POLY LIVING STYLES: SHOULD WE ALL LIVE TOGETHER?
Over the past 40 years that I have been involved in what is now called the polyamorous community, I’ve seen people try many permutations of multi-partner living. Over the past nearly 20 years that I have been counseling poly people professionally, I’ve noticed there to be a strong belief that one form of polyamory is morally and politically superior to others. Over and over I hear from clients that “real” polyamory is a group marriage where three or more adult partners live together in one household, sharing finances, children, and housework as a family unit. When I ask people where they got that idea, they seem baffled and say, “ I just thought that’s what polyamory is.” Most of these clients are very unhappy because they have tried that model at least once (and often several times with different partners) and it crashed and burned after a few months or a year. They express that they “feel like a failure” because they have aspired to live what they see as the ultimate poly ideal and have not been able to sustain it.
I have often wondered why the “living together as one family under one roof” scenario seems so firmly rooted in our community as the one true path of polyamory. I’m guessing that it may be because it is similar to the nuclear family many of us are accustomed to: it’s just like being married except you’re married to more than one person. It may also have become our popular mythology because this model has frequently appeared in science fiction books, such as Heinlein’s portrayal of “line marriage’ and other group marriage models. And, past attempts at communal utopias like the Onieda Community and others have included group marriages, and this may have encouraged us to see this as the highest form of polyamory.
What ever its origin as a model, the vast majority of people who try this “all living together” model find that it does not work for them. The more you are informed about the challenges and potential pitfalls, the more accurately you can assess the viability of this model for you, and can take steps to maximize your chances for success.
I’ve seen literally hundreds of threesomes and foursomes move in together as poly families, and I can count on my fingers the ones who have been able to sustain their family for more than two years. For those who succeed, the rewards are many fold:
*multiple adults to share cooking, housework, and childcare,
*multiple incomes to achieve a more comfortable standard of living and provide long- term financial security,
*more economical and ecological living through pooling resources,
*plenty of companionship,
*stable romantic and sexual relationships,
*and a built-in social life and community.
The three key ingredients for making this model work are:
1) an extremely high degree of compatibility among all partners on all aspects of living together,
2) a high degree of flexibility and willingness to compromise and accommodate the needs of all family members, and
3) excellent interpersonal skills, good communication, and healthy boundaries
All three of these are important to any polyamorous relationship, but are absolute necessities if you are all living together. Here are some examples of poly families that have succeeded at this very difficult task.
EXAMPLES OF LONG-TERM POLY FAMILIES
Jill, Andrew, and Jason are a poly family living together for 10 years. All three are bisexual. Jill and Andrew had been together two years when they got involved with Jason. Their apartments were too small so they rented a bigger house where they each could have their own bedroom. Most nights all three sleep together in a king-size bed, but they make frequent dates to spend intimate time separately with each partner. They spend most of their time together, cooking, gardening, meditating at a Buddhist center, and doing political work for peace. Outside sexual relationships are allowed as long as they do not become so consuming that they interfere with family life. Each contributes 50% of their income to the family checking account to pay for rent, food, and utilities, and each keeps the other half of their income for their own use.
Roberto, Jim, and Ed are a gay male triad, living together for 12 years. They identify as a BDSM family rather than calling themselves poly. Roberto is a dominant and both Jim and Ed are submissives. Jim is Roberto’s husband and Ed is Robert’s boy. Roberto and Ed have jobs and support the family financially. Ed works in the home cooking, cleaning, and gardening. All money is pooled in a single bank account, but Roberto makes all financial decisions. Occasionally, Roberto brings other men into the house for sex and BDSM activities with all three partners, but these relationships are casual.
Ann and Benjamin are a heterosexual couple who both identify as dominants in the BDSM community. Ann has another male partner, Allen, who lives with them and identifies himself as Ann’s slave. Benjamin also has a female submissive, Jenna, who lives with them. Ann and Benjamin have been married for 20 years, and Allen and Jenna have lived with them about 5 years.
Angela, Carlos, and Janine have been living together for six years as a poly family. Angela and Carlos were already living together when Angela got involved with Janine. Janine also expressed an interest in Carlos, so they became sexually involved, and eventually they bought a home and all moved in together. Angela travels about two weeks out of every month for her job, so Carlos spends private time with Janine when Angela is away. When she is in town, Angela divides her time equally between the two relationships. They each keep separate checking accounts and keep their finances separate. However, all three are co-owners in the house, furniture, and stereo. Since Janine is a carpenter and does most of the repairs on the house, she pays less of the household expenses. No sexual relationships are allowed outside the family.
Denise, Millie, and Joseph have lived together for seven years as a family. Millie and Joseph have two kids, eight and eleven years old, who also live with them. Denise was married to Bob, and the two couples met over the Internet and courted. Denise and Bob moved from LA to the Bay Area to move in with Joseph and Millie to form a poly family. However, many conflicts developed because Bob was unhappy with the behavior of the children, as well as disagreements over finances. Eventually Bob moved out and he and Denise divorced. Denise decided to continue living with Millie, Joseph, and their children. They are now seeking another man to join their family. Currently they pool all their incomes as they are saving money to buy a bigger house, and Denise is trying to get pregnant. All three have jobs but Millie identifies as the primary parent and works outside the home only two days a week to give her more time with the children.
As you can see, three seems to be the magic number. I have not personally seen any poly household with more than three partners that survived for more than a year. I’ve seen several households with a primary couple who add another couple and eventually end up as a threesome. It seems quite rare that all four people are compatible and flexible enough to handle the demands of a poly family, and eventually one of the four opts out. I’ve also seen some group marriages where two or even three of the partners stay together for many years but the fourth or fifth partners leave and are replaced by new people every year or so. It’s certainly possible that there are successful foursomes or moresomes out there, but my data is empirical.
CHALLENGES OF LIVING TOGETHER AS A POLY FAMILY
So why is this model so difficult to sustain? Ironically, the reasons most of these families disintegrate so quickly have nothing to do with polyamory. Instead, they fail because of the difficulties of living together: conflicts over housework, kids, money, space, and privacy. Everyone must be able to reach agreement on all these questions:
*where to live
*what house or apartment to buy or rent
*whether or not to pool financial resources
*how much money to spend and what expenditures are acceptable
*how clean to keep the house and who will be responsible for which chores
*what kind of food to buy and who will cook meals
*how much privacy or personal time each partner will have
*how much time will be spent as a family
*whether to have children, how many children, how will they be cared for, and what styles of child-rearing are acceptable
Most people find it difficult to connect with even one partner they can successfully live with for the long haul, much less two, three, or more. I’ve seen poly families fall apart over such seemingly small decisions as whether to buy a new car, what color to paint the house, what school to send the kids to, whether to allow meat in the house, or even “Who is leaving dirty dishes in the sink?”
Conflicts over finances are a common cause of poly divorces. One partner feels they are working harder than the others and contributing more to supporting the household, and pressures the others to make more money. Or, one member wants to spend more money on travel or eating out or buying clothes, and other partners want to save money for retirement or spend it to put a new roof on the house or send the kids to private school.
Conflicts over money frequently arise when one partner makes substantially more money than others and feels that because they contribute more financially they should have more say in family decisions. Or the higher wage earner feels that their financial contribution exempts them from doing any housework.
Other conflicts center on how much responsibility the partners feel is appropriate to take on for each partner’s extended family. One family broke up when one woman’s 30 year-old daughter and her two small kids moved in with them after a messy divorce. She expected her poly family to provide free rent, food, and childcare for her daughter and grandchildren, and the family balked at “supporting someone else’s kids.” Another family fell apart when one man’s elderly father developed Alzheimer’s. He wanted his father to move in and be physically and financially cared for by his poly family, but they did not feel this was their responsibility, and doing so would mean major financial sacrifices. It’s best to clarify how such possible situations will be handled before you move into together so there are no surprises.
Financial matters can get even more complicated when poly partners move into the existing home owned by one individual or a couple in the family. Since one partner or couple already own the house and have “settled in,” it is almost inevitable that they will feel territorial about controlling the space and want more power over decisions in the family. If other members move in as renters, their partner(s) will also be their landlord, setting up an unfortunate power dynamic that can lead to messy financial, legal, and interpersonal problems. Even if the new members buy into the house as part owners, they will probably always feel like it is not really their home since the original owners have “seniority.”
In one case, heterosexual couple A met heterosexual couple B and fell in love. Couple B eventually agreed to sell their small house and move into Couple A’s larger home. Couple B made a substantial down payment and became 50% owners in Couple A’s house. However, Couple B couldn’t move any of their furniture in because there “wasn’t any room,” and Couple A was very attached to the current décor. Wife A became distraught when Couple B tried to cook in “her” kitchen, and found she wanted total control over food-buying and cooking. Couple A had painted the whole house their favorite colors, and were dismayed when Couple B wanted to paint their room a different color. Couple B had to get rid of all their books (25 boxes) because Couple A’s books took up all the space in all the many bookcases in every room in the house. As you can guess, this poly marriage did not last. In my experience, it often works better for everyone in a poly family to move into a new, neutral space that no one is already emotionally attached to. That way everyone is starting off fresh with the same amount of power and investment in creating a home that works for everyone.
Conflicts Over Children and Child Rearing
Another issue that has doomed many poly families is incompatibility around children and child-rearing. Most poly families are “blended” families with one or more children from previous relationships. This often creates conflicts over scheduling custody arrangements with ex-spouses, as well as complex rotating child-care assignments for family members. Some family members do not want to care for other members’ children. Sometimes the biological parent(s) object strongly to other partners providing limits or discipline for their children. There can be sharp disagreements among multiple partners over children’s behavior, bedtimes, homework, activities, diet, etc, and it can be impossible to reach consensus. Disputes over child-care sometimes break down along gender lines: the women in the household are doing way more than their share of the parenting and want the men to pull their weight. I have seen one poly family where the women left the family and took the children with them because they felt so unsupported by the male partners in child-rearing duties.
If there are not children when the poly family initially is formed, “irreconcilable differences” may develop if one partner wants children and the others don’t. I’ve seen several poly families disband because one partner could not persuade the others to agree to having children. Another family split up because one couple already had children and the other woman in the triad wanted to have a child, but the couple didn’t want any more children in the family.
Struggles Over Household Tasks
In disagreements over housework and cooking, battle lines are often drawn between the men and women, with the women complaining that the men expect the women to cook and clean up after them. Of course, women can be slobs, too, or can drive other partners crazy with clutter. I’ve seen numerous poly families wrecked because one person is a neat freak and another is very sloppy. It’s bound to escalate as the person who likes the house clean will become so resentful they will eventually move out or try to evict the sloppy partner. Some households have tried to solve this by hiring a professional cleaning service to keep the house clean, but many can’t afford this or believe strongly that everybody should clean up their own mess. Some families agree to support one member of the family financially and that person stays home and is responsible for most of the housework, cooking, and childcare.
Cooking can also be a “black hole” in poly households—either no one has time to cook or one person feels they are doing way more than their share. And many households have great difficulty reaching consensus on what foods to buy and cook. Some members want all organic foods or a vegan diet, some won’t drink coffee or alcohol, others will eat cheese and eggs but no meat, some eat fish, some are allergic to wheat. One member may abhor all processed foods, while another can’t live without pizza and ice cream. Some try to solve this by only buying and serving the foods that everyone can agree on. This way, individuals can buy a few of their own favorite foods for themselves out of their own money, but they won’t be included in shared meals.
Differing Expectations About Privacy and Togetherness
Another conflict which has derailed many poly families is disagreements about “privacy versus togetherness.” Living together makes it more challenging for each member and each relationship to have privacy and personal autonomy. Relationships that previously were private, suddenly become part of family life when you all move in together. Many families founder when trying to strike a balance between the needs of each person, each relationship, and the family as a whole.
For example, how much time are you allowed to have to yourself, to just shut the door of your room and read a book? Are all partners expected to be home for dinner every night, or can you go out with your friends instead? What if you want private time with one partner to cuddle or go to a movie, is that okay or are you expected to include the other partners? Does each partner have their own room, or are you expected to share your personal space? Do you devise a schedule for which partner to sleep with on which nights or the week, or is it based on how you each feel each day, or do you all sleep together in one room? Many families discover that each partner has very different expectations about the amount of personal freedom and privacy, and how much control the family will exert over their time and activities. It’s wise to talk all these issues through before you consider moving in together to develop guidelines that will work for everyone in the family.
Power struggles and control issues can and often do arise in any group of people that live together, whether an extended biological family, a commune, or roommates sharing a flat. These dynamics seem to plague poly families even more that other living groups. This may be because many poly families start with a primary couple. Usually, the initial couple adds another individual, couple, or two individuals to the family unit. Even if the group moves into a neutral space, the couple tends to view themselves as a single unit. Often the couple becomes a voting block that can always outnumber the other person(s), or create subtle pressure on the other members. Even the most well-meaning and emotionally healthy couples usually have such a strong bond and so much history together that the other members of the family often feel excluded or overwhelmed. Some poly families have successfully mitigated this problem by having family counseling or mediation to help all partners feel understood, and to resolve outstanding conflicts.
HOW CAN POLY FAMILIES IMPROVE THEIR CHANCES OF LONG-TERM SUSTAINABILITY?
Can anything be done to make this poly model more sustainable? Some people blame poly people for being too self-centered or not highly evolved enough to live together successfully. Others suggest that we need training to develop more co-operative living skills, and to learn to be more flexible to accommodate all partners’ needs. Some have taken a different approach by suggesting that this model isn’t appropriate for most people and needs to be modified to make it work of the masses. They point out that most people who are attempting polyamory are older and somewhat set in their ways, and they may not want to become flexible enough to live with people who have very different diets, habits, and living styles. And most people have little experience in group living, cooperative decision-making, and conflict resolution. Living with a group requires strong boundaries, interpersonal skills, the ability to articulate your needs clearly, and willingness to compromise. Not everyone wants to take all that on in order to experience the joys of polyamory. In addition, many people have struggled to establish themselves in a profession, save a little money, and achieve a comfortable standard of living. They may not want to risk everything by merging their finances with other people in a poly family.
One modification of the poly family that works for some people involves people living together part-time with some private living space. Variations include two houses on one lot, a duplex, co-housing, or one partner living with each partner half-time in separate households. I call this the “shared custody” model because it is similar to children of divorced parents who live part-time with each parent. These variations are trying for the best of both worlds: They offer the stability and commitment of living together and being a family, and the privacy and autonomy of having your own space. This model allows for a group of people who may not have total compatibility around housework, kids, finances, and living styles to maintain a close, loving, romantic, and family relationship and to sustain it over time.
EXAMPLES OF THE “SHARED CUSTODY” MODEL
Some examples of this model that I have seen:
1) Joan and Larry had lived together for eight years when Joan fell I love with Rob. Joan and Larry have good jobs and a beautiful house. They enjoy working on the house, cooking gourmet meals, and collecting fine wines. Rob is a struggling singer-songwriter who lives in a cluttered studio apartment. He rarely cooks or cleans, and lives on frozen burritos, coffee, and cigarettes. He is a recovering alcoholic and does not want any alcohol in his home. Joan wanted Rob to move into their home to create a poly family. Larry knew it wouldn’t work because of their incompatible living styles. They worked out a shared custody arrangement where Joan spends two weeknights and every Sunday with Rob at his apartment. The other nights of the week Rob has dinner with them at their home and then goes home, and Joan spends those nights with Larry.
2) Bill and Esther had been married for six years when Bill met Rachel and developed a committed relationship with her. With Esther’s consent, Bill began dividing his time equally between their home and Rachel’s home. Rachel had never had children, and at age 40, wanted to have a child with Bill. Esther had raised twins from her previous marriage, and both kids had recently left home to go to college. She was looking forward to some peace and quiet, and did not want to start over with a new baby in the house. They decided to move into a co-housing community where Bill and Esther could have their own house on the same property with Bill and Rachel’s house. This way they could all have dinner together every night and spend most of their time together, but have two separate households. Bill continued to spend half of each week living with each partner, and he and Rachel are now expecting a baby.
3) Elena is a bisexual woman who was living with her lover, Rose, when she got involved with Thomas. After a year, Thomas asked Elena and Rose to move into his large flat. Rose liked Thomas and enjoyed socializing with him, but she is a lesbian and did not want to live with a man. She and Elena were able to find an affordable apartment to rent in the same neighborhood as Thomas. Elena moved some of her clothes, books, and furniture into Thomas’ flat, and now spends two days with him, then two days with Rose, etc. She pays rent at both places. She almost moved back in with Rose full-time because Thomas didn’t cook or clean house, but she agreed to stay and he agreed to be more responsible about household chores.
4) Carmen describes herself as “a lesbian with two wives.” The three women own a duplex and are on a weekly rotational schedule. Carmen spends three nights each week upstairs with Tanya, and three nights downstairs with Katy. The seventh day of the week is “Carmen’s time,” and she can negotiate to spend time with either woman if they are available, or to have time to herself. Tanya and Katy each have had outside sexual and romantic relationships, and they see their other girlfriends when Carmen is with the other partner.
5) Linda has two male spouses, Cliff and Bruce. She co-owns a house with each partner, and lives with each one half-time, changing houses each night. Cliff and Bruce are close friends, but they do not want to live together as they each prefer to have their own private living space. They are free to pursue relationships with other women if they choose to do so. Because both men make much higher salaries than Linda and all three have different priorities around money, they have chosen to keep their finances separate. Linda pays one-third of the mortgage, utilities, and other household costs at each house, because she only lives at each house half-time.
5) Shelley and Ricardo are a married couple from Boston who met Mike and Chandra, a couple form New York, at a Loving More conference six years ago. They got involved and started flying back and forth to spend weekends together. Last year when Mike and Chandra’s daughter left home to go to college, they decided to move to Boston to form a poly family with Shelley and Ricardo. Both couples acknowledged that they were not ready to give up their privacy and having control over their living space, nor were they willing to share their finances. Shelley and Ricardo had a small house on a large lot, so they sold half the lot to Mike and Chandra and they built a small house for themselves. The two couples spend most of their time together, have breakfast and dinner together almost every day. They spend some nights all together sleeping in one room. Other nights they make “dates” with individual partners so that each relationship has time to grow and have privacy. Each couple or any individual can withdraw to their own house if they want time alone or to pursue their own projects. They have discussed the possibility of moving to a bigger house in the future where they would all live together, but they like the benefits of having control over their own space and aren’t sure whether that would be better than what they have now.
The “shared custody” model has become more common over the past few years, with more poly relationships where one or more members live part-time in two households. As you can see from the above examples, it frequently involves an open “V” triad where one partner has two primary relationships. Many people find it logistically challenging and emotionally disorienting to live in two places at once. As a result, most people in this model live “more” in one place than the other. They maintain one primary residence with one spouse, where they receive mail and keep most of their possessions, but they spend a substantial amount of time at the other home as well, usually paying rent and doing chores in both places. A few hardy souls are equally committed to two partners and live equally in two places, dividing their clothes, possessions, time, and financial commitments equally between the two households. The other most common configuration is two couples that live together most of the time but maintain separate residences either on the same property or in close proximity.
If you decide to take the leap into living together…
In closing, I would urge anyone forming a poly family to give careful thought to which model may be most appropriate and satisfying for you. Be honest with yourself about your needs, about how much privacy and control you are willing to give up, and what you hope to receive from living together as a family. It is important to pick partners who are highly compatible and who have group living skills. If you decide to live as a group, make explicit agreements about finances, chore, kids, and privacy before you move in together. If you feel this model may not work for you, consider the “shared custody model” as a possible alternative.