QUEER VOICES
03/05/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Who Are 'The Polyamorists Next Door'? Q&A With Author Elisabeth Sheff

courtesy of Elisabeth Sheff

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.

On top of those advantages, kids in poly families get a lot of attention from multiple adults who can provide emotional support and practical help on homework or rides home from the movie at the mall.

The downside is that sometimes kids get emotionally attached to a parent’s partners who then leave when things do not work out romantically between the adults. The same thing happens in divorced families in which single parents are dating, and the poly parents use many of the same strategies single parents use, like being very selective, careful and slow about introducing the kids to someone they are dating, and being very clear with the kids about what to expect from the adults in their lives.

The other downsides the kids talked about were too much supervision to get away with anything coupled with the difficulty of keeping a lie coherent with multiple adults, and the problems that come with household crowding.

What are the big rules or guidelines governing sex in the poly community? Are those rules explicit? Also, do folks have to schedule sex when maintaining multiple relationships? Do people in poly relationships tend to have more sex than people who aren't, or don't they, or is that something we don't know?

Safer sex agreements mean that fluid transfer is assumed to be taboo unless explicitly negotiated otherwise. Polys routinely use condoms for fluid-producing sex, and have other kinds of sex that does not involve fluid transfer. They also tend to get tested for STIs and share their results in group “show and tell” so everyone knows what everyone else has and sees those people in person to get the sense that they hold the collective health of the group in their hands. This spreads responsibility and empathy.

Polys tend to have more conversations about relationship maintenance than sex, though [when] they do have sex it is often only after extensive communication about feelings, schedules and STIs. All of the discussion and communicating make polyamory a bad choice for people who only want to have no-strings sex -- they should try swinging instead.

Most polys try group sex at some point and some of them love it, prefer it to two person sex. More of them tell me that they prefer two person sex and only have group sex occasionally.

Scheduling is a big issue, not just for sex but more importantly for time together to do whatever, which can mean sex sometimes. In “regular life” it is often the woman’s job to schedule things (family dinners, doctors appointments, etc.) and that gendered job holds true for poly families as well.

In poly circles, giving someone access to the family’s Google calendar can be considered not only foreplay, but prelude to serious family inclusion.

Is jealousy a big issue in poly relationships? How's it dealt with?

Jealousy is so common as to be near universal in poly relationships -– especially at first. People who stick with polyamory as a relationship style learn to look beneath the jealousy to see what is actually causing the discomfort -– usually fear or insecurity.

Fear of being left for someone else can often be dealt with by the beloved person reassuring the nervous/jealous/insecure person that they are still loved and the beloved partner is not going to leave. That is the first step.

Following through with that kind of reassurance and care means anticipating and overcompensating for what polys call New Relationship Energy or NRE –- the sparkly amazing bubbly feeling people get when they really click with someone and it is new and everything is perfect only because it is too soon to notice faults.

When people deal badly with jealousy it really screws things up. They tend to make lots and lots of rules to protect the specialness of their relationship with their primary partner and these rules often grow to insane proportions over the years so that inevitably someone breaks a rule (has sex in a position that is supposed to be special/saved for the primary, goes to a place with a date that is supposed to be sacred to the primary, something like that) and the shit hits the fan.

Finally, some people say that they do not experience jealousy –- they can understand the emotion in the abstract, but they are “not wired” to feel it. I was very suspicious of this at first, especially because the poly community has an unwritten rule that jealousy is bad and no one should give in to it. Interviewing people who claimed never to be jealous left me skeptical, but observing some of them in situations that would have easily provoked jealousy and watching them not act jealous made me think twice. I describe a campout in the book section on jealousy that really made me rethink my doubt of some of the folks who claimed not to be jealous.

How did you do your research? How many people did you talk to, and how did you find them?

I did qualitative research -– what sociologists call ethnography. That involved interviewing 122 people and observing another 500. I found participants through poly community organizations and word of mouth by asking people I had interviewed if they knew anyone else who would be willing to participate in an interview about polyamory (called snowball sampling because the sample gets larger as it goes, like a snowball rolling down a hill). Over the 15 years I did three waves of data collection, sometimes interviewing the same people every few years when I could find them, other times only speaking to someone once.

What are the issues that poly people deal with that non-polys don't? What would non-polys be most surprised to find out about poly people?

Polys deal with more awareness of multiple partner sexuality -– they talk about and get tested for STIs much more than people in conventional heterosexual relationships who often think they are impervious to STIs. Research shows that people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships craft and stick to safer sex agreements much more than people who are cheating. It is unclear at this point how poly STI prevalence or transmission compares to monogamous prevalence and transmission, but I can't wait for that research.

Non-polys would be surprised to find out how much of the poly relationship depends on communication and emotional connection, and how little of it actually revolves around sex. I made up the word polyaffective to describe the non-sexual relationships that polys establish with each other, partners’ partners and other chosen family members. These polyaffective relationships are actually the glue that holds the poly family together. Much like monogamous families, sex is not enough to hold people together in the long run, and those families that sustain strong emotional connections regardless of sexuality are the ones who make it in the long run.

Were you surprised by anything you discovered while doing your research?

I was shocked that I was not jealous when my partner had sex with other people. I resisted it for 10 years because I anticipated feeling so threatened and jealous with my insecurity that I thought I would not be able to handle it. Turns out that he was the jealous one, not me, and that surprised both of us.

It is a surprisingly common occurrence that people look for a poly relationship and think all these things in their own heads about how it is going to be when they actually do it, and for many (most?) people it actually turns out quite differently than what they had anticipated in their own thoughts. My ex was certain that he was “poly to the bone” and I was the only impediment to him living out his fantasy of expanded love.

Turned out he was only poly when it involved him getting with multiple women, not with me getting another man. I thought that if we broke up it would be because I could not handle him having girlfriends, and what actually happened was us breaking up because he could not handle me being with another man. Surprise!

You say in your book that most of the people you interviewed are white and pretty affluent. Is that representative of people in the poly community? If so, why do you think that is?

It is representative of the people who 1. identify as poly (or kinky) and 2. participate in research. I wondered at first if it were only my research area, so I went from Boulder (a super white place) to the San Francisco Bay Area (a very diverse place) and found mostly white, well educated people in the poly community there.

Once I studied kinky people and saw mostly white folks at their gatherings (even in Atlanta, which is far more diverse than any place in Colorado) I wondered what was going on. With my coauthor Corie Hammers I looked at all of the published research (as of early 2011) and as much unpublished research as we could dig up on poly and kinky people and found that –- worldwide and across 35 years of studies –- most of the poly and kinky people were white and well educated.

We decided that social privilege makes it safer to be openly sexually unconventional. There are most likely people of color and working class people who have kinky sex or multiple partners, but either they don’t identify as kinky or poly, or they don’t want to participate in research with white people who might judge them or get outed and lose their jobs, housing, kids, or support from family and other community members.

That said, as poly becomes more well-known, the diversity of the folks who do it will increase (or maybe they are all ready doing it and just don’t call it that, so eventually they might come out as poly and diversify the community). Lots of people in multiple-partner relationships are barely eking by financially, so I imagine the class boundary will fall before the race boundary does. Whiteness confers many, many social protections of which white people generally remain blissfully ignorant, and that allows whites great access to sexual non-conformity from which people of color are all too often barred.

Is public policy conducive to polyamory? Is poly marriage on the horizon, do you think?

I doubt poly marriage is close, partially because it freaks people out so much that it is just too much of a stretch right now. Also, poly people are not organized politically around the issue like folks in same-sex relationships have organized around marriage equality because many polys can marry in dyads and get the goodies that come with marriage even without poly marriage.

Polys tend to be rebellious, rule breakers who have enough race and class privilege that they can eschew marriage because they have their own health insurance in their jobs.

What do you think are the best parts about polyamory?

Flexibility; the ability to design a relationship in a way that fits the people rather than following a social script written by someone else a long time ago, the ability to question lots of precious social assumptions that might not actually be functional for people but people live by them anyway because it is habit, the propensity to be honest and communicate with others translates to relationships with kids and friends and establishes emotional intimacy, honor and respect.

Are there downsides to polyamory?

Complicated, high maintenance, potentially painful –- as high as the highs can be, the lows can be just as steep. Like other blended families (via divorce, death or other blending) poly families can be complicated, and kids in poly families can get close to someone who leaves or have to deal with the stigma flowing from grandparents, teachers or peers’ parents.

At the end of the book, you talk about what poly families can teach non-polys about how to manage complicated relationships. What do you think are the big (or small) lessons?

Don’t leave too soon -– try your very best to fix what ever is going wrong in your relationship by 1) taking self-responsibility and really looking at your own issues, 2) communicating honestly with your partner about what is happening, even if it is hard or scary, 3) make a concerted effort to care for your relationship by making time and effort on its behalf, and 4) get counseling or assistance if the above is not working.

Don’t stay too long –- if you really have tried your best and the relationship is just not meeting your needs, change things before you do something you will regret. Break up before cheating because it makes it easier to retain emotional connection afterwards if no one has betrayed or lied to the other person. This means letting go of the stigma associate with ending a relationship in any other way besides one (or both) of the people dying. We live much too long now for people to be the same person for their entire lives. Things change, and being able to go with the flow instead of getting hung up on how things should be means that people can flex as life changes instead of getting complete bent out of shape.

That also relies on people being able to support themselves financially, and continuing to support their children even if they no longer have sex with the children’s mother (or father). Class and gender issues come in to play when people (usually women and kids) are devastated financially by the end of a relationship.

This interview has been edited for length.

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