An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
My only kid is a 20-year old college student who is fabulous in every way, but his romantic life continues to push at my boundaries in ways that make me both feel uncomfortable and hate myself for feeling uncomfortable. I feel an inner wish that this is a “phase”, then beat myself up for that wish.
The group of friends he eventually connected with as his college buds cover a large range of gender and sexual orientation combos. Previously, like a year ago, he would have described himself as the only straight male in this friend group. His before/outside-of-college intimate relations have included dating a girl who then decided she wanted to only date girls, and having a very intimate relationship with a longtime friend who is now a trans woman.
Now he has two relationships intimate enough that he has recently begun calling them both “partners”. Both these people (now) prefer they/them/their pronouns. Seen from the street, one you’d likely label a woman, one you’d likely label a man. He is doing a fantastic job of managing this situation — my best advice to him at the end of the summer when he talked about his anxieties on navigating the three-way relations was communicate, communicate, communicate. So far, so good.
But I confess that I have some small concerns about the STD aspect of a group of kids who are all somewhat polyamorous — like if every one of my kid’s partners has another partner… where does it end? Who is keeping track of who could be passing on what? But that is a technical issue that can be solved with clear communication for all.
Still, I can’t help wishing that when all is said and done, he would choose one sexual orientation or the other, that the intimate relationship with his closest friend was something specific to that friendship, not a global desire that would continue through his life. And why? Do I think he would suffer from having fluid gender/sexual relations? I suppose if the Theocracy folks take over, yes. I feel vaguely uneasy, and wish I did not.
I’m proud of his openness and for being the kind of person that any sexual partner feels safe with. Still, I cringe just a little when he describes himself as queer (in the context of his house being “a bunch of queers” as they are fighting the jock boys upstairs for being sensible during the pandemic).
Help me navigate this with grace!
There is no part of parenting, I think, that is devoid of gut-wrenching complications, but watching our kids wade out into the world of relationships and sex has got to be at the top of the list. It sounds to me like you are doing all the right things on the outside, but struggling on the inside with the pieces of his life that are fluid, and different from your own more structured experience.
I know with my oldest kid there are questions I would love to ask about his world and relationships to understand them better, but asking feels… perilous? Like I might miscommunicate or make a mistake, and end up inadvertently closing a door that I want very desperately to keep open.
So let me at least provide you with some information and reassurance about more fluid relationship structures, based on my own experience. They are very different in some respects from monogamy, but the essential rules for safety and wellbeing are exactly the same.
In my teens and twenties, I was, like most of us, serially monogamous. My former marriage was 99.9 % sexually monogamous, but my ex engaged in emotional affairs throughout our relationship, while simultaneously trying to convince me to be “polyamorous”. His definition was some sort of utopian, “love always and often” idea, but in reality seemed to involve him being free to date whomever he liked in whatever fashion, while I stayed home with our two young children. He eventually cheated on me and then began dating his current wife while we were still married.
About three years after we split I became lovers with a dear friend’s husband, at her suggestion. I was still reeling from my divorce, and completely incapable of handling any kind of romance, but, to be frank, celibacy was getting old. Her husband was a great and enthusiastic lover, he made me laugh, and he adored his wife, which was exactly what I needed. I could dip my toes back in the water of connecting sexually to another human who I could trust to be kind, who was happy to spend time with me, and then I could send him back to his wife for all of the complicated emotional stuff that is inherent to long-term commitments. Some people would call this ethical non-monogamy, as opposed to polyamory since he and I were never really romantically entangled. There was plenty of love there, though, so call it what you will.
Now I’m in a long-term, largely monogamous partnership. I say largely, because there have been other people for me, sexually and emotionally, at times, and emotionally for him. Currently, it’s just the two of us, and that feels right. Maybe at some point, we’ll reconfigure, or maybe we won’t. We communicate extensively, consistently, and well. I trust we’ll continue to figure it out, together.
I write all of this to say that ultimately, in my experience, any sort of relationship structure can work, as long as everyone communicates well and takes responsibility for their own emotional material. The only relationship rule necessary, regardless of configuration, is don’t get involved with assholes.
It sounds like you are giving your kid all the right advice and encouragement to help him navigate these new relationship structures that he’s creating. Kudos to both of you for maintaining the kind of communication and trust that allows him to come to you and share what he’s going through. Lots of young people won’t, or can’t, for fear of judgment or alienation from their families.
The reality is that polyamory may be a temporary way of being for him or it may prove to be inherent to who he is and what he wants for his life long-term. Only time will tell. Regardless, it makes sense that it would make you a little squeamish. One, it’s complicated and we, as humans, often crave simplicity. Keeping track of who is what to whom, especially when you’re coming at it from the outside, is a lot. It does get easier with time, but it’s understandable from this vantage point to secretly hope you will eventually only have to relate to one partner at a time.
Two, if you’re someone who always hoped for grandchildren, you might have questions about how that is all going to work. Who will do the actual parenting? Will the children understand what’s going on? You might fear the judgment that this alternative family might experience. That is also fair because there are places in the U.S. where a poly family would experience social ostracization at best, and possibly legal trouble at worst.
The reality, though, is that poly families do exist, queer and not. If that’s the route he chooses, there are resources and community out there for him and his chosen partners. The kids, in my experience, are no more, or less, fucked up than kids are generally. Again, the deciding factor for children’s wellbeing is a commitment to good communication and individual emotional work, not the structure of the family.
As for sexually transmitted diseases, I don’t actually think that folks who are polyamorous are more at risk for STD’s than their monogamous counterparts. I would hazard that they’re actually less at risk because of the tendency for poly folks to engage in regular and extensive conversations about issues like honesty, transparency, emotional needs, and fluid bonding (the notion that only folks within a closed, chosen circle have sex without latex protection). Monogamous folks tend to more easily fall into assuming that everyone is on the same page and wants the same things. When monogamous folks don’t feel like their needs are being met, they’re more likely to feel like it’s their fault and they’re trapped. Self-doubt and constriction are a two-part recipe for infidelity and unsafe sexual behavior.
Let me not paint polyamory with rose-colored glasses, however. All sorts of unsafe behaviors and emotionally irresponsible choices can happen in polyamorous relationships, too, but it sounds like your son is already developing the sorts of relationship skills and habits that preclude those kinds of problems. I think you should trust that he and his partners will manage to have safe enough sex, and if anyone gets an STD they’ll get it taken care of appropriately.
Not to downplay illness, but it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of STD’s are easy to treat when caught early. Encourage him to get the HPV vaccine, consider PreP if he’s at risk for HIV, practice safe sex with all new partners, get everyone screened for STD’s regularly, and talk openly and honestly about the realities and restrictions of fluid bonding. All of this would be true if he were monogamous, too.
Now, about your son being queer. Because I’m queer, it was not an issue for me when my son came out as queer. It was more of a “welcome to the club” kind of moment. But when he came out to me as trans, that was a whole other kettle of fish. I won’t get into all the details of the complications for me, but what I think is pertinent to the discussion at hand is this: once he came out to me as trans he entered a world that I didn’t understand or have any experience with. How was I supposed to guide him or advise him? How was I supposed to keep him safe? That’s always been my job.
Even if your son was choosing a relationship structure and sexual orientation that was more similar to yours there would be anxiety for you at this stage of his life about him moving out and away, beyond your ability to advise or protect him. Add in the unknowns, for you, of polyamory and fluid gender and queer sexual orientation, and the anxiety increases. How will you advise him or keep him safe when it feels like he is setting up house on another planet?
What has worked for me with my son is to be transparent and upfront with him about what I don’t know and what my anxieties are, while always making a differentiation between my emotional responsibilities and his. The anxieties that I have are mine to deal with, and not his to fix by being anything different than exactly who he is. I simply share them with him so there’s no space for him to misinterpret my anxiety as judgment.
You have already laid impressive groundwork with your son in regards to communication and trust. I would encourage you to be honest with him that the new aspects of his identity and relationships are new to both of you, and are stretching you to learn and grow, too. Don’t cringe, just keep communicating. Modeling that sort of openness, emotional responsibility, and curiosity is the best, most gracious parenting you can offer him, now and far into his adulthood.
What a lucky mama you are! He does sound freaking fabulous.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
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