Parenthood is a little like polyamory, in that it’s a massive challenge and nothing turns out quite the way you thought. Beyond the fundamental differences, both also mean adding people to your family network and integrating differing needs and desires. Above all they both mean more love. I always reassured myself, that this at least, was a good thing. But as anyone who’s traversed the polyamory journey will tell you, the joys might be exponential… but the potential for pain is also.
Does this have consequences for your kids? Of course. There’s a huge debate around whether non-monogamy is an inclination or a choice. For the purposes of this article, it doesn’t matter. Because whatever your opinion, it will be your emotions and actions (stemming from all that extra love and pain) which create stress for your children. And the truth of the matter is that you can be in control of, and responsible for how you experience your emotions. You can also be in control of, and responsible for what you say, what you do and even what you believe about yourself.
Read: Born To Be Polyamorous? Not Me. Link opens in a new tab
It’s easy enough to say you are responsible for your actions - most adults would agree. But being responsible for your emotions? Surely these ‘feelings’ stem up unbidden from our very innards. To respond briefly to this point before moving on with the rest of the article, I’m going to quote ‘diffidentdissident’, a reddit user who wrote something that has since been repeated on a few memes around the internet and which really resonated with me:
My mom was dying. A friend told me “you have your whole life to freak out about this-- don't do it in front of her.” It really helped me to understand that my feelings are not always what's important. It IS possible to delay a freakout, and that skill has served me innumerable times.
Whilst I would disagree with diffidentdissident in respect to the importance of their feelings, this quote shows that not only is it possible to delay a freakout, but that it is possible for someone to modify - at least in the short term - what they are feeling. It’s not about putting a mask on, it’s about choosing to act calm when it’s necessary. And in acting calm, we do actually feel more calm. In more scientific terms, it’s about our pre-frontal cortex modifying what we feel from the top down. Is it possible to reprogram our emotions from the bottom up? Yes; but this is a big piece of work, lifelong even.
The Three Levels of Stress
One of many papers covering the subject and my own particular favourite working paper by a group of Harvard Scientists is called ‘Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain’ (which I'm summarizing below). This led me to examine the environment I was creating for my children simply by being in an open relationship. Open relationships are more prone to generating change. Change equals stress. All change equals stress.
Yet life in general is about change, and is therefore stressful to some degree with or without an open relationship - and so my question became, Was I creating additional stress for my children by having an open relationship? Because, as the working paper surmises: too much stress is impactful for anyone, but especially children whose brains are in the formative stage. But it was also important for me, although scientifically impossible to calculate, to compare with a correct baseline. A stressful environment could also be generated by my being in a monogamous arrangement. Indeed, I know myself. And I would be unhappy, stressed and unlikely to stay for a long period of time in any relationship founded on 'closed' principles.
Without stress, the brain does not develop healthily. Some amount stress is positive. So what can cause stress and when does it turn toxic?
1. Positive Stress
What is positive stress? It’s stress that occurs in every day life. It’s moderate, gradual and short lived. And it’s essential to a healthy development
“Adverse events that provoke positive stress responses tend to be those that a child can learn to control and manage well with the support of caring adults, and which occur against the backdrop of generally safe, warm, and positive relationships.”
2. Tolerable Stress
What is tolerable stress? It’s stress that occurs over a limited period of time and allows for recovery.
“Tolerable stress responses may occur as a result of the death or serious illness of a loved one, a frightening accident, an acrimonious parental separation or divorce, persistent discrimination, or other serious events, but always in the context of ongoing, supportive relationships with adults.”
3. Toxic Stress
What is toxic stress? Toxic stress is strong, frequent and/or chronic activation of the body’s stress management system.
“Stressful events that are chronic, uncontrollable, and/or experienced without children having access to support from caring adults tend to provoke these types of toxic stress responses.”
Imagine a car engine revving 24/7 and you will be able to imagine what the body goes through when it is constantly exposed to stress. Your bodily functions perform more poorly because you must concentrate on surviving. This has a detrimental effect over time for anyone—as the fight or flight mechanism is designed to be a short term response—but especially children and long term exposure to stress will irrevocably alter how they approach life as adults.[Note: A separate but related set studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), has heavily correlated them with health risk behaviours (addiction, obesity and smoking), chronic illness (too many to mention), risky sexual behaviour and deleterious mental health (depression/anxiety, suicidality and more).
Whilst the studies I’ve read do not explicitly mention stress as one of the many probable causes of these illnesses, all adverse childhood experiences are stressful by definition and are therefore part of why they are adverse.]
How Stress Affects the Developing Mind
How we individually express our genes is not predetermined... even if the set we are born with is fixed. The very structure of our brains is inextricably linked to, and altered because of, the influences in our environment. I was born like everyone else, with a blueprint which contained a multitude of different genomes which could be switched on or off by chemicals, according to how I needed best to survive in my particular environment.Born to be polyamorous? Not me
This means our environment makes us read and interpret our blueprints according to what serves us best. Change generates stress which means that the fight, flight or freeze survival mechanisms flood the body and brain with the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones over the long term, will alter the ‘reading’ of our genes propelling us onto a different path than the one we could easily have followed in another environment. Our minds and brains will form differently. An explosion of cortisol and adrenalin experienced due to stress early on in life will entrench certain connections both in your narrative memory and biologically, which is more likely make you prone to anxiety and stress later on in life, even if this also depends on many other variables which might either counteract or enhance it.
Thus I concluded, if my open relationship meant my children had to deal with constant change, drama, or bullying, these adverse experiences would be harmful to them. To my mind there is no question about this. But, it is also this argument is used by many objectors to vilify open relationships as being inherently harmful. Yet it’s not the open relationship that is harmful, it’s the exposure to constant change, emotional upheaval, drama and bullying.
As an adult and a parent, it is within my power to monitor and limit this, especially in regards to young children. There doesn’t have to be anything other than a positive or at most a tolerable stress level for those children who have parents in open relationships and - it goes without saying that - monogamous relationships are prone to just as much drama as open relationships.
But of course parents should be mindful of the potential risks, because change - whether positive or negative - does create stress. And the higher the number of adverse experiences in your child’s life, the more prone they are likely to be to some sort of illness in later life. If you are considering a serious household change—for example, having a partner move in with you—monitor what other changes are occurring in your child’s life; a move, a change in school environment, a new baby.
There can be too many at once so I believe that it is important to try to integrate changes gradually, whilst appreciating that how you teach them to cope with change is also important. Teaching them that it’s okay to be angry, or sad to need downtime and to express this. In my own life, I dated away from home until I was sure that I wanted to take a relationship further. My partner was then introduced as a friend and stayed that way for a year or so, so that we (me, the father and my boyfriend himself) could look at what kind of relationship he had to the children before I mentioned in passing that he was a boyfriend. We showed no romantic affection during that time. I don’t believe romantic affection is intrinsically bad either, simply that it demonstrates a level of seriousness and trust that will be understood by your children and which will also mean a bigger impact if those partners leave. I only committed to the relationship when I had evidence that my two partners would get along with each other, and with the children. Whilst you might not be able to control who you fall in love with (although even this, I believe is possible), you can control your actions. Your first aim should be not to eradicate change, but to minimise the downsides as far as you are able and to try and embrace change, framing it in a positive light.
Read: How Can I Protect my Kid from bullying due to Polyamory? Link opens in a new tab
The Stress of Lying
To lie or not to lie to your children? Small children talk. One day when I picked up my daughter at daycare with my boyfriend, she screamed out (in front of ten other curious parents and teachers) ‘Oh look there’s mummy’s friend who sleeps over.’
We live in a very small village where everyone’s business is everyone’s business. Secrecy would be a dreadful strain on all of us. We are thankfully out, and accepted for being out. We are lucky, I know. Because demanding that you children keep your secrets will create stress in their brains due to cognitive dissonance (where they live two different and conflicting realities). This kind of stress is ongoing and has a high potential to turn toxic. Asking that they must maintain a lie, is in my opinion, unfair and harmful. That burden should be on your shoulders.
If you are in a situation where you cannot be out, then you should consider maintaining your privacy around your relationships even in the home. The more aligned you can make your behaviour inside and outside the home, the easier it will be for your children. Designating your relationships as close non-romantic friends when the kids are around, might be the best course of action. But kids are clever. They’ll figure out soon enough that some friends are closer than others. If you lie to them, they will also start to feel that something is not quite right. So explaining in the simplest terms that you have close friends who sleep over, like they have friends sleep over, might be wisest. When they inevitably realise that the nature of your private relationships remember, privacy does not have to infer shame. Teaching privacy without shame, because it enables us to respect personal boundaries, is in any case a great life lesson whatever your relationship configuration. If you are not ashamed of your relationship, then they won’t pick up on those cues and will have no reason to believe that the way mummy and daddy conduct relationships is simply a little different to the way Cinderella does it.
Acknowledging that open relationships—apart from the most long lasting polyfidelitous configurations—are by definition more prone to change, enables us to examine and mitigate the stress levels this change may generate in our children so that it doesn’t reach toxic levels. It should not be about suppressing ourselves which would in itself cause stress and I believe, show our kids an example of self-suppression that I would never want for them. Instead it’s about teaching them that both short term and long term relationships can be beneficial and that change always brings new opportunities.