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Poly for the Holidays

SDC Dr Eli Sheff Polyamorist Nextdoor Polyamory Family Holidays
SDC Dr Eli Sheff Polyamorist Nextdoor Polyamory Family Holidays
Tips on managing the holidays for poly folks and their non-poly families.

In addition to the usual holiday challenges of cramped air travel and awkward hugs that last too long with handsy Uncle Tony, poly folks and their non-poly families members sometimes must figure out how to navigate the new and uncertain terrain of expansive romantic relationships and chosen family interactions. Keeping the ideas below in mind can help to make holidays more comfortable for everyone, poly and non-poly alike.


For Poly Folks


Save Coming Out for Some Other Time

If you are not yet out to your family about being in a poly relationship, it can most likely wait for a few more weeks or months. Avoid overloading what can be an already stressful season with potentially distracting or inflammatory announcements about sexuality. That is not an absolute rule — if you end up on an after-dinner walk with your favorite cousin, it can be a great time to have a private chat about the loves in your life. In general, however, avoid dropping relationship bombshells at the holiday family feast.

Give your Relatives the Benefit of the Doubt

If your dad has to ask you yet again who this new person is — even though you have been dating them for the past three years and your dad just met for the fourth time at your birthday party a couple of months ago — try to stifle the dramatic sigh and muster up your patience to explain kindly that you are dating this person, and yes, your/their spouse knows about it. Polyamory can be a foreign and confusing concept for many people, and especially for older relatives who may not be familiar with the avalanche of new sexualities and relationship styles spawned since the advent of Internet communications. Unless they are obviously trying to be rude or hurtful, try to cultivate patience and forgiveness for family members who are slow to grasp the true nature of your relationships.

Have an Escape Plan

When the benefit of the doubt has been stretched to its breaking point, and relatives’ thoughtlessness or blatant malice becomes too much, be sure you can get away. Whether it is taking a walk, making a grocery store run for those last few key items, or returning to the sanctuary of a hotel room, be sure that you have some way to take a break from the festivities before things go badly wrong. Leaving a little too early is preferable to staying until alcohol-fueled tempers flare, and people say things they will regret.

Moderate Mood Alteration

Drinking vast quantities of alcohol is a time-honored holiday tradition for many families. If that is true for you and yours, consider maintaining at least a modicum of sobriety at any family event where the poly relationships might become an issue. Not only does alcohol fog your mind so that you might not notice your partner’s desperate look of a silent plea for help when Uncle Tony comes around again for another hug, it loosens your tongue so that you might not respond in the most thoughtful manner to questions or comments from potentially well-meaning but inebriated brethren. Being too drunk to drive can also seriously hamper the escape plan, so including a couple of glasses of water between every alcoholic drink can help keep you in talking and driving shape. As an added bonus, you are much less likely to overeat or feel hungover the next day.


For Families with Poly Loved Ones


Invite the People Important to your Loved Ones

Even if you do not understand why your loved one is in a polyamorous relationship, please consider inviting the people they see as family members to the family holiday event. It can be tremendously painful and difficult for poly family members to be forced to choose between spending the holidays with their chosen family members and their families of origin. Inviting everyone who is family — legal, biological, or chosen — to the party can mean more love for the whole clan.

Include all Partners in the Gift Exchange

If your family exchanges gifts, be sure to get or make all of the partners' gifts as well. Gifts do not need to be lavish or expensive, but having a small gift for each person at the party can help poly partners feel acknowledged and included in the family celebration. If you are not sure what to get the new partner whom you may not have met, ask your loved one for ideas, get a gift card, bake some fresh cookies, or make a donation in their name to a cause close to your or their hearts — everyone from Wikipedia to the Red Cross needs money, probably more than anyone actually needs another cat poster.

Respect Loved Ones’ Choices, even when they Differ from Yours

Polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy are not for everyone. In fact, they may make some people profoundly uncomfortable. Much like some families have agreed to refain from discussing the recent election, if it will create too much rancor at the dinner table, you can decide to simply accept the fact that your loved one(s) have different relationship styles and needs from you and allow them their differences. This can be especially difficult for religious people who might see any form of non-monogamy — even consensual — as immoral. It can also be quite challenging for people who have unresolved issues with infidelity (their own, their spouse’s, or their parent’s or other family members’) to separate their feelings of guilt, hurt, anger, or betrayal rooted in their own lives from their reactions to other family members’ openly conducted non-monogamous relationships. In each case, taking a few deep breaths and refocusing on something less inflammatory can help everyone relax and get through the evening or weekend.

Have Fun

Find something to do together that everyone can enjoy. From watching basketball on TV to playing a pickup game at the park or rekindling that old Scrabble rivalry, take some time to relax and play with family over the holidays. It can help people bond to focus on a shared activity that does not require discussing potentially sensitive topics of who is dating whom and why.


Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff

"Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff is a researcher, expert witness, coach, speaker, and educational consultant. With a PhD in Sociology and certification as a Sexuality Educator from the AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists), Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual minority families, consensual non-monogamy, and kink/BDSM. Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamorous families with children and her 20+ year Polyamorous Family Study is the only longitudinal study of poly families with children to date. Sheff’s first book, The Polyamorists Next Door (2014 hardback and ebook, 2015 paperback and audiobook), details the findings of the first 15 years of her research on polyamorous families with children. Her second book, Stories from the Polycule (2015), is an edited anthology of writings by polyamorous folks. When Someone You Love is Polyamorous (2016) is Sheff’s shortest book that guides family members and significant others who are trying to understand a polyamorous loved one."
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