Polyamory – Not Healthy For Children

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on October 28, 2013

As a Marriage and Family Therapist/Relationship Expert for 20 years, it has been my ongoing experience that Polyamory is not the ideal scenario for children to experience as their parents’ lifestyle. It is my assertion that it is less than ideal with potentially traumatic affects. Those in polyamorous relationships wish to see the positive for children, as these adults are living a polyamorous lifestyle. Thus, they certainly would not want to think they are emotionally damaging their children. But to announce it is great for the children, report how wonderful it is for kids – is simply going too far and deluding one’s self. Let’s get real. Polyamory is not something you do for your kids to have a better life. Polyamory is something you do for yourself because it is something you want, you yearn for.

Whenever I write about polyamory I receive angry emails reporting the positives of polyamory, from those in current polyamorous relationships. And emails from people who report their horrific experiences when testing the waters of polyamory for their spouse/partner, which ultimately led to the demise of their relationship. Thus, as I write this blog today, I recognize what is about to come. What prompted me this time around is that this month I was quoted in an article written by Emanuella Grinberg in CNN.com entitled: Polyamory: When Three Isn’t A Crowd which once again sparked much commentary. I have received much email from both the polyamorous community and the monogamous community. The monogamous community reports appreciation that I am not afraid to speak out for these values and asserting what my experience has offered as information to the public.

Definition 

Polyamory is described as having more than one open romantic relationship at a time. A few examples include; husband and wife each have lovers in addition to their spouse, wife has a lover in addition to her spouse and husband does not, or the other way around. You do not have to be married and have one or more additional lovers to consider yourself as living a polyamorous lifestyle. You can date and live this lifestyle as well. Polyamory is the philosophy of having more than one significant love interest in one’s life at the same time, living a polyamorous lifestyle is acting on this philosophy. For some it is one key person/persons, for others it is multiple partners. Polyamory is not considered an affair, since the romantic interest is not a secret from the spouse/partner.

Isn’t Life Grand

I freely admit there are indeed some who are in a  polyamorous relationship who truly believe it is grand – while they are in it. Certainly for the days, weeks, months, and for small numbers of people; years- there are aspects of polyamory that are indeed grand for them. But, yes, but… they openly admit it is not always grand as it is difficult to live a polyamorous lifestyle. In a polyamorous relationship, certain character traits are reported as necessity, of which include; patience, highly evolved communication skills, trust, open dialogue, mindfulness of what one is feeling and what one’s partner/partners’ are feeling, respect for one another, “rules” of each other’s needs and wants must be followed, a lack of jealousy is necessary otherwise it could get ugly, and more… Hmm, sounds like skills necessary for any relationship, for the most part. Right?

Children – Love, Grief/Loss

In the early years, when children are young, as long as they are loved with consistency from consistent main care givers, they feel emotionally at peace. As children age and these significant adult figures in their life come and go (due to adult break ups with one’s polyamorous partner/partners), children don’t feel so loved, they no longer feel stable nor at peace. What do they feel? They feel abandoned! They feel rejected! Children who feel abandoned and rejected are emotionally wounded, hurt, and in turn feel unworthy of love. Children who feel unworthy of love develop a poor sense of self, low self worth and low self confidence. It is children who have a low sense of self who then we see act out in school in terms of their behavior, their academics are negatively affected, their social relational interactions are disturbed. You get the idea. As children who feel unworthy of love age, since there have been multiple significant people who they loved and felt love from have disappeared out of their life, this affects their future relationships when they are of mating age.

Children not only experience grief/loss symptoms and often depression response reaction to the loss. For some they also experience anxiety due to fear of rejection, fear of the unknown (never knowing when a new relationship will begin nor end). In addition, it is their parent/parents reaction in response to the end of the particular polyamorous relationship they were in which also affects the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and coping/response reaction to the loss for these children. For example, is the children’s mother grieving and the father is not? Is the father angry about the end of the relationship whereas the mother is happy about it? Talk about confused children regarding where their loyalties should be. They have their own feelings and then their parents are not on the same page. This creates emotional strain on the child. Parental emotional reaction inconsistency, for some children, creates physical symptoms instead of or in addition to mental ailments such as; headaches, stomach aches, eye twitches.

Or, let us consider the situations when the child is sad about the loss of this important person in their life but the parents put an end to the relationship. In this type of case, although the parents are on the same page, the child feels hurt that the parents do not feel the same way she/he does about the end of the relationship. The result for the children; feels like they have no say about who they get to love and who they get to be loved by in their life. These are children who experience that the people they trust to keep them emotionally safe are the very people who have chosen to take a person who loves them out of their life. This is hurtful. How do children learn to trust that they can love again and that this love will not be taken away from them, if they learn from their parents that they will take love away from them? Each time there is a new love interest for mom and/or dad who becomes intertwined in their lives, children do not know when these important people will exit from their life.

Do these children become hardened and not open to love? Do they grow resentful of their parents? Do they wonder if they too someday will be dumped and that they are disposable too? What about as these children age and chose their mate, what type of choices will they make? Children of whom learn that love is given and just as fast can be taken away with people in and out of their life of which they have no say nor control over, as they age will often find themselves in relationships that are unhealthy. As they replay the theme of love and loss, yearning for a different outcome.

Children And Discovery Of Their Parents Reality

As children age, there are those who knew from a young age of their parents’ polyamorous lifestyle, then there are others who come to discover it later on. The later a child learns of this “secret”, the more confused and hurt they are. And for some children, the less likely they are to accept it. Children discovering on their own or being informed by their parents as they are older, of their parents’ reality is overwhelming for many. It is these children who then question what else they thought was true but wasn’t. They question what was real vs. not, what was a lie vs. truth. Throwing a surprise curve ball when a child thought their reality was one way, to learn what they believed to be true is no longer true is a big emotional knife in the heart. For example, cousin Bobby who has been living with us for the past few years really isn’t cousin Bobby. He’s mommy’s lover. We just told you he was a cousin because . . .

If children know the truth when they are young, it is a brain washing of sorts in that they will learn to accept this as a reality . . .  for some. Some will be more accepting as they age. Then of course there are children who learn at a young age, are accepting, and as they age, become no longer accepting. Just as there are children who discover the truth later on and are accepting. It can go either way in terms of acceptance of their parents or not, of feeling tricked/mislead/lied to, or not. The simple fact is that every child’s temperament is different, and thus will experience and process information differently. The relationship a child has with one’s parents at each stage and phase of their life plays the largest role in terms of what they are able to accept vs. not. Either way you slice it- whether a child is accepting or not, whether a child feels misled or not, the fact still remains that loss of love, the end of significant adult figures in a child’s life is devastating. Polyamory puts children into circumstances that increases this loss and thus grief.

Children Benefit – Not

To sell this package of polyamory to be a product that benefits children, using the sales pitch that it is more love for the child – is not being truly self aware. I mention this because the sales pitch that many in polyamorous relationships who have children are inferring directly is that those children are better off than monogamous ones. This is stated with the reference that they will receive more love, and that love by many (mother, father, mother’s lover/lovers and/or father’s lover/lovers) is oh so much better. This is just a rationalization for the adult to feel better about a choice they are making that is not consistent with the societal norm, so that they don’t feel like they are doing something potentially hurtful to their children. Rather the opposite is true. It is a higher increased likelihood that there is more of the chance that the child will experience abandonment feelings than not. Rather than feeling more loved, they will feel less of a priority and rather mommy and daddy’s needs are the priority, not mine. These children are not receiving more love and thus are better off with parents who live a polyamorous lifestyle than those living a monogamous lifestyle. They are receiving more loss and thus either go through life mourning and grieving, or they learn to shut themselves off to love knowing it will end once a breakup occurs- that is out of their control.

Love pulled out from under the rug, any day any time is not a healthy way for a child to live. Thus, when their parent argues with one of their lovers, the child may fear the end is near, never knowing when this person they love and loves them will no longer exist in their life. Children living in this existance may have a hard time giving and receiving love, as the affects of this lifestyle.

Significant people are replaceable. Ultimately that is the message children receive. This is not a therapeutic message for the spirit of children, nor the adults they develop into.

Relationship Behavior For The Adult Child Who Grew Up In A Polyamorous Household

These are just but a few relational clinical concerns I have for children who are raised in a polyamorous home, as to the negative affects it will bring on them when they become of mating age.

  1. Put up love barriers, so as to protect themselves from any love relationship ending. This way, if they keep their wall up, they will never be hurt, is the subconscious or conscious thinking of the child whom love comes in and out of their life from significant adult figures. If they don’t expose themselves to love, then they won’t be hurt by love by being abandoned (i.e., if I keep my wall up then if someone breaks up with me I won’t be hurt like I was as a child each and every time my mother and/or father had a relationship end).
  2. Sabotage relationships. The young adult/adult who grew up in a house where their parents lived a polyamorous lifestyle with multiple partners in and out of their lives, this now adult may sabotage relationships. In this way when relationships end, as the person they are in a relationship with breaks up with them because of some action/actions they do that is quite the sabotage, they can just blame the behavior, not that they are not loveable. By doing something that is blatantly hurtful to one’s partner, likely the partner will end it. Thus, one can blame that the relationship ended because of one’s behavior, so one doesn’t feel bad about themselves. This is often a subconscious motivation.
  3. I’ll break up with you before you break up with me mentality. A pattern of nit picking and ending relationships rather than working on them so that you end the relationship first. Less pain than being broken up with, is the thinking here. The often subconscious thought process is; I am in control rather than someone else. For as a child I had no control over love in and out of my life, I sure as heck am not going to let the same thing happen to me as an adult. There are those of whom are consciously aware of what they are thinking and doing, but continue to do so because of self protection. They truly are afraid of being rejected, as this was the most painful part of their childhood they wish to not repeat in adulthood.
  4. Needy in relationships, very dependent. The longing for a long term consistent relationship is so powerful that you become needy and clingy in the hopes this will guarantee the person stays with you because you need them. Thus this person will find someone who will be the type that the guilt to stay to save you is there. This may be a co-dependent relationship, or being with someone who is a people pleaser.
  5. Ultra sensitive response style to friendships of one’s mate. In this scenario, the now adult has a difficult time with their partner being friends with someone of the opposite gender. Specifically, this adult gets overly jealous. Often in this type of scenario one is controlling regarding friendships the partner/spouse has with others, and tries to get one’s mate not to have friends with the other gender. One’s antennas are up, ultra sensitive living with the belief that anyone can shift from monogamy to polyamory. Thus, one’s partners friends may become more than friends – is the fear. Which makes sense of course, especially if one’s parent for the first number of years of their life lived a monogamous lifestyle and then shifted into a polyamorous lifestyle. If my parents could do it, what makes me think my partner won’t? Is the question one asks one’s self.

Will My Children Engage In Polyamory Because I Do/Did?

Just because you currently engage in polyamory, or no longer do but explored the lifestyle in the past does not mean your child will. Nor does it mean your child will not. This is a commonly asked question, so let’s just get the answer out there.

Divorce/Death Comparison

Not unlike when parents get divorced, children are heartbroken over the loss of one parent. Except, polyamory breaks ups for some children are worse than divorce. Why? The answer is because in many divorces there is still visitation, time spent with each parent. Typically both parents remain involved in the children’s life. For those children who one of their parents does not remain involved in their life, this has siginficant painful affects. This emotionally impacts one’s life with long term affects. In polyamory- that is indeed what it is like for the child- the latter. To no longer have that significant adult in your life is heart breaking, like a divorce.

Think about it, the child becomes connected to the person who is an important part of their family. This other person plays the role of a parental figure, a dear friend, a confident, a care giver- and then when their mother and/or father no longer is in a relationship with this person- the relationship ends and this person often is out of the child’s life. The traumatic loss children feel when a significant adult male and/or female parental type of figure/figures come in and then out of their life is not to be ignored. The difference between death vs. break-up is that death is an occurance that is out of one’s control (for the most part). Whereas when a child’s mother or father decides to no longer remain with their love interest, it is the child who has no control over this choice, no say in the matter, but someone did have control over the break up (their parents and/or the significant other). Unlike in death- no control.

What Do Children Learn?

What does a child learn from this? That there is no permanancy in relationships, relationships are not stable. Children learn that they cannot trust that love means forever. Rather they learn that love ends. Children of parents who are polyamorous also learn about the importance of keeping a family secret. Family secrets, oh those skeletons in the closet that children keep, never healthy as they age. Holding onto a secret that is not accepted by society leads to emotional hurt and eventually the child as they age onward, perhaps all the way into young adulthood, they find they are acting out due to the family secret. Children of parents in polyamorous relationships often are urged to keep the secret from friends so no one views the children negatively. Or, if the parents state they can tell people, often the children feel they must keep it a secret because they feel they will not be accepted. Fear of ostracism is a real fear and causes high anxiety.

Do What You Want

I am not a judge nor a jury. Do what you want. You want many loves, because that is what feels right to you- go for it. Grown adults deciding they want many loves is their decision to make. The shame is when they hurt others in the process, that is the concerning part. This article is not that I am passing judgment, let me be clear. This article is specifically focused on my concern for the emotional health and wellness of children and how they are impacted by the decisions that their parents make. Children did not ask to be placed on this earth. It is our job to provide them with a stable home environment, one filled with love, acceptance, emotional safety, and where they do not have to experience loss/grief/and trauma placed upon them due to the breakups of relationships of their parents because of the choice to fulfill one’s desire to have more than one love relationship. The fear of ostracism is very real, we as adults would be wise to not place that burden on our children to fulfill our own hunger. Once you have children you are making a conscious decision that their needs are priority.

If you find this blog interesting, I invite you to read my other blogs addressing the topic of polyamory including:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna June 22, 2014 at 12:19 pm

I completely agree with your assessment that polyamory is harmful and destabilizing for children. That alone would be enough to prevent me from even entertaining the thought. Our duties to our children are paramount; no amount of self-indulgence is worth their pain.

Reply

Dr. Karen Ruskin September 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Hi Anna,
I appreciate you taking the time out to weigh in on this topic. Thank you for your feedback. Indeed “our duties to our children are paramount”, I love the way you worded it.
Warmly,
Dr. Ruskin

Reply

PolyCouple September 8, 2014 at 12:53 am

My wife and I have been married for 5 years and poly for life. When we started polyamory we had difficulty with jealousy and insecurities. After we decided to change our rules into something more along the lines of only having open communication and complete honesty things became much easier. We now each are able to date without issue and love the lifestyle! We both enjoy reading about the poly lifestyle and following blogs online. Thanks for the good posting, we love it!

Reply

Dr. Karen Ruskin September 15, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Hello PolyCouple,
Thank you for taking the time to share your enjoyment of my blog article.
Warmly,
Dr. Karen

Reply

Rachel Strom November 15, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Hello Dr. Ruskin,

I am a college student doing a thesis paper on polyamory. I wanted to ask you if you had other articles discussing your experience on the website or similar. It would greatly help me since I was hoping to use this one in the rhetorical analysis of my paper.

Reply

Dr. Karen Ruskin November 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Hi Rachel, Thank you for your inquiry. I am often called upon for my insights regarding polyamory. I have listed all my blog articles that are relationship related under the category of “relationships”, including my polyamory articles. I decided to create an additional category entitled: polyamory. I invite you to scroll down on the side of the website where I have my blog categories listed, and you will now be able to find all of my articles that I wrote that taps into the topic of polyamory. I recently was interviewed on the topic again, and within the next few hours I will post that interview on a new blog post. You may find the interview quite helpful for your article, thus I invite you to check back momentarily regarding the matter.

Best of wishes on your paper.
Warmly,
Dr. Ruskin

Reply

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