ThesisPDF Available

Alternative Family Life in Canada: The lived Experiences of Polyamorous Families in the Fringes of Legality



This thesis represents the first qualitative study of polyamorous life in Canada, focusing on the lived experiences of five polyamorous families. The results showcase how diverse family structures in polyamory can be, with one family comprised of a long- term, stable triad in which two children were raised, a co-parenting family with numerous adults raising three children, and three additional families without children who maintain their own unique structures. Research indicates these families are well-equipped to support the development of their children and by offering multiple adults who can provide care have positive impacts on the participants who reported suffering from mental health issues as well. Concerning legality, participants cited being unable to share medical and social benefits with multiple partners as being their points of greatest concern. The participants largely rejected the idea of advocating for plural marriage, instead favoring the development of entirely new ways of proving legal kinship.
Alternative Family Life in Canada
The lived Experiences of Polyamorous Families in the Fringes of Legality
A Thesis Presented to
The Alice Salomon Hochschule
-University of Applied Sciences-
Alice-Salomon-Platz 5 D-12627 Berlin
In Partial Fulfillment
Of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
“Social Work as a Human Rights Profession”
Charity Smith
September 2018
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The M.A. thesis of Charity Smith is approved:
First Supervisor
Professor Darja Zaviršek
Univerza v Ljubljani
Fakulteta za socialno delo
Second Reader
Hilal Alkan
Alice Salomon Hochschule,
Alice Salomon Hochschule, Berlin
September 2018
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgement ......................................................................................................... i
Abstract .......................................................................................................................... ii
I. Introduction ............................................................................................................... 1
A. Understanding Polyamory ........................................................................................ 2
B. Polyamorous Belief System ...................................................................................... 2
C. Relationship Structure ............................................................................................... 3
D. Identifying as Polyamorous ...................................................................................... 4
E. Benefits of Polyamorous Family Life ....................................................................... 5
F. Children and Polyamory ........................................................................................... 6
G. Marriage and Divorce ............................................................................................... 7
II. Polyamory in Canada .............................................................................................. 8
A. Demographics ........................................................................................................... 8
B. Religion ..................................................................................................................... 9
C. Education and Income ............................................................................................... 9
D. Rights and Responsibilities of Family Members ...................................................... 9
III. Canadian Law ......................................................................................................... 10
A. Marriage In Canada ................................................................................................... 11
B. Canadian Criminal Code ........................................................................................... 12
C. Impacts of National Law on Polyamorous Families ................................................. 12
D. Polyamory and Legal Concerns ................................................................................ 14
E. Overview of Provincial Law in Relation to Polyamory ............................................ 15
IV. Literature Review ................................................................................................... 17
A. Overview of Findings ............................................................................................... 17
B. Polyamory and Gender ............................................................................................. 19
C. Sexuality ................................................................................................................... 20
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D. Stigma ....................................................................................................................... 20
E. Critiques on Polyamorous Literature ........................................................................ 22
V. Theoretical framework ............................................................................................ 23
A. Modern Polyamory’s Roots as a Feminist Critique of Monogamy .......................... 23
B. Polyamory from Queer Theory Perspective ............................................................. 26
C. Critiques of Modern Polyamory ............................................................................... 29
D. Intersectionality – A Potential Blindspot for Modern Polyamorists ......................... 31
VI. Methodology ............................................................................................................ 34
A. Hypothesis................................................................................................................. 34
B. Research Questions ................................................................................................... 34
C. Methods..................................................................................................................... 35!
D. Participant Recruitment ............................................................................................ 35 !
E. Narrative Collection .................................................................................................. 36
F. Analysis of Data – Qualitative Content Analysis ..................................................... 36
G. Ethics ......................................................................................................................... 37
VII. Research Findings ................................................................................................. 37
A. Demographics of Family Participants ........................................................................ 38
B. Gender, Sexuality and Polyamory Identity ................................................................ 38
C. Definitions of Polyamory and Family ........................................................................ 39
D. Ethics .......................................................................................................................... 41
E. Polyamory as an Identity ............................................................................................ 41
F. Benefits to Polyamory ............................................................................................... 42
G. Relationship Structures .............................................................................................. 43
H. Parenting and Children ............................................................................................... 43
I. Polyamory, Care for Disability Individuals and Mental Health Implications ........... 45
J. Emotional Intimacy .................................................................................................... 45
K. Communication .......................................................................................................... 47
L. Boundaries .................................................................................................................. 47
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M. Marriage, Monogamy and Cheating .......................................................................... 48
N. Being Out as Polyamorous ......................................................................................... 49
O. Stigma ........................................................................................................................ 50
P. Privilege ..................................................................................................................... 51
Q. Legal Concerns ........................................................................................................... 52
R. Social Change ............................................................................................................ 53
S. Critiques of Polyamory from Families ....................................................................... 54
VIII. Discussion ............................................................................................................. 55
A. Demographics ............................................................................................................ 55
B. Gender, Sexuality, Polyamory Identity ...................................................................... 56
C. Definitions of Polyamory and Family ........................................................................ 56
D. Polyamory as an Identity ............................................................................................ 57
E. Relationship Structures .............................................................................................. 58
F. Health Benefits to Polyamory ................................................................................... 59
G. Parenting and Children ............................................................................................... 59
H. Marriage, Monogamy and Cheating .......................................................................... 60
I. Stigma and Privilege .................................................................................................. 61
J. Legal Concerns: Implications for Policy .................................................................... 62
K. Social Change: Implications for Social Work ............................................................ 64
L. Study Limitations ....................................................................................................... 65
IX. Summary and Conclusion ...................................................................................... 66
X. References ................................................................................................................. 69
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I would first like to thank my thesis advisor Professor Darja Zaviršek of the Faculty of
Social Work at Univerza v Ljubljani for ongoing support and guidance. I would also like
to thank Hilal Alkan from Alice Salomon Hochschule as the second reader of this thesis,
I am gratefully indebted to her for providing excellent reference material and support
with editing.
A huge debt of gratitude goes to the Windsor Polyamory community and to all the
families who participated in the research interviews, this work is dedicated to you.
Finally, I must express my very profound gratitude to my partner David Briggs for
providing me with unfailing support and continuous encouragement. This would not have
been possible without you. Thank you.
! !
Alternative Family Life in Canada
The lived Experiences of Polyamorous Families in the Fringes of Legality
An Abstract of the thesis by
Charity Smith
This thesis represents the first qualitative study of polyamorous life in Canada,
focusing on the lived experiences of five polyamorous families. The results showcase
how diverse family structures in polyamory can be, with one family comprised of a long-
term, stable triad in which two children were raised, a co-parenting family with numerous
adults raising three children, and three additional families without children who maintain
their own unique structures. Research indicates these families are well-equipped to
support the development of their children and by offering multiple adults who can
provide care have positive impacts on the participants who reported suffering from
mental health issues as well. Concerning legality, participants cited being unable to share
medical and social benefits with multiple partners as being their points of greatest
concern. The participants largely rejected the idea of advocating for plural marriage,
instead favoring the development of entirely new ways of proving legal kinship.
! !
I. Introduction
Modern (Western) notions of monogamous marriage and family have roots in
ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero
all helped to shape the notion of monogamy being the only socially acceptable form of
family. The rapid expansion of Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire further
entrenched the cultural belief that monogamous marriage is the only socially desirable
form of family.
Within Western traditions, monogamous marriage is seen as a natural and
essential institution, providing the foundation of civil society and political authority.
Monogamy is a seen as an agent of social order and furthers cohesion of the state.
Traditionalists argue that monogamy brings essential private goods to the couple (and any
children) in addition to benefiting society and the state at large. To support these beliefs,
traditionalists observe that some forms of non-monogamy such as polygamy can be
harmful to women, children, and society as a whole. It should be noted that
traditionalists don’t make distinctions between different types of non-monogamous
relationships, and assume that the negative effects from polygamy are present in all forms
of non-monogamous relationship. As a result, monogamy is legally protected and
promoted while polygamy is actively criminalized.
The aim of this thesis is to develop a through understanding of the reality of
polyamorous family life in Canada today. The thesis will collect the life narratives of
self-identifying polyamorous families in Canada and undergo an analysis set in the
context of Canadian law. The thesis aims to explore the human rights protections (or lack
thereof) granted to people living in nontraditional family structures, and to further
investigate the implications that changing familial structures have for international human
rights law. Using this analysis, the thesis will conclude with policy recommendations and
a discussion of implications for social work at large to better accommodate nontraditional
families in the future.
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A. Understanding Polyamory
In order to understand the modern polyamory movement in Canada, it is critical to
have an overall understanding of its context including, individual motivations to live the
lifestyle, relationship forms, family dynamics, approaches to child rearing, and issues
polyamorists face. Polyamory is said to be a cultural rebellion, springing form the sexual
revolution of the 1960’s and following in the path of second wave feminism (Patterson,
2018, p. 41). The term polyamory has its roots in Greek polus meaning “much” and Latin
amor meaning “love” (Boyd, 2017a, p. 12). The most basic definition of polyamory is the
practice of consensually negotiated long-term intimate emotional and sexual relationships
between more than two people (Brunning, 2016; Haritaworn et al, 2006; Shannon &
Willis, 2010; Emens, 2004; Schippers, 2016; and Sheff 2015). Polyamory is often
conflated with other forms of unethical nonmonogamy including bigamy and polygamy.
The key differentiator between polyamory and any other type of nonmonogamy is
polyamory’s egalitarian approach to power dynamics. By its very nature, polyamory
critiques the patriarchy, challenges gender norms, rejects the notion of heterosexuality as
a default, de-emphasizes the importance of genetics in determining familial grouping, and
allows for many different relationship formations.
B. Polyamorous Belief System
Polyamorous relationships are based on a practice of radically open and honest
communication driven by a deep level of self-awareness. Emphasis is placed on full
egalitarianism, inclusivity, relational autonomy, informed consent, self-possession, and
promoting love and sex over jealousy (Haritaworn et al, 2006; Emens, 2004; Klesse,
2011; Patterson 2018; Boyd, 2017b). By placing emphasis on self-knowledge, polyamory
challenges individuals to be deeply aware of their desires, needs, wants and boundaries
and creates a space where discussing any of these issues with a partner feels safe and
encouraged. This practice of radical honesty and self-awareness forms a foundation of
trust and intimacy that can then be drawn upon whenever conflict or feelings of jealousy
arise. To lie is inherently harmful in polyamorous relationships because it erodes this
foundation of trust (Emens, 2004, p.44). Consent is an important topic and is vital to
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enable polyamorous people to make informed decisions regarding relationships and
sexual encounters. The importance of consent stems from the belief that individual liberty
and freedom of choice should be valued above conforming to societal norms and
expectations (Emens, 2004,p.41). Self-possession is a concept from feminism that
emphasizes that no person should have ownership over another. Extending this belief to
relationships, polyamorists would argue that individuals should always feel free to pursue
new sexual or emotional relationships even if they are currently partnered. This belief
stands in stark contrast to the established monogamous norm, which promotes the idea
that a partner can demand sexual and emotional fidelity.
C. Relationship Structure
The structural makeup of polyamorous relationships is inherently diverse; any
structure that can be consensually negotiated is possible. Klesse (2011) observes that the
decision to label oneself as polyamorous often occurs when boundaries between
friendship, lover, and partner relationships become blurred (p. 17). Some relationships
have a defined hierarchical structure involving primary, secondary, and tertiary partners,
often forming around cohabitating couples (Brunning, 2016; Shannon & Willis, 2010;
Sheff, 2015). Primary partners tend to resemble spouses in the traditional sense, and they
may seek additional partners together or individually. One commonly seen configuration
is the “Vee” where one person is in a relationship with two other people who have no
additional connection with each other. Another common configuration is a triad where
three people are all equally intertwined, often forming around a married or long term
couple finding a third person to date together, while quads tend to be composed of two
couples (Sheff, 2015; Boyd 2017). Non-hierarchical structures do exist in polyamory
and can present as a form of relationship anarchy. In these types of relationships there is
no core couple and all partners are seen as equal. Solo polyamory prioritizes autonomy
above all, and these individuals do not seek to connect their other partners.
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D. Identifying as Polyamorous
Polyamory is gaining traction globally; in 2015 there were more than 265 publicly
listed polyamory advocacy and social groups across 158 countries (Manley et al, 2015,
p.168). As public awareness of polyamory and nontraditional relationship structures
increases more and more people choose to adopt the lifestyle. Due to its radically
inclusive nature, the reasons for people choosing polyamory are almost as diverse as the
potential relationship structures it provides.
Some individuals who come out as polyamorous have said that they see it as a
lifestyle choice they adopted after careful consideration, while others feel that it is a
natural way of being (Klesse, 2014, p. 90). This idea that inclination towards polyamory
can be innate is supported by Barker who reports that most respondents say polyamory
feels “…natural and real” with only a small number of participants expressing a strong
opinion that it is “…something that you choose” (Barker 2005 p.83). Depending on one’s
perspective, polyamory can be viewed as a natural way of being, an identity, a lifestyle
that has its own social structures and norms.
People identify with polyamory for many reasons; its inclusive nature creates
difficulty in isolating any one reason why individuals choose it. Many are seeking
multiple intimate relationships, having more needs met, more love, more sexual variety,
family expansion, feeling natural, or even an outlet for rebellious self expression (Sheff,
2015; Brunning, 2016). A common thread in many polyamorous communities is a belief
that it is unrealistic for a single individual in a monogamous relationship to meet all of
their needs, and that it is only social pressure and reinforced mono-normativity that
prevents people from finding multiple partners to fulfill unrequited desires. They would
argue that polyamory’s emphasis on radical inclusion makes room for close relationships
to form regardless of sexual connections, allowing people to interact as equals without
being pressured to fit into narrowly defined boxes and socially imposed boundaries
(Brunning, 2016, p.4).
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E. Benefits of Polyamorous Family Life
Family is an important concept in polyamory as it allows for expansion beyond
marital or genetic relationships to include any individuals who share deeply intimate
bonds. Where boundaries between relationships may become blurred resulting in
platonic friends being considered family as readily as sexual partners may become
family. In essence, polyamorous families can be large and interconnected networks of
people which defies the traditional notion of nuclear monogamous connection.
The polyamorous belief in radical honesty permeates throughout the family
structure, and proponents note that this equips parents to be potentially much more open
and honest with children than their monogamous counterparts. Many polyamorous
families believe that such openness and honesty in the family cultivates a deeper sense of
emotional intimacy between all family members. These parents often use age appropriate
boundaries to determine what and how information is shared with children (Sheff, 2015;
Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2006). This in turn creates an environment that practitioners believe
promotes values like sex positivity, inclusiveness, and consent culture for the children
raised within it.
Polyamorous families often have a large pool of shared resources, which in turn
can be divided and shared between family members. Put another way, more adults living
together who all can potentially work in some cases leads to greatly increased financial
security and stability. Take for example a triad or a vee formation where two members
work while another raises children (or pursues other areas of interest like art or
education). If one of the working partners loses their job, they still have one source of
income that can sustain the family while the others look for new work. Another possible
scenario is taking turns with child rearing family members can rotate who is working
and who stays at home or pursues other interests based on mutual agreements. In
summary, many practitioners of polyamory believe that the lifestyle uniquely equips
families to meet the demands of childcare, domestic work, and earning income by sharing
the load between multiple adults, ultimately resulting in greater support both for adults
and children than that which is provided by monogamous family life.
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F. Children and Polyamory
All current research indicates that children growing up in polyamorous
households face no negative effects from being raised with multiple parental figures
when compared to children growing up in monogamous (or serially monogamous)
families (Sheff, 2015). Sheff noted that children growing up in polyamorous families
were especially well-adjusted, self-confident, intelligent and articulate. A small narrative
study conducted by Pallotta-Chiarolli (2006) found like Sheff that children in
polyamorous families received lots of support and self-esteem by having more adults to
relate too.
For some polyamorous families, knowing the biological father of children is of no
interest when all members of the family agree to be equal parents to their offspring. Sheff
(2105) theorizes that this is done as a direct act of rebellion against patriarchy and
monogamous culture, as it is not placing lineage on one father. Children growing up in
polyamorous families or extended networks often see other adults as “…aunts and
uncles” (Sheff, 2015, p.206). Both Sheff and Pallotta-Chiarolli found that young children
have a very self-centered view and only understand adult interaction in terms of shared
experiences they have rather than an abstract concept of parentage. Youth between age
nine and twelve are more aware of their familial structures and the way the adults in the
family interact. Teenagers tended to know and understand their parental relationships
more however, as typical teenagers they were more interested in their own social world
than that of their parents. Of note is that teenagers raised in polyamorous families
frequently question whether or not they themselves are polyamorous (Sheff, 2015,p.186).
In short, children raised in polyamorous families have been shown in these limited
studies to perceive nothing unusual about the way that they are raised, and that they
actively benefit from having more adults in the home to provide additional support,
interaction, and love.
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G. Marriage and Divorce
In her research, Sheff (2015) found that polyamorous people do not want plural
marriage (p.220), but rather to find a means of disentangling social benefits and support
structures from the legacy of patriarchal marriage. In practical terms, they seek to find
protection and clarification for child custody that isn’t dependent on genetic relationships
and for the ability to confer family status to anyone they choose, especially when it
comes to issues like health coverage, hospital visitation, and property rights. In order to
gain access to vital services and protection many polyamorous people will get married
even if they remain intrinsically opposed to the institution (Navarro, 2016, p. 445). This
can result in some polyamorous relationships leaving certain members in precarious
situations, especially when part of the group is forced to marry in order to get a vital
protection while the rest are left without any recourse to prove their connections
(Navarro, 2016, p. 445). Some polyamorous families use marriage and divorce as a
strategic tool to try to ensure social benefits are going to the family members that need it
the most. Just as monogamous relationships sometimes break down to the point that the
State must provide help in determining the division of child custody and property,
polyamorous relationships too can break down, but without any form of legal recognition
there is no recourse to seek legal support in this process
In conclusion individuals choose to be polyamorous for many reasons, valuing
relationships built on radical honesty, communication, and the notion that love is not a
finite resource. Polyamorous families are not wholly unlike monogamous families, and
both have unique strengths and weaknesses. It is crucial to note that polyamorous people
are not seeking plural marriage but rather to find a new way to allocate social benefits
that does not rely on a patriarchal notion of monogamous marriage to gain recognition or
legal status.
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II. Polyamory in Canada
The following section provides an overview of polyamory in Canada based on the
2017 study on The Perceptions of Polyamory in Canada. The aim of this section is to
show the demographics unique to Canada, as the vast majority of extant literature
examined polyamorous life in the United States of America. This section will discuss
demographics, religious background, education, income, polyamorous relationship
structures, and legal actions families have taken to protect themselves. This sets the
context and backdrop for the following chapters, which discuss the author’s own
narrative study completed with polyamorous families in Canada.
Nationally the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA) is the main
body for advocacy and the advancement of polyamory issues in Canada. The exact
number of Canadians who are polyamorous is unknown, however Boyd (2017a)
estimates almost 72,000 Canadians would be polyamorous (Boyd, 2017a, p. 16). Boyd in
partnership with the CPAA conducted a study on Canadian Perceptions of Polyamory
with primary data gatherers via an electronic survey with 547 respondents (Boyd, 2017a,
p. 17). 91.6% of respondents were from British Colombia, Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec,
which also host the majority of the population of Canada (Boyd, 2017b).
A. Demographics
Participants largely ranged between 25-44 years of age (Boyd, 2017a, 2017b)
representing a disproportionately younger demographic. In line with other studies done
on younger people, the respondents showed a high degree of gender diversity with 30%
identifying as male, 59.7% female, 3.5% gender queer, and 3.2% gender fluid. The study
found that the most common sexual identities were heterosexual, bisexual, and pansexual
(Boyd, 2017a, 2017b). The majority of the respondents (90.2%) identified as Caucasian
followed by Métis, African Canadian, Chinese, and First Nations (Boyd, 2017b, p.24).
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B. Religion
Respondents most often identified as having no religion or as atheist/agnostic.
Among respondents who indicated being religious the majority were Christian followed
by Wicca, Paganism and Pantheism (Boyd, 2017a, 2017b). It should be noted that this
tendency to reject religious affiliation differs greatly from the overall Canadian
population, which predominately identifies as Christian (67.3%) based on the 2011
Census (Boyd, 2017b, p.30).
C. Education and Income
With regards to annual income, the study found that respondents had generally
higher incomes than the Canadian population with few respondents earning less than
$25,000 yearly. Income disparity was visible across gender identifications with those
identifying as male earning more than both those identifying as female and other. In
addition to disparity across gender, those who reported wages of higher than $60,000
yearly identified exclusively as heterosexual or homosexual, while those with incomes
lower than $60,000 identified as other sexualities (Boyd, 2017b, p.29). Those who
experience intersectionality between race, orientation, and identity were also the lowest
wage earners. With multiple potential earners in the home, family incomes for
polyamorous people were significantly higher than that of their monogamous
counterparts. This study indicates that polyamorous respondents have higher levels of
education ranging from college diplomas and undergraduate degrees, to post graduate/
professional degrees (Boyd, 2017b p.34). In general, those who are publicly out as
polyamorous tend to be more highly educated with greater income than other Canadians,
a fact which is discussed in much greater detail in the theory section of this work.
D. Rights and Responsibilities of Family Members
Boyd’s study indicates that few polyamorous families have taken legal steps to
formalize their relationship rights and responsibilities. Amongst participants who had
formalized some part of their polyamorous relationships medical or personal care
arrangements, power of attorney, and school authorizations for children were most
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commonly cited. Respondents between 35-54 years of age were more likely to have
completed legal steps to protect their families while younger cohorts were more likely to
have completed cohabitation agreements (Boyd, 2017b, p.52). Perhaps this is due to older
cohorts having greater income than younger respondents to afford the legal support to
draft binding wills and agreements.
When it comes to public perception, many respondents believe that the general
population sees polyamory as a kink or fetish and not a legitimate form of family. Overall
respondents believe that acceptance of polyamory is growing but that negative media
portrayal and poorly written anti-polygamy laws perpetuate negative perceptions of
polyamorous relationships. Anti-polygamy laws are also seen by some of the respondents
as a large deterrent from being openly polyamorous simply because they make no
distinction between unethical and coercive forms of nonmonogamy and ethical,
consensual polyamory (Boyd, 2017b).
In conclusion to date, the majority of Canadians who are openly polyamorous
tend to be white and upper-middle class with higher levels of education and employment
compared the broader population. People choose to be polyamorous for diverse reasons,
but common themes throughout the lifestyle include emphasizing open and direct
communication, gender equality and radical egalitarianism, defining family by choice,
and inclusiveness. All extant research indicates that children raised in polyamorous
families suffer no ill effects from their nontraditional upbringing and some limited
evidence supports proponent claims that the lifestyle offers benefits to children that are
not readily available to children raised in more traditional family settings.
III. Canadian Law
The following chapter is critical in situating polyamory in the context of Canadian
law. The Civil Marriage Act and Criminal Code of Canada are the only federal tools
impacting family. The Civil Marriage Act enacted in 2005 legalized same sex marriage
and the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits polygamy and bigamy and is important for
our understanding of family life in Canada. Family and marriage law at the discretion of
the provinces resulting in each province having different family legislation. A provincial
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overview and its impacts on polyamorous families in outlined later in this chapter. This
chapter is highly critical of the impacts of National and Provincial law on polyamory.
A. Marriage In Canada
Marriage laws began to change in Canada with divorce legislation being
introduced in 1968(Boyd, 2017b) and with this came changes in societal attitudes
towards family. Leading to an influx of separated divorced, blended, and mixed families.
However today in Canada the normative concept of family remains is the heterosexual
couple with children. However, this reality is changing, and it may no longer make sense
to think of this as "normal”. Calder's research (2009) indicates that the majority of
Canadians do not live in an environment that meets the normative definition of
heterosexual monogamous family. Calder found that “15.7 percent of families in Canada
are lone parent families and that 37.6 percent of Canadian marriages will end in divorce
before the thirtieth wedding anniversary” (Calder, 2009, p.59). She concludes that only
44 percent of Canadian households fit the normative definition of family.
Calder’s research is further reinforced by Dr. Wu (BCSC 2011) who analyzed
Canadian family trends between 1981 and 2006, found a substantial decrease in the
incidence of married households and an increase in common law households. His
research indicates that if Canadians become married they do so later in life and in
proportionally fewer numbers than previous generations. Dr. Wu notes that the widely
held belief that marriage is now a dissolvable contract (and the resultant increase in no
fault divorces) is one factor driving this trend. In line 475 of British Columbia Supreme
Court (BCSC )2011 Wu argued that “the growth of common-law marriage and other non-
traditional households should caution us against defining conjugal unions and families in
an inflexible manner”. In other words, the idea of redefining the notion of family is not an
abstract concept for the future, the time to begin a discussion on the rights of and
definitions of families in Canada is already here.
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B. Canadian Criminal Code
In 2010 Justice Bauman oversaw the Constitutional Question of s. 293 which
defines polygamy as a criminal offence under the Criminal Code of Canada, R.S.C.
1985, c.C-46 (Criminal Code). The matter of the Canadian Charter of Rights and
Freedoms, which was brought forth by Blackmore, Oler, and the Fundamentalist Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day. Blackmore and Oler were leaders of a Mormon community
in Bountiful, British Colombia. Blackmore and Oler used the charter of rights and
freedoms on the grounds of religious freedom to challenge polygamy laws. Ultimately,
Justice Bauman determined “s. 293 criminalizes three (or more) adults from agreeing to
form a conjugal union together, prohibiting any association between individuals gaining
recognition as a valid and legal conjugal union. While polyamorous activities are not
prohibited per se, s.293 criminalizes polygamous groupings (BCSC, 2011, pg. 193).
During the trial, the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association also argued s. 293
prohibits polyamorous communities from developing new forms of ceremonial rights
pertaining to polyamory, laying the groundwork for future polyamory cases using
religious freedom clauses as a potential avenue of gaining additional recognition.
Advocacy actions promoting the interests of those who are polyamory largely went
ignored by the court and the Canadian press.
C. Impacts of National Law on Polyamorous Families
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants the following fundamental
protections to all Canadian citizens: the right to religion, free communication, and
peaceful assembly and association. Much of the philosophical underpinnings of Canadian
law are based in the historical morals and values of Western Christianity. This very fact
creates a paradox – Canadians are granted the freedom of conscience and religion, but the
unspoken reality is that this only extends in so far as one's beliefs conform to Christian
value systems. Criminalization and preventing recognition of non-monogamy infringe
upon the right to association upon, as the government is able to dictate whom one calls
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The Canadian Charter unequivocally states that “everyone has the right to life,
liberty, and security and the right not to be deprived thereof” (Canadian Charter, 1982, s
6(2)(b) p.3) One can make a strong argument that polyamorous families are better able to
provide security to its members than their monogamous counterparts. One of the often
overlooked benefits of polyamory is the increased financial and material benefits
afforded to a family that has more than two adults available to work in gainful
employment, maintain the household, and engage in other socially beneficial activities
like child rearing. Polyamorous families are also uniquely equipped to accommodate
individuals with disabilities (Sheff, 2015) – by having multiple people who can rotate
between roles of breadwinner, caregiver, and household maintainer, the quality of life for
all of the individuals involved can be markedly improved. A sad but very real
consideration is the simple fact that the more resources concentrated within a family unit,
the better their access to fundamental justice. Lastly, 15. (1) of the Charter provides that
everyone be afforded equity before and under the law. However, current law defining the
role and purpose of family is enshrined in historical religious discrimination based on
sex, gender, and relationship form.
In the case of Blackmore and Oler, the British Columbia Supreme Court rule laws
criminalizing polygamy were found to be in line with the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms. This continues to show how Canadian law condemns non-monogamy and
views non-monogamous relationships as being inherently and criminally wrong. Calder
(2009) notes that there has been some progress towards redefining family. In the 2000
Supreme Court Ruling M. v. H., the Court found that the current definition of 'spouse' in
Ontario’s family law is unconstitutional, leading to changes in 68 different statues to
extend benefits to common law couples. While this was a step in the right direction, the
laws continue to recognize monogamy as the only viable form for a relationship to take.
In conclusion in the eyes of national law polyamorous relationships are not
prohibited by the Criminal Code however, they are not recognized as a legitimate form of
relationships. The polyamorous relationships can only be criminalized if a formalization
or marriage of the relationships occurs. With very minimal recognition this continues to
place polyamorous individuals and families at risk which monogamous families do not
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encounter. The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association suggests the unclear
distinction between polygamy and polyamory results in many polyamorous seeking
information regarding criminal consequences, which may occur based on their
polyamorous lifestyle.
D. Polyamory and Legal Concerns
Akin to monogamous families, polyamorous families have similar issues and
concerns however there are more people involved placing different members of the
polyamorous family outside of legal means of support. Most often issues arise when
relationship deteriorates and dissolve. Areas of law, which are applicable to polyamory,
include the Divorce Act, however this is only applicable to married couples within a
polyamorous dynamic. As well as local laws regarding matrimonial property and family
law. Issues of concern include however are not limited to the following as identified in
Boyd’s 2017a study: 1) Care and management of children; 2) child support entitlements;
3) entitlement to spousal support; 4) the division of property; and 5) allocation of debt.
In addition to concerns listed above often those in polyamorous relationships are
outside of the ability to claim social supports/ benefits due to social institutions
assumption that relationships are dyadic. For example the Canadian Pensions Plan and
the Old Are Security only provides benefits to one spouse or common law partner. The
Canadian Revenue Agency assumes that taxpayers have sequential relationships rather
than concurrent relationships, limiting ones access to tax benefits. On a provincial level
legislation changes region-to-region reading wills, estates, power of attorneys, domestic
relations, health care, extend medical benefits, and family law regarding children. In
these situations polyamorous families may have to choose which members receive
benefits and which are denied various benefits, thus placing polyamorous families in
precarious situations.
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E. Overview of Provincial Law in Relation to Polyamory
In Canada the provinces and territories are responsible for family law, thus there
are many differences in what family legally constitutes coast to coast. In the following
sections an analysis of British Columbia, Ontario, and Newfoundland provincial law will
occur as participants in the study reside in Ontario and British Columbian. Special note is
paid to Newfoundland due to a recent court case involving a polyamorous family.
British Columbia
In British Columbia the primary body of law pertaining to polygamous families is
the Family Law Act (Boyd, 2017a, p.39). The definition of spouse is encompassing of
“marriage like relationship for two years and is not limited to marriage (Boyd, 2017a,
p.39). Unique to British Columbia when one of the members of a polyamorous family has
a child they are able to appoint some or all of the household members as guardians to the
child. However, this requires an appointment by the Court where’s the parents provide
affidavit, vulnerable sector criminal records check, child protection records, and a
protection order registry check to the court per person seeking to be deemed a guardian of
a child (Boyd, 2017a, p.40). This can be a lengthy and costly process, which may be
unattainable for many. With this in place children are then entitled to support from all
parents/ guardians in the event of a relationships breakdown.
In addition to child protections, spouses and addition partners may be entitled to
spousal support under the Family Law Act. The Act sees spouses are two people however,
they can be in multiple spousal relationships at the same time considering “firstly, with a
husband or wife, from whom they were separated but not yet divorced; and, secondly,
with a partner, with whom they had lived for the requisite minimum two-year period after
separation” (Boyd, 2017a, p.42). This notion can be extended up to two valid married
relationships among relationships members. Which means that “where a party to a
polyamorous relationship is found to be entitled to receive spousal support, all other
persons qualifying as a spouse of that person may be obliged to pay it” (Boyd, 2017a,
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p.44). Where’s property division is only provided based on a singe set of dyadic partners.
Children’s Law Reform Act and the Family Law Act of Ontario are applicable to
polyamorous people living in this province. In Ontario spouse refers to two people who
are married as well as those who have cohabitate for a minimum three years. Whereas a
parent, similar to Newfoundland, is anyone who has demonstrated an intention to treat a
child as his or her own (Boyd, 2017a, p.63). With regards to children parents can apply to
appoint additional custody or access orders however, they must submit the same legal
documents as British Columbia. This again is a costly and lengthy court proceeding,
which may not be attainable to everyone. For those in a polyamorous relationships it
seems in Ontario law that those outside of the dyadic couple may apply for spousal or
child support. However, they are not entitled to property rights.
Newfoundland and Labrador
In June 2018, for the first time, a polyamorous family was legally recognized by
the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador. The family composed of one women
in a relationship with two men, who gave birth to a child in 2017 and turned to the courts
to have the three parents legally recognized on the birth certificate of the child. The
family had decided not to determine which man was the biological father to allow both
men parentage to the child. Justice Fowler of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme
Court's family division deemed that the three parents who had been living as a family unit
for three years was a loving, nurturing, stable home recognizing that the Children’s Law
Act was outdated and does not reflect the changes in family composition as it was written
over thirty years ago (MacDonald, 2018; Hodder 2018). Justice Fowler based his decision
to allow all parents to be designated as such based on the best interests of the child. This
ruling has now set a precedent and case law to promote the rights of polyamorous
families in other provinces and territories.
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In conclusion due to the provincial control of family law there are many
differences and some similarities between them. All provinces other than Alberta and
Manitoba allow parents to provided additional parents or guardians to parents outside of
the dyad. Only British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan allow individuals outside
of the dyad to claim property rights. Unique to Ontario and Prince Edward Island they
allow those from polygamous marriages, which have been formalized outside of Canada
to remain recognized (Boyd, 2017a, p.71).
IV. Literature Review
Academic literature on polyamory and topics related to nonmonogamy as an
alternative lifestyle choice is somewhat limited. To date, the vast majority of information
on polyamory is in the form of self-help books written by individuals who identify as
polyamorous, which in turn makes it difficult to narrow down exact definitions or
terminology that is widely accepted when discussing the topic. These writings seek to
provide new language and ethical guidelines for individuals searching for entry and
guidance into the world of polyamory and often cover topics including gender, sexuality,
race and intersectionality. A common theme in all the extant literature is to openly
challenge the notion of compulsory monogamy (Haritaworn et al, 2006, p. 518) and to
build a culture of sex positivity and radical inclusion. As a point of clarification, the
literature review included in this chapter has been limited exclusively to scientific
A. Overview of Findings
Schippers’ Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer
Sexualities examines the extant heterosexual culture of monogamy and seeks to
understand the effect polyamorous relationships have within society. Her primary
research focuses a spotlight on the ways society pathologizes non-monogamous
relationships while privileging monogamy. She criticizes the use of normalization as a
strategy to gain acceptance of polyamory, pointing out that simply normalizing
polyamory does not go far enough in critiquing the institution of marriage and its long
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history as a tool of enforced patriarchal hierarchy. Eleanor Wilkinson (2010) critiques
polyamory in much the same way. She sees that polyamory offers alternative forms of
relating by challenging hetero and mono-normativity, but similarly to Schippers believes
it is the differences between polyamory and monogamy which challenge norms upheld by
the institution of monogamous marriage systems and that simply seeking to normalize
polyamory does not go far enough (Schippers, 2016, p.20).
Elizabeth Sheff has conducted ethnographic research on polyamorous families
over a span of fifteen years; the Polyamorists Next Door (2015) is the result of her
longitudinal study and the data from this work has been used for in a number of other
publications. In her research, Sheff suggests that openly polyamorous communities in the
United States (where she conducted her research) were mostly comprised of white,
upper-middle class, highly educated people with professional employment who tend to be
cis-gender and are not transgendered or intersexed (Sheff 2015). The polyamorists in her
study were often able to use their social and monogamous privileges as a shield against
It is important to note that at the time of this writing there has been only one
publishing on polyamory from an African American perspective, which is Kevin
Patterson’s Love’s Not Color Blind (2018). Patterson discusses the intersectionality of
race and class, examining the ways in which people of colour can create their own
communities, additionally providing strategies for leaders of polyamorous groups to
promote diversity and inclusion. At the time of writing there are no academic resources
looking at Indigenous polyamory. However, the Indigenous voice is not missing from
the conversation entirely; The Critical Polyamorists is a popular blog discussing non-
monogamous relationships from an Indigenous perspective.
Academic research examining polyamory in Canada is currently very limited.
Perceptions of Polyamory in Canada (2017) is a quantitative study involving self-
identified polyamorists from across the country. Penguins and Polyamory is a broad
overview of pertinent case law and the ways it has been shaped by Canadian media. The
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literature review conducted by this work’s author yielded no qualitative studies about the
lived experiences of polyamorous families in Canada. The following segments of this
chapter will discuss what the literature has found with regards to polyamory and gender,
sexuality, stigma, and global trends, followed by a critique of current literature.
B. Polyamory and Gender
Polyamory views all people regardless of gender as being equal, a concept known
as egalitarianism. Put into terms of binary genders women are equal to men, and in some
instances have greater power than their monogamous counterparts. This can be partially
attributed to the observed trend of individuals with higher education and income being
more likely than less privileged people from openly identifying as polyamorous, and for
the unique security polyamory provides for women to seek out multiple people to help
meet their needs and the needs of their children instead of relying on a single
monogamous relationship (Sheff, 2015).
Research focusing on gender in polyamorous relationships found most men in
polyamorous relationships support and practice gender egalitarianism (Schippers, 2016,
p.23). Boyd’s (2017) study on Perceptions of Polyamory surveyed the respondents asking
how frequently they believed that people in polyamorous relationships should be treated
equally and found “74.4% of respondents strongly agreed” (p.59). Sheff (2015) points
out that in her study many polyamorous families maintain conformity to gender norms,
noting that women were more likely than men to stay home and care for children while
men were more likely to work. Her (2005) research she found that a small but significant
minority of women changed their gender roles based on the newfound freedom they
experienced when adopting a polyamorous lifestyle.
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C. Sexuality
Sexuality is an important aspect of the human experience. Recent decades
(beginning in the 1960’s) have seen growing acceptance and recognition for LGBTQI2
communities and with it has come a framework for recognizing family life that doesn’t fit
easily into the established boundaries of monogamous coupling. Due to a deep history of
rejection at the hands of family members and society at large, queer communities have
long had to find different ways to build relationships and family connections, with forms
of nonmonogamy becoming closely linked to the queer experience. Gay male sexual
culture especially has developed rich and in-depth means of non-monogamy. Many
sexual subcultures create and support multiple forms of non-monogamy for erotic play
and for exploring sexuality and fetishes (Haritaworn et al, 2006, p. 518).
Bisexuality and polyamory seem to be strongly correlated in their rebellion
against monogamy (Mint, 2004, p.68). Bisexuality can be seen as wanting more than one
relationship to satisfy different needs and desires. Haritaworn’s (2006) research has
shown that bisexuals develop intimate relationships with different people of different
genders simultaneously and at different times in life. Bisexuality within the LGBTQI2
communities is often stigmatized, as each community pressures them to choose to be
either straight or gay (but not both) in order to conform to cultural norms. This results in
bisexuals experiencing marginalization even from other communities that experience
marginalization themselves. Mint goes so far as to suggest that polyamory was created
specifically for the needs of bisexuality and by extension that polyamory activism is
synonymous with bisexual activism (Mint, 2004, p.69).
D. Stigma
Social stigma places polyamorous people at a disadvantage in line with
Goffman’s theory about individuals who experience “discredited status” due to their non
monogamous relationships and perceived sexual deviance (Sheff, 2015, p.284). Once one
is ‘discredited’ based on a social belief they become vulnerable. Polyamory faces
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significant stigma within society consequently leaving polyamorous people open to
discrimination, oppression, and no recourse to gain official recognition or protections.
Stigma encountered by polyamorous people often takes the form of strained or
broken relationships with family, loss of friendships, housing eviction based on
residential and property laws, job loss, and loss of child custody (Sheff, 2015, p. 53).
Emens (2004) highlights the case of a triad living in The United States in 1999 where a
woman in a relationship with two men was taken to court by the paternal grandmother
who was outraged to learn about the mother’s polyamorous lifestyle. The grandmother
sought and was granted custody of the child as the judge deemed the mother’s lifestyle
immoral (p.28). Fearing loss of a child if a friend or family member disapproves of your
partner is something that heteronormative families would never face; yet this is a very
real fear for many polyamorous families today.
Lasting impacts of racism allow white people to act and do what they please with
little consequence or worry, while Indigenous people and people of colour face stigma
and are hypersexualized by society, thus any deviation from established norms may be
viewed as a reinforcement of negative stereotyping (Sheff, 2015, p.54). In Sheff’s (2015)
small sample of people of colour, some reported they are hesitant to participate in
mainstream polyamorous communities because of the risks of job loss and rejection from
family and ethnic group for being in something society deems perverse.
Sheff & Hammers (2011) note that everyone involved in ‘perverted’ sex risks
social censure…[and] people unprotected by social advantages are more vulnerable to the
discriminatory impacts of this sexual stigma than are those shielded by racial and/or class
privileges” (P.199). This suggests that those with greater social advantages have the
ability to use their deviance from heteronormative society as a means to challenge social
norms and stigmas while those experiencing greater intersectionality of oppression are
burdened by racism, poverty, and a lack of educational and employment opportunities
which prevent them from challenging the very same norms. People experiencing
intersectional oppression are unable or unwilling expose themselves to further
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stigmatization and ostracized. Their research indicates that polyamorous and BDSM
communities in North America, Western Europe and Australia have not yet been able to
escape the legacy of racism and classism which accompany white privilege (Sheff &
Hammers, 2011, p. 209).
E. Critiques on Polyamorous Literature
Noël (2006) criticizes literature on polyamory and its lack of diversity in
authorship, noting that most writers are well-educated upper class white women. This
homogeneity creates inherent flaws as it gives voice only to the most privileged members
of society and ignores the experiences of all others. To address homogeneity,
polyamorous texts must undergo a thorough self-exanimation of its whiteness. Noël
catalogues instances where language in polyamorous texts demonstrate a lack of regard
for cultural and historical contexts, consequently negating the overall polyamorous
message of radical inclusion (2006, p. 614). Noël acknowledges that literature to this
point challenges heteronormative monogamy but lacks the ability to challenge race and
class systems, preventing the formation of overarching coalitions to “transforms
oppressive systematic relationships and family structures” (Noël, 2006, p. 615).
In summary, recent years have seen growth in the body of academic literature
examining polyamory but overall information about the topic is currently limited. What
little academic research there is lacks diversity and the same studies are referenced
repeatedly in other works. More voices need to emerge from Black and Indigenous
communities, as well as other regions of the world with perspectives outside of the
Western experience. To advance the rights of polyamorous families there must be more
research directly into the lived experiences of these families, and it is this very gap that is
addressed by this work.
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V. Theoretical Framework
As discussed in earlier sections practitioners of polyamory suggest that polyamory
is inherently feminist with its emphasis on social justice and egalitarianism the following
section will situate polyamory within feminist’s critiques of monogamy. Followed by a
critical analysis of polyamory within queer theory due to its innate connection to sexual
minorities. To conclude the chapter a discussion on the critiques and intersectionality of
polyamory will occur.
A. Modern Polyamory’s Roots as a Feminist Critique of Monogamy
One important way that polyamory differentiates itself from polygamy and other
unethical forms of nonmonogamy is the way that power is distributed in the relationships.
Both polyamorists and society view polygamy as being inherently harmful to women and
children, and a practice that ultimately promotes patriarchy. In polygamy power rests
with the male who is able to take multiple partners while the women must remain
monogamous to him. Polyamory on the other hand emphasizes radical egalitarianism
where each partner is free to pursue relationships that fit their own personal needs.
Western European colonialism has been one of the key drivers behind the
normalization of monogamy as a societal default worldwide. European social
hierarchies historically have been based on the notion that men are inherently superior to
women, with dynastic power and inheritance rights almost invariably following
patriarchal bloodlines. These deeply rooted power dynamics metastasized and coalesced
into the subjugation and exploitation of “…women, Black and third World people,
working-class people, [and] older people” (Lorde, 1984,p. 114) but throughout it all there
has been a constant undercurrent of patriarchy. Western empire-building and colonial
appetites entrenched this notion of feminine inferiority in each new occupied territory,
using heterosexual monogamy as a weapon to ensure that women are always subservient
to the whims of their husbands.
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In prototypical European societies there exists a mythical norm; male, white,
heterosexual, Christian, and finically secure (Lorde, 1984,p. 116), and all those who lie
outside of this have historically been treated as deviant others. Gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgendered, or individuals identifying as anything other than heterosexual have been
disenfranchised and treated as subhuman. The fight for marriage equality has
inadvertently supported and legitimized this notion of monogamy being the default form
of relationship, and even though the box of who can get married has grown larger there
are still many forms of relationship that still fall outside of its purview. Truly radical
inclusion and egalitarianism must make room for individuals to define familial
relationships for themselves, and to achieve this the patriarchal roots underpinning the
notion of marriage and family must be challenged.
Polyamory often used is a blanket term that covers many different relationship
models and approaches to ethical non-monogamy. Built on the principles of social
justice, honesty, communication, and radical egalitarianism, polyamory’s proponents see
the core of the lifestyle as an extension of feminism. However, polyamory is often
conflated with several unethical models of nonmonogamy which actively reinforce
patriarchal gender roles and power structures. For example, some cultures and
relationship models have a “one-penis- policy” where a man and a bisexual woman are
both allowed to pursue additional female partners, but the woman is prevented from
finding any additional male partners, an arrangement that has some echoes of polygamy.
Polygamy and polyandry are two forms of nonmonogamy that polyamorists consider to
be unethical due to the inherent imbalance of power and vector for oppression that is built
into those relationship models. Oppression is a means of corruption used to distort the
power from the individual and demanding energy from those who are oppressed;
feminism puts a spotlight on all the ways that social constructs constantly drain women
energy in ways that men are never exposed to, and polyamory seeks to challenge this by
restructuring the way society views relationships.
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Trapped within the confounds of a heteronormative, mono-normative society
where women are idealized as docile keepers of the home. Women (especially those
facing intersectional discrimination) are prevented from connecting with their inner erotic
selves, which Lorde (2007,p.104) describes as a means of self replenishment and a
provocative force. Lorde theorizes that erotically connected individuals feel empowered,
satisfied and capable of effecting change, and thus are a direct threat to patriarchy. Lorde
further argues that humans need to have deep, meaningful connections built on physical
and emotional bonds through passionate and loving interactions. This builds bridges and
connections between one another, further threatening the patriarchal control which seeks
to isolate power in the hands of the elites. For Lorde (2007, p.109) the erotic is feared and
contained to the bedroom alone because it enables us to question the society around us
and demands a greater degree of satisfaction in life. Practitioners of polyamory seek to
create a safe space for women (and individuals of all genders) to connect with their inner
eroticism. Practitioners of polyamory do not limit intimate relationships only to defined
partners; rather they encourage deeper connections to friends and family promoting wide
networks of connections.
Lorde’s notion of the erotic is at odds with society’s belief in dyadic monogamous
coupling. Monogamous coupling results in women pouring time, financial, physical and
emotional resources into a singular relationship, typically with a man who has no social
pressure to reciprocate the same level of attention and energy into the relationship. This
fundamental imbalance leaves women drained of their resources and consequently
subserviently reliant upon their monogamous counterpart for support and care. Such
imbalanced dyadic monogamous coupling encourages the isolation of women, cutting
them off from forming deep relationships with friends, family, and other women who
could provide comradery and support. Polyamory seeks to provide an alternative where
instead of fearing the development of deep bonds or increased sexual connection women
instead are encouraged to connect with others. These connections are allowed to form
and grow organically, regardless of the level of eroticism. Proponents of the
polyamorous lifestyle believe this radical egalitarianism allows for deep human
connections and increased respect for all people at all levels of eroticism.
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B. Polyamory from Queer Theory Perspective
The term queer tends to function as an overarching term to describe people who
fall outside of the heterosexual norm. Queer labeling questions norms around gender,
sexuality, and relationships (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 7). Queerness can also been seen
as a way to think outside of the box of whiteness and the comforts of the familiar,
providing an opportunity to release assumptions about what we are and who we might
become (Willey, 2016, p. 122). Using queer theory as a framework to examine and
question the heterosexual norm provides a unique avenue for the analysis of polyamory.
Research done by Weston (1991) found that many lesbian and gay individuals
have historically created families that fall outside of the monogamous norm. In the
1960’s and 1970’s people who were queer and out were often ostracized from their
family and community, leading many to question traditional notions of community and
kinship. Lesbian and gay families formed within the context of this need for connection
after being rejected by society, and often were built from close friendships, strong social
ties and community engagement instead of biological relation or ethno-religious
background. Being rejected by patriarchal, mono-normative society allowed these
families complete freedom to redefine kinship as they saw fit, leading to the birth of the
modern polyamory movement as an alternative to monogamy.
The extant research on polyamory in modern society is limited, and to date the
majority of participants in any studies have been well-educated Caucasian men and
women. De Beauvoir created a framework that is useful in examining why this is,
theorizing that people are born with certain socially imposed constraints and freedoms.
As such, they are not born monogamous or polyamorous as a default but rather those who
have more privilege and social freedom will choose alternative relationship styles when
they don’t feel limited by the constraints they were born into. Therefore, the individuals
with the greatest amounts of social freedom are the ones most able to openly practice a
relationship form challenging mononormativity without fearing adverse social backlash.
As De Beauvoir notes, in Western societies wealthy white men have the greatest social
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freedom and least social restraints at birth while the least privileged people are nonwhite
and poor women (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 35), thus explaining the extremely limited
data on Indigenous and nonwhite polyamorous individuals.
Queer theory has often critiqued the same sex marriage movement in that it
excludes those who do not define as explicitly gay or lesbian, and its exclusion of other
forms of relationships within queer and LGBTQI2 communities. Queer theory contends
that assimilation strategies or means to make outside groups look the same or similar to
the dominant creates fractures in the queer spectrum, noting that assimilation strategies
tend to promote the rights of white educated, middle class gay and lesbian people, leaving
the intersectional others outside once again (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 26). In this light,
modern polyamory in its idealized form is simply queer theory expanded to include
relationship structures that don’t adhere to societal norms – the principles of radical
inclusion and egalitarianism are rooted in feminist and queer theory.
According to Sheff (2011), lesbian and gay polyamorous families formed
primarily to challenge the heteronormative and as a means of forming kinship amongst
stigmatized sexual minorities in a time of intense social paranoia where any erosion of
traditional Christian values was seen as steps down a ‘slippery slope’ ending in bestiality,
pedophilia and incest, and other horrific taboo acts. Polyamory has been a means for
sexual minorities to build and create families, which meet their unique needs while
providing an alternative to monogamy. However, divides remain as even within the queer
spectrum there is still discrimination, especially against transgendered and bisexual
individuals. Many polyamorous individuals choose to label themselves as bisexual or
another similarly inclusive term to denote that they are open to forming close connections
with people regardless of their gender or sexual identity.
Adrienne Rich suggests that society’s need to make heterosexuality compulsory
reveals how unstable it is; if heterosexuality was “normal” governments around the world
would not need to work so hard to protect and enforce it (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 35).
This can be said for mononormativity as well in that society goes to great extents to
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ensure that monogamy maintains a central pillar supporting social power structures.
This view fits within the overall context of existentialist philosophy, which holds that
humans do not have a fixed or fundamental way of being and that gender and sexuality
are not fully a product of biological essentialism or social essentialism alone, but rather a
confluence of the two (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 33). Much of polyamorous
philosophy is couched in similarly existentialist terms.
Sheff’s continuing research (2011, 2015) suggests that those who are
polyamorous are not necessarily seeking plural marriage, which is an institution shaped
and moulded by a history of patriarchal control. Instead, polyamorists seek to gain legal
and social legitimacy for their relationships and the ability to define family on their own
terms instead of fitting into a box dictated by an impersonal governing body. Rights and
benefits currently provided via marriage should instead be provided based on individual
merits. This is fundamentally in line with queer theory in that it seeks to challenge the
way society functions in order to include those who have been marginalized and
Foucault provides another philosophical lens through which polyamory can be
evaluated. Foucault focuses on how people define and see themselves as normal. He sees
society as a means for individuals to scrutinize and judge themselves. They must act,
behave, and look in a manner that is in line with the societal norm in order to be
successful and happy (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 66). Society tends to reward those
who fall into what is defined as normal and punish those who fall outside of the normal.
He goes on to suggest that the global capitalist environment places problems and
solutions on to the individual rather than society. In the case of non-monogamy, society
dictates that is it inherently harmful and dangerous; the solution must come from
individuals by conforming monogamy, either by choice or forced coercion. To be non-
monogamous is in effect challenging society as a whole to reconsider the ideologies,
which promote and maintain monogamy.
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Judith Butler builds on the notion of power in relation to feminism. She argues
that by allowing oneself to be specifically categorized (such as identifying as a “woman”)
one is implicitly supporting stereotyping and discrimination against those who do not
neatly fit into any of the available categories (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 75). Black
Feminist critics of the feminist movement argue that white middle class women were
solely advocating for the rights of their group by excluding and diminishing the lived
experiences of non-white, non- middle class women. Ultimately this indirectly led to
white feminists supporting the very institutions responsible for the inequality and
oppression they said they opposed. They argue that in order for feminism to succeed, any
and all structural discrimination must be addressed, it is pointless to make any gains if it
comes at the cost of repressing other people. This is fundamentally in line with
polyamorist and queer philosophies of inclusion.
C. Critiques of Modern Polyamory
Both the scientific and popular literature examining modern polyamory are
unabashedly attempting to promote the benefits of adopting this lifestyle, making
scientific critiques difficult. However, by reading between the lines in some of the
answers given by survey respondents a few key trends and complaints emerge.
Polyamory, like any other form of relationship, has merits and weaknesses and is
susceptible to the same issues and concerns as monogamy perhaps on a magnified scale.
One negative trait that is universally associated with non-monogamous
relationships is jealousy. Coming up with coping strategies and ways to combat jealousy
is the topic that dominates the vast majority of self-help books relating to non-monogamy
and is absolutely an issue worth considering. No studies have specifically examined the
impacts of polyamory (and by extension, jealousy) on mental health, but this is a topic
that should be investigated much more thoroughly. Another area that warrants further
study and attention is the impact that polyamory has on domestic violence. Idealized
polyamory spreads a message of absolute egalitarianism, but data is lacking to determine
if women and children are safer, as safe, or more at risk in non-monogamous households.
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A much more nuanced critique of the current state of modern polyamory must
include an examination of the role that privilege plays in being able to be out and
polyamorous. Peggy McIntosh’s theory of straight privilege builds on the notions of
male privilege and white privilege, observing that those who seem or appear straight are
given greater advantages in life such as access to education and career advancement.
Polyamorists who belong to the white middle class are frequently able to use straight
privilege and mononormativity to their advantage to hide from social stigma. Depending
on their individual structures, polyamorous relationships on the surface can appear
heteronormative and monogamous. Those who are out as polyamorous often have various
privileges to fall back on such as their whiteness and wealth or career stability, which
reduces and protects them from stigmas and oppressions unlike those who were already
marginalized and oppressed. Relationship privilege can exist within polyamorous
groupings when two or more people in a polycule (a polycule is comprised of all of the
individuals involved in a polyamorous relationship) create a hierarchical structure, which
values certain relationships above others which in turn is exploited as a means to gain
time or emotional resources and manipulate their partners.
Another important consideration within queer theory (and polyamory by
extension) is society’s seemingly utter lack of awareness about bisexuality. Within queer
and gay communities bisexuals often experience biphobia and discrimination. Terms like
“gold star” within the gay and lesbian community to denote people who have never had
heterosexual partners exclude and other individuals who don’t fit neatly into a
homosexual box. Queer theory’s lack of attention to bisexuality continues to promote the
exclusion of its members (Barker & Scheele, 2016, p. 137). The extant literature on
polyamory largely involves women who self-identify as bisexual, yet statistics on the
incidence of male bisexuality in polyamory is currently lacking. Oversights like this
must be addressed for polyamory to live up to its purportedly open and inclusive
invitation to all.
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In summary, much more research needs to be done before the idealistic claims of
polyamory can be fully evaluated. These studies must strive to give voice to more than
the prototypical white and wealthy individuals who have been studied so far and include
a thorough examination of the relationship between, race, class, and the social freedom to
pursue nontraditional lifestyles.
D. Intersectionality – A Potential Blindspot for Modern Polyamorists
The primary idea in Critical Race Theory is the analysis of relationships between
societal norms and life experiences. Intersectionality seeks to understand the interactions
between self-identities and social power gained from privilege, entitlement, and
oppression (Barker & Scheele, 2016; Patterson, 2108). The overlapping of multiple
identities result in overlapping social influences. For example, women experience
misogyny, people of colour experience racism, queer people experience homophobia, and
a woman of colour who identifies as queer experiences intersecting discrimination on all
three levels. Extending this to polyamory, someone may experience intersectional
discrimination at four levels; sexuality, gender, race, and mononormativity.
To date, most research on polyamory has been completed by white, middle class,
educated women, with participants being white, middle class, cisgender men and
cisgender or bisexual women. Polyamory is lacking a critical look at intersections of race
and class. In both Canada and the United States of America, voices from Indigenous and
Black communities is missing. One reason for this could be the class and ethnicity of the
researchers preventing their interactions with other communities due to historical mistrust
and the extremely personal nature of the topic. To address this shortcoming and to live up
to polyamory’s standard of radical inclusion, it will become increasingly important for
polyamory research to come from within Indigenous and Black communities. However, it
is easy for both communities to disengage due to lack of representation.
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Black Americans and Indigenous Canadians share similar experiences of
oppression and marginalization. In both instances the effects of generational oppression
and marginalization by limiting access to financial services, housing, mental health care,
education, and employment have created layers of oppression that must be addressed.
White middle class polyamorists are privileged in having time, energy, emotional
availability, housing, disposable income, and education that are simply not available to
marginalized peoples. To live up to its core values of radical inclusion and
egalitarianism, polyamorists by definition must also fight for equality at all levels of
Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States have been systemically
dominated by white Eurocentric assimilation tactics. Marriage has been used as a means
to destroy the traditional notion of family by restraining [individuals] both
conceptually and physically inside colonial borders and institutions that included
reservations/reserves, residential schools, and churches and missions all designed
to kill the Indian” (TallBear, 2014). Part of this coerced assimilation was to force
the institution of monogamous coupling and nuclear family life upon groups of
people who defined family very differently. Prior to European conquests,
Indigenous families were made up of tribes comprised of large extended family
networks and plural marriages. Reserves were and continue to be pieces of land
designated by the European conquerors where Indigenous people are forced to live.
Much like the practice of redlining, reserve life is characterized by poverty, a lack of
access to health care, education, unemployment, and other social services.
Haritaworn points out that practitioners of polyamory often fail to recognize how
gender, class, and race interconnect, and that focusing solely on the role of
mononormativity in creating oppression is counterintuitive (Haritaworn et al, 2006, p.
516). Within queer theory little has been done to discuss how people in non-monogamous
relationships live at the confluence of multiple axes of oppression, neglecting issues like
racism, transphobia, biphobia, and ableism within its own community. Contributing to
the lack of intersectional awareness is the fact that much of the extant literature on
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polyamory is “self help” books that do not have the scope to tackle issues like race, class,
and gender. Normativity is built into the extant body of polyamory literature and is sorely
lacking a critical review of the role of power structures, race and ethnicity, gender, and
class, inadvertently portraying white, privileged people as being the most sexually and
emotionally advanced (Haritaworn et al, 2006, p. 519).
Some polyamory advocates (and popular authors) claim it is a superior form of
relationship, and that practitioners put in significant labour to maintain the complex
emotional understanding and ability to communicate, therefore true polyamory is above
and beyond other forms of non-monogamy. However, this very idea is antithetical to the
core value of radical inclusion in polyamory, which states that people should feel free to
be and love whoever they want. It also neglects all the ways that polyamory borrows and
builds upon existing traditions and philosophies. Radical inclusion leaves no room for
superiority complexes.
To build inclusive polyamorous communities, advocates must seek to support
those who have experienced racism, trans phobia, ableism and other forms of oppression
to truly claim inclusiveness. Sexual empowerment and liberation is often a privilege only
available to those who have experienced the least amount of oppression themselves and
should never be taken for granted (Haritaworn et al, 2006, p. 523).
Many polyamorous individuals will experience forced ambassadorship, where
they are the only or one of a few polyamorous people monogamous friends and family
interact with. Due to these interactions, the individual becomes a de facto advocate of
polyamory and others form their beliefs and impressions based on the individual’s
actions. This notion of forced ambassadorship is not limited to polyamory, and occurs
within many marginalized communities. Within polyamory those who are Black or
Indigenous often become forced ambassadors in a predominantly white community.
Patterson (2018) notes that forced ambassadorship leads to othering, creating barriers of
entry keeping especially nonwhite individuals excluded from white polyamory spaces.
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By avoiding othering in polyamorous communities and instead fostering dialogue and
understanding of more than one perspective will ultimately strengthen communities.
In conclusion to truly challenge mononormativity and historical power structures
it’s imperative that polyamory advocates recognize that being inclusive is a benefit and
that lacking in diversity is a harmful detriment (Patterson, 2018). White polyamorous
communities must acknowledge their role in continuing cycles of oppression and racism
and always strive to be radically inclusive. Only through building robust diversity in
communities and doing the work to always be inclusive of different ethnicities, cultures,
belief systems, sexualities, genders, and abilities, community leaders and advocates can
affect the changes they seek. Polyamory advocacy must incorporate a thorough
understanding of intersectionality and feminism, and build bridges to any oppressed
groups, whether that be LGBTQI2, BDSM, Black and Polyamorous, Indigenous
communities, or anyone else who has historically been excluded. Radical inclusion
means there is room for everyone no matter their background.
VI. Methods
A. Hypothesis
This thesis aims to explore the ways in which heteronormativity in Canadian
society and its active promotion of monogamous relationships within familial structures
impacts families who do not fit the traditional monogamous depiction of family life.
Specifically, polyamory is not recognized as a legitimate form of family and
consequently those who practice lack the social support and safety nets, which are readily
available to monogamous, married couples.
B. Research Questions
The primary research question the thesis aims to answer is: What are the lived
experiences of polyamorous Canadian families existing on the fringes of legality? In
particular: The background and evolution of their polyamorous family. The choices and
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decisions individuals made leading to practicing polyamory. What struggles have they
faced as a family and individually? And How would they like to have their family
Recognized legally?
C. Methods
Narrative inquiry as a means of research will be the primary means of data
collection to deepen social work’s understanding of polyamorous families. The
researcher used semi-structured face-to-face interviews as frequently as possible while
maintaining flexibility to meet the needs of research participants. In order to gather the
narratives, which became the data points used to plot trends to reveal insights and give
meaningful context on micro, macro, and mezzo levels of society.
D. Participant Recruitment
Due to time constraints and the limited scope of a Master’s thesis, narratives were
collected from five families with eight participants. The primary means of participant
recruitment was through the use of the snowball technique. The snowball technique was
selected because through network utilization the researcher is better able to have inferred
trust and building blocks to “being in relation” (Caine et al, 2013, p.583) with the
participants, which is critical for collecting accurate narratives. The researcher had hoped
to have a greater number of participants to provide adequate saturation of data however,
was challenged by many blockades in participant recruitment. Participants were all
nineteen years of age and older; the youngest participant had grown up in a polyamorous
family. Participants had been involved in their polyamorous relationships for at minimum
six months at the time of the interview. Participants were all Canadian citizens or
permanent residents of Canada, as this ensured they were situated within the context of
Canadian society and law.
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E. Narrative Collection
Narrative collection attempted to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of
the families involved in the research participation. The initial aim of the research was to
conduct in person interviews with the polyamorous family unit with follow up individual
interviews. However, this format did not work for many of the research participants. The
research conducted an in person interview with a polyamorous family of three. The
researcher, conducted an interview over the telephone as the participant did not have
regular Internet access to conduct a Skype interview. Another interview was conducted
over Skype. The third family interview composed of a mother and adult son was
conducted over Facetime. For the four family interviews lasted between ninety minuets to
three hours.
The final participant felt more comfortable in having the research questions
provided to her to allow her to provide written descriptions of her responses. The
participant suggested creating a Google document to allow her to work on the questions
over time in support of her mental health, while allowing the researcher to ask additional
questions based on the participants responses. The researcher felt it was important to
support the participant in any way possible to ensure her comfort in taking part in the
study as she was very eager to have her voice heard.
F. Analysis of Data – Qualitative Content Analysis
The aim of this methodology is to utilize content analysis to provide rich, in-depth
knowledge of polyamory based on the narratives of those who participated. The analysis
was to identify, compare, and contrast overarching themes and parallel topics. The
analysis took various excerpts from the participant families and weaved them together
into a cohesive narrative to demonstrate the commonalities and differences between their
experiences. Quotations and excerpts from the narratives were used to demonstrate
trustworthiness and accuracy by demonstrating direct connections to the categories of
analysis (Elo Et Al, 2014, p. 6). Participants had the opportunity to review any excerpts
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were used to ensure the accuracy of their narratives. The critical narrative analysis placed
the themes within the context of social institutions and power realms, ultimately weaving
together a narrative of polyamorous familial experience at the micro, mezzo, and marco
spheres of society (Souto-Manning, 2012, p.163). Specifically the analysis set the
narratives in the context of Canadian law to demonstrate the need for polyamorous and
nontraditional families to be legitimized under law with the ultimate aim for this research
project to be used as a tool for advocacy.
G. Ethics
The use of narrative analysis as a form of inquiry must first and foremost begin
with an awareness of the researcher’s responsibility and obligations toward those who
stories are lived, told and used as data (Caine et al, 2013, p.576). Due to the sensitive
nature of the project the primary ethical consideration was the anonymity of participant
and the confidentiality of their narrative. Each participant was enabled to choose an alias
however, some chose to have their real name used. To ensure informed consent every
participant was provided consent to participate document along with detailed information
on the study. Each participant had the right to be removed from the study at any time.
VII. Research Findings
Narratives from five polyamorous Canadian families were collected in order to
understand their experiences living on the fringes of legality. The narratives collected
attempt to provide insight into the choices, decisions, and belief systems which lead to
the creation of their polyamorous families and to gain a better understanding of any
stigma and challenges (with a special focus on legal implications) they face living in a
monogamous world.
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A. Demographics of Family Participants
The research study consists of five self-identified polyamorous families with a
total of eight participants, all of whom reside in either Ontario or British Columbia. Six
of the participants are Canadian citizens and two are citizens of the United States with
one having a permanent Canadian residence visa. The ages of participants ranged from
nineteen to forty eight years of age. Educational levels varied greatly, including
completion of some high school, trade schooling, completion of college, and postgraduate
studies. Household incomes varied from ten thousand to thirty thousand Canadian dollars
yearly with one family earning two hundred thousand dollars yearly. One household was
completely dependent on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which
provides income support to those who have been deemed unable to work due to a
disability, with another family receiving partial income from ODSP. The legal marital
status of the participants are as follows: three whom are legally married, two identified as
common law, and the remainder legally single. Seven of the participants identified as
Caucasian with Western European heritage while one participant identified as First
Nation. Three of the participants indicated having no religious inclination, three
identified as being spiritual but not religious, and one follows First Nation beliefs.
B. Gender, Sexuality and Polyamorous Identity
Participants were asked about gender identities; two participants identified as male,
five identified as female, and one participant identified as gender fluid. Sexuality varied
with participants identifying as straight, bisexual, heteroflexible, demisexual, asexual,
and pansexual. Some participants indicated that polyamory was an avenue for increased
sexual exploration, while others viewed polyamory as a means of fostering romantic
attachments without a need for sex at all. Brianna’s experiences of being asexual suggest
that polyamory allows her to have her emotional and non-sexual physical needs met
while permitting any of her romantic partners to seek sex if they do not also share the
asexual identity. While participants Angela, Joni, and Owen sought out polyamory as an
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avenue to explore new sexual experiences, particularly within the context of kink and
Participants were asked if they consider polyamory an identity, orientation, or
lifestyle choice. Many considered polyamory an identity; among this group a common
belief that people are socially conditioned to be monogamous but that monogamy is not a
natural default for everyone emerged. Some participants indicated that they formed their
identity as a protest against the norm of monogamy. Joni placed a lot of emphasis of the
power of free will, saying “I made the choice I was not going to have children, I also
made the choice I didn’t want to be with one person from the rest of my life”. She
indicated that her upbringing, which, emphasized always keeping an open mind, has been
critical in her ability to form the relationships she has chosen. For Phillip, the idea of
having to choose an identity feels like he has to fit in predetermined societal boxes, a
concept which he fundamentally disagrees with.
C. Definitions of Polyamory and Family
Each group in the study differed slightly in the way they chose to define
polyamory and family, but several common themes emerged. The participants indicated
that chosen family can include friends, roommates, partners, pets, and anyone who is
kind, loving, consistent presence in their life that works for the betterment of everyone
they are involved with. The participants agreed that for them family is anyone who
meaningfully contributes to providing care for one another. Above all, they were unified
in a belief that it is critical for them to be able to freely choose their family members.
All participants noted various ways their definition of family falls outside of the
mono-normative definitions upon which current Canadian law and Western society are
based. Christine noted that the notion of nuclear family is extremely limiting and
excludes a variety of family forms. Many participants expressed that they feel much
closer and more connected to their polyamorous family than they are to their biological
families, with Owen giving the example that he chooses to spend holidays that are
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traditionally associated with family togetherness (such as Thanksgiving) with
polyamorous family members and friends instead of biological family.
Participants defined polyamory in terms of their own experiences, collectively
leading to an expansive definition. All agreed that polyamory is the practice of ethical
non-monogamy. It may involve multiple romantic relationships (which may or may not
be sexual), built upon deep intimate emotional connections which are flexible in nature
and able to be adapted for different needs and desires. Each polyamorous relationship
has the potential to present radically different structures, beliefs, and practices uniquely
shaped by the value systems of the participating members.
One family in the study chose individuals they co-parent with as their
polyamorous family. Emily describes how she shares a deeply spiritual and emotional
(but not sexual) connection with her polyamorous family based on collectively raising
their children together. Her biological family has embraced her co-parenting family and
children creating a large network of kinship. Marie sees polyamory as a way to maintain
lifelong relationships that can ebb and flow as time and circumstance allows. She rejects
the monogamous notion of the “relationship escalator” where you meet someone, get
married, have children, grow old and eventually end the relationship when one partner
Emily sees polyamory as “the practice of taking each relationship where it
naturally wants to land whether it includes sex or not”. In her view, love is not
diminished by her partner loving others. She sees most people as being inherently
polyamorous in that it is readily accepted that adding additional children or friendships to
one’s life does not diminish any of the love that already exists, and that this logic can
naturally be extended to additional relationships and family structures.
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D. Ethics
Just like all forms of relationships, the participants discussed ways that the
practice of non-monogamy can be ethical or unethical. A relationship being polyamorous
(ethically non-monogamous) is entirely reliant on the participating individuals and the
choices they make. For Brianne, the foundation of ethics in polyamory is a notion of
fairness. Expectations must be egalitarian for all involved in the relationship. She gave
the example of if her partner started seeing someone new she is also entitled to seek out a
new partner for herself; anything her partner can do she is also free to do if she so
chooses. Key values mentioned by participants throughout the study included honesty,
integrity, managing jealousy, preventing relationship hierarchies from forming, emotional
intelligence, autonomy, independence, fostering communication to ensure all members
have their needs met, and prioritizing personal development and health.
E. Polyamory as an Identity
In the early years of the modern polyamory movement resources about the
lifestyle were very limited. More recently, groups on social networking websites like
Facebook and Fetlife have fueled the development of other types of informative media
like podcasts, Youtube channels, and blogs which in turn has led to several popular books
being written about the subject. Many of the participants discussed seeking out
information about polyamory prior to entering the lifestyle while others learned through
lived experiences or joining existing polyamorous relationships.
Participants chose to label themselves as polyamorous for various reasons. The
most common theme was a feeling that monogamy was not for them. Most expressed
negative experiences with ‘cheating’ in monogamous relationships or that they found it
impossible to provide for every need another person may have. Those identifying as
bisexual indicated polyamory is a logical way to explore their sexual interests as it is
impossible for one individual to meet their needs. Marie shared how polyamory enables
her to have long distance relationships with people she may not want to live with but
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loves nonetheless. Emily identifies as polyamorous because she does not believe in
hierarchy and the implication of ownership that comes with being in a monogamous
relationship. She places equal importance on all of her relationships whether they cohabit
or not.
F. Benefits of Polyamory
All of the participants discussed benefits to being polyamorous, but the overall
consensus is that the primary benefit is being free to give and receive more love.
Participants also noted that having multiple incomes in a family eases everyday financial
burdens. Participants raising children noted that having multiple adults available to
provide care and support is of enormous value, and Philip (who was raised by a
polyamorous family) felt he had a totally “normal” and natural upbringing. Participants
who cohabited with multiple partners described how having more adults in the household
to take care of domestic work also led to greater quality of life for everyone involved.
Some participants felt that by having extra partners they felt less pressure to do things
they did not want to do; sex and housework were two activities that were repeatedly
mentioned in this context. All agreed that having additional partners provides more
emotional support.
The relationship between Joni and Christine allows both to have “girl time” where
they are able to explore being feminine together. Joni enjoyed the fact that they are able
to have a bigger family and attend family events together, mentioning how important it
was that her polyamourous family was able to join her biological family for Solidarity
Day (also known as National Aboriginal Day) to celebrate her cultural heritage.
Living a polyamorous lifestyle enabled Marie to pursue union work, which took a
great deal of time outside of regular office hours. By relying on multiple partners for
child care, domestic work, and support with other mundane life events she was able to
build a successful career, something she feels would have been impossible if she lived in
a more traditional monogamous relationship. She believes that a major benefit of
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polyamory is the way earning income and performing domestic tasks can be split
between multiple adults, leaving more time for self-care and connecting with others.
Above all, the primary trend to emerge from this study is that the participants feel
that their polyamorous lifestyle is a source of empowerment, both in personal and
professional contexts. Participants see their partners as a source of stability and support,
with benefits ranging from providing emotional and physical intimacy to reducing
domestic workloads.
G. Relationship Structures
None of participating families had identical structures, although some had
similarities. Each family formed and added partners in order to meet the individual needs
of all who are involved, leading to very diverse outcomes. Owen and Joni are married,
and along with Christine and another male partner (who was not part of the interview)
form a quad. Each individual is connected to everyone else with varying degrees of
physical and emotional intimacy. Brianne and Angela have vee relationships with a male
partner at the center, but Angela’s structure is strongly hierarchical while Brianne
considers all partners to be equal. Marie has identified as being polyamorous since she
was eighteen and has a family composed of her long-term male partner and her wife.
Within this triangle, each individual shares equal sexual and emotional relationships with
one another. Emily lives in a small land co-operative community made up of several
families. Her polyamorous relationship is comprised of her partner and father to her
child, her child, her co-parents, and the other members of the land co-operative.
H. Parenting and Children
Marie and Emily are the only participants in this study to have children. All other
participants stated that they do not want children. Emily has one biological child and is a
co-parent to two children. Raising her children in an environment where the children
have access to multiple parental (and grand-parental) figures is something she considers a
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“blessing” that is beneficial to the wellbeing of all involved. She noted that it took some
work with her fellow co-parents to learn how to address issues such as conflict resolution
and boundary negotiation, but that the benefits of developing deep levels of trust with
each other was well worth the effort.
Marie is the mother of two children, an adult son Phillip and an adult daughter
who did not participate in the interview process. Both children grew up in Marie’s
polyamorous family. She specifically mentioned a philosophy heavily based on a notion
of kindness. She requires any friends, partners, family, or lovers to be kind to her
children if they want to be included in her life to any degree. Both children have different
biological fathers, and she has consciously chosen to act as a single parent. She chose to
be the primary parent in order to provide guidance, discipline and financial commitment
to the children. Marie considers her polyamory to be largely irrelevant to the upbringing
of her children, wryly noting that “kids don’t see you having sex, they don’t care, in fact
they would rather not think about it generally”. As long as partners adhered to Marie’s
mantra of kindness above all, she was satisfied. Marie specified that she used age-
appropriate boundaries and information sharing to describe relationships when her
children asked, but she also noted that this topic was rarely brought up. Philip indicated
that their family makeup seemed entirely normal to him when he was growing up. He
identifies Marie as his primary parent and expressed that he has found friendship and
support from his mother’s partners.
Marie eloquently stated that for her “all happy families are happy in the same
way, but all unhappy families are unhappy in the same way”. For both Marie and Emily,
healthy family life is based on a foundation of kindness, love, and support within the
family dynamic, something both indicated is essential in any type of relationship, be it
monogamous or polyamorous.
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I. Polyamory, Care for Disabled Individuals, and Mental Health Implications
Relationships have a significant impact on health, both mentally and physically;
healthy relationships tend to have a healthy impact while unhealthy relationships can
cause tremendous harm. Many proponents of polyamory specifically mention how
having multiple potential caregivers can have positive impacts on caring for individuals
with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and mental illness, and this study included
questions seeking data to investigate this claim.
Angela and Joni both receive benefits from the Ontario Disability Support
Program, as they are unable to work due to mental health diagnoses, which include
anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Joni sees polyamory as a “security blanket around her” which makes coping with her
mental health easier, noting that she has multiple people to rely on when in crisis. For
Owen, having additional people to help care for Joni has taken a lot of stress and pressure
away from him and he no longer feels like he has to cope with it alone. Angela has
noticed an improvement in her mental health she attributes to having “stellar
communication” based on radical honesty. Christine feels polyamory helps combat
depression, noting she has not experienced any depressive episodes since joining the
J. Emotional Intimacy
Emotional intimacy, communication, and sharing feelings are a normal part of all
relationships. By adding more than two people into the mix, polyamorous lifestyles
amplify the need for thoughtful communication and emotional awareness, topics which
came up repeatedly throughout the interview process. Feeling and emotions are part of
everyday life and for Christine having more people to turn to for support is “amazing.”
When one member of her family isn’t feeling emotionally available she has other people
to turn to, which she contrasted with the experience of monogamous couples where
emotional distance from one partner means instant isolation for the other. Joni talked
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about how polyamory has helped teach her to express her emotions rather than bottling
them up.
Jealousy is a common topic when discussing any form of non-monogamy, and
this is especially true for individuals living a polyamorous lifestyle where having time to
give to a partner is considered one of the most valuable resources. Participants in this
research broadly consider jealousy (like any other feeling) to be normal and not
inherently negative, noting that what really matters is how individuals respond when they
feel jealous or threatened. Many participants talked about ways they have learned to
manage these feelings. Participants indicated that discussing feelings thoroughly and
ensuring that each partner feels heard, understood and supported was only part of this
process, and that the real work comes from deep introspection to find the root cause that
is triggering such feelings. The aim is to deal with the root of any jealous feelings and to
generally work towards achieving Compersion. In addition to speaking with their,
participants in this study also mentioned times they’ve reached out to others within
polyamorous communities for support and empathy and have been encouraged to hear
that their feelings are normal.
This research also investigated how polyamorous individuals view commitment
within relationships as the vast majority are not able to have a legally binding marriage
unless it is done within the context of a dyadic pairing, which would by definition leave
additional partners excluded. Commitment was generally defined as a long term promise
one makes to another based on doing the best they can. Marie has a “one year’s notice”
commitment, which she uses to create a safe environment to resolve conflict or other
long-term relationship issues. Within this framework, she and her partner(s) can invoke
the “notice” at any time signifying that some issue needs to be addressed or else the
relationship will be jeopardized. Once this process has begun, her and any partner
involved in the issue have a time period of one year to address the issue and fix their
relationship before she moves out. Other examples of commitment mentioned by
participants included: fluid bonding, making time for one another, planning trips and
adventures, and private (and legally unrecognized) ceremonies such as a Handfasting.
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Joni in particular lamented not being able to legally commit to the other members of her
K. Communication
Each participant considered effective communication to be the most critical
component enabling their relationships to work. The need for open, assertive, radically
honest communication while avoiding blame or shame was echoed by all. Two families
specifically mentioned studying different forms of communication strategies, saying this
helped prepare them for healthy conflict resolution. Participants singled out compassion
and emotional intelligence as being critical traits to enable effective communication.
Technology also plays an important role, with participants who have long-distance
relationships describing texting, calling, and the use of group chats in Whatsapp and
Facebook being tools they use to maintain connection. Another recurring theme is the
need for timely communication of feelings and thoughts. As Owen put it, “you gotta talk
about it. The second it’s in your head, talk about it. Don’t keep it for a month and then
talk about it when it’s the goddamn end of the world”. The participants agreed that it is
important to recognize that not everyone will be ready to communicate at the same time,
and that waiting for a ‘perfect’ moment is unrealistic, it’s usually better to just start
talking and work through the issues right away.
L. Boundaries
Boundaries in all relationships are critical, providing a means to maintain
emotional safety and security. Marie believes that boundaries are fluid and will inevitably
change over time as individual needs evolve. Emily uses a strategy in which the person
with the “lowest risk tolerance” sets the boundaries that others adhere to. Some of the
most frequently mentioned boundaries include dealing with the way that time is spent
both individually and as a group, respecting individuality, allowing for autonomy, and
always respecting the limitations of others. One boundary all participants discussed was
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the need for safer sex practices and regular STI testing, particularity when new partners
or new sexual experiences were involved.
M. Marriage, Monogamy and Cheating
Participants in this research project held generally pragmatic views about
marriage, and this view was echoed by the three participants who are legally married. In
broad terms, all participants view marriage as a legal tool which allows for accessing
additional benefits at all levels of society. Specifically, participants mentioned gaining
benefits from employers, favorable tax consideration, immigration status, and legal
kinship for hospital visitation and property inheritance. The participants who are married
struggle with not being able to share those benefits with the other members of their
polyamorous family who are not legally recognized.
For Marie, marriage is a legal tool that is simply an agreement between two
people and the state; she considers emotional commitment to be completely separate from
this process. She has been married three times and uses marriage as a tool to attain
specific benefits. She married the first time in order to be stationed in the same place as
her partner when they volunteered for the Peace Corps, this would not have been
impossible if they hadn’t married. After completing their service with the Peace Crops,
they returned home and amicably divorced. Her second marriage was to Phillip’s father
in order to get health insurance. At the time of their marriage they had very limited
spiritual and sexual partnership, and this distance was maintained throughout their
marriage. After another amicable divorce, Marie married Cindy in order to help her
attain Canadian citizenship. They plan to stay married until Marie has attained full
citizenship, and then will once again amicably divorce. Their triad has already begun
discussing having Cindy then marry Joe (after she divorces Marie) to enable him to have
Canadian citizenship as well, with the ultimate goal being everyone in their family having
legal rights to live in the same country as one another. If there were other tools to use to
define kinship aside from marriage, it is unlikely that any of these marriages would have
taken place. Proponents of polyamory may consider this an excellent example of why
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simply expanding the definition of marriage might not be a solution that fits the diverse
needs of polyamorous families.
In monogamous culture cheating has become normalized to an extent where it is
almost an expected occurrence the longer a relationship persists. The concept of cheating
within the context of polyamory largely depends on the agreements that have been made
between all the individuals involved, and may not necessarily involve sexual infidelity.
The participants in this study agreed that lying is cheating - if you are unwilling to tell
your partner something then that can be considered a breach of trust that feels like
cheating. They also agreed that polyamory does not prevent cheating, but rather provides
a safe space to talk about their needs and desires openly. Many of the participants
expressed that they insecure and anxious in monogamous relationships because of
cheating culture, and that the open and honest communication they found within
polyamory helped them to regain a sense of security. Within the context of monogamous
relationships, Angela reported often feeling horrible about certain friendships because
they were so affectionate, and that she felt as if she needed to pull away from these
people in order to remain emotionally faithful to her partner. She felt that she lost
friendships due to monogamous norms. In short, polyamorous people are not immune to
cheating, and the very definition of cheating can vary drastically from one relationship to
the next. By constantly working to improve communication and creating a safe space for
radical self-expression, these polyamorists feel like they have found more security and
stability than they experienced when living within the monogamous norm.
N. Being Out as Polyamorous
Canada has been taking steps to be more inclusive of (and actively protecting and
supporting via legislation) LGBTI2 individuals, leading to a culture where people are
feeling increasingly comfortable being out and open about who they are. To a certain
extent this feeling of freedom was echoed by participants in this study, many of them said
they are not trying to hide their polyamory but also not actively advertising it either.
Unlike LGBTI2 individuals, polyamorists have no legal status or protection which means
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it would be technically legal for someone to discriminate against them if they disagree
with their lifestyle choices. Many are out as polyamorous to their immediate (biological)
families, and they reported family reactions to coming out ranging from absolute
rejection and ostracization to complete acceptance of them and their chosen family as
well. The degree to which they are out to their biological family also varied greatly
depending on the relationships they have with individual biological family members.
Those with already strained relationships with their biological family tended to provide
less information while those who maintained stronger relationships with biological family
members tended to be much more open about their polyamorous life. Phillip grew up in
polyamorous household and it feels completely normal to him. Most of his friends know
that he lives in a family with multiple adults but they don’t think anything of it. His
experiences with polyamory have been normalized from such a young age that to him
monogamy feels like the exception and polyamory feels like the natural default.
Some participants described feeling very comfortable being out in their
communities, especially those who have established connections within existing kink and
BDSM communities. Angela, Joni, and Owen all talked about how they feel comfortable
being open about their polyamory when they go to kink events or are around friends
they’ve met through BDSM groups. Emily feels free to be openly out in her land co-
operative community which is queer and gender diverse and provides a lot of empathy
and support, while Christine’s experience has been shaped by a collogue who is openly
out about being polyamorous in their work place. Owen is also open about being
polyamorous in his workplace and feels he has nothing to hide.
O. Stigma
Participants in this study repeatedly mentioned that they are careful about who
they talk to about polyamory. Emily mentioned that some people can see polyamory as a
way of “…legitimately slutting it up” and that oftentimes disclosing her lifestyle is
accompanied by a barrage of questions. Other participants also mentioned being
frequently asked to answer questions such as “…do they know about each other? are they
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friends? Who has sex with who?”. While the subject of repeated or intrusive questioning
came up in several interviews, participants largely didn’t consider any of their
experiences as being stigmatizing and instead attributed this to natural curiosity.
Marie discussed a time where she feared losing her job as a teacher if parents
found out about her lesbian relationship with another teacher in the same district as there
were no protections for same-sex relationships in the United States at that time. She also
didn’t disclose her polyamorous lifestyle, but her fears were more about being
stigmatized for her sexuality rather than polyamory. Joni mentioned that sometimes
when the quad is out in public together people will stare or give them strange looks. She
said that they act just as monogamous couples might act, specifically mentioning holding
hands and sharing kisses.
P. Privilege
Privilege was a common theme discussed by the participants. Many directly
acknowledged their privileges around ethnicity, class, and education. Marie feels
privileged to be able to lead the life style of her choosing, noting that in many countries
she would not be able to do so. She attributes being white, educated, and middle class as
giving her enough privilege to enable a life where she is not reliant on another partner
providing for her. She also acknowledges that she feels privileged to have enough time
available to maintain multiple relationships. Marie feels that maintaining financial
independence and never having to rely on a partner for support enables her to maintain
the level personal freedom she needs to thrive. These sentiments were echoed in other
interviews, where topics like finances and flexible work schedules were also mentioned
as being privileges that enable supporting multiple relationships.
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Q. Legal Concerns
Many of the participants discussed legal issues surrounding their polyamorous
lifestyle, with struggles adding additional family members to medical or work benefits
and hospital visitation rights coming up in most interviews. Joni and Owen wish they
could share their current benefits with the other members of their family but currently are
unable to do so. Christine suggests that benefits should be able to be split between
multiple people. Owen points out that the definition of family is limited and too much
emphasis is placed on marriage, giving the example of his aunt and grandmother who
lived together for fifty years but despite repeated attempts his aunt was never able to add
his grandmother as a beneficiary of her medical benefits from work. In this case being
biological family wasn’t enough to prove kinship. Participants who receive benefits
through the Ontario Disability Support Program chose not to reveal any information
about their polyamorous partners, fearing that if the program knew of their additional
relationships they would lose their income as well as additional benefits.
Emily and Marie consulted with a lawyer to draft a legally binding will to ensure
that if anything happened to them their children would be raised by family of their
choosing, not their biological relatives, but they also noted that this was a large financial
strain. All participants acknowledged that the expense of hiring legal representation is a
barrier that prevents most polyamorous people from seeking additional protection. Owen
laments the fact that legal befits and protections are freely available to monogamous
couples but polyamorous people have to go to costly lengths to get a small fraction of the
same protections.
Emily believes that it is important to make the law work for you as best as you
can and to make it a financial priority to hire legal representation, but also acknowledged
that she feels like current laws are out of touch with what people need and want in
modern society. She provided the example of three people living together who all have a
conjugal relationship; because they are three they cannot be considered common law
despite meeting all the other criteria.
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Marie focuses on the way that citizenship can impact polyamorous families,
believing that if everyone shares the same nationality they are safer, especially when
children are involved. Currently Marie, Joe, Phillip, and her daughter are American
citizens with only herself and her daughter having permanent residence status in Canada.
When she began the process to marry Marie, the Canadian government required her to
sign a legal declaration that she no longer has a conjugal relationship with her ex-
husband. She noted that it seems ridiculous that the government should be concerned who
she has sex with when their overall goal is to figure out who can be taxed and how to
protect their boarder. Whenever the family crosses the border together they use
heteronormativity to protect themselves - when questioned Phillip will refer to Joe as his
stepfather to ease the process.
R. Social Change
A recurring theme between participants was that if more people were out and
open about being polyamorous then it would over time become more socially acceptable.
Many participants were critical of using marriage to determine who can receive benefits,
noting that no matter how much the definition of marriage is expanded there will still be
family types that fall through the cracks. They also challenged the notion that the
government should play a role in determining who can or cannot be considered family.
However, not all agree that drastic change should happen quickly. Marie cautions that if
definitions of family are changed there needs to be a system in place to be able to prove
Christine points out that education is another tool that can help to shape
perspective. She specifically noted how a recent update to the Ontario sex education
curriculum does a really good job of starting to talk about consent culture and
normalizing individuals with different sexual identities. It should be noted that at the time
of this writing Douglas Ford, a conservative politician and Premier of Ontario unilaterally
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revoked this curriculum and reinstated a curriculum from 1998 that does not talk about
consent or sexuality outside of a monogamous heterosexual context.
S. Critiques of Polyamory from Families
The participants in this research were unabashed proponents of polyamory, but
they still provided some thoughtful critiques about the lifestyle that they feel are
important to consider for anyone thinking about becoming polyamorous. Brianne
believes it is crucial for individuals to have a strong and robust network of family and
friends outside of the polyamorous dynamic to ensure support in case the relationships
deteriorate. Having multiple support structures means more safety and security during
times of crisis. Marie wryly noted that many of the polyamorous relationships she has
seen were “fucked up” later clarifying that in her opinion “…relationships almost never
work regardless [of whether they are polyamorous our monogamous].” In her view,
dysfunction and relationship breakdown are more attributable to individual personalities
and choices than to the structure of the relationships themselves.
The role that hierarchy plays in polyamorous relationships is a topic of some
contention as well. Many of the participants believe that hierarchy can be toxic and by its
very nature excludes people. Others find comfort in knowing their place within a
hierarchical structure, with Angela talking about organizing partners into a hierarchical
“totem pole” that helps her define boundaries and allocate time accordingly. If one of the
core beliefs of the polyamorous lifestyle is egalitarianism it is absolutely crucial to
consider the role of hierarchy within any polyamorous dynamic.
In summary the five families are diverse and comprised of unique individuals
with their own beliefs about how to best integrate structure, dynamics, and
communication into their relationships. They all have nuanced opinions on the role of
hierarchy within a relationship, whether polyamory is a lifestyle choice or an innate
identity, and what could be considered “best practices” for polyamorous life. For all their
differences, they share many similarities in the way the define polyamory, emphasizing
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its egalitarian and inclusive nature. They have shared concerns about a lack of legal
recognition when it comes to allocating benefits while simultaneously feeling very
fortunate to have largely avoided any negative social stigma from their lifestyle choices.
Each participant has identified polyamory as being a positive influence in their life,
especially talking about how much it has helped them to improve their self-awareness
and communication skills, even when discussing painful topics. They feel very aware of
their privilege and seek to affect positive change in the world by living their lives fairly
The diversity of individuals and opinions expressed in this study provides a
snapshot into polyamorous life in Canada today – it is very much undergoing a phase of
growth and integration into the broader fabric of society. It is beginning to attract an
increasingly diverse group of people, and with that the very nature of polyamory will
grow and evolve.
VIII. Discussion
The following section seeks to synthesize and discuss findings from this study and
to place them within the context of extant polyamory research, beginning with a
demographic summary, touching on subjects such as personal definitions of polyamory,
benefits and criticisms of the lifestyle, and possible policy proposals that are in line with
the needs expressed by the study’s participants. The section concludes with some best
practices social workers can adopt to better serve the needs of polyamorous clients and an
examination of the limitations of this study.
A. Demographics
The demographics of the research participants in this study generally align with
studies completed by Sheff and Boyd; the majority are of Caucasian ethnicity, younger in
age and highly educated compared to national averages. Income ranges of participants in
this study are also similar to what Boyd (2017b) observed. Most of the individuals
reported annual income of less than CAD $40,000; two families in this study were either
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completely or partially dependent on the Ontario Disability Support Program to provide
income. One family has an annual income of CAD $200,000 with all members of the
family being employed full-time, showing the potential power of pooled income when
multiple adults can contribute to family finances. This research also had participants from
the same provinces Boyd surveyed (Ontario and British Columbia) which is hardly
surprising given that this is where the bulk of the Canadian population is located. With
the exception of one individual in this study who identified as being First Nation, the
demographic makeup of participants in this study are largely in line with previous
B. Gender, Sexuality, Polyamorous Identity
This research interview asked participants to identify their gender. Two
participants identified as male, five identified as female, and one participant identified as
being gender fluid, again largely matching Boyd’s (2017b) demographics. Sexuality
varied with participants identifying as straight, bisexual, heteroflexible, demisexual,
asexual, and pansexual. This again is in line with the findings of Boyd (2017b) who
observed that polyamory is inherently gender diverse and inclusive of a wide range of
sexualities. The results of this study support Sheff’s (2005) arguments that polyamory
allows women to explore their sexuality and connectedness to other women, exemplified
in the relationship between Joni and Christine. They both found that polyamory allows
them to explore their sexuality while building deeply intimate connections and emotional
C. Definitions of Polyamory and Family
In Weston’s (1991) research with gay and lesbian families, all of the individuals
who participated indicated that they have very expansive and liberal definitions of who
can be considered family members. A common theme in Weston’s research was
participants talking about how they felt free to choose friends, their multiple partners,
extended biological family of partners, and accepting members of their community to
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define family. This notion of incorporating community into family and not just sexual
partners is reflected in Emily’s relationship with her land co-operative community. Just
as Weston observed an expansive definition of family, each participant in this study also
defined family in ways that challenge the established patriarchal, monogamous norm,
instead emphasizing that family are the people you choose and are not limited to blood
relatives or people with whom you share legal connections.
Participants in this study also had expansive definitions of polyamory, saying it
can incorporate elements of ethical non-monogamy, involve maintaining multiple
simultaneous romantic relationships, allow for the development of deep emotional
connections between partners, and to enable exploration of sexual diversity. Their
individual definitions of polyamory slightly differed from those of Brunning, 2016;
Haritaworn et al, 2006; Shannon & Willis, 2010; Emens, 2004; Schippers, 2016; and
Sheff 2015, however, the core message that polyamory means being able to give and
receive more love is absolutely in line with all of the existing research. This highlights
the diversity within polyamory and what polyamory and family means to people while
revealing the core principle that defines the lifestyle.
D. Polyamory as an Identity
Participants in this study broadly agreed that they consider polyamory to be an
identity, supporting research by Klesse (2014) and Barker (2005) who found that people
tended to identify as polyamorous because it is a natural feeling and a part of who they
are, born out of an unwillingness to meet society’s demands for monogamy. Klesse
(2014) argued that to advance the rights of polyamory advocates should steer away from
defining polyamory as a sexual identity, a sentiment that was shared by the participants in
this research, none of whom identified polyamory as a sexual preference. One individual
in this study indicated that polyamory for her is a means to forming close emotional
connections with others without having any sexual component at all, further supporting
Klesse’s assertion that polyamory cannot simply be defined as a sexual practice.
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E. Relationship Structures
The results of this research show a great deal of diversity in polyamorous
relationship structures; none of the families interviewed had quite the same structure.
This is in line with research completed by Brunning (2016), Shannon & Willis (2010),
Sheff (2015), and Klesse (2011) who all observed that polyamory’s inclusive nature
means each family will be uniquely shaped by the individuals who form it. Participants in
this research note that it is becoming increasingly important to change the way family is
defined to ensure no one is excluded. The current, narrow definitions of family have
negative impacts on polyamorous families, chosen families, platonic families, and (as
Owen pointed out in his story about his grandmother and aunt) even biological families in
some cases. By attaching the allocation of certain benefits and property rights to
marriage, there will always be people excluded no matter how much the definition of
marriage is expanded. Many of the participants expressed a desire to decouple property
rights and benefit allocation from marriage altogether and instead attach it to family
members of their choosing.
This study had one particularly notable result that differed from the findings of
Sheff (2015) and Schippers (2016). Their earlier research found that two men in a vee
formation with a woman in the middle was the most common polyamorous formation
amongst their participants, and they even went so far as to suggest this may be the most
stable formation for maintaining long-term familial connections. Contrasting with their
results, in this study the polyamorous families who maintained the longest-lasting
relationships consisted of two women and one-man in a triad and a quad of two women
and two men. More than anything else, this contrasting result shows the need for more
thorough quantitative research into polyamorous families, and also indicates the need for
extreme caution before making any sweeping pronouncements about the superiority of
any particular relationship structure. As the participants in this research point out, each
relationship structure is potentially unique and is shaped by the individuals who
participate in it.
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F. Health Benefits of Polyamory
In her 2015 research, Sheff suggested that polyamory may be particularly
beneficial for individuals living with mental health issues or long term disabilities
because there are multiple adults available to provide support. The results of this study
directly support these claims. In this research, all respondents who reported suffering
from mental health issues also said they have seen significant improvements in their well-
being because of their polyamorous lifestyle, specifically noting how it has allowed them
to have multiple deeply connected relationships to turn to when in need of support.
Moors et al (2014) conducted research that indicates polyamorous individuals who value
emotional intimacy and radically open communication exhibit lower levels of avoidance
and anxiety than their monogamous counterparts (Moors et al, 2014, p.234). These
findings are further reinforced by this study, as participants frequently talked about a
need for emotional intimacy and radically open and honest communication being
cornerstones for maintaining healthy polyamorous relationships. This study goes a step
further, with participants indicating that in addition to intimacy and open communication
it is essential to set and maintain appropriate boundaries to ensure the wellbeing of
everyone in the family.
G. Parenting and Children
Conservative politicians often argue that by limiting sexual freedom they are
protecting the notion of the core family (usually taking the form of a heterosexual
monogamous couple) which they believe is the best environment to raise children (Yi,
2013, p.500). However, the vast majority of extant research has been focused on
monogamous family life, with only a few small studies (this research included) beginning
to address the question of how non-monogamy and other forms of nontraditional
upbringings can impact childhood development. Brunning’s (2016) research indicates
that the emotional work of maintaining polyamorous relationships uniquely equips
parents to communicate and work through negative emotions together in ways that are
not frequently observed in monogamous families. This enables polyamorous parents to
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better set and discuss boundaries and emotional norms which in turn creates an
environment of safety that insulates children from the trauma of external shocks
including illness, breakup and income changes that can be so devastating to other
children (Brunning, 2016, p.14). This in turn has positive impacts on the psychological
development of children, and Brunning even goes so far as to posit that this in turn may
lead to improved physiological development as well.
This study had two participant families that raised children within a polyamorous
dynamic. Both families agreed that having a lager network of adults to provide care and
support was absolutely beneficial for their children. Both of these families had at all
times a minimum of three adult figures supporting the growth and development of their
children. Philip, one of the children raised in a participant family, indicated that he views
his upbringing as entirely “normal” and that he sees no ill-effects from growing up with
multiple parental figures. This supports Moors et al’s (2014) notion that adults who have
healthy, stable attachment in consensual non-monogamy are to model this behavior to
children which in turn teaches them to form healthy, normal attachments with multiple
adults/parental figures. As participants in this study also noted, having multiple adults to
share household chores leaves more time for personal care and development, which can
result in increased energy and attention when spending time with children. When it
comes to childcare, polyamory is the embodiment of the philosophy that it takes a village
to raise a child.
H. Marriage, Monogamy and Cheating
Mint’s (2004) notion that cheating is the “expected failure” of monogamous
relationships is directly supported by this study, as four participants cited cheating in
monogamous relationships as one of the direct causes of their becoming polyamorous.
Lorde’s (1984) theory that monogamous coupling results in women pouring time,
financial, physical and emotional resources into a singular relationship leaving them
robbed of any energy for the personal or erotic development is closely aligned with
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Brianne’s guiding principles for polyamory, where she explicitly requires her partners to
put the same level of attention and energy into the relationship as she invests.
Each participant in this research to varying degrees talked about how keeping
certain benefits tied to monogamous marriage is an imperfect system that excludes many
people. Marie talked about how she married her son’s biological father so that his
medical insurance could cover the birth and follow-up care over the next few years. In
this case she was able to strategically use monogamous norms to secure social rights, but
she points out that to her marriage is simply a social contract that has nothing whatsoever
to do with emotional attachment. By extension, many of the participants believe if
marriages are simple social contracts to create familial connection in the eyes of the state
(regardless of the existence of a deeper emotional commitment) there is no rational
reason why it shouldn’t be available to more than just married couples. Marie and
Emily’s family formations are direct challenges to the current monogamous and
patriarchal model of monogamous marriage, and all indications from this research is that
raising children in a stable home with multiple caring adults can be beneficial to their
I. Stigma and Privilege
None of the participants identified any definite cases where they faced
discrimination or stigma as a direct result of being polyamorous, but several of them
recounted experiences of facing hostility because of their sexual identity. Marie talked
about a time she feared losing her employment because of a lesbian relationship she was
in and Owen talked about facing discrimination because of his involvement in the BDSM
community. This lack of stigmatization supports Sheff & Hammers’ (2011) theories that
privilege plays a large role in shielding individuals who participate in subcultures from
discrimination and stigma, and as discussed earlier many of the participants are acutely
aware of (and openly discuss) their privileges. Also of note, each of the families
interviewed talked about how they are able to appear to fit within accepted cultural norms
when necessary, exemplified by Marie’s story about identifying one of her partners as her
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child’s “stepfather” when crossing borders. It is also entirely possible that participants
have experienced greater forms of stigmatization but were unable to recognize it as such;
some might argue that the necessity of hiring a lawyer just to ensure that child custody is
handled in a way that are in line with a parent’s wishes is a form of discrimination itself.
It is absolutely clear that much more research is needed about polyamory within
marginalized communities before any accurate conclusions about polyamory and stigma
can be drawn.
J. Legal Concerns: Implications for Policy
A clear result of this study is further confirmation of Sheff’s (2015) finding that
polyamorists are not necessarily seeking plural marriage but rather want alternate ways of
showing family connections, especially when it comes to allocating social benefits and
property rights. Having alternate ways of showing family connections are not solely
sought for pragmatic reasons, Joni spoke about feeling sad that she did not have a way to
show legal connection to her other partners as well.
Polyamorous individuals in Canada currently live in a legal grey zone where
protections and recognition is incredibly limited, and those who marry as a dyad within a
polyamorous family have the most rights while others in their family are excluded. Many
areas of concern remain. Throughout the interview process participants talked about
things they ‘wished’ could be different, or how things ‘should be’ some of the most
frequently mentioned issues have been compiled here as potential action points for policy
Streamlining immigration processes and creating a system for non-
monogamous families to be reunified across borders
Redefine how social and employment befits (such as Canadian pension plans)
are allocated to allow for all family types to be included
Allow individuals to choose who they want to be able to visit them and make
decisions on their behalf at hospitals, remove the default assumption the
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biological family is best suited to make these decisions
Allow multiple individuals to be registered on birth certificates, and allow this
to be amended over time to ensure that custody of children always goes to
people the parent trusts
Create a new standardized system to allow kinships between people without
arbitrary restrictions
Another potential policy proposal comes from Boyd (2017a), who suggested
creating formal relationship agreements as a way to create structure in the absence of
legal clarity, noting that such agreements should contain: clarification of ownership of
real and personal property, responsibilities for debts, groceries, utilities, rents/ mortgages
and other bills associated with living within a home, division of domestic chores,
partnering agreements, participation in social events and perceptions of the family outside
the home, and boundaries that must be respected when adding new sexual relationships or
members to the household (Boyd, 2017a, p.74). Boyd suggested that if such agreements
were treated as seriously as marriage contracts in legal settings it could go a long way
towards creating a more inclusive system that addresses many of the needs of
From this research it has become clear that one of the first (and most logical)
policy steps is to expand the definition of common law to allow any cohabiting
individuals in a caring relationship to gain recognition as family, without restrictions.
This will allow many families who are currently unrecognized to gain legal status and
protection. It will also help to change public perception about the nature of polyamory.
More immediately, the Canadian courts need to be open to receiving expert
testimony and input when dealing with issues relating to non-monogamy, especially in
high profile cases. Instances such as Justice Bauman’s decision to ignore input from the
Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association has led to many Canadians associating all
forms of non-monogamy with unethical, religiously motivated bigamy. For a more
positive example, Newfoundland’s supreme court decision to allow three members of a
polyamorous family to jointly sign a birth certificate and share custody of their child
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exemplifies how critical it is that members of the judicial system be open to input from
experts within the community.
To see true, lasting change proponents of polyamory will need to progress on
multiple fronts simultaneously. In the court systems there have been both setbacks and
very recent triumphs, but much work remains to be done to change public perceptions
about non-monogamy and the prevalence of non-traditional families in society.
Researchers need to give voice to families like those interviewed for this study in order to
inform policy decisions that benefit all Canadians, not just the ones who fit in the
narrowly defined moulds of monogamy.
K. Social Change: Implications for Social Work
Little has been written specifically on social work and polyamory. Social Work
textbooks and literature which discuss intimate relationships commonly address issues
such as marriage, divorce, single living, cohabitation, and same-sex relationships but lack
awareness of non-monogamous relationships and other types of non-traditional families
(Williams & Prior, 2015, p. 268). Proponents of polyamory often attribute this to the deep
entrenchment that mono-normativity has within society. Social workers who have not
been exposed to alternative forms of relating may assume that monogamy is the
healthiest form of relationship and by imposing their notions of legitimate family and
relationships on clients may actively cause harm (Williams & Prior, 2015, p. 269). For
this reason alone it’s critical that social workers be exposed to the full spectrum of human
relationships and sexual expression, which in turn will better equip them to relate to the
needs of their clients. Social workers within family and child welfare or protection
agencies have a special duty to educate themselves about the broadly diverse forms that
healthy family life can take to ensure that they do not separate children from loving and
nurturing homes simply because it doesn’t fit a stereotypical model. To truly serve
families best, these workers must understand the ways in which traditional and
nontraditional families share the same struggles and the different approaches they may
take to conflict resolution.
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On a micro level, social workers must become aware of their own biases and be
conscious of how societal messaging shapes perceptions of monogamy. In therapeutic
settings, social workers could potentially use their knowledge of ethical non-monogamy
to suggest healthy ways for clients to seek out fulfillment of their needs (Williams &
Prior, 2015, p. 269). On a mezzo level, social workers can collaborate with community
organizations to provide education about polyamory and other nontraditional forms of
family life. Social workers are uniquely placed in society to be able to advocate and
educate at the same time, and it is crucial that they remain open-minded and constantly
seek new opportunities to educate themselves about all the different forms of human
relationships. On the macro level social work can help shape and form policy based on
the needs of polyamorous people and other nontraditional families who currently fall
through the cracks. The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association advocates for a
national education to raise awareness about the polyamorous lifestyle and its current legal
status, a sentiment which was echoed by participants in this study who broadly agree that
the best way to affect societal change is through education.
L. Study Limitations
This study is primarily limited by the small number of participants. The
narratives of five Canadian polyamorous families is by no means a comprehensive survey
but rather an intimate and illuminating snapshot in a growing body of research. It should
also be noted that that not all the participant families were interviewed in their entirety
some families were missing one or more members due to scheduling conflicts or travel.
The interviews were also conducted in a group setting and did not have individual follow-
up sessions, so group dynamics and power structures may have influenced some of the
answers. Despite its limitations, this study is an excellent example of the diversity in
polyamorous family arrangements. The diversity in this snapshot will hopefully give
future researchers looking to make broad pronouncements about the nature of polyamory
pause, and remind them that the lived experiences of polyamorous families are going to
be as diverse as the people shaping them. Above all else, this study concludes that further
! !
research and exploration of polyamorous family life in Canada is needed to truly
understand their concerns and ensure they receive adequate recognition and protection.
IX. Summary and Conclusions
Monogamy is a cultural construct built on exclusive dyadic relationships, and has
come to be defined as the most natural and healthy form of relationship (Brunning, 2016;
Moors Et al, 2014). Historically it has been used as a means to regulate individual
relationships (and more importantly, property rights) and is seen as a critical tool for
maintaining an orderly state. Recently, the polyamory movement, empowered by the
advancement of feminism and the sexual revolution has begun to challenge the notion
that monogamy is the only natural and healthy form of relationship. Over the past five
years research into polyamory as a movement has grown considerably but has largely
been limited to studies conducted in the United States. This thesis sought to create a
snapshot of polyamory in Canada and to place the polyamory movement into the broader
context of Canadian law.
This study was conducted by collecting the narratives of five polyamorous
families from Ontario and British Columbia, with interviews involving eight participants.
Due to scheduling constraints, not all families were represented in their entirety, and
some families were represented by just one member speaking on behalf of everyone else.
The study initially sought to have a larger participant pool but was constrained by the
limited time and scope of a master’s thesis coupled with the difficulty in finding
participants in a community that remains largely underground. The study explored lived
experiences leading up to the adoption of a polyamorous lifestyle, the formation of
polyamorous families (including families with children), their experiences of stigma, and
any legal concerns they have in order to gain a better understanding of how they function
in the grey margins of Canadian legality. The study found many common themes
mirroring results from previous studies and adds important narratives to help better
understand the breadth and diversity of different relationship forms that are possible
within the framework of polyamory.
! !
One of the most notable findings of this study is that the participants generally are
not pursuing an expansion of marriage rights, but rather seek an alternate way to have
legally recognized family connections to people of their choosing. All of the families
interviewed mentioned instances where they felt that pretending to be monogamous and
lying about their relationship status in order to conform to societal expectations made
their lives easier, and were aware of the ways that their privilege has also helped to shield
them from stigmatization and discrimination. In their own way, each participant
expressed frustration that mono-normative society has no way to recognize family life
that doesn’t fit neatly within its boundaries and wish to see a more inclusive world in the
On the policy side, participants were most concerned with finding ways to extend
medical and social welfare benefits to all partners within their polyamorous family, not
just to those who are legally married. Issues around hospital rights and whom they are
able to classify as next of kin were also frequently brought up. Participants
acknowledged that there are steps they can do to secure some of these protections legal
via a patchwork of wills, power of attorney agreements, and creating limited liability
corporations but also noted this requires a great deal of financial privilege and is an
unrealistic solution for most Canadians today. Many of the participants view marriage (as
it currently stands) as a pragmatic tool that can be leveraged to gain social benefits for
whichever partner has the greatest need (or can provide the most benefit) at the time, but
they largely rejected the notion that marriage needs to involve love or lifelong
At the time of writing, this study is the first academic work investigating the lives
of Canadian polyamorous families. While the pool of participants is limited, it provides a
compelling snapshot of their lived experiences and is an excellent example of the diverse
nature of polyamorous relationship structures. No two families had quite the same
structure, yet all shared common values of open communication, radical honesty, and
increased emotional support. Above all, this study demonstrates that monogamous
family life is not the norm for all Canadians, and that there are functional, loving families
! !
living at the fringes of legality with minimal social protection and no way to prove their
connections to one another. Much more research needs to be done to better understand
their needs and how to ensure that all Canadians are able to access essential social and
work benefits without falling through the cracks.
! !
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Certificate of Authenticity
I, Charity Smith herewith certify that the above presented thesis is true and right to the
best of my knowledge. I further certify that I have researched and written this thesis
without any outside help. Should I have had assistance this is pointed out at the
appropriate place within this thesis.
Place and Date of Signature
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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