A few years ago, I was talking to a therapist who knew nothing about polyamory. (In fact, she seemed to know very little about most things and our sessions were more like a series of 45-minute lectures on alternative lifestyles—thanks, National Health Service!) I was attempting to explain that yes, I had two partners, both of whom knew about each other, and who had at least one other partner of their own, and yes, this was completely comfortable for me and not in any way pathological, and so on. Eventually, after a lot of rhetorical and emotional labor, she finally looked at me and said, with some satisfaction, “Well, since you’re not planning on having any children, I guess you should do whatever works for you.”
At the time, that felt like enough of a victory, but I’ve heard the same claim repeated both inside and outside the poly-knowledgeable spheres I live in, and every time it’s bothered me slightly more. Why would a poly family be a bad environment to raise children?
More than one in three Americans is part of a stepfamily. This means they have experienced the addition of other adults and/or children, not genetically related to them, into their domestic life. It also means that they have experienced the trauma of a relationship ending, either as a child or a parent.
Research suggests that the single biggest positive factor in minimizing negative outcomes for children involved in separation is positive co-parenting. If children are able to spend the right amount of time with both parents and are not subjected to acrimony, the vast majority of them do well.
In a poly family with children, there is a biological mother and father for each child, and a selection of additional adults, some of whom may take on a measure of parental responsibility. This looks very similar to a blended or step-family of two divorced adults, their new partners, and children from their current and previous relationships. The major difference is a poly family doesn’t come together after a traumatic separation. It’s all of the benefits of having extra adult perspectives in a child’s life, only nobody hates each other—or worse, desperately tries to pretend they don’t hate each other.
Of course, poly families with less stable bonds, or whose lifestyles entail more disruption of the children’s routines, are much less likely to produce stable, well-adjusted children, but the same can be said for situations where one parent has multiple short-term monogamous relationships as they spasmodically try to rediscover the dating scene.
Naturally, there’s no research out there to compare children raised in poly families to those from monogamous post-divorce blended families or monogamous couples who stayed together, so this is all conjecture. I believe, however, that the obvious comparison with blended families means there’s no clear reason to claim that poly families can’t raise happy, successful children.