“There’s no right way to do polyamory!” (But there’re lots of wrong ways)

I mentioned last week that often good ideas or positive statements can become tools for abusers. Within polyamory, “There’s no right way to do poly” has become one of these tools. In theory, the idea that there is no right way to do poly is meant to be an affirmation. You don’t need to fit yourself into a box. You don’t need to do poly in a way that other people approve os. You can find a version of polyamory that works for you.

In one sense, this statement is meant as a response to criticism. No one can tell you how to do polyamory, because what works for other people may not work for you. Unfortunately, some criticism is valid. Some ways of having relationships are flat out unhealthy. Some ways of “doing” polyamory are wrong.

And for many people who do polyamory in a way that harms others “there’s no right way to do poly!” has become a useful tool to shut down conversation and deflect attention. As soon as someone says “There’s no right way to do poly,” the person confronting them has to defend their right to express their concerns. The conversation becomes about polyamory theory rather than whatever is concerning the person who spoke up.

This tactic can be used to shut down a secondary upset with the way their voice is being silenced, a mono partner who has agreed to try polyamory and is uncomfortable with the direct the relationship is going, other people in the local community calling out abuse or unethical behavior, and much more.

My suggestion is to see this idea as a red flag in discussing personal relationships. “There’s no right way to do poly” is a powerful idea in discussing the theory of polyamory. It has no place in discussing a specific relationship or relationship network. Shut it down hard.

“Yes, there is no right way to do polyamory, but there’re lots of wrong ways. I’m worried by XYZ in this relationship and how it is harming people. If we can’t at least discuss my concerns, then this is not a healthy relationship for me.”

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

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Talking with Your Child’s Teacher (or other professional) about Polyamory

Going to Your Kid’s Professionals

Sometimes you are going to need to approach your children’s teachers, doctors, and other adult figures in your kid’s life about polyamory. For instance:

  1. If your children have more than 2 parental figures who will be coming to parent-teacher conferences
  2. If you want one of your poly partner’s to be able to take your children to the doctor’s office
  3. If your child needs therapy for one reason or another–
    1. The therapist will need to know about all the child’s parental figures and/or other adults living with you.
    2. If your child knows about your relationships and it is likely to come up during therapy, you are better off telling the therapist yourself. Otherwise, they may get garbled information and draw the wrong conclusions from what your child says.

Most of the time you will only need to go to your kid’s professionals if you are out about being polyamorous. Whether or not you are closeted, there is one time I highly recommend starting a conversation about polyamory. If you are facing a potential custody battle that will involve polyamory, you need to go to your child’s therapist. By doing so, you ensure your child has the best support possible during a difficult time (custody battle) and may be able to help your case.

Before talking with your child’s professional, read over the post about educating your own poly-friendly professionals.

Start the conversation simply and frankly. Dancing around the topic is not helpful, and may irritate some people. “Our family includes three parental figures, myself, my child’s father, and [third parent]. [Third parent] will sometimes be bringing in Child in to their appointments. What paperwork do I need to fill out so you can talk about our child’s health care with [third parent].”

“Child may mention my boyfriend. Boyfriend spends a lot of time at our house and he and child have a good relationship. Lately, we’ve been talking about my boyfriend moving in with our family.”

“Child doesn’t know this, but Spouse and I have an open relationship. I am dating … and Spouse is dating … Our relationships don’t impact child at all, but I’m worried they might come out in the custody case.”

Try to let the conversation develop naturally from there. Don’t become defensive or apologetic. Answer questions that aren’t too personal or that are relevant to your child’s care or wellbeing. And always remember: you are the parent. If they respond in a negative, prejudiced, or dismissive manner, you can almost always find a different doctor, therapist, and even teacher.

When Your Child’s Professional Comes to You

Sometimes you don’t go to your kid’s professional—sometimes they come to you. If you are in the closet, most conversations with your child’s professionals will start this way.

Professional’s aren’t going to approach you just because they are curious. They are going to be coming to you with a problem.

A call from your child’s guidance counselor: “I’m worried about Child. They’ve been getting in a lot of trouble in class and been in several fights lately. When I tried to talk with them about it, they said they are scared you and Spouse are getting divorced. They think someone is having an affair.”

A therapist in a meeting: “Child is uncomfortable with So-and-So. Child, can you share what you told me?” Child tells you that they don’t like how much time you are spending with your SO and feel like you are neglecting their other parent and your family.

Since these conversations are already starting on a problem, you are going to need to not just explain your relationships, but address the problem. Sometimes this will be relatively simple.

To the guidance counselor: “Oh, I know why they might think I was having an affair. No. No affair, and no divorce. I’ll talk with Child tonight and explain everything. Since they’re already comfortable talking with you, let me give you the full story.”

Others will be more complicated. Explaining polyamory to your child and their therapist might help them understand WHY you are spending so much time with So-and-So. But it does nothing to address your child’s feeling that you are neglecting their parent and your family. You will need to take action—starting with an honest assessment of whether or not you are neglecting your family (remember, NRE can make you do the wacky). If you are neglecting your family, you are going to need to correct that as a first step to helping your child. If you aren’t, you still need to help your child come to terms with your relationships and understand that you can have a life of your own without neglecting your family. Hopefully, your child’s therapist will understand and support you in this.

If one of your child’s professionals is coming to you about something related to your relationships, you will probably need to out yourself to both the professional and your child. It is sometimes possible to avoid outing yourself. Doing so requires first finding a way to address the problem without revealing how the problem relates to your relationships. Second, it requires getting the professionals support in implementing your solution. And many professionals are very good at seeing through bullshit. If they think you are hiding the real cause of the problem, you will have a hard time getting them to work with you.

Helping Our Kids Talk About Polyamory

In an ideal world, no one would be asking our kids about our relationships because private stuff is private stuff and grown-up stuff is grown up stuff. But as one of my favorite authors points out:
“No thinking adult would ask a kid about this stuff, but that just means you’ll need to deal with questions from unthinking adults.” (paraphrased, Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Affair)
If we are open about our relationships, sooner or later our kids will be fielding questions, either from other kids are school or unthinking adults who should know better, but don’t.

Young children will need guidance from us on how to deal with the questions that come their way. Older kids, and especially teenagers, will be able to come up with their own strategies for dealing with questions—but providing support and ideas ahead of time is still a good idea.

Fielding questions about polyamory

In general I suggest one of three basic approaches, depending on the situation and the kid’s comfort level.

1) KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)—Your kid may not be stupid, but any adult asking a kid these questions IS. So kids can keep their answers simple. “So-and-so is part of our family.” “Yes, Mom goes out with a friend some nights.” “No, I don’t want to talk about this.” “You’ll need to ask Dad about that.” One short sentence then go back to what they were doing.

2) Pull the privacy card—It really isn’t anyone else’s business, and it’s okay for your kids to tell people that! “I don’t want to talk about Mom and Dad’s personal stuff.” “That’s my family’s business.” “It’s rude to ask about private stuff.”

3) Open up a bit—if your kid is comfortable with the question, isn’t being put on the spot, and wants to share stuff with friends, that’s okay. “Yes, So-and-so is kind of like my uncle, and he lives with us. We go bowling sometimes.” “Dad’s date night is Thursday, so he goes out with Such-and-such and Mom and I have a special movie night.” Your kid needs to know it is their choice who they open up to, and that they don’t need to talk about your home life with anyone they don’t feel comfortable with. But if you are open about being polyamorous and they want to talk with friends, there is nothing wrong with that.

Teachers and Other Authority Figures

Okay, caveat. While most adults should know better than to poke at kids about your relationships, teachers, doctors, and a few other adults have an ethical and legal responsibility to watch for signs of abuse and neglect. And that means sometimes it is their job to ask prying questions. It would be nice if ethical non-monogamy was universally accepted and people didn’t jump to conclusions. Maybe one day we’ll get that ideal world, but I’m not holding my breath!

In the mean time, the above strategies will generally work in these situations as well. However, if your kids pull the privacy card here, they need to direct the adult to you. An answer of “That’s private stuff” may just make the questioner dig harder. “That’s my parent’s private stuff. You’ll need to ask them about it,” on the other hand is less likely to sound like something is being hidden—and in need of being uncovered.

Should You Tell Your Kids About Polyamory?

For polyamorous parents, choosing whether or not to let our kids know about our relationships is a major decision. There are pros and cons to both choices.

I generally believe you are better off being open with your kids, unless there is some compelling reason not to. Other people will advise the opposite—don’t tell your kids unless you need to. No one can decide what is right for your family—and don’t be afraid to take your time deciding. Very rarely will you face a time crush or deadline on this decision.

Telling Your Kids About Polyamory

Pros:

  • Kids are smart, observant, and not always inclined to go to their parents with their concerns. Telling them yourself can save a lot of heart ache and hassle. If you don’t tell them, sooner or later, they will figure out that someone is having “an affair” with all kinds of problems resulting.
  • You don’t need to keep your poly partners a secret. You can invite them over to the house, openly plan your next get together, and generally not worry about hiding an important part of your life from your kids.
  • You will be practicing what you preach. Openness, honesty, and trust are hallmarks of polyamory. And most of us would like our kids to embrace those values, no matter what relationships they eventually form for themselves. Teaching your kids to be open and honest and trustworthy while keeping a major part of your life secret can be just a bit difficult. If/when they discover your secrets, your teachings will suddenly seem a lot less worthwhile.

Cons:

  • You can just about guarantee that sooner of later a young child who doesn’t understand the idea of personal information, social behavior, and how not to terminally embarrass parents will mention to grandma, or a teacher, or the pastor, mommy’s dates with her boyfriend on Thursdays.
  • Closeted polies only. Your children who are old enough to understand keeping secrets will need to keep your secrets for you—a hard burden to put on any child. This is less of a problem if you have already established clear boundaries between private and public information. If they understand that we don’t talk about so-and-so’s private thing (like Aunt Laura’s difficulty getting pregnant) and only Aunt Laura can choose who to tell, your relationship(s) can fall into the same category. It helps if they understand and trust that THEIR private stuff will remain theirs to share or not.  If they aren’t used to some things being private, and suddenly there is this big thing that they aren’t allowed to talk about with anyone…that’s hard on a kid, and not fair to them.
  • Closeted polies only. Teenagers with teenage resentments may try to blackmail you by threatening to out you. Ideally, our kids have been raised so this type of behavior isn’t an issue. In the real world, kids can learn some pretty shitty behavior, and especially when torn between divorced parents, or put on the spot by peer pressure, etc.
  • Polies married to or otherwise closely entwined with their kids other parent. Your kids may worry that your wanting/needing other partners means your relationship w/ their other parent is in danger. It may take a while for them to be sure your relationship(s) with other people won’t lead to divorce/break up.

Not Telling Your Kids About Polyamory

Pros:

  • Closeted polies. Don’t need to worry about your kids outing you (by accident or on purpose).
  • Closeted polies. No stress on your kids from needing to keep your secrets.
  • No stress on your kids worrying about their parents splitting up.

Cons:

  • Risk that your kids find out for themselves or from someone else. Along with this is the risk that, they will believe you are having an affair. Having your secrets discovered–especially if your kids believe there is an affair going on behind their other parent’s back–can damage their trust and respect for you. Worse, they may not tell you they have discovered your secret. Instead, they may quietly stress and worry about their family being destroyed.
  • Severely restricts your options in your relationships and ability to become entwined with your poly partners.

 

You’ll notice that the “cons” list for not telling your kids is significantly shorter than the “cons” list for telling them. But that first con for not telling the is a killer.

During the lead up to and process of my custody case, my ex and I got a lot of practice trying to keep things secret from our kids. Some things that we just didn’t want the kids to know because it would worry them. Some things we legally weren’t allowed to discuss with or around our kids.

It didn’t take our kids long to figure out we were keeping things from them. We constantly found our daughter eavesdropping at the top of the stairs, staying up late at night (hours after bedtime) to overhear grown up conversations, and otherwise doing everything she could to learn what we weren’t telling her. Much worse, at 7 years old, her ability to trust her parents was completely destroyed.

There are good and valid reasons to keep your lifestyle secret from your kids. But given my own experience, I highly suggest you think once, twice and three times before you decide that is the best course for your family.

Wondering how to tell your kids about polyamory?

Not sure how to introduce your kids to your poly partners?

Introducing Your Polyamory Partners to Your Children

If you got here looking for ideas on explaining polyamory to your kids, try this post.

I am going to stake out an apparently unconventional opinion here. Are you are talking about moving in together, co-parenting, or otherwise creating a situation where your kids and poly partners would need to relate with each other directly? If not, your kids interactions with your poly partners should be no different from with your other friends. And if you are talking about moving in together, co-parenting, etc, your kids should have met your partners long since.

Growing up, I know who my parents friends were. I even knew they had different kinds of friends. There were the friends who were my friend’s parents. My parents got together and hung out with them once a month, but the connection didn’t last when I moved to a different school. There were my father’s friends from work, the people he enjoyed spending time with but also had to stay professional with, so we kids were largely “out of sight, out of mind” when they came over. There were mom’s special friends from way back. We kids actually knew them by their first names. They would come over and drink tea and we had to play with their kids whether we liked them or not.

So let’s pretend you make a new friend at work, you invite your friend over to hang out and watch a movie sometime. What do you say to your kids? Probably something like, “Hey kids my new friend So-and-so is coming over tonight. Be polite, make sure the place isn’t an utter disaster and try not to interrupt too often, okay?”

Or you hit it off with someone at your hiking club and go out for a day. “I’ll be out tomorrow with So-and-so from the hiking club, here’s how you can reach me. Don’t give (other parent/guardian/babysitter) too much trouble.”

Your kids are aware of this friend, but probably don’t pay much attention.

Sooner or later,  your friend runs into our kids for the first time, whether it’s that night or three months down the line. What do you say Probably something like: “This is my friend So-and-so I’ve told you about, So-and-so, these are my kids.”

There is no reason for your kids to know the details of your relationship—anymore than I knew just what my mother talked about with her friends when they came to visit. As a ittle kid, I didn’t want to know anyway. It was grown up stuff, and probably boring. *yuck face* As a teenager, I had my own stuff that I cared about a lot more than making nice with my parents friends.

What about if you get closer to your poly partners and want to entwine your lives a bit more? Well, what if you got really close to a friend and wanted them to be more a part of your life? You’d probably invite them to the summer bar-be-que that has a whole bunch of family friends and what-not. You might invite your kids to related to them in small ways, “Hey, So-and-so just told me they did X this weekend. You were saying you wanted to learn more about X, would you like to talk with them about it?” “The hiking cub is having a family day, I’d love it if you’d come.” Hopefully your friend makes a similar effort, “So-and-so got tickets to (thing) this weekend and was wondering if we’d like to join them.”

Like any other friend, it slowly becomes normal for your poly partner to be around a bit more, participating in your family’s public life. Maybe you meet up to watch a parade and your partner offers to buy flags or something for the kids. Small things, small steps.

First rule of kids: if you don’t treat it like a big deal, they’ll assume it isn’t a big deal.
Second rule of kids: if it’s not going to have a direct impact on their life, they probably won’t care.

So introduce your partner early, as just another friend.

Trust me, even an introverted, house-bound hermit like my partner Michael has friends our kid knows about. That Michael interacts with these friends mostly online or by phone doesn’t change that they are a part of his life and the kid knows about them. “Kid I’m talking with So-and-So right now. Please quiet down so I can hear.” “You want to say hi to So-and-so?” “So-and-so may be coming to visit next week-isn’t that great!”

Parents having relationships with other adults is a normal part of life for most kids. Do your kids really care that your relationship with your cousin is different from your relationship with your friend is different from your relationship with your poly partner? Not unless and until those relationships start to impact them. For children it’s “grown up stuff, yuck!” and for teenagers it’s “Old folks are so out off touch.” In either case, it’s no big deal.

“Kid, this is So-and-so I told you about. We’re going to the movies. I’ll be back later. Don’t burn the house down.”

Do you really need to say more?

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Hard Boundaries and Soft Boundaries

Hey folks, sorry for the much delayed post. My family moved on Friday to a new apartment, the first time we’ve had our own apartment in several years, and we finally got internet in today. I had planned on posting from the library during the move, but unfortunately due to the holiday here in the US, the library was closed all weekend. So there’ll be two posts today, and we’ll be back on regular schedule starting Sunday. Thanks for your patience!

I’m going to take a semi-detour away from mental illness today to talk about boundaries. We all have boundaries. Some boundaries are, for lack of a better term, “hardwired.” Someone with a violent peanut allergy CANNOT eat the delicious peanut butter pie you made, and probably can’t have you bring it into their house either. Nothing that happens in life, in relationships, in anywhere will change this, barring a major medical break through. Other boundaries can change–once upon a time kissing was a boundary for me. It used to trigger my PTSD. Over time and as I’ve healed, kissing has stopped being a boundary in many situations.

Some boundaries are part of who we are–I can’t be happy in a monogamous relationship, don’t ask me too. Others are the result of life experience–Franklin Veaux will not be in a relationship that involves or includes a veto. He tried it once, it went very, very badly, he won’t do it again.

But there is one aspect of boundaries that doesn’t get discussed much in poly circles.

Some boundaries are hard, and some boundaries are soft.

I’m stealing terminology from the kink community here (hard limits and soft limits) because polyamory doesn’t have terms for discussing boundaries that are less than etched in stone. When we talk about boundaries it is either “No fucking way do you ever do this, or our relationship is over” or it is not a boundary.

As I may have mentioned before, I don’t believe in binaries. Especially human binaries.

I have some hard fucking boundaries. You raise your hand to me or my kids, there’s the fucking door. You try to come between me and my kids, there’s the fucking door. You try to make me choose between you and someone else I love, there’s the fucking door. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, I hope the door hits you on your way out.

Franklin has a similarly hard boundary against vetos–you ask to date him when your primary relationship has a veto…well I don’t think he’d say “there’s the fucking door” but the meaning would be the same. Ditto asking him to agree to a veto in any relationship you have with him.

But some boundaries aren’t quite that firm. Some boundaries have some give in them. One of my boundaries is that I will not allow my partners to become dependent on me. I am not your bloody mother, don’t expect me to act like one. And yet when Michael got sick, he depended on me to the point that at times I helped him with his personal hygiene. And I never said, “there’s the door.” For me, this was a soft boundary. A boundary that can be bent, or circumvented entirely, sometimes, in the right circumstances, for a good reason.

Someone with a deadly peanut allergy may have a hard limit on peanuts in their house. But someone with a mild peanut allergy may have a soft limit–they may ask their partner who loves peanut butter not to bring peanuts or peanut butter over, but may be willing themselves to buy a peanut butter pie for their partner’s surprise party.

A soft boundary is not a boundary that it is okay for a poly partner to ignore. It is still a boundary, and it still needs to be respected. But a soft boundary is a boundary that you may choose to set aside in the right circumstances, and your poly partners can come to you and say “I know having X is a boundary for you, but A, B and C are going on right now, would you be willing to let X happen this once?”

You come to me and ask if it’s okay to make me choose between you and someone else I love JUST this once? There’s the fucking door. If we’re living together and you come to me and say “I know you keep kosher, and I agreed to that when I moved in, but my mom’s agreed to visit for the holidays and she always makes a Christmas ham. You know how hard I’ve worked not to ruin my relationship with her after coming out. Would you be alright with her bringing her ham?” Well, you’ll be helping me fumigate the house for the next week (the smell of ham makes me ill), but yes your mom can bring her ham. Tell your mom to bring her ham without asking me first? Well it probably won’t be “There’s the fucking door” but you’ll definitely be in the dog house with me for a damn long time.Next time you and your poly partners get to talking boundaries, you might consider discussing hard and soft boundaries, and how you prefer people to handle approaching your soft boundaries.

Next time you and your poly partners get to talking boundaries, you might consider discussing hard and soft boundaries, and how you prefer people to handle approaching your soft boundaries.

 

Okay, I said this was a semi-tangent from our ongoing series on mental illness and polyamory. I’ll be posting again this afternoon looking at the intersection of mental illness with rules and boundaries in poly relationships. If you found this post interesting or helpful, please share it using the buttons below.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”

Standard Poly advice: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Nothing is more important to a healthy relationship than communication. If we aren’t keeping our SOs in the loop about how we feel and what is going on with us, then small problems will become big problems until someone comes home from work to find their stuff sitting on the front steps.

Right. A few years ago I wrote about when communication is a bad thing. Here’s one of the key takeaways:

good communication is when you are in control of, and expressing, your feelings. Bad communication is when your feelings are in control of you, and expressing themselves.

See, it’s all well and good for me to tell Michael I feel like shit, depression has taken over my brain, and I’m feeling neglected and needy. But everyone dealing with mental illness has times when we are just being irrational. Sometimes, especially when our illness is well managed, we can recognize that irrationality and discuss our feelings. Other times that irrationality can drive us into “communicating” things that we would never say when we were in control of ourselves. What we “communicate” when our mental illnesses are in control can be hurtful, damaging, false, or just plain misleading. Sometimes communicate is not the fucking answer.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Assess, Plan, Then Communicate

Mental illness loves impulse. Acting on your first thought is great for your mental illness, because it is much easier for the monster to control you when you don’t stop and check yourself.

Before you communicate, stop and assess yourself. Are you in control? Is your mental illness? Engage your logic circuits if possible. Maybe just take fifteen minutes to let yourself get past your immediate thought/reaction/idea.

For most part, DON’T try to be your you emotions. That’s an invitation for your mental illness to take over. Instead either A) think about what you want to say and why or B) do something to distract yourself for a few minutes and come back to what you wanted to communicate a bit later and see if you changed your mind.

If you find that what you wanted to say seems to be coming more from your mental illness than from anything else, you may still want to tell your poly partners, but make sure you tell them as an “this is how my mental illness is affecting me.”

Plan what you are going to say and how. Write out talking points, go over it in your head, whatever works for you. When you have a plan it is harder for mental illnesses to impulse-drive you into saying you’ll regret later.

When you’ve accessed and planned, then it’s time to communicate.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

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