found was the open couple, generally a female/male couple that lived together with their children and dated other people who did not live in the household with the couple and their kids. The more people in the relationship, the rarer they are and the more likely it is that the people involved will shift over time.
The open couple is likely to stay together and their dates stick around for varying amounts of time. Triads are more rare than open couples but more common than quads, and quads are more common than moresomes [a relationship with five or more adults] or intimate networks when it comes to child bearing.
Poly families’ shared characteristics include a focus on communication and honesty, emotional intimacy with kids and adults fostered through communication and honesty, sexuality kept private among the adults so kids don’t see it even though they can ask about it if they want -- and they never want to know, like any other kids, the kids in poly families do not want to know about their parents’ sex lives -- dealing with stigma from society and families of origin, challenges deciding to be out or not depending on family circumstances, location and sharing resources so that people get more attention, free time, money, rides, help with homework or life issues, and love.
What makes for a successful poly relationship? How is success defined in poly relationships?
Successful poly relationships are those that meet the participants’ needs. If they continue meeting needs then the relationships continue being successful. If they stop meeting needs because people change or their interests or needs diverge, then it does not have to mean that they failed, only that they are changing form to be something different that meets needs better –- at least in the ideal.
Sometimes they crash and burn, hurting people in the process and that is not success. But merely ending or changing form does not mean failure but rather new opportunities to be different.
Strategies for meeting needs include communicating about everything from safer sex agreements to openly discussing what everyone’s test results are and how the group is going to keep its members safe from infections, to talking about jealousy and figuring out ways to reassure jealous members and alleviate symptoms that can be fixed with doing things differently.
Polys use honesty to build trust, which is a key strategy for success, as well as self-reflection to look at one’s own part in the relationship and counseling with poly-knowledgeable therapists who can guide groups through sticky situations.
Some people worry that polyamory is bad for kids. What did you find in your research?
The kids who participated in my research were in amazingly good shape – articulate, self assured, and confident in their family’s love. This positive social outcome was helped along by their parents’ (and their own) race and class privileges because lots of these folks are white, highly educated professionals with middle class jobs, health insurance and white privilege....