A polyamorous family consists of more than two adults and may have several children who are not necessarily related to each other biologically. What makes a family polyamorous is sexual non-exclusion. Polyamorous parents and other adults practice sexual inclusion. In a polyamorous family the adults attempt to repudiate possessiveness and jealousy, and may even enjoy the presence of multiple members who share intimacy. In polyamory you don’t love someone else instead of your primary mate; you love someone else in addition to a primary mate. Polyamory is not a form of rejection of your “true love,” but a form of wider acceptance.
In contrast, the modern monogamous family is a simple model: one father, one mother, and usually one or two children produced by that father and mother. In the past a monogamous marriage used to include an average of about four children, with four grandparents, several aunts and uncles, and many cousins all living nearby. There were several adults or older siblings available to care for, stimulate, and protect the younger ones. Homes were usually filled with people so kids received stimulation from many different sources: same age, older, and younger members. Children slept in the same room and often in the same bed. But nowadays monogamous families are much smaller and more mobile; relatives often live far away so the children suffer relative isolation and neglect. It may be no coincidence that behavioral and developmental problems have been increasing over the past 50 years.
Children living in the contemporary, small, monogamous family suffer a form of social deprivation. Spacing two pregnancies far apart is typical and may be convenient for the parents, but not for the children. When there are only two sibs wide apart in age, they don’t have as many common interests as children of the same or similar age. The learning benefits are usually for the younger sib rather than the older sib, although the older sib may benefit from observing parents model care of a younger sib. In later childhood traditional schooling with children segregated into overcrowded groups of same-age (and sometimes same-sex) peers, an antiquated curriculum, and an authoritarian teacher, is certainly not an ideal form of group interaction and in any case does not compensate for early social deprivation.
It only takes two parents to create a child, but a polyamorous family has more caregivers or “alloparents” available to care for, stimulate, and protect the dependent children. Ideally, all the adults in a polyamorous family contribute to the loving care and protection of the children, and the adults may not even know who the children were produced by. Children, like fathers, never really know who the biological parents are even in a monogamous family. We commonly assume that the legal parents are also the biological parents, but that is not always or necessarily the case even in monogamous families.
Some polyamorous families may choose to be “childfree,” but I think such pedophobic groups would not be serious alternatives to monogamy. As I suggested in previous posts on pedophobia, disliking children is misanthropic. To quote de Sade: “True libertinage abhors progeniture.” (“120 Days of Sodom.”) Some macabre authors like Emily Dickenson were childless.
Polyamory is inappropriate even for adults who do want children but for no other reason than pride of ownership. It was very satisfying to me recently to learn that a woman writer who previously said she “chose” to be childless, now admits she actually did want to have a child but turned out to be physically unable to become pregnant. Why didn’t she adopt? Who knows how many other adults supposedly uninterested in children are likewise hiding their medical infertility?
The adults and children in contemporary monogamous families are typically obsessed with the constant threat of infidelity. In some cultures calling someone a victim of infidelity is the worst insult in the language. Monogamous couples waste considerable time and other resources in mating competition and/or mate-guarding. In contrast, a successful polyamorous family is a model of more harmonious intimacy; mature polyamorists view attraction to others as natural and an expression of healthy sexual function, not something to feel guilty or angry about. (More on infidelity below.)
A biological advantage of polyamory is that gene flow across groups is useful to avoid the potentially deleterious effects of inbreeding, and genetic change is important to combat our greatest enemies: bacteria, viruses, and fungi. There is good reason to believe that speedy change of the immune system (not necessarily improvement but mere change) is beneficial in keeping ahead of our quickly evolving micro-enemies (1). There is likely to be more gene flow and genetic variation in multi-mating groups than in fixed-pair mating, contributing to the genetic health of the next generation. In view of the worrying appearance of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, the tendency of some individuals to be selfish and pass on his/her own genes exclusively is less likely to promote successful survival than more rapid genetic change.
There is some evidence that children benefit from the stimulation of being in multiple relationships, i.e. having siblings. There is also some evidence that children with multiple (two) parents are more advantaged than children growing up with a single parent. Epidemiological data suggest that growing up in a single-parent home is a risk factor for behavioral and developmental problems just as growing up with parents who are alcoholic, abusive, drug addicts, etc. An extreme example is the tragic early life of only-child Mary Shelley who grew up with a widowed parent and subsequently wrote her macabre story “Frankenstein.”
Polyamory offers many advantages but the greatest potential advantage of a polyamorous family is the presence of multiple caregivers or alloparents. An experiment in massive stimulation sent professional adults (males and females) into homes to spend time with children around the clock, and the kids achieved significant improvements in their I.Q. scores in a relatively short time. In the long term we should also expect other improvements in children’s intellectual and social development, such as creative thinking. As with learning more than one language, the child’s brain develops more flexibility as well as accumulating experience in a greater quantity and wider variety of social situations.
There is a well-known physiological process of activity-dependent synapse formation. When the brain is developing during childhood, more synapses are formed the more stimulation the child’s brain receives. The reverse process is neural pruning: if the developing brain doesn’t receive much stimulation, then many neurons are pruned and die, possibly resulting in some form of dysfunction, including organ dysfunction. These processes are widely accepted in brain science and in no dispute. I have previously suggested that these well-known processes apply to sexual function as well, specifically clitoral function (see Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction).
Most children today tend to fear instability because it seems to threaten neglect and abandonment, but in my experience when kids are confident of receiving competent care from somebody or other, they get bored easily and actually prefer a variety of fresh caregivers. Monogamous parents traditionally terrorize kids against “the wicked step-mother.” However, when a healthy brain is developing it needs stimulation, so an abstract concept like “loyalty” is of secondary importance to a child before indoctrination into monogamy. The high-sounding word “loyalty” in this context merely means exclusiveness: excluding “outsiders” from physical or emotional intimacy.
Healthy children are strongly attached to primary caregivers, but confident kids are also very practical and flexible. Children are great believers in the practical principle: if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. To a child exclusiveness has value only if and when it avoids interpersonal conflict, not because exclusiveness has some abstract ethical value in itself. Children are extremely “loyal” to their parents as long as the latter are in the same room.
In early childhood education a common belief is that a child benefits from having a primary caregiver assigned to that child, but there is no hard evidence for that belief. As far as we know, multiple “primary” caregivers may be better. Of course, there may be a point of diminishing returns: 5 parents per child may be better than 10 parents per child, and 2 or 3 languages may be better than 5 or 10 languages. That remains to be seen.
Mothers and other females traditionally invest more time and effort in childcare than fathers and other males, especially in other species, but there is no reason why that pattern must persist in humans of the present and future. Beyond gestation and breastfeeding there is no reason to believe that childcare by females is always and necessarily better than childcare by males. It is obvious that in humans the best childcare depends more on the behavior rather than the gender of the caregiver, and experiencing the different behavior styles of males and females may be conducive to broadening children’s perspective. A mother with three husbands may be just as useful to children as a father with three wives.
Traditionally the stay-at-home mother is the preferred form of monogamous family, but it is far from ideal. Children have so much energy that one adult can’t keep up with even one child, let alone more than one child. Fatigue, neglect, and/or boredom are probable unless there are more caregivers who can take turns resting and care-giving as would be easy in a polyamorous family with multiple adults.
Fluidity of membership in a polyamorous family may be considered neutral or even constructive because individuals naturally change over time. New and different caregivers may mean improvement in childcare. An important thing is that the terms of membership in a polyamorous family are clearly specified and agreed to in advance of becoming a member and investing in the family. Violent conflict often results from one person unilaterally changing the rules formerly agreed to. Monogamous couples usually begin with the mutual agreement “till death do us part,” but within a short time one spouse may unilaterally declare “I’m not dead yet but I’m parting anyway.” A kind of initial contract specifying terms of dissolution of agreements (and consequences for unilateral violations) would minimize violent conflict later.
The reason infidelity often causes a violent reaction is because it is dishonest. In contrast, when extra-pair contact is agreed to in advance, there is no real “infidelity.” Dan Savage has used the phrase “ethical infidelity” but that is a contradiction of terms. When extra-pair contact is agreed to in advance, it’s not “infidelity.” Although possessiveness and jealousy are commonly thought to be instinctive and inevitable, a very young child with flexible models eventually realizes that the dream of exclusive possession can become a nightmare if the person she wants chooses somebody else for an exclusive relationship instead. Sharing loved ones is a safer and more reasonable compromise that is easily accepted when a young child’s personality is forming.
Much interpersonal conflict is due to competition for an exclusive relationship. So when relationships are shared, there is less need for such competition. Changes in the make-up of the monogamous family due to divorce, death, or other reasons are usually very disruptive and stressful for the adults and especially for the children. But lacking models of possessiveness and jealousy, children in a polyamorous family may grow up more resilient and better able to withstand natural disruptions in social relationships when disease, accidents, or other sudden changes are forced on them.
The children who grew up in a successful polyamorous family should become adults who get along smoothly with other families, both monogamous and polyamorous, rather than forming enclaves or tribes in isolation from the larger society. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t expect that. The major obstacle would be possible rejection and ostracism by individuals and groups with vested interests in protecting monogamous marriage, what Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’ have called “the marital-industrial complex” (2). Much misery in childhood is due to disputes over custody of children when monogamous couples separate. In contrast, polyamory offers the hope that children will have a buffer of many close relationships that are unaffected by a change in one caregiver.
The first successful polyamorous families to go public would face the greatest challenges. There are a few videos on YouTube of polyamorous families, some of whom feel a need to hide their polyamory from the children, possibly because of a perceived need to avoid public disclosure. There are also many polygynous Mormon families in which the polygyny is not a secret. The children seem to grow up in the same home although each mother has a separate bedroom (3).
Intimate relationships are often problematic. The place you are most likely to die a violent death is in your own home. That may not change in a polyamorous society. There is always a risk of envy, dissatisfaction and resentment in social relationships. But I suspect that across generations the individuals who grow up in the socially rich environment of a polyamorous family will be better equipped to compensate for human frailties, than those individuals who grow up in an average or even “ideal” monogamous family. Although there are many cases of failed monogamous mating, they may be explained by problems other than monogamy itself. But some successful polyamorous families would disconfirm the traditional belief that monogamy is the only viable formula for raising strong and healthy children.
- Ridley, M. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. Penguin, 1993.
- Ryan, Christopher and Jetha’, Cacilda. Sex at Dawn: How we Mate, Why we Stray, and What it means for Modern Relationships. Harper, 2010.
- For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7G0acYVjSU and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcH3XyobtBw