There are many types of polyamory families but how do they work?  I will not say the answer is simple but… it can be simpler with commitment, communication and trust.

commitmentThere are two basic components of the poly family.  They are physical structure and environment.  Everything else is seasoning to the taste by the participants that make all poly families unique even if they don’t appear to be to the casual outside observer.

The physical structure is the easiest to explain.  It defines the members of the family.  It can be a triad (three-person poly), four-person or even more.  Technically, a poly family could include every living person on this Earth but that would take a lot of cooperation by a planet that has a history of non-cooperation.  Besides, everyone would also have to be polyamorus.  Not even the United Nations would have any hope of that.

So, in other words, when it comes to the number of members to the poly family – the sky is the limit.  However, here is a caveat to be read: most think that adding one person to a couple would increase the work and effort to exist by 50%.  That is not true.  In reality, a third person will triple the amount of work and effort needed to make the family work.  This does not mean it is impossible.  You just need to enter a poly family with open eyes (and ears).

The most common family sought for is the triad.  Especially what is known as a FMF or female-male-female.  In most cases, it is an already established couple searching for a third.  In this case it is a woman who is also known as the fabled unicorn: a bi-sexual woman who could please both intimately.  The unicorn is one of the hardest potential poly members to find, let alone keep.  It has been my experience that most unicorns do not want to be a second wife where the man commonly wants the same commitment from both ladies.  It is not impossible.  I lived in a FMF triad for 16 years but all three members need to be searching for the same level of commitment.

The opposite grouping, or the MFM, also exists but is a rarer family.  Ironically though, MFM triads have been longer lasting.  Historically, poly triads have worked best when the woman is in control.  The mechanics of relationships are generally the same for both.

The four-person poly usually comes about by two couples joining together.  It is rare to find them under the same roof.  It is more common that they socialize together but live separately.  Again, remember: that an extra member does not add to the difficulty of maintaining a relationship – it multiplies it.  Therefore, a four-person poly will be four times harder to work together than a triad.

The biggest reason for this is communication.  We are trained in our modern society to work together as a pair in the social stratum.  We don’t stop to think if we told one member that we need to tell the other one as well.  It all boils down to keeping each other in the loop.  If a member isn’t kept in the loop, it is easy for that person to feel left out and even left behind.  That is not good if you want to keep an intimate connection with someone.  There were many times over the years where I had told one partner something only to think I had told the other partner as well.  Sometimes, I ended up telling one partner twice and the other not at all.  Communication is key to any relationship.  Not just the poly.

As hinted at before, a poly family can share the same roof and be a full-time family or they can socialize together and become a part-time family.  Most full-time families come from a previous part-time family that has worked well with all members.

When it comes to environment, it can be much more varied but here are some of the more common factors involved.communication

The first decision is whether it shall be a closed or open poly?  Closed means that intimacy is not shared outside the family.  Open poly families share a lot in common with swinging where one or more partners are free to be intimate with people outside the family.  A compromise is an open poly with protection.  Those inside the family are fluid bound with each other.  When they are intimate outside the family, protection is always used.

A family can also agree to ‘screen’ other partners and must approve.  Think of this as a really, weird version of “Meet the Parents”.  If you find someone you would like to add to your intimacy, you introduce them to your family who also happen to be your intimate partners.  Protection is discussed and how the family is respected.  The main reason for this is to prevent a new member from coming in and breaking up the family.  Many successful outside partners can become inside members of the family after they have earned the trust of all family members.

Another environment is the lifestyle choice.  By itself, poly is just what you have been reading, an extended family that in all other respects is very normal.  Everyone pays their taxes or works or takes out the garbage.  At the very basic level, poly is a very ordinary life except for the number of intimate partners.  This is becoming more prevalent as the idea of poly becomes more mainstream.

Before the Internet exploded however, it was more common to find poly shared with other lifestyle choices.  The biggest one becoming what is now known as BDSM.  To explain BDSM would take several volumes of encyclopedias to gain a familiarization with the lifestyle.  I have found very few people outside the lifestyle that truly understand it.  Suffice it to say it is about power exchange.

BDSM families came about through the Master and slave dynamics for the most part.  Here, the same dynamics of trust, communication and commitment still apply as they do to any relationship.  This subject deserves much more explanation but that is for another column.

Another lifestyle that merged with poly was the swinging community.  You will find that self-identified swingers rarely consider themselves a poly person and self-identified polys do not consider themselves swingers.  But, I have found couples who only share each other in the swinging community and are a much better working example of poly than some poly families.  I have seen poly families that run a very open family and work as more of the swinging lifestyle than some swingers.

It is interesting to note that there is a division between the two lifestyles yet there is a definite gray area that mingles both sides.  If you meet someone, it is best to ask them how they identify themselves and respect it.

There is a movie with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn called Same Time Next Year (1978).  In it both people are married to others but met on separate holidays.  From this chance encounter, they develop a relationship that meets on the same weekend every year.  The rest of the year, they are a dedicated husband or wife but that weekend belongs to them alone.  The movie travels through several years of this relationship as they grow old together one weekend at a time.  A similar movie is the Jack Lemmon/Juliet Mills comedy Avanti (1972).  Here, the two stars find themselves continuing an affair started by his father and her mother when they meet to claim the bodies of the older couple.

trustBoth movies deal with another dynamic where the intimate couple or more only get together at certain times of the year.  They lead a rather ‘normal’ life otherwise.

You will also find polyamory to be a part of different cultures in society.  Ones best known are the Pirate, Burning Man and Science Fiction communities.  There are many more.  One caution is that you may also find swinging as well so if you want one and not the other, be sure to find out which your possible new partner wants.  For those of you who are interested in trying both science fiction and polyamory, Robert A. Heinlein’s works are considered forerunners of the polyamory lifestyle.  The word wasn’t around then but the lifestyle was.

One of the most historically unique poly environments had to be the town of Oneidia, New York.  Today, it is best known for silver flatware and is a community of about 12.000 citizens.  But in 1840, its population was only 300 and a very different kind of community.  Through their Christian religious leader, John Noyes, the whole town was considered married to each other in one big happy family.  Instead of polyamory it was known as a ‘complex marriage’.  In it, each person was allowed to celebrate and worship love with anyone and everyone.  Some claim that this community lasted through three different generations.  The only reason why it stopped was because of the government stepping in and shutting it down as ‘complicated marriage’ was considered illegal.

It was reported by members of the community that they lived happily together with less problems than a normal society.  Everyone worked together and loved together.  Sounds like a kind of a 19th century version of the 1960s ideal.

I did not touch on sexual orientation such as gay, straight or bisexual (except as a unicorn) in addition to other types for one simple reason.  The orientation of the person does not really matter.  All relationships are the same.  A gay couple have the same dynamics and difficulties as a straight or hydrid orientation.  What makes the poly family work is the individual components working together.

To sum up, these are only a few qualifiers to the definition of the poly family.  Each family is unique but most families will start out with the basic agreements and add to their definition of what a poly family should be for them.  It is like tending a garden.  You plant a seed and see what grows with tender loving care.


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