Polyamorous Elders: Aging in Open Relationships
If polyamory is new or unfamiliar to you, you aren’t alone! Until a few years ago, most people who practiced any relationship style other than monogamy were very discreet and kept their polyamorous lives private. Nonmonogamous relationships were treated with disapproval at best, or fear and contempt at worst. Recently there has been more media attention on these less traditional relationship forms and more poly people have “come out of the closet” to friends, relatives, and even on the job. Consensual nonmonogamy, open relationships, and polyamory are used interchangeably by most people to describe any relationship that is not strictly monogamous, where all parties know about any other partners, and everyone involved has consented to any other relationships. While there are many different models of non-monogamous relationships, the key components are honesty, full disclosure, and keeping agreements.
Many people have asked me, “Why on earth would anyone choose that?” Polyamorous folks are a very diverse group, and each person chooses to have the option of multiple partners for different reasons. Boiled down to their essence, these motivations generally fall into two categories: More or Different. Some people want to have more than one partner because they love everything they are getting in their relationship but would like more of it. For example, they may want more time, more attention, more romance, more affection, or more sex than they receive from their partner, and seek to satisfy that need with an additional partner. Others are happy with their relationship but there is some key resource missing. For instance, someone who is bisexual may want something that only a different-gendered partner can provide. Or someone may have a desire for kink or role-playing which their primary partner cannot fulfill.
Through my counseling work with poly folks, I accidentally stumbled into a “side hustle,” writing books about consensually non-monogamous relationships. It started in the 1990s when I wrote pamphlets on open relationships because there was very little available, and my clients were always asking me, “Isn’t there a book I could read about how to do this?” Eventually, a publisher asked me to write a “how to” book on polyamory. By that time The Ethical Slut had been written but I considered that book to be “Poly 2.0” and my clients really needed “Poly 101.” I wrote three books: Love in Abundance, The Jealousy Workbook, and The Polyamory Break-up Book, each to fill a specific need that was not being met in the scant literature on the topic.
Polyamorous Elders: Aging in Open Relationships evolved differently. A friend was at work on a book about “poly geezers,” and asked me to write a chapter about issues that brought older poly folks to counseling. I soon had written 100 pages and was trying to cut it down to size when my friend changed the focus for his book and I decided to write this book myself.
My process was not scientific, and my research methods were informal. I interviewed a lot of my older poly clients, and recruited other people through poly discussion groups. I wanted poly elders to tell their own stories, without any direction from me. I just asked them a few open-ended questions about how they happened to become polyamorous and what aging in poly relationships has been like for them. They seemed eager to tell me everything about their poly lives from their youth to old age, and I rapidly amassed a wealth of material,
The book allows this unique group of poly folks fifty-five and older to tell their stories in their own words. They talk about the joys and challenges of multiple relationships and aging. They describe the complexities of juggling multiple relationships, as well as managing all the usual issues of aging: managing medical conditions and disabilities; assuming caregiving responsibilities for aging relatives; grieving the deaths of parents, siblings, and partners; retiring from careers and starting new lives; and potentially moving into some form of senior living.
Most of the research and writing available on polyamory does not sort by age, and as a result it is nearly impossible to find any useful information about older poly people and their lives. There was one study of long-term gay male couples who are in open relationships in which at least half of the participants were elders, and another study of older poly heterosexual individuals which studied their sex lives. One other researcher has conducted a 25-year longitudinal study of poly families with children, and many of those families were elders by the end of the study. Other than these three studies, I had to rely on the interviews. As a result, I could identify trends, but there was not enough data to come to any certain conclusions.
Some things I heard from the people I interviewed surprised me, but, in retrospect, made a lot of sense. For instance, most older poly folks have long since managed to tame “the green-eyed monster” of jealousy, and most reported experiencing little or no jealousy about their partners’ other partners at this stage of life. Most poly geezers have been with their partners for decades, and the longevity, stability, and security of their relationships has made them feel safe and loved. As one person put it, “If she was going to leave me for any other partner, she would have done it by now.” Another said, “My partner has had the same lover for 25 years. While I was insanely jealous at first, I eventually got over it. Besides, she has always been respectful of our relationship, and that went a long way towards making me less jealous.” Another simply said, “None of us old folks have the energy for ‘poly drama’ anymore, so we have let go of any jealousy we used to feel.”
Another fascinating trend: Some monogamously-oriented older women have established long-term committed relationships with poly married men and have been surprised to find polyamory pretty satisfying. They told me that when they were younger, they could only be happy in a monogamous relationship, but the reasons they needed monogamy no longer exist. They wanted a man to be a full-time co-parent and share the financial burden of raising children, but their kids have long since left home. And some said they felt a full-time relationship would get in the way of fulfilling goals and dreams they were forced to defer while raising children and working full-time, such as starting a business or completing their college education. Others said they get so much companionship and emotional intimacy through spending time with their adult children and grandchildren that they don’t need or want very much from a man.
Aging in Open Relationships
Many people said they have discovered unexpected advantages of polyamory as they age. They acknowledged that they were first drawn to polyamory for all the love, sex, intimacy, and adventure. However, in their elder years, they cited having multiple partners and metamours (a partner’s other partners) as a resilient model of aging. They explain that more people are likely to have more resources, including multiple incomes, more people to share the work, and more sources of emotional support. Many said their partners and metamours had come through for them in every crisis they encountered in aging. This was particularly underlined during the first year of the pandemic when so many people had lost jobs and income. Many poly elders talked about the ways their polycule had shown up for them to support them, including partners, metamours, and even ex-lovers. They described how their other partners have been allies in caring for a sick or disabled partner, or providing care and financial support for elderly parents or in-laws. This was especially true because many poly people are estranged from blood relatives who rejected them due to their unconventional lifestyle. These were not the advantages they had been thinking about when they first became poly decades ago.
Another trend is that the majority of poly elders are married or cohabiting couples, both LGBT and heterosexual, and each person in the couple has one or more committed long-term outside relationships with others who do not live with them. There is a small minority of poly elders who live in triads, and most of those “throuples” have lived together for decades. A small minority of poly geezers utilize a hybrid model where one partner has two spouses and lives with each partner half-time. However, the dominant model for poly elders seems to be a primary couple cohabiting and having other significant outside relationships.
It is not clear whether younger poly people are more likely than elders to live in triads, quads, or other configurations where more than two partners are living together as a family. And I could find no research to indicate whether younger poly folks are more likely to live alone than poly elders. The few poly elders I interviewed who lived alone were women who were “doubly widowed,” who had had two concurrent primary relationships with men, both of whom had died.
In my private practice, I see many younger poly folks in their twenties, thirties, and forties living together as threesomes and moresomes, but unfortunately very few of those poly families survive for more than a few years. While younger people are trying out more radical forms of polyamory, most have not found them to be sustainable long-term. Many younger poly folks also practice relationship anarchy, a non-hierarchical relationship model, where they do not live with any partner, each person is very autonomous and not part of a couple, and each of their relationships is very fluid. Poly elders are more likely to be in a hierarchical form of polyamory, as part of a married or cohabiting couple that is considered their primary relationship, or which may be a co-primary relationship as they may have another lover that is also a long-term committed partnership.
A major concern voiced by many poly geezers is the need for poly-friendly senior housing. Many people told me it is difficult for them to live independently any longer due to illness or disability, but they fear stigma and discrimination in senior housing. Those who have made the move to assisted living facilities have chosen to remain closeted or have only come out very selectively. Many senior living facilities are owned by churches or large corporations and residents give up a lot of control when they move in. In recent years, LGBT elders have built LGBT-friendly senior living facilities after experiencing homophobia in traditional senior housing. Poly people may have to follow their example and develop new poly-friendly senior housing where poly elders can feel accepted.
If you would like to find out more about consensual nonmonogamy, go to www.polyamory.com for additional information. For information on groups and events in your area, click on the “Meetings and Events” page. You can also visit Kathy’s website.