We're pleased to have Dr. Eli Sheff back on the show to talk about her 15+ years of research into polyamorous families with children. Sheff shares the shifting trends she has seen over the course of her study as well as some practical tips for polyamorous people looking to cohabit or raise children with multiple partners. You can find more of Sheff's work at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door. You can support her research on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?c=442796.
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Dr. Sheff: People in corporate America do some crazy shit and we're worried about having two partners consensually. Really? Okay, that's hurting.
Dedeker: You're like, have you watched the news recently?
Dr. Sheff: Right, exactly.
Emily: like just stop being such a fucking hypocrite, totally.
Dedeker: I had to renegotiate the morality clause in my publishing contract. Because again, it was that same thing of where we just have really had to be very specific in my clause of what counts as an immoral thing as far as what the author does with her life versus what are the values of the company. We just had to really reword that section a billion times to make sure that there was nothing that could--
Emily: Come back to haunt you.
Jase: On this episode of the Multiamory Podcast, we're speaking with Dr. Elisabeth Sheff. She is a researcher and the author of several books, including The Polyamorists Next Door, Stories From the Polycule and one of my personal favorites, When Someone You Love is Polyamorous. We had her on the show a couple of years ago.
Emily: Yes, a long time ago.
Jase: Yes, and we just had her back after running into her at Southwest Love Fest, and we're so excited to have this conversation to talk about all the new trends and new observations she's made about polyamorous families in this beautiful country of ours.
Emily: That's an interesting editorial note there, but--
Jase: With that, let's get to the interview.
Emily: Here we are with Dr. Elisabeth Sheff. We're so happy to have you back on the show. It's been like a good solid two years I believe since we've had you on, but we saw you actually at Southwest Love Fest. It was great to hear what you were talking about there. It was great to sit down and have an awesome drink with you. We definitely wanted to have you back on the show. For those of you out there to our listeners who don't know, can you tell us about yourself, what you do, who you are?
Dr. Sheff: Yes, thanks. It's so fun to be back and it was really fun to see you at Southwest Love Fest. I thought that was a really awesome conference. I had a great time and especially for the first time they did it.
Emily: Yeah, they did a very good job. Tucson delivered.
Dedeker: Oh, gosh, yes. Definitely helped bring it up for the first time.
Dr. Sheff: Very nicely done.
Dr. Sheff: Totally, but I'm a researcher, I'm a sociologist. I started studying polyamory in 1996 as part of my doctoral research. Since then, I've been studying it in a longitudinal study following the same people over time. I'm in my fourth wave of data collection right now, especially talking to kids who've grown up, so teenagers and young adults, especially about how growing up in a polyamorous family has impacted them.
Talking to their parents about what it's like to age in a polyamorous relationship, so it's been super interesting. I love collecting the data because it's so fascinating to check back in with people and see how their lives have changed. What's happened in the meantime?
Dedeker: Can you just clarify really quick because I'm not a researcher? I don't know how many of our listeners are. I didn't know the data collection happened in waves. Can you explain that a little bit?
Emily: I know, fourth wave and how long between each successive wave.
Dr. Sheff: Right. Good idea, yes. Most data collection doesn't happen in waves. Most research is a point in time and that can work great for some forms of research, but for studying families, it's longitudinal or following the same people over time. It's really important to get much more than just a snapshot. Much more of a holistic picture.
For instance, if I had only done single snapshots, I think I wouldn't necessarily realize how common it is for when people first come out to their family members, the family can, especially if they're religious, they can really freak out. Like really freak out, but if given 5-10 years, a good half of them calm down and interact with the family and see what it's like on a daily basis. They're like, "Okay, I guess I overreacted."
Sometimes they even say, "I'm sorry, I totally overreacted. I apologize." That's the kind of--
Jase: That's awesome.
Dr. Sheff: Yes. Sometimes they don't, sometimes those families are split permanently, but there's a solid chunk of them that once they calm down over time, can reestablish a much more friendly and maybe not super close spend weeks and weeks together, but at least, successfully have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, then have a drink, and then go. Yes, that's one of the benefits of longitudinal research.
I've done my waves of data collection about every five years over the past 20 years. I started the fourth wave of data collection for the 20th anniversary of the study in 2016. Each wave takes me a long time because I'm a self funded--
Dr. Sheff: Actually, that's another link I should have given you and will. My Patreon page.
Dr. Sheff: Yes. People can contribute to this research if they want. It would really help me out to actually finish conducting it to help support the poly family study. That'd be great. I'll give you that link.
Dedeker: I guess the wave thing makes sense because I guess the only other alternative to actually being able to track trends over time is if you're there with a family 24/7 which I don't think anyone wants really for 20 years.
Jase: For 20 years.
Emily: Oh gosh, no.
Dr. Sheff: No.
Dedeker: I just dip in and out as it were.
Dr. Sheff: Right.
Jase: That's cool because I feel like people in news media articles I read and stuff, there are a lot of studies that get trotted out. There tends to be these couple studies people mention a lot. The one that says 20% of Americans have been in some form of open relationship at some point in their lives, and then the 45% are currently practicing some sort of non monogamous thing.
Those like you were saying, that's just this like, "At this moment in time, this is what we found out." It doesn't really show anything about the what happened to the those people.
Emily: The longevity of it. Yes, totally.
Jase: It is really cool and somewhat unique to find these longitudinal studies.
Dr. Sheff: Well, they're hard to sustain. With mine, it's been-- I've had respondents that I can't find anymore. I had people drift away or I find them and contact them and they don't respond. It's hard to know how much to pursue them. If they are really just done participating, it's not cool to harass them, but if they're just spacey and they're like--
Emily: Which is a possibility.
Dr. Sheff: Right. Keep meeting to respond to that email. What I've decided and I hope it's the right thing, is that three times. I'll email someone or contact someone three times and if after that I haven't heard back from them, then I just leave them alone.
It's a drag because I don't know why they won't talk to me. It would be interesting if I could just say, "Hey, I understand you don't want to do this anymore, but why won't you talk to me?" Just in case, but if they're not talking to me, they won't tell me why they won't talk to me.
Dedeker: I'm sure it's not about you.
Dr. Sheff: No, I don't mean like about me, but reasons for withdrawal from the study.
Jase: It would be good data.
Dedeker: That would be good data, I guess that's true.
Emily: For sure.
Dr. Sheff: Really interesting, but when they're non responsive, I can't force them to tell me.
Emily: I just quickly wanted to ask how rare is a study like this? Are you simply the only person who's doing a study like this?
Dr. Sheff: Yes.
Dr. Sheff: Absolutely.
Emily: Wow. That's really special.
Dr. Sheff: In part because it's really difficult to sustain over time. There have been longitudinal family studies, which gave me the idea. There was a study of divorce that was this longitudinal study that found shifting impacts over time, which I've also found with the kids in my sample. Sometimes when they are-- I guess I'm thinking of one kid in specific, when he was, I think I talked to him when he was 15. He was like, "This sucks, man. This totally sucks." Now, I think he's 23 perhaps and he's like, "Yes, I don't think the poly thing is for me, but I see everything I learned from it. Actually, while some parts of it did suck, in retrospect, I'm really glad that my family was that way." In fact, I always ask, "Do you wish you could have had a different family than the one you did?" Everyone always says, "Oh, no, no, even if it's sucked in some ways, I'm really glad I had that family."
Even the ones who are like, "No way, totally going to be monogamous, would absolutely under no circumstances be polyamorous myself," are still glad that they had that kind of upbringing that opened their mind so much, which I thought was pretty cool.
Dedeker: To be fair, when I was 15, I thought everything my family did sucked. I understand that.
Dr. Sheff: You were right, because the world sucks when you're 15.
Dedeker: It's true, it really did.
Emily: Yes, it did.
Dr. Sheff: Like, everything sucks.
Jase: You go on to this this next one here.
Emily: You've talked about the second and third generation polyamorous people that you've been seeing that their parents were and then their parents parents were or something, so you're seeing people who've been polyamorous for a long period of time, who are second and third generation polyamorous people. Because of all that and because of your research, do you feel the world is changing or shifting in some way?
That at the very least, this is going to become more prevalent, or just less taboo in society because people are starting to do it from a family generational standpoint?
Dr. Sheff: I don't see a whole ton of family generational standpoint, some people do. Definitely there are second and third generation poly folks, absolutely, but I don't see as much of that. In my sample, for instance, the kids are much more like, “ehhh…” There are a few that are, "Oh, absolutely, totally poly," but they're much more-- many more of them are, maybe, maybe not, we'll see. It's on the menu, but they're not the champions of it.
That's what I see in the future actually, is consensual non-monogamy taking its place on the relationship menu much more. Serial monogamy will probably be the most popular dish still on the menu, but there's all these other ways you can do it, too that aren't nearly as outlandish, and it's gluten-free. We'll have this on the relationship menu. They'll be the non-monogamy section, where you can different versions of it and try different ways of it at different times.
That's what my teenage and young adult respondents say that, "I'll see when it works out. I'll see how it works out, I'll see what my partner wants. For now, no. I'm not doing it." That's the most common answer and maybe in the future and maybe not. I don't ever see non-monogamy replacing monogamy. I think serial monogamy is going to be the long-term option for still the majority of people, but I definitely see it as like, "Yes, if you flip it over, where there's a special menu, here's the vegan menu with the gluten free."
Dedeker: Special dietary needs.
Dr. Sheff: Yes, exactly.
Dedeker: Actually-- sorry, I just I really like that metaphor for explaining to people because we do get that a lot of people thinking, "Oh, is monogamy dying or is it going to go out of fashion?"
Emily: Yes, a lot of people have been-- are fearful of that.
Dedeker: A lot of people are fearful, but I really like that metaphor of not the same way, but like veganism or gluten-free or vegetarianism as obliterating people who want to eat meat or eat animal products. If that makes sense.
Emily: For sure.
Jase: It was interesting, you're talking about the teenagers and they're like, "Well, it's an option. We'll see, I don't want to do it now." That's something that we've tried to make one of the cornerstones of our show is just like, "Hey, this is another option. It's just important to know that if you're going to be monogamous, you should do it by choice and not because you think that's the only option you have."
Emily: Being conscious of about it.
Jase: It was also reminding me of my little sister when she was in high school, listened to some of our podcasts and she was like, "Man, I wish it were possible to be polyamorous in my high school in the Midwest." She's like, "But I don't think that it would be." It was funny because the thought that I had was just,"Yes, don't try to do that right now."
Dedeker: Not right now.
Jase: I think that would be really stressful and probably just during a time when dating is already really stressful to add that level.
Emily: When you're already trying to figure out all these things.
Jase: I'd love it if that wasn't the case eventually, where from the age of you first start dating that that is an option, but I did have that thought of like, "That's going to add a lot of stress to your dating life right now, maybe just don't."
Dr. Sheff: Yet where there are queer youth, it is often part of queerness and there are a lot of queer youth, but they tend to be either out in large liberal cities. Like LA, I'm sure has huge queer youth scene.
Dr. Sheff: Some poetry slams to go with it and stuff like. That poetry slam, queer youth, skater punk group, they're not monogamous too.
Dr. Sheff: In terms of a mainstream high school in a small town, probably not safe to be queer youth and probably not safe to be poly youth either.
Dedeker: yes, if that makes sense.
Dedeker: That makes sense. I want to ask a question that was inspired by something that you wrote on Psychology Today pretty recently. I want to talk about specifically media portrayals of poly families. We're on the tail end of our tour, and our show on tour is all about representations of polyamory and non-monogamy in fictional media like in TV and movies, commercials, things like that.
As a company, we are constantly hounded by producers. Either producers of reality shows, or news segments, or documentaries, or whatever, who are always trying to be like, "Can you put us in touch with poly families, or throuples, or people who are cohabiting?" I know that you are too, because-
Jase: That's what you do.
Dedeker: -that's just what you do.
Dr. Sheff: It’s the same story. Yes, absolutely.
Dedeker: I guess my question is, the way that we've responded to these emails has evolved over the years, and I wanted to hear from you like, do you think that this is something that we should be encouraging for the sake of representation and lessening stigma, or do you think we really just got to let these people have their own freaking privacy? I know that we've gone back and forth on either trying to really help people find good healthy examples of cohabitating poly or people raising children.
Then sometimes, we've gone down to just the shutdown of, "You're not going to find this because people are not going to want to talk to you. I wanted to know what your take is on that these days.
Dr. Sheff: I think poly families are super gun-shy of appearing on TV for very good reason. The precedent was set with April Divibiss in the 1990s, the late '90s.
Jase: it was that MTV show, right?
Dr. Sheff: Yes, she was on Real Sex or Real Life or real something.
Emily: Not Real World? It was something else?
Dedeker: More documentarian, a little bit.
Dr. Sheff: With her two male partners and lost custody as a result of that and people have been hesitant to go on TV with their kids since then. I think for good reason I have multiple times suggested to producers that if they are serious, they want these families to take this risk for them, then they should set up a legal defense fund for their family.
Emily: That's great, yeah.
Dr. Sheff: If you really put your money where your mouth is, and they always say, "Oh, no, no, we couldn't do that. That's not even legally-- We can't advocate on behalf of this." Then I'm like, "Well, I can't help you." I also used to respond with like, "Oh, let me see, I'll put out a call." I'll see and I don't even put the calls out anymore, no one ever responds to them.
Jase: That's what we found is just no one wants to do it.
Dedeker: No one responds, but that makes so much sense to have that.
Dr. Sheff: I’m not gonna waste my time.
Dedeker: It makes so much sense to at least say that just so that at least people learn, "Oh, there's actually a potential impact and risk here and maybe that changes the way that we're going to approach people in the future," or something like that.
Emily: I feel there's this idea that everybody just wants to be on television, and therefore they want to just share their story, go out there, and get their 15 minutes of fame. I think what these producers don't necessarily understand is that these are people's lives and their day-to-day existence, and that that could have really impactful awful ramifications if somebody took it the wrong way.
Jase: I found even--
Dr. Sheff: Not even just custody, but sometimes for the kid at school. This one parent when I was asking around to try to get people to go on one of these shows, this parent said, "My kid is already kind of a geeky awkward child. At 13 or whatever, to put them on national television, as their parents-- or not even put them on, just put their parents on, people will recognize us. Do we really want to make his school life any harder than it is?"
Jase: School life already sucks.
Dr. Sheff: Totally.
Emily: Middle school blows.
Dr. Sheff: When you're a geeky 13-year-old, and what 13-year-old is not geeky?
Dr. Sheff: It comes with the territory.
Jase: I have seen though the other side of this. I was just reading an article recently that came out in some-- I forget what it was, a Canadian press outlet where they did a story, this was just written, not like a TV news thing. They were talking about different sorts of polyamorous relationships. In reading it, I just found myself being like, "Ugh." These people are either brand new at this or don't really know what they're doing, but decided they wanted to have their picture taken and be part of this article.
I've noticed that a lot, of things that I'll read and quotes that I see that have pictures of this throuple all living together and showing these pictures together. Just like the things that they say and the ways they express about how they're doing it, it's just so clear to me that it's like, "You're not really a part of the poly community yet. I can tell that you're new at this."
We probably said a lot of the same sorts of things, but it all comes off very trite or somewhat combative against monogamy. All the stuff that you see with people when they first get excited about it.
Emily: They think all of a sudden, they're so enlightened.
Jase: Or something, right? It's all about how important their one-penis policy is in their relationship, or that it's this, "We just immediately went into this polyfidelitous triad and never thought I'd be into it before." These sorts of setups where I'm just like, "Yes, okay, let me know in a year how that's still going." That's the thing is that the people who are more in it are more like, "I don't want to rock the boat on this. I don't want to do this."
Also the media is like, "Well, you're less interesting because there's less drama here."
Dedeker: Because it's stable, exactly.
Emily: Yes, exactly.
Jase: It is just this tricky thing.
Dr. Sheff: Maybe you're round or you have gray hair. The media wants young, super slender, attractive people. The reality of most people is-- obviously not you three, you are far more attractive than the average I would say, the three of you certainly, but the more mundane people just don't look that good on TV. They want young, attractive people having dramatic, explosive interactions.
Dedeker: That makes sense. That is the other side of this though is that the people that I do know, that are cohabiting, or that are raising children and that are stable, I also know, I'm like, "That's just not good TV." I think we try to tell people that now-
Dr. Sheff: Folding laundry, having a glass of wine, folding the laundry.
Dedeker: It's gotten to this point when people reach out and they're like, "We want to find throuples living together, people raising kids," that I'm kind of like, "It would be so ridiculous if someone reached out and said, 'We want to find a gay couple raising kids and come into their home and interview them-
Emily: See what they're like in the wild.
Dedeker: -and see how they live.'" I don't know, maybe--
Dr. Sheff: What's your furniture like?
Dedeker: Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, maybe somebody would have done that kind of project. Now, it's like we're like, "What? That's ridiculous. They're going to be sending text messages and picking the kids up from school." That's what it's going to be like. I feel like the media hasn't quite gotten that message quite yet. I guess there's just enough people with enough drama to keep this low drip going, I don't know. That's just a theory.
Dr. Sheff: What's the average poly family up to? Dishes, baths, homework, laundry, bed.
Dedeker: All the same. Probably too tired for sex.
Dr. Sheff: Right.
Emily: Talking about far too much.
Dr. Sheff: Watching a rerun of Scandal and going to bed.
Jase: As far as families go, this is actually something that comes up a lot, too. When media outlets will reach out to us, they're always looking for what they think of as polyamorous people which is usually a triad living together. I know that in your studies, it's about poly families. Often when people come to us with that, one of our answers is, "Okay, I understand that's what you're looking for, but just so you know, most polyamory doesn't look like that."
The vast majority of people are intersecting dyads that form a network, but each relationship is almost always two people. It's very rare to find those triads and it's especially rare to find ones that last. I was curious to hear from you because I think when people hear, "Oh she researches poly families," their images is like, "It's all these triads with kids."
Emily: Triad, triad, triad, yes.
Jase: Is that true? Is that representative of who's in your study? Who are the actual poly families out there or did they look a little different than that?
Dr. Sheff: I can think of several co-residential triads with children, but a lot of them-- I would say more are either single parents or who are divorced. It used to be I had more couples with kids dating the others. Several of those big deal couple relationships have divorced which sent ripples through their local poly communities. One quad lost a member and is a triad now.
There have also been several long-term triads that have lasted. I would say there's been lots of shifting, which is actually characteristic. If you look at people's family lives over 20 years, people sometimes die, they get divorced, they get remarried, they stay together, they have kids, the kids leave, they have other things happen, the kids come back. A parent moves in. It is characteristic of families to change across time.
The fact that these poly families are also changing across time is really not that shocking.
Dr. Sheff: I would say there's no single form of the poly family. I can think of a quad that is one of the strongest most together families in this study and people are all about, "Quads are too unstable, quads never make it, quads never last." One of the people in the quad told me one time that, "All you have to do is tell him not to do something and he is by God going to do it."
Dr. Sheff: All you've got to do is tell him his quad's not going to last and by God that quad is going strong, they're like 15 years or something now. I would have to ask them again. They're plowing along.
Dedeker: That's the thing, even myself who's been in this community for so many years now, I'm always blown away by how many different ways that people do it. Every time I think I've seen every possible way to do it, then I go to some other meetup in another town and I'm like, "Wow, that's a whole new way of negotiating this. That's a whole new way of negotiating child rearing, or cohabiting, or just dating, or sex, or whatever."
Which I think is wonderful and beautiful. I think that is the thing, is that as a public, we so try to attach to like, "I need one image, I need one image so that I can understand this," when it's like, "No man, we're human beings."
Dr. Sheff: Make it hold still.
Dedeker: Exactly. Just hold still.
Dr. Sheff: Make it hold still in one little box.
Dedeker: Right. When it's like, "No, we're human beings and we do shift and adapt and change, we're so different. Then of course, our relationship structures are going to reflect that as well."
Emily: Yes, for sure.
Jase: I feel like that would be a really interesting story in the media, if they could accept that changing their mind about what the story is they're going to tell about polyamory, is like, "Well, look at how these relationships can change and people can stay in each other's lives in different ways and have different connections to each other. That not everyone has to have sex with each other to be important to each other."
That I think would be a really interesting story, but they just don't know that that story is there to tell or they're just afraid no one cares about that story. I actually think it would be a really cool one.
Dr. Sheff: I tell them that story and they're like, "We'll get back to you."
Jase: We do the same thing.
Dedeker: Yes, we do the same thing because we're not like a perfect little triad that lives together and has a podcast. We have this weird history that's shifted and changed, there's other partners who are not involved with the podcast, that everything moves and changes and shifts. It's the same thing, it's like, "We'll get back to you."
Dr. Sheff: Right, totally.
Dedeker: We reel them in though because we look like we could be the perfect little triad.
Dedeker: It gets them knocking on the door.
Emily: It's a male with two bitches on his arms.
Dr. Sheff: Well, it's because you are so attractive, all three of you. I bet they see you and they're like, "Score."
Dedeker: They're like, "Oh, yes, jackpot." Then-
Emily: Little do they know.
Dr. Sheff: Than, you know, the average mere mortal poly person.
Dr. Sheff: You three are like 11 on... if this was “This is Spinal Tap,” you would be.
Dedeker: Oh shucks.
Jase: Oh, okay.
Dr. Sheff: No, it's true.
Dedeker: Let's move it, let's move it along.
Emily: For sure. Something that you do in addition to all of your research is that you're an expert witness. We've actually been getting a lot of legal questions recently that we're not exactly fit to answer. Have you specifically seen how polyamory fits into a legal framework? By that I mean, are you seeing trends? Are you seeing any precedents being set, or anything like evolving and changing in regards to the rights that people have?
How families can be protected, or securing parenting rights, anything along those lines?
Dr. Sheff: Actually, I see a lot of movement on that line. First, I need to say that I'm not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. I am a sociologist, and this is exactly what you said. You identified as trends in what's happening. What I see is a significant shifting on the legal level of allowing three legal parents. That is a very big deal, and that's happening in California and in New York.
Right now, there have been significant decisions in both of those states around that. I see that just continuing, trickling in from each coast, trickling down the coast and probably stopping before it reaches me. I'm in Tennessee, so I don't know about-- Certainly, spreading across the north. I totally see this happening in Chicago, for instance. It's totally going to happen.
I don't know if there's a case in Chicago, but that kind of place will absolutely be facing this within the next five years or sooner. In part, not only because of polyamorous families, but with assisted reproduction, you can have three or more people who are biological parents. The laws have just got to shift to accommodate this, and they are. I see that is going more and more, absolutely.
I think other laws that are slowly starting to budge and might be shifting much more so in the future, at least I hope, are laws around discrimination. Right now, the primary forms of discrimination that affect polyamorous people are housing discriminating and employment discrimination. You can be-- If you have too many unrelated people living in a domicile, and that means usually three or more, but not servants.
It's fine if they're your servants. You can have as many unrelated servants as you want, you just can't live there without--
Jase: I did not know that caveat.
Dedeker: Hang on, I have a question about that.
Emily: Is that just a Tennessee thing?
Dedeker: Is there verbiage around it being servants?
Dr. Sheff: Is it selectively enforced? That's a good question. I think that there is an exemption specifically, but you know who has worked on that is-- I've just got to give a shout out to them because they're freaking awesome, the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance has worked on this housing discrimination issue, and they have pointed out that it's only discriminating against poorer people who are more likely to share housing.
Dr. Sheff: Because rich people can have as many servants living with them as they want in the servants quarters. It's only people who are not servants that they apply this against. That's what the Woodhull brief pointed out.
Dedeker: That just blows my mind. It just blows my mind that we're still having this conversation in 2018 about servants doing okay.
Emily: A lot of things in 2018 blow my mind.
Dedeker: Oh gosh, jeez. I just had to say that.
Dr. Sheff: It's not everywhere. These are municipal laws that are often selectively enforced against people the neighborhood wants to get rid of, so often targeting immigrants, for instance, or prohibiting immigrants at all, targeting fraternities and sororities. Again, just as society is shifting and more and more people are having three parents or whatever, there's this housing crisis of affordable housing in the US and all over the world, where a lot of people, even adults have roommates.
It's really very common for adults in their 30s and 40s and 50s to have roommates now in a way that that was a much more juvenile thing; before, by the time you were 50. Maybe you had a bachelor pad, but you lived on your own. I know so many people who cannot afford, if they own a home, they can't afford to pay the mortgage without renters living there.
If they don't own a home, they're renting a bedroom in a house or an apartment where other people live, too. That's just the reality, the economic reality. That's too many people to evict. The laws have got to change to support society as it is, unless that's not why we have laws and policies. If we want our laws and policies to harass people and make poor people's lives difficult, then we should absolutely keep those housing laws as they are.
If we want our laws and policies to facilitate society as it is, then we've got some catching up to do, quick.
Dedeker: Yes, that's an interesting conversation to have, of if we're having laws to maintain a status quo versus having laws to actually respond to and protect people as they are. This starts to get away from specifically cohabiting polyamorous people. I've always felt that our generation, in particular, since fewer of us are marrying, fewer of us are having kids, by the time we are in our 50s and 60s, I feel like a lot more people will be in that situation of living together with roommates, or living in a more intentional community.
That's where people are going to get their community needs fulfilled, and their care fulfilled when they don't have their adult children to rely on, as though that's a foolproof plan anyway. I always look into the future and feel like we are going to have to catch up in how we enforce these laws and policies just because of the way trends are going. That we're not all going to have the lives that our grandparents had in retirement.
We're not all going to be able to afford a house and a lawn, or a retirement home, or whatever.
Emily: Or retire at all.
Dedeker: Or retire at all for quite a long time. That's another factor.
Dr. Sheff: The second area where probably people are experiencing discrimination, and this one can be super brief. I won't go on such details.
Jase: No, that's fine.
Emily: Oh, no go for it.
Dedeker: Oh, sure. Go ahead. We've got the time.
Dr. Sheff: Is employment. People are definitely getting fired for even just talking about polyamory at work. Others are interpreting that as sexual harassment in a way that talking about your monogamously married husband or wife, the people I've spoken to in these cases are talking just on that same level like “I took my partners to this barbecue,” and it's a story about the barbecue and not kinky sex at the barbecue which didn't happen.
It's like water cooler not-- It's PG. They're still getting accused just because they said the word polyamory as a concept, the co-worker felt sexually harassed, so this person was fired.
Dedeker: Interesting. I just want to ask because we recently-- we had a lawyer on our show who specializes in family law and works with the polyamorous community and things like that. We talked to him a lot about employment discrimination and employment rights. His stance was, "Yes, it happens, but at the same time, we don't see a lot of people getting fired if they have an affair or whatever."
Dr. Sheff: Exactly.
Dedeker: Maybe we need to be not as worried about it, but then at the same time, all three of us individually have personal lived experiences of experiencing either discrimination or being let go for a job, or being passed for a job, or creating at least some kind of really awkward workplace tension because of that. I'm curious of what is it that you've seen in your studies regarding this specifically?
I know you just told the whole barbecue story, but is there anything comparable to that?
Dr. Sheff: Right. That person was more contacting me as a legal client rather than a member of my studies,so I blended that information.
Dedeker: In your professional experience, I guess, not just the studies.
Dr. Sheff: Yes, that it's people often who will be-- it's either co-workers who get uptight about it and have a vendetta and get that person fired because the co-worker is like, "No, not only do I not want to be polyamorous, but I don't want anybody else to be polyamorous, and I'm going to make your life hard because you are." There are sometimes-- I'm blanking on the word, morality clauses in employment contracts.
Which again, are very selectively enforced, very selectively. People in corporate America do some crazy shit, and we're worried about having two partners consensually? Really? Okay. Like that's hurting.
Emily: You're like, "Have you watched the news recently?"
Dr. Sheff: Exactly.
Dedeker: Stop it, you're such a fucking hypocrite.
Emily: I had to renegotiate the morality clause in my publishing contract with my agents. Because, again, it was that same thing of where we just had to be very specific in that clause of what counts as an immoral thing as far as what the author does with her life versus what are the values of the company. We just had to really reword that section a billion times to make sure that there was nothing that could come up.
Dr. Sheff: Come back to you. So exhausting and unnecessary.
Jase: I feel very fortunate now that I'm at a company where that's not a concern for me. I can be out at work and talk with people about it. I try not to bring it up too much, unless someone asked me about it or if I mention the podcast. In the example of the time where I was passed up for a job was not because then the owners cared at all but because a guy who worked there was upset about it and made a stink about it. This was the job where you are, what's his name? We won't say his name on the show.
He got really upset about the fact that I was polyamorous with Emily and made such a stink about it that I just heard the calls from the owners as we were ready to start me working there just stopped. It reminded me of something that we talked about a lot on this show that I believe comes from you, which is the phrase, "Fear of the polyamorous possibility." I love that phrasing. It's brilliant, which is why we mentioned it so often but it is that.
That's where we're getting to something and I'd like to hear your opinions on this as well but that idea that if someone cheats on their spouse, it's like, you suck or you made a mistake, either by getting caught or by doing it, depending on your point of view. Whereas with polyamory there is that thing of people can be so personally upset by you doing polyamory.
Because it raises questions in their mind about how they live their lives. It's like the thought that there could be another way to do it is too threatening to all the sacrifices I've made in my life. To live it the only way I think it's possible to live it, that's why I'm so angry. That's why I'm so upset and that's why I need you to get fired. I must have to come up with some way to show that you're immoral or that you're somehow doing something wrong here or sexually harassing me. I was just curious, does that seem in line with what you were seeing when you
Dr. Sheff: Absolutely. It's often people who have issues around infidelity that react so strongly, either in their families of origin one of their parents cheated on the other and that made family life incredibly painful or they were in on this terrible secret. Everyone knew and mom was humiliated or the family got divorced and dad, that asshole we hate him now. They are cheating and they don't want their partner to get ideas about also having other partners. They want the option themselves but not to extend it to their partners. They've been cheated on and they're like, "No, this is wrong. People who want multiple partners are just bad people. We should do something about those bad people."
That's the part, I understand the feeling of not wanting to be polyamorous yourself, I absolutely get that. Polyamory is not for everyone. In fact, it's probably not for the majority of people. I am not at all invested in everyone being polyamory. Certainly not key in polyamorous.
Emily: Just to clarify for anybody who's out there.
Dr. Sheff: That's the thing, do you? My own life is so exhausting. I cannot imagine trying to tell someone else what kind of sex they could have. I want to get my bathroom clean first before I start battling with other people's sex lives. I really don't understand, some people put so much time and effort and focus and energy into that and it just seems mystifying to me. I truly, on a deep level, do not get it at all why they put that much effort.
Dr. Sheff: Not wanting it themselves, sure. Making sure you don't get a job. Really? Come on.
Emily: We're going to take a quick break to tell you about all the best ways that you can support this show. If you've been listening for a while or maybe not a while, we recently on tour met some people who were like, "I started listening to you yesterday and I came to your show-
Dedeker: I listened to 30 episodes already.
Emily: - there was like 12 hours of you." I'm like, "Why?" That's cool. Anyway, if you're one of those people and you get value out of the show, the best way that you can support us and help to make sure that this show keeps going is to support us on Patreon. If you go to patreon.com/multiamory, you can become one of our Patreon supporters or one of our patros, as we love to call them. We have a variety of incentives for each level. You can donate as little as $1 a month, 25 cents of podcast, that's totally fine. You can upgrade to a buck 25 a podcast, at $5 a month and become part of our private Patreon only Facebook group, which has been a fantastic discussion group for people to reach out with their problems.
If they're having a rough day or if they just want to process something that just happened in their life with their relationships. It's a really nice supportive community that's there. If you pledge at $7 a month, you get access to that including episodes that come out for you a day early and they're also ad free. At $9 a month, you get access to our private video discussion group that happens once a month, which is also great. At $15 a month you get all that and we love you and you get a thank you video and your best friend. What's not to lose? Go to patreon.com/multiamory to sign up today.
Jase: The next thing that you can do, if you already are a patron or if you just don't have the money to spend or don't want to do that yet, we would love it if you could take a moment to write us a review on iTunes or on Stitcher. It honestly, does help us a lot. We ask for it on every episode because it is really huge for us. We don't get a ton of word of mouth because not everyone's out about being polyamorous.
Writing a review really helps those people who just want these resources and aren't sure where to go, aren't sure where to turn for information about relationships that don't look like the stuff Dr. Drew talks about. By writing a review you help people to find that help them to know what they're getting help us to show up higher in search results. You're also wonderful and also our best friend. Really win-win all around.
Emily: All the best friends.
Dedeker: We wanted to give a shout out to the wonderful people at Whimsy protocol. We met them at Southwest love fest. They are Tucson natives, which is where I'm from. They hold a special place in my heart, especially. I also purchased one of their bags when we were there. I threw up a picture of it on Instagram because I love it so much. These are awesome people. They are queer and polyamorous and they hand make beautiful leather goods, leather bags and wallets. They can do custom things for you. You can find them at etsy.com. Also, if you search their Twitter, Whimsy Protocol and also Instagram Whimsy Protocol, you will find them.
Jase: Just in the time that I've spent with Emily, I've seen her get so many compliments on this bag and it's a matching wallet that goes with it. Just random people being like, oh my gosh, I just noticed that your bag and your wallet match each other. My gosh, they're so cool. It's really awesome stuff.
Emily: They do a lot of stuff with custom stitching, with the Gay Pride colors on the bi-pride colors. They definitely tried to put out a line of stuff that is very indicative of their pro-queer, pro-poly, pro-alternative sexuality.
Jase: I'm also partial, because they did mention that they actually use stuff they get from our podcast to run their business.
Dr. Sheff: How cool.
Jase: Because the stuff you talked about for relationships applies to any relationship including our business relationship with each other. Which is really really cool.
Emily: If you're in need of a new bag that's super awesome and custom it go to Whimsy Protocol on Etsy or find specific pictures of their work on their Instagram or their Twitter and definitely get one of their amazing bags. Now back to you Eli.
Jase: To go back to your study a little bit. I was just curious, in this fourth wave now, you've been doing this fourth wave for a couple years already. I was just curious because I'm sure a book is going to come out in the near future that's going to include all of this.
Dedeker: Another bug.
Jase: Your last two books have been these really great insights into the way poly families work and the reality of that. I actually I did want to say real quick, I recommend When Someone You love Is Polyamorous to everybody.
Dr. Sheff: I'm so glad to hear that.
Jase: It doesn't get talked about a lot but I freaking love that book because it's just so short, sums it up in this really non-threatening way.
Emily: So efficient, that's just the fact that it's so short. Obviously, I wrote a really long book. It's not like I hate long books or anything that.
Emily: It's just that that is so accessible to so many people.
Dr. Sheff: Great, I'm glad to hear that.
Jase: My question, sorry, I got off track there. My question was about, can you give us a sneak preview of anything that you've been seeing in this wave of collecting data that will probably read more about in your book when that comes out?
Dr. Sheff: Let's see. A highlight from the kids is this emotional resilience they feel like they develop that when they move out from home. If they move to go away to college, they feel like they have the personal and emotional skills to develop a network of intimates, redevelop a support network wherever they go. Sometimes, they see their peers, for instance, living in the dorms with just no clue how to self regulate, how to make friends, how to develop intimacy with new people, emotional support.
How to even regulate the way they spend money or do laundry or eat food. The kids from poly families, even though they've had a lot of adults attention over their lives. It hasn't been that much helicopter parenting. It's been much more like we communicate, we tell each other the truth and there are consequences for your actions. If I tell you 11-year-old, 12-year-old that I think you should bring a coat because it's going to get cold today and you don't bring a coat then it turns out you're cold. Who knew? They're not the parents who sneak the coat and carry it for the kid and pull it out when the kid is cold.
They're like, yes, you're cold, who knew? By the time they're 18 they're like, "If I spend every cent I have by the fifth of the month, then I'm not going to eat for 25 days. That's a bummer. Maybe I'll still have or maybe I'll get this and buy 12 cases of Top Ramen as an investment. I'll know I will can always fall back on that." They're more practical, in a way from not having had helicopter parents, I really think.
Emily: The trend of there being less helicoptering with the parenting, do you think that's a result of the child raising labor being split among more parents possibly? I'm just shooting in the dark here. I've no idea.
Jase: I've had that same thought.
Dedeker: It seems like it, yes.
Dr. Sheff: There's that that also the adults are interacting a lot. The kids are around, but they're not necessarily the sole focus but the family and often, it's not like the parents have to use the kids to avoid each other because if they're dating. They're going out and doing things where there's much less avoidance in a family where you can talk about things. It's okay to ask questions and talk about things and bring things up. You don't get in trouble for that. The parents can be more comfortable around each other. It's also a function of wanting private time sometimes from the kids and saying, "Okay, kids."
I've had multiple children report that they look back very fondly on when their parents metamour would come over their girlfriend or boyfriend and bring their kids because the adults would disappear behind closed doors. Before they went, they would be like, "Here are 12 frozen pizzas, six chocolate bars. Here's all the remotes. You can have unlimited screen time. Do not bother us for five hours unless someone's on fire someone is bleeding, hold the limb up and press." They're like, "We have things to do, we have orgasms to have and we want to go do them somewhere else without you bothering us." Get the run of their living room or the basement or something and we are going to go have adult time.
Dedeker: That's great.
Emily: That's a good segue into something that I wanted to ask because I get a number of clients who come to me, people who have children, either with their current partner that they're living with or maybe with an ex-partner. Usually, the children don't know that mom or dad or dating or getting into polyamory or some kind of open relationship and everyone's very very stressed about how do they tell their children? Do they tell their children? Should they tell their children but most importantly, how?
I know that at Southwest Love Fest, your presentation, you talked about children having different reactions to their parents' behavior depending on their age. I would love if you don't mind, briefly, going through that and what you saw.
Dr. Sheff: Very small children definitely do not need to know. They do not understand sex. They don't really get what adults do after they go to bed at 8:00 PM. The adults can get up to all sorts of stuff that no two-year-old needs to know about or could understand. Five and six-year-olds often really do not understand that. It can take well into teens before kids start putting that thing together. Let them be small children.
Jase: Before that, it's the world revolves around me and if you're not doing something for me, then I don't care.
Dr. Sheff: "Do you have ice cream? Will you sit on the floor and play Lego? Can I dress you up? Can I smear makeup on your face? Kissing stuff I don't want to hear about." That's how kids think about it is the kissing thing and they're like, "That's gross." I would say for many parents in my research, a lot of them who've had children born into a polyamorous family, just wait for the kid to notice the family is different and say, "What's up with this?" Unless it comes up naturally and then sure, yes, go ahead and explain it giving age-appropriate and limited information.
Most kids don't want to hear about sex. Young tweens and teens want to hear that their parents are hanging out. That's the language to use and don't elaborate but you can tell small children that this is your friend, maybe even a special friend. Possibly a kissing friend and leave it at that.
Jase: Unless our friend too is my kissing friend.
Dedeker: This is my kissing friend, Dedeker.
Dr. Sheff: The important thing when you're talking to kids about polyamory is just to be matter of fact about it. Not make it into a huge big deal. Like, "I have something to tell you." It's more like, "I just want you to know your dad and I see other people and we both know about it. It's not a secret. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask us. There's no secret. We're not hiding anything from each other and you don't have to feel like something weird is happening. If you have questions, go ahead and ask us and otherwise ball's in your court. Here's the minimal of information and I will respond to more if you want."
Emily: It reminds me, actually, of another question that I think I get pretty frequently from people who have kids. A lot of people always ask, "When is the right time to introduce a new partner to my child? When is too soon? When is too late? It's going to be weird that I have this five-year relationship that my kids never known about. Is six months too soon Maybe this person is not going to stick around or not." Do you have any insight about that?
Dr. Sheff: I would say when do you introduce other people just in your social environment? Treat the partner like you treat other people because it's not that important to the kid who you're having sex with. They'd rather not know than if this is someone you would just have over for dinner and game night or go see a drive-in with. Introduce them like that. Like, "Our friend's coming to the drive-in. Our friend's coming over for dinner, they're going to come play games with us. We're all going bowling together." You don't have to put a big label on it. They could just be part of the natural social environments. It also puts a lot less stress on them having things go well with the kid.
Because talk about the stress with a polyamorous partner coming into like, "Is this 14-year-old going to like me?" 14-year-olds don't like anyone. They're not going to like you. Maybe you'll be their awesome bowling buddy that they can finally three years later say, "I don't want talk to dad about this, but condoms give me this weird rash and I don't know what to do about it. Help.” You'll be that pal who you've known for three years since the bowling alley.
Dedeker: Be relationship anarchist about it.
Jase: I just feel like, so much polyamory advice comes down to what would you do with friends or coworkers or other relationships? Why do we have to hold relationships with people that we have the potential to have sex with, in this whole other category? Because I do love that too because people say, “I don't want to introduce them to my kids because what if they don't stick around or it doesn't last?” It's like, you wouldn't think that about, "A coworker came over for dinner, what if my kid never sees them again after this? They're going to think--
Jase: It’s just, we treat it so differently because we're so wired into this idea of dating is for the purpose of getting married, and that's it.
Emily: Becoming a co-parent in some way.
Dedeker: You're about to go on a tour. What is that? What is this tour?
Emily: Can you tell us a little bit about it and it is going to be for a long time in a lot of different ways in the country?
Dr. Sheff: It is. I'm doing the practical non-monogamy tour. Generally, in each place I have two series of workshops that I do. One, for just people in the community who have questions about polyamory, kinky sex, non-monogamy and just want information, and the ability to ask questions of an expert and be in a group with other people thinking and talking about the same thing and have a conversation about it. The other set of workshops is for counselors and therapists. They offer continuing education units, certified through AASECT, which is the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists
Lay people or non-therapists, non-counselors can come to those as well. They're not only for therapists, they might really be interesting for other people too. The community workshops don't give any continuing education credits, the ones that are targeted for just people who are interested, how does this affect my life? Not how do I get training to help clients who deal with consensual non-monogamy?
Part of the training for therapists actually is to help them think through any internalized compulsory monogamy they have because research shows that when poly people go to therapists who shame them for being polyamorous or focus only on the polyamory as the problem and can't get past to look at other things that the client is trying to emphasize, that that has a negative outcome for the client, in therapy.
If people can deal with some of their own reactions to polyamory and kinky sex, before they're in front of a client and get some information and think it through, it can really help them be more effective in their therapy, counseling, and good for coaches too relationship with them.
Emily: That's training that's so needed. Especially, you talk about diving into the nuances of what's your own internalized compulsory monogamy thing? I think about the fact that a couple of years back when I was trying to find a therapist, specifically a couples’ therapist, that I found all these people who were like poly-friendly. I found the one therapist who on your website mentioned, “I'm poly friendly for this wide variety of relationship types, relationship anarchist, nonhierarchical polyamory, hierarchical polyamory, monogamish."
I was like, “My goodness. This is the person I'm going to go with because I know this therapist understands that there's all these different ways to do it. There's not going to be some weird agenda about what they think polyamory is or what they think it should be.” I think that and that training that brings such a more expansive conversation to it, other than just like some of your clients might sleep around, and that's okay.
Dr. Sheff: Most especially family therapy programs are not teaching about polyamory. I don't know, where these people would get this education if they're not getting it in their programs. Often, the family therapy programs actively say that any kind of non-monogamy is corrosive to intimacy. As a counselor, you've got to shut that shit down, and here's how to do it. So they’ve been marinated in pro-monogamy as the only right way to have intimacy, and if there's any non-monogamy it's a signal of a problem, but not for some clients. For some clients, non-monogamy is a signal of a problem. Cheating sucks. Especially if you're the one that gets cheated on.
Jase: In this fourth wave of research, who are you looking for now for the study? Are you looking for more participants? What is that? If people are thinking, "My gosh, I would like to be involved with this.”
Dr. Sheff: Right now, I'm focused on if there are more people out there who've been raised by polyamorous families or any form of consensual non-monogamy. If you're older than 10 years old and could have some serious, or even a teenager or a young adult, that would be ideal. That's going to be the rest of this year focusing on that. I'm going to be in Zurich for the winter teaching at the University of Zurich, a class on polyamory.
When I get back, I want to finish up with the data collection on aging people. It would be interesting for me to have very aged people. I've interviewed some elders in the polyamorous community, certainly. A lot of my respondents in my study, the people I've been following over time, they're the very end of the baby boomers and Gen X.
They're not in their 80s. I would be very interested in how polyamory looks in your 80s. They're more like, in their 40s to 60s. They're like, “We're not as interested in sex as we used to be.”
Dr. Sheff: "We're glad that if someone dies, we have each other to hold on to." One thing that struck me about that generation of respondents actually is that that recession in 2008 just tanked a lot of them, and they have not recovered financially. I had one person in this last round of data collection tell me that he was in much better shape financially when he was 20 than he was at 50. He was just turning 50 and freaking out about it.
Like, “I don't have any money. I lost my house. I’m back in this other house, but without-- Getting through those challenging financial periods, metamour make all the difference in multiple cases. Like that guy who was freaking out about turning 50 was only able to get into this other house because his metamour had let him and his wife and their kids live for free in this house for a year and a half. They were able to rebuild their lives, and they were able to go out and get their own place. Without that assistance, they probably would not have been homeless, but they probably would have been in much worse shape.
Emily: That's just a testament to having intimate community which, regardless of your relationship format, is something that it's so important for each of us to bear in mind going into the future.
Jase: For people who want to learn more about your work, they want to find your books, they want to be involved in your studies, they want to learn about your tour, where they can see you, where can they go to find out all that information?
Dr. Sheff: You can check out elisabethsheff.com. My first name is spelled with an S, not a Z, elisabethsheff.com. That's a great place to start. I blog on psychology today. My last name is S-H-E-F-F if you want to search for me there. You can also support the polyamorous family study on Patreon. I'll definitely provide you with the link for that.
Jase: All these will be in our show description.
Dr. Sheff: monogamy tour is where you can look for me there on Squarespace. On Twitter I'm @Dr. Eli Sheff.
Jase: I assume that from your website, they can find all these other things too?
Dr. Sheff: Yes.
Jase: We'll have links to those in the show description for this. If you're listening and you want to do that, check the show notes, find those links, and go support all the awesome work that Dr. Eli Sheff is doing.
Dr. Sheff: Thank you.
Dedeker: Thank you so much.
Emily: Thank you for coming back on our show. We really appreciate it.
Dr. Sheff: Thanks for having me and congratulations on your recent return from your world.
Emily: It was a lot of fun.
Jase: Thank you, it's great.
Emily: That was an amazing interview with Eli. hopefully, in another two years she loved even more things to say. We'll have her back on again.