Help! How do I Transition from a Nuclear to an Open Family?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria,

I’m interested in transitioning from nuclear family to open family. Specifically, in one of your articles you wrote something like “your relationship was missing the conflict that you used to call ‘meaning'” – I’d like that, please!

How does a couple set up for successful (aka nourishing, healthy, drama-free) living that includes ‘dating’ other people, sexual connection with other people. How are healthy agreements made regarding family time vs. friend/other time and what do those agreements look like, and how often should we ‘expect’ them to be re-negotiated?

Hi there,

I once aspired to what they call ‘kitchen table poly’, i.e. where all members of our chosen family could hang out together in laughter and love, only to discover that whilst that was possible with some of our partners, I didn’t get along well enough with others to enter into a kitchen table poly configuration with them. Needless to say, they were not the partners I would have chosen to be my friends.

And yet my partners and I had all agreed beforehand that ideally we would be able to get along with each other well enough to do ‘kitchen table poly’ so that the separation of family vs. friend time wouldn’t be an issue. It was especially important I thought, as we had young children. How naive we were! Nowadays I get along very well with my metamours, but not enough to live in the same house or even mingle with them more than a couple of times a week.

If this sounds harsh, imagine your mother-in-law comes to stay with you a few times a week, and even though you’re close, she has some quirks. After two weeks, they start to get on your nerves. After a month you just want her to give you some space. After 2 months, you start resenting the fact she comes over at all and every single quirk now grates. The bottom line is this.

Your agreements won’t look like other people’s agreements because you aren’t other people.

With polyamory, or intentional families, it’s not even about your friendly mother-in-law. It’s about someone you don’t really know, who you might not really trust (because you don’t know them), and who might not trust you either. Or they hold views which divisively conflict with your own. My lesson for you is this: do not have a idea about what agreements should or should not be made, without realising that they might change and probably will. What you might consider instead are your principles. Specifically this one.

  • You cannot control someone else’s emotions or actions if you intend to support freedom of choice.¬†You can also choose to be aware that there are acts and consequences to your decisions.

For example you can consider that your bedroom is your safe space, but if your partner cannot bring their partner to the bedroom because that makes you feel unsafe, then your partner will necessarily spend more time away from home. It may go against your initial family vs. friends agreement. So you will make another agreement, which is also likely to change and so on.

Why might your partner choose someone you cannot get along with? Because we seek relationships as different mirrors and a relationship with a person who brings out the best in your partner, might not bring out the best in you. They also might make you feel great; you might have a beautifully complementary metamour (and I hope you do). But your partner will evolve into a different person because that’s what happens when we develop different relationships. It doesn’t have to be scary. Getting to know someone on a rolling basis can be a fantastic reminder to make sure that you still have a relationship in the present instead of one which is held together by memories.

So you can start off with all the ideas in the world, but you cannot possibly know or tell what or how your relationship will look once you open it. It may strengthen your bond, give you wings to fly or it may burn you (and yet, with all the burns and the residual scars, I wouldn’t have my life any other way).

What can you do in this case? As far as I’m concerned, only one thing. And that’s to work on your self-esteem. With good self-esteem you can take care of yourself better, and also make evolving agreements which have no intent to control anyone else. How often can you expect them to evolve? Always. Never. And anything in between.

Self-esteem is a tricky beast, because sometimes it is only by feeling what are generally considered ‘negative’ emotions that you know that your self-esteem requires work. Therefore one of the first exercises is to reframe those emotions which may cause you pain–jealousy, insecurity, fear, anger–into something more positive. Which leads to another principle.

  • Pain is only a signal that something requires closer examination. Try to see it as such.

If you, like me, have a young family, your romantic relationship will most likely be entangled with your parenting relationship. You need to detangle those as far as you are able. Agree on your parenting commitments, i.e. those in relation to your children. Children need presence, attention and nurture from both of you. If you have a good extended network, then juggling that precious child-free time might be easier. If you haven’t already, create some flexibility in having friends sleep over or have them sleep over at friends. A time may come when your non-parenting partners can contribute greatly to the lives of your children, but probably not in the beginning. Thus your first thoughts will be about how to manage the parenting relationship, more than how to juggle your individual/joint romantic relationships. After you’ve decided on your parenting commitments (which may also change, but hopefully less because all change is impactful for children’s malleable brains and minds) then you can turn your attention to the time left. But remember.

  • The quality of your relationship is not necessarily defined by the amount of time you spend with each other. Egalitarianism over equality.

As to whether your relationships will be drama-free; well that depends on the quality of your self-esteem and your ability to communicate non-violently. One rule I live by with my children and with my partners is to make honesty as easy and rewarding as possible. I think in the long term. Honesty means a better ability to consent to a relationship.

If your partner constantly breaks agreements, it’s probably because they do not want that agreement even if they’ve verbally signed off on it. If they’ve verbally signed off on it, it might well be because they think you want it, or you will be hurt by a different one (see the pain principle). Be honest with one another.

  • Make honesty your guiding light and as far as you are able, do not blame anyone else for your emotions.
    Honesty is easier when there’s no fear of conflict.

What do you do if your partner breaks their parenting agreements? See it for what it is. Self-interest–or the temporary pursuit of happiness–over the interests of the children. At the end of the day, that’s how many of us work. As long as it doesn’t border on abuse, then it’s okay. Maybe not what you wanted, maybe not what you agreed to, but still okay. You can talk about what you consider to be impactful for the children, but parents come in all different shapes and sizes and we, as consummate survivors, usually cope with those idiosyncrasies.

Good luck,

Louisa

PS. I re-read my response and it comes off as more negative than I intended. Partly I think that this is because I did have those expectations I warn against, so my journey was unnecessarily painful. Yours doesn’t have to be like mine and it won’t be because you’re a different person.

PPS. There’s a great book I can recommend by Nathaniel Branden ‘The Six Pillars of Self Esteem’