My 27 year old daughter has recently come out as polyamorous. I’m a fairly open minded Mum but I’ve been her sole parent since she was eight, when I left her emotionally (occasionally physically) abusive and narcissistic father. I’m totally invested in her well being and supporting her choices, so to find out more about this lifestyle I read the books and and joined several of the forums on Facebook. None of it really bothers me, save one thing.
Many of the conversation threads centre on coping with mental illness (social anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar to name a but a few I’ve seen in the past two days). I’ve seen my daughter send *hugs* to people in trouble on some threads and now I’m worried. Is the correlation of mental illness is higher for polyamorous people than for monogamous people? Am I stupid to be worried that my daughter’s polyamorous lifestyle and/or inclination might be because her father was a horrible bully in her early years after which she grew up without a father figure? Is my daughter truly polyamorous or is she mentally ill or unable to commit because of childhood trauma? How can I encourage her to get help?
Dear Ms CAD,
You will be unsurprised to learn I cannot give you a yes or no answer to your questions. Firstly, is there a correlation of mental illness higher for polyamorous people?
Well. There are few studies out there for non-monogamous folk and none–to my knowledge–which flag a correlation between mental illness and those in polyamorous relationships, or self identifying as polyamorous. However, polyamory does espouse direct honesty as a principle, so you might find that those practising polyamory are more likely to speak about their mental state of health. Polyamory also provides many more relationship mirrors. These highlight insecurities which may otherwise remain buried, and so as a relationship style it may well have the propensity to better tap into trauma. I see this as a good thing, because without exposing those insecurities, we are unable to develop. And the majority of us have a great deal of development to do in one way or another. My advice? Stop worrying about correlations and let’s look at your specifics.
In therapeutic terms, there’s a concept called object constancy. Lack of object constancy occurs in adults as a result of not forming ‘secure’ attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood. The lack of continuity or constancy in the caregiver, means that the child learns that constancy is not a given. NB. Constancy is not only denoted by physical presence of a caregiver, but also in a lack of constancy in emotional reaction. In fact for those who experience inconsistent parenting, love simply comes and goes, and therefore it’s better not to get too attached.
Some folk believe that polyamory is a relationship style which accommodates this ‘inability’ commit. However, whilst I am sure some people use like that, many others don’t. Even if your daughter falls into the former camp she is seeking in her own way, to be happy. Life is a journey, and you don’t get to define hers or her destination (whether that’s a ‘committed’ monogamous or polyamorous relationship or something else entirely).
Whilst we’re at it, I would also like to point out that ‘lack of object constancy’, is a fairly common phenomenon because our work driven society does not accommodate a great deal of maternal/parental leave and parents are not perfectly consistent, even when they are around. Moreover, children can develop different attachment patterns to different caregivers.
If the mother reacts in loving ways most of the time, the child will develop an organized and secure attachment with the mother. That same child could develop an organized, insecure and avoidant attachment with the father if the father reacts in rejecting ways to the child’s distress most of the time.
Even though secure attachment is defined as ‘normal’ you will note that the study cited ‘secure attachment’ is present in only 55% of the population. If these figures are extrapolated for the whole, slightly less than half of us will experience attachment patterns with caregivers that are less than secure and this will impact our romantic relationships as adults. You will find plenty of people purporting to be monogamous, who have difficulty in ‘committing’. And plenty of polyamorous people who can commit not only to one person, but to many.
How big a deal is it if your daughter is in the 45%? Society would have you believe that it’s a big one, because long term committed relationships are put on a pedestal. But the statistics show that not many people have a lifetime relationship. They have a life full of ups and downs, good times and bad, just like everyone else.
I put it to you, that you might be less open minded than you think you are (we all like to believe we are open minded because we think that open-minded = good). It’s okay. In fact it’s great that you believe you support your daughter in living her life the way she chooses, not so great that you are silently following her threads in the polyamory groups on Facebook which indicates that you don’t speak to her directly about it. She’s 27 years old, it’s time to let go. If she does have mental health issues as many might over the course of a lifetime, you are only stigmatizing her by under-estimating her capabilities and agency to sort it out herself. And if she does face challenges she doesn’t need you to sort it out, she needs a therapist (and that should be her decision). Be her support, but support her in being an adult.