Polyamory and Divorce

My most recent publication, this selection will appear in the forthcoming A Cultural Sociology of Divorce (2013).



According to a study of polyamorous families with children by Elisabeth Sheff, some people seek poly relationships as an alternative to divorce, while others become poly subsequent to divorce from (ostensibly) monogamous marriages. Still others divorce and retain sexual and/or cohabitational relationships with their “exes” after dissolving their legal unions. Finally, some poly families who disband do not have access to legal divorce.


Alternative to Divorce

             Occasionally people transition to poly families rather than divorce.Typically this happens when one of the partners is discovered engaging in an adulterous affair or confesses a transgression to their spouse, and those involved choose extra-marital relationships for both partners rather than divorce. Claire and Tim (no real names in this article), a Mexican-American woman and a white man both in their mid-thirties and married for nine years, became polyamorous instead of divorcing when Claire learned of Tim’s extra-marital affair. Claire felt betrayed by Tim’s initial deception but, while she did not want to be the “dupe who stays at home with the kids while he is out screwing around,” she was not willing to end their relationship. Claire and Tim reconsidered the meaning and stability of their union, and ultimately chose to open their relationship to outside lovers for both of them and as Claire reports, “Saving our marriage.”

Some who become poly rather than divorce point to their desire to “keep the family together for the children” as a primary motivation, choosing to work out their differences and restabilize in an open relationship instead of separating. Others emphasize the loving bond they retain with their partners, and their ability to forgive partner’s mistakes and move on to a new phase of the relationship. This ability to truly forgive and move on is, however, quite rare, and more people aspire to let go of the past than actually achieve a trusting polyamorous relationship. Polyamorous relationships that begin with dishonesty are prone to dissolve under the rigors of the challenging relational style. Those that openly negotiate polyamory first, prior to engaging in outside affairs, tend to have greater success maintaining the honesty most polys cast as crucial for a successful relationship.


Polyamorous Subsequent to Divorce

Some polys that previously engaged in adultery and subsequently divorced enter new relationships with the explicit intention of creating polyamorous families. Far more common than the relationship that transitions as an alternative to divorce, people in this category tend to emphasize their desire to avoid repeating past mistakes and resolve to handle things differently in their subsequent relationships. Shelly and Sven, a white couple in their forties, each have a daughter from a previous marriage, and also have a daughter together. Sven’s first marriage ended in a bitter divorce when his now ex-wife discovered he was having clandestine sex with men. In an effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of his first marriage, Sven was honest with Shelly about his bisexuality from the beginning of their relationship. Initially shocked by Sven’s suggestion to add a boyfriend to their family, Shelly eventually became more accepting of polyamory, though she remained somewhat dubious at times. “I never would have considered it before I met Sven, but I would rather be involved with these guys than have him taking so much energy and time away from the family to be with them.”

Polys in this category routinely refrain from making further monogamous commitments, deciding instead to establish multiple partner relationships rather than commit to a monogamous style of relationship that has proven unworkable for them. Others practice polyamory for a while before returning to a monogamously committed relationship style. Issues in these relationships tend to revolve around the challenges associated with finding additional partners that fit comfortably into the family.


Divorced but Still Lovers

Some polys divorce but continue their relationships much as they had prior to the divorce. People in this category often cite logistical or legal reasons for their divorces, rather than relational dysfunction. Peck, a 42 year-old white magazine editor and mother of three, had been in a triad that was characteristic of this tendency to divorce for non-combative reasons. She had already had two children with Clark, her legally wed husband, and intentionally became pregnant with a third child when Steven, her additional (extra-legal) husband, expressed desire for a child. Both Steven and Clark accompanied Peck in the delivery room when she gave birth to her third child. Though the triad expressed their intent to co-parent, officials insisted on listing Clark as the father on the birth certificate because state law stipulated that a married woman’s husband is the legal father of any child she bears, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Peck said:

We told everybody Steven is the father. I’m married to Clark, and Clark’s name had to be put on the birth certificate, legally … Even though we said no, this is who is and this is who it isn’t. And they [said] we don’t care. You’re married, his name goes on. Steven was outraged.

In order to clarify Steven’s relationship with his infant son and Peck’s relationship with both men, the triad decided that a legal divorce was in order. Peck was optimistic about the impact the divorce had on the family, and felt it set a good example for her children who saw their parents remaining connected during a congenial divorce:

They get to see that a divorce or break-up doesn’t have to be this destructive, I hate this other person, I have to choose between mom and dad… Children take on so much stress and trauma from divorce where parents pit one against the other. That didn’t happen.

Others in this category divorce to allow one spouse to marry another person for practical reasons such as access to health care, child custody, or immigration.


Lack of Access to Legal Divorce

While divorce exerts a mixed impact on polyamorous people and their children, the lack of access to official divorce can sometimes be as difficult. The Mayfield quad, composed of Alicia, Ben, Monique, and Edward, all white and in their late thirties or early forties, was together for 11 years before breaking up. Ben, Monique, and Edward had all been employed during their term in the quad, but Alicia’s back injury prevented her from performing paid labor. Instead, she cared for their home and Monique and Edward’s biological children who were five and seven years old when the quad coalesced as a family. When the quad disbanded, Alicia had no access to the usual recourses available to women whose monogamous legal marriages end. Lacking legally recognized relationships to any other quad members except her soon to be ex-husband, formalized access to the children she had cared for during the last 11 years, or recourse to seek the alimony traditionally awarded to homemakers who divorce a wage earner, Alicia and others like her are in a difficult position indeed.

Like other sexual minorities who are unable to marry and thus unable to divorce, many polys have complex relationships with legal marriage and divorce. Although access to legal divorce would not have shielded Alicia from the emotional impact of the family’s dissolution, it would have at least allowed her visitation of the children she reared and financial compensation for the years she spent raising them and maintaining the household to facilitate the waged work of the others. While some use polyamory as an alternative to divorce, create poly families subsequent to a previous divorce, or divorce and retain erotic and kinship ties, the polys who are barred from divorce because they were never legally married have fewer recourses than those who were able to legally marry at some point.

Further Readings

Sheff, Elisabeth. “Strategies in Polyamorous Parenting” in (Eds.) Barker, Meg and Darren Langdridge, Understanding Non-monogamies. Pgs. 169 – 181. London: Routledge, 2010.

Sheff, Elisabeth. 2011. “Polyamorous Families, Same-sex Marriage, and the Slippery Slope” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, v. 40/5 (2011).

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria. Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2010.

See Also: Adultery/Infidelity; Children/Staying Married for the Sake of; LGBT Divorce; Second Marriage; Spousal Support/Alimony

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, CASA, CSE

One of a handful of global experts on polyamory and the foremost international expert on children in polyamorous families, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff has studied gender and
families of sexual minorities for the last 16 years. Sheff’s television appearances include CNN, and the National Geographic, and she has given more than 20 radio, podcast, print, and television interviews with sources from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek. By emphasizing research methodology and findings in her discussions, Dr. Sheff presents the kind of public intellectualism that encourages audience members to think critically regarding gender, sexualities, and families.

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