Polyamory, An Eye-Opening Interview With Elisabeth Sheff
Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is an expert on polyamorous relationships and has conducted a 15 year study on poly relationships with children. She is an educational consultant and public speaker, and specializes in gender and sexual minority families, and issues facing trans people. You can read more about her work in her books, The Polyamorists Next Door, Stories From The Polycule, and When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous.
Are most polyamorous relationships short-lived, or long-term commitments?
It would be hard to say ‘most’. Some are certainly short-lived, but there are also poly relationships that last over 50 years. There isn’t enough data to say. However, the more people who are involved in the relationship, the more likely there will be some turnover.
How do poly relationships differ from polygamy?
A person of any gender can have a partner of any gender, and there is no religion on which these relationships are based. Polygamy is centered around religious beliefs, such as Mormon beliefs, and says that a man can have multiple wives.
Why do you think the idea of multiple partners is rejected by most people– even those who would consider themselves to be open-minded?
The idea scares people. It causes insecurities, it makes people feel like their relationship is being threatened. For some the fear is religion based, because most religions believe that sex is exclusively for reproducing, not for fun. In a lot of poly relationships sex is used for fun.
What is the main appeal of being in a polyamorous relationship?
Nowadays we have longer lifespans which means we have more time to make choices, to seek out what we want from different experiences. For some being in a poly relationship is about having their sexual needs met, for some it’s about having a broader social life or a sense of community.
Some decide to open their marriage to strengthen their relationship. They find they are able to have sexual and emotional needs met that maybe one person couldn’t provide them with.
In your article, you mention that there are some members of more traditional religions who are in poly relationships. How does this fit into their church or spiritual beliefs?
People who are hardcore in their religious beliefs tend to practice polygamy which is on the edge of poly groups. A lot of these relationships have a ‘one penis policy’, which is rejected by most of the poly community. Judaism for example is very different from Christianity in its attitude towards sex– they tend to have more happy marriages, be more relaxed about sex, and place less emphasis on virginity and purity. They believe in the ‘Mitzvah‘, sexual expression, that it’s important for women to also enjoy sex.
How does polyamory differ from open relationships? Or is it the same idea?
Some open relationships are polyamorous. The main difference is about the label. Open relationships may be ‘monogamish’– focusing on the couple but are open to threesomes, for example. And a lot of open relationships have rules like ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, but don’t bring the other person home. Open relationships are an umbrella category.
Is polyamory more common than we realize?
Probably. Monogamy has to be negotiated now, it can’t be assumed. If you’re dating someone you can’t assume that just because you’ve had sex, you’re exclusive. People don’t view monogamy the same way they used to, so non-monogamy is definitely more common than we realize.
Do poly parents face a lot of discrimination? Are families with more than two parents becoming a more widely-accepted group?
They certainly face less discrimination than gay couples, for the simple reason that they blend in. When you see three people having lunch together, you assume they are friends or family, you don’t assume they’re all lovers. Families with more than two parents are becoming more acceptable because of divorce and re-marriage. It’s now common for a child to have three or four parents.
How does growing up with multiple parents affect kids?
Often it’s great for them, they say that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Their families tend to be in good financial shape because they have more resources, help, the kids get more individual attention. These families tend to have better emotional intimacy and the kids are better at forming support groups and have stronger communication skills.
The two biggest drawbacks are that the kids feel they have too much supervision, and that when the relationships break up they must face people no longer being part of their lives. But it’s not usually the other adults they miss most, it’s their kids. The kids must say goodbye to their friends.
These kids also grow up with different attitudes towards relationships because they don’t assume monogamy. They view relationships as possibilities, and are open minded to different ideas. They don’t necessarily enter poly relationships themselves but they aren’t closed off to the idea.
Sheff, E. A. (June 5, 2017). Four Reasons Why Paganism And Polyamory Are Linked. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201706/four-reasons-why-paganism-and-polyamory-are-linked
I like the content of the article but I’d love for there to have been more references to her personal experiences with polyamorous relationships and groups. A story from a specific family or about the effects of the relationship on the children. Otherwise this was a well balanced interview that brings enlightenment to the true idea of a happy polyamorous relationship and it’s prevalence in real society.
This was an interesting interview with Dr. Elisabeth Sheff. I didn’t know polyamory was as common as Dr. Sheff states (well as common as it is). Your first question really intrigued me, about the relationships being short lived or long term commitments. A good follow up would be some question about jealously or some other psychology components of relationships that shape the longevity. I assume the more there are in a relationship the less it lasts is because of jealousy and more room for combativeness.
Another question I thought of while reading was if there is a relation between age and the progressiveness of society and polyamory, and if Dr. Sheff has some idea pertaining to that. I would think younger people are more open to polyamory but it seems the interview was focused more on older relationships and the effects on children. All in all, wonderful look into the phenomena!
Hi Julia, great interview! I really like the way you structured the piece to make information easy to find. I would’ve defined polyamory in the beginning of the piece, as a reader who is unfamiliar with the term would be confused from the get-go. Again, until you’ve defined all your terms and made sure readers are on the same page as you are, stay away from slang or abbreviations like “poly”.
I really liked this! It was informative and concise and something that often isn’t talked about. I personally didn’t even realize that polyamory and polygamy were completely different things so I’m happy to have learned so much. I would suggest adding a conclusion however just to tie in all the information so the reader doesn’t get completely lost at the end.
This interview is a reat one but what is she basing her responses off of? She never referenced her own research and I would have liked to have some kind of written facts to back her answers to the questions. The topic of polyamory is often pushed to the back of the brain. No one wants to talk about it these days. It’s nice to see someone speak up on it
I feel like this article brought up some good points regarding monogamy and polyamory. I especially liked how she pointed out that monogamy is not strictly monogamous unless stated clearly. In a way that is true–you hear tons of stories about people cheating or having open relationships, but never of the ones that are consensual by all parties involved. It is interesting but not surprising that polyamorous relationships are better for children.
Really interesting topic and insights provided, I learnt a lot from this article alone. Thank you.
I feel like certain terminology is not clear and I wish could have been defined early on like in the introduction. It’s important not to assume the reader knows everything nor that they know exact definitions. Some might assume that being polyamorous means being married to more than one person, and that polygamy is being attracted to more than one person. In order to not confuse your readers, clear and concise definitions. For example, “Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is an expert on polyamorous relationships, or in other words, being attracted to more than one person, and…” Of course, it would perhaps be more fluidly written than that. Maybe even the break down of words, like how “poly-” means more than one, and “amorous” is in terms of attraction.
Another thing I wish was touched on was the idea that it’s entirely possible that a polyamorous relationship could entirely be based on love. Like being in love with two different people, but not willing to choose just one partner. So why not both? It’s more than just religion or sex. When it comes to relationship, it is always about love/attraction.
Overall however, great job! I’m ecstatic that you are helping break the stigma of the taboo topic of polyamory!
I love learning something new in areas which I feel pretty well-versed. The fact that Judaism is more sexually expressive than Christianity is new information to me. I would have assumed that they are similar being that it’s within Jewish scripture that the story of Lilith, who is the antithesis of a “pure” woman, originated .
However, it makes sense that Judaism is more permissive and progressive in the context that, spiritually and culturally, this faith seems to be more matriarchal; citing that it’s matrilineal.
I would have loved for the interview to have been a bit longer. It may have been beneficial to many readers for you to have asked questions which included and defined more terminology related to relationship structure such as polyandry and polygyny; also informing the reader of concepts developed which explores how issues of insecurities are faced, such as compersion.
I am curious if Dr. Sheff has personal experience in any open dynamic. If not, it would be great to interview a psychologist who is also active in alternative communities.
This truly is an eye-opening interview. Wow, I don’t even know where to begin.
“(…) non-monogamy is definitely more common than we realize.” Definitely. I wasn’t even aware of this until it was pointed out here, you really can’t be sure you’re exclusive with someone just because you two have had sex, nowadays.
Although I consider myself an open-minded person and am aware how common this actually is, I don’t think it’s possible (but it could be just me).
From personal experience, I know that when I’m in love, no one else can even compare. No one else is handsome or sweet or smart enough. For that reason, I don’t think one can find his or her needs in someone else simply because when you’re *truly* in love with someone, they are the best you can imagine.
As for having a feeling of comunity or improving social life … I hate to say this but that really disgust me. No one should be in any kind of relationship just because they are lonely or want someone to always be with them. If a person can’t seem to find a group of friends on his own, then there is definitely a problem he has with himself. And that shouldn’t be transfered into a relationship.
Another thing, I think three (or even more?) people can never be as close as two can. There will always be something you will say to one person but not to the other and that leads to potential jealousy and heartache.
Bonus, you can never be 100% sure that one of your significant others isn’t a part of this only to make you or the other person happy and not because they genuinely enjoy being in a relationship with 2+people.
I understand it happens and I can understand that sort of lifestyle, especially in the younger years (don’t get me wrong, I’m 19 myself) but when a person truly loves, there is no need for other significant other.
All in all, I don’t mean to offend the people included in this article, it’s just discussing the topic. Great choice and great article:)
@Rafaela – One aspect of polyamory which was not covered in this brief interview is that every relationship is custom, created and adapted to meet the needs of the partners – there is no standard pattern. For one example, some people have poly relationships with an ethic that all their relationships are equal, while others have a “primary” as well as other lovers, and there are many variants and nuances between. People’s agreements (implicit or explicit) with each other vary greatly and often change over time.
One result it that one can always find examples of polyamorous relationships which would not work for oneself – even if you are happily poly. However, some people (a minority of the population I believe) find a model of polyamory which does work for them – at least as well as monogamy does (meaning that poly relationships can also be functional or dysfunctional, happy or unhappy, and last a lifetime or less – it’s not panacea even for the subset to whom it appeals). However, for some it can be very rewarding, when done in a way that works for them.
Your reflections are thoughtful and may be valid for you, at this time in your life. I’ve been in a polyamorous committed relationship for over 40 years, and I very deeply love my spouse. I also have real love for others in our lives (my lovers and my spouse’s lovers, and of course our friends), each in their own unique way. The total focus on the one person whom you have fallen in loved with, which you mention, is not universal, but it’s also fairly common in the early years of a relationship. In poly, there’s something we call “New Relationship Energy” or NRE (search it on wikipedia) – actually, almost all relationships start with NRE, but in poly it’s important to be mindful to keep putting energy into existing relationship and not lose interest whenever there’s a new one. Over time, it changes; a deep love can continue (or not), but it finds new sources of sustaining energy if so – that early obsessive (and very enjoyable) focus nearly always fades after a few years at most. That need not create a NEED for additional relationship(s), but it may create the potential for such which would not have seemed possible at the start, at least for some people.
I think you are interpreting “a feeling of community or improving social life” a little differently than Prof Scheff meant. If you are just looking for companionship of some sort, monogamy is usually easier. Some people however thrive in a context of more than one *significant* connection (beyond just friendship). Others just find themselves loving more than one person and find a way to make it work rather than following the traditional prescription that they must always choose to love only one.
Anyway, I don’t mean to dispute your points, just to give another perspective and to question some of the assumptions which appear to be underlying some of your conclusions.
A very fascinating article! The topic of polyamory has always been a subject of interest for me, and I’m glad to come across this article which clarifies some fears and misconceptions people have regarding polyamory. I was interested to learn the difference between polygamy and polyamory, and this article explained it quite well.
Some people tend to believe that polyamory is mostly based on sex, and while that may be true in some cases, it could also be based on mutual trust and love between partners, and that is an aspect of polyamory that a lot of people tend to overlook.
More citations and references to Dr. Sheff’s research would greatly benefit the article, and make the statements more sound.
Overall, great topic and nice article!
First of all, thank you to you and Dr. Sheff for giving a spotlight to polyamorous relationships. It’s not often that I stumble upon this topic. People are quick to judge, so they don’t take the time to consider things that may not be socially acceptable just yet. I’ve witnessed poly relationships that have been happier and stronger than spme monogamous relationships. I appreciate you asking a question regarding how it affects children, which is highly important. Also, I had no idea that Judaism was so progressive when it came to sex, kudos to them!
I wished she had provided further references in her answer, but at least you provide links to her work. One question I wished you had asked more directly is: “What are some benefits or disadvantages to polyamorous relationships?” I do feel like she answered it throughout the article, but maybe that could’ve been one of the first questions. Overall, great article though.
This is a great interview, showcasing a topic that not many people understand. I learned so many things from reading it. Furthermore, the interview is thoroughly researched, well-prepared and professional.
However, I would like to know more about the psychology of polyamory (eg. why people do it, etc.)
Awesome article. It does a great job of covering the questions that most people would have concerning these relationships.
Thank you so much for writing this article. My parents were polyamorous for a time, opening their marriage when I was around 15. They were very open about how things were, and encouraged us to ask questions if we had them. I think this is the biggest thing that people need to remember about polyamory: communication is so important. Not just for the partners involved, but also with the children.