Dr. Elisabeth Sheff – The Polyamorists Next Door

The Polyamorists Next DoorScientific research about polyamory is still limited. Research including children with polyamorous parents is even scarcer. The Polyamorists Next Door is based on a 15-year qualitative, ethnographic study of people in polyamorous relationships that came to focus increasingly on families with children.

The book contains a very valuable collection of information. Dozens of people have been interviewed and their responses were used to create more general statements about polyamorous relationships. Dr. Sheff refers to many older researches, including that knowledge in her book.

When I read the title and the introduction, I expected a book that would be like a written documentary, with a clear start, plot and end. The Polyamorists Next Door is built up as a PhD-thesis: it reads like a compilation of articles. The book is divided in two parts: Understanding polyamorous relationships and Polyamorous families with children.

In the first part Dr. Sheff puts a great effort into defining non-monogamous relationships. Personally I try to let go of labels. Using a word to describe the different connections I have with people doesn’t add value at all for me. Often it feels like I’m limiting the connection by doing so because of the definition society has given to a word. ‘Friends’ aren’t people you kiss, so it feels I shouldn’t even be feeling the interest of kissing and so I limit these feelings. Even though I don’t like all the labels very much myself, it is interesting to learn about all the definitions I never heard of, like polyfidelity (sexually exclusive multiple partner relationship), polyaffectivity (non-sexual relationships among people in polyamorous relationships), compersion (the joy of seeing one’s partner happily in love with others) or spice (multiple spouses). My favorite is The Unicorn: the unattached bisexual woman who wants to date an existing male/female couple, ideally young, single, eager to move in with the couple, take care for their children, clean their house, be their sex toy and disappear when it is highly inconvenient to explain her presence to the couples’ family or friends. She is called The Unicorn because she is highly wanted but virtually nonexistent.

The second part of the book focuses on children and the influence of their parents’ relationships on their lives. In this part Dr. Sheff discusses the benefits and implications on children, focusing on a few children who very clearly explain how their parents’ choices influenced their life. In general it seems to me that the character of the child is the key factor in how it deals with the – by other kids sometimes perceived as ‘strange’ – home situation. The insecure kids experience difficulties, whereas the children who are self-secure and feel supported by their parents, emphasize on the benefits of poly-families.

I like the book for its content, but it’s not a book that grabs you and takes you along. It took me a bit of an effort to get through. The reason for keeping reading was the eagerness to learn more from all these families. The focus in this book is on families that are ‘nested’, which means that the poly-relationship was long-term and often the spice lived together in one place.

Because of the set-up of the book, topics are examined from one side in one chapter, and from another side in another chapter. The citations are all introduced and examined, creating a lot of repetition of the information. People are introduced by their name (which is not their real name), race, age and profession. The book is easy to understand, dr. Sheff clearly avoids scientific language.

Dr. Sheff identifies herself as not-polyamorous, although she and her (now ex-)husband have had different polyamorous experiences. She interlaces these experiences in the book. Although I find her own experiences delightful to read and it adds value to the book, the way she describes her personal experiences completely differs from how she describes her interviewees and their experiences. She seems to defend the choices she made for not having a polyamorous relationship anymore.

The Polyamorists Next Door contains great value because of the information collected in an extensive research conducted over a long time-frame. It’s a great book when you are looking for information about the what and how of polyamory, and when you are curious about other people’s realization of a non-monogamous relationship, as well as the experiences of kids living in these families. Just don’t expect to read a novel.

You can order this book on Amazon.

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