I came across the following question in Amy’s Dickinson’s advice column for the Boston Globe:
Q. My husband and I recently discovered that our closest friends (another couple) are having an open relationship. They say they are “polyamorous.”
I am having a very hard time accepting this. They were in our wedding, and we were in theirs. In the last 10 years I can’t remember having a single disagreement with them, but I can’t seem to get past this.
They didn’t even tell us about it. We found out because the husband was hanging all over another woman very publicly at their annual party. My husband found out what was really going on through another longtime friend.
The couple says they are both sleeping with this other woman. It didn’t look like that, though. The husband didn’t pay any attention to his wife all night.
These friends of ours are expecting their first child soon, and have asked us to be the child’s godparents.
I am struggling. I know what I am feeling is wrong and that I shouldn’t care what they do.
But I do care. For some dumb reason I feel hurt and sadly disgusted.
I don’t know what I should do. My husband is willing to act like nothing is going on. I don’t think I can.
Should I walk away from a 10-year friendship? Should I try harder to get over my own feelings and ignore it? I thought I was a better and more accepting person.
Amy’s answer is brief. And the core of it hinges on validating the letter writer’s feelings of confusion: “Your own feelings are the natural consequence of your closest friends’ choice to confound all of your expectations about them…I assume that their choice to let you learn this important detail about them from others might hurt more than your judgment about their behavior.” The rest of what she writes indicates she doesn’t understand polyamory and how it could possibly be healthy any better than the person seeking her advice.
I was deeply dissatisfied with the answer.
Because, you see, I’ve been in the letter writer’s shoes. I only found out about polyamory when I discovered close friends of mine had been secretly poly for years.
And yeah, it confused the fuck out of me.
But even given that, there’s a lot about the letter that just doesn’t sync up quite right. This passage in particular needs a helluva lot of addressing: “The couple says they are both sleeping with this other woman. It didn’t look like that, though. The husband didn’t pay any attention to his wife all night.”
- Okay, for starters? What does it look like when 3 people who are sleeping together attend a party? Draw a picture. Here are some crayons. Clearly, you have extensive experience with polyamory.
- Sass aside, there aren’t a lot of cultural models for polyamory. And even when triads attend social functions at gatherings where the majority of people are polyamorous? They aren’t necessarily glomped on to each other all night. Believe me, I know. I throw those kinds of parties. People need to pee. Or maybe socialize with people they don’t see all the time? Y’know. Party stuff.
- Queer displays of affection, cuddling, etc (in this case between the wife and other girl)? Typically only happen in queer-friendly spaces. Judging from the constant sour lemon face kind of tone in this letter? My thought is that you’re not super queer friendly. Beyond the token suburban Just Like Straight People In Every Way married gay couple who brings over the casserole. Y’know, those nice fellows from American Beauty. So the wife and/or the girlfriend might have (wisely, it sounds) decided not to girl on girl PDA in front of everybody.
- The girlfriend probably doesn’t know a lot of people at the party. Someone would have to take her under their wing. So she’d have to be following someone around like a puppy all night – and odds are it would be the husband (see #3, queer glomping is a pro-move).
The safe bet here is that it’s you projecting your beliefs about what must be going on and what’s “deficient” about their partnership, this “not paying attention” thing.
How do I know? Because I did this, too. I felt sorry for the wife of the couple who we found out had been secretly poly for some time.
I was wrong. You probably are, too.
There’s this underlying assumption that people who aren’t familiar with polyamory often make — that women are being forced into it by their husbands. But the truth is most of the time? Polyamory is a matriarchy. Women call the shots. By and large, it’s a very feminist subculture. Don’t get it confused with polygamist cults. The underage brides. The long hair. The terrible fashion. Polyamory is an entirely different creature.
But you know, you’d probably know this if you sat down and talked to your friend. Let her tell you what’s going on.
Yes, I know it sucks that you didn’t hear it from her in the first place. But your judgmental reaction speaks volumes as to why she wouldn’t be comfortable. She’s known you for 10 years, too, and likely had an inkling that this wouldn’t be a popular life choice.
“For some dumb reason I feel hurt and sadly disgusted,” you write. I don’t think it’s dumb. At all. It’s very normal for people who are just hearing about polyamory to be disturbed by it.
Don’t walk away from the friendship. Don’t ignore it. Invite her to coffee (or decaf chai or herbal tea or whatever pregnant ladies can drink). Ask her what’s going on. Be kind. Keep an open mind. Listen to her. Try to understand what she’s going on in her life as best as you possibly can.
And if you still feel weird or conflicted after you speak with her, that’s fine, too.
But don’t make those kinds of sweeping conclusions until you’ve gotten a full picture. And straight from the source.
No more of this “he said that this other guy said that he was doing this to her and she wasn’t around stuff,” okay?