PQ 25.5 — What risks do I face — including personal, professional, or physical — in being public about my polyamorous relationships? Are these risks I can afford to take?
The decision whether to come out or not is a deeply personal one. In my own case, I’ve been out for many years, and to me, it was an excellent decision.
Here are some of the upsides I’ve found to being out.
Being Able to List Polyamory as a Relationship Preference Is a Real Time-Saver in Online Dating
Being able to list that I’m polyamorous on online dating profiles so that potential matches know from the get-go that I’m not someone who is available for a monogamous relationship has been invaluable. Sure, this only works so long as they read my profile, which isn’t guaranteed, sure, but I put it at the very top of my profile so it’s displayed rather prominently.
People who are concerned about someone else they know stumbling upon this dating profile (whether a family member, coworker, etc.) will typically have to raise it themselves over private messaging. Or, worse, they’ll get nervous and wait until the first or second date. I’ve noticed this often causes them to land in rather awkward situations where the person they’re dating feels tricked or like they’ve wasted their time and typically either formally bows out then or passively ghosts.
Ever so occasionally, the person they’re seeing might take a stab and say they’re willing to give polyamory a try. And while I’m sure that sometimes this can work out, I’m yet to see that end well. Polyamory can be quite difficult at times, especially when people are new to it and to managing their own emotions and risk within a relationship system. It can be challenging even if you chose it or sought it out. When it’s something you felt even in part that it was sprung on you or that you were tricked or forced into? Ooh boy.
A Much Easier Time Finding Compatible People to Date Offline and Making Polyamorous (and Consensually Non-Monogamous) Friends
I also find that being out as a polyamorous person to all of my friends and most new people I meet in a personal capacity (more on professional outness in a bit) has meant that I incidentally meet other polyamorous people all the time. New friends who may have otherwise never told me that they themselves are consensually non-monogamous instead tend to tell me rather easily. Being the person who was willing to be out meant that other polyamorous people as well as folks in open relationships and even swingers felt comfortable divulging that they were as well.
I’ve gone on to date some of these people, to be introduced to their friends (some of which I dated), and to introduce some of them and their friends to my own consensually non-monogamous friends (and do a bit of matchmaking).
The Opportunity to Be an Educator About Consensual Non-Monogamy
While you don’t need to have head shots in national media publications to teach others about polyamory, I really do like that I’ve done that. All my friends know. My family knows. Even some of my coworkers when I worked in psychological consulting knew, when it became relevant to a case I was consulting on. The facts of the case caused me to ask if the fact that the client had a wife and a girlfriend were an affair situation or a consensual non-monogamous agreement among the three of them.
The fact that I would even ask that question said a lot about me and set off a bit of speculation among my colleagues. I suppose it didn’t help that while I had a range in the research studies I’d done, one of my largest involved gender/sexual minorities. Again pointing to the reality that I might not be exactly as I seemed on first glance.
Interestingly, most people think I’m a prude until they get to know me. This is especially in professional settings, like when I was managing the consulting department. I tend to come off as exacting and critical. In that role, I conducted performance audits, set trainers back on their toes, and was obsessed with finding areas for continued improvement.
For some reason, this led a lot of people to believe that I must hold a black and white, traditional view of sexual morality.
But the joke was on them.
It became widely known that I actually held very sexually liberal views. No one really asked about my own sexual or romantic life (and I’ve always been a person who talks very little about my personal life at work, at work I talk about work). Coworkers kind of laughed at the disparity between my personal beliefs and how buttoned up and serious I appeared. It was the subject of much laughter for about a week. And then different gossip emerged to take its place.
Interestingly, after that one consultation, one of my other coworkers came out to me that she and her boyfriend had an arrangement where they were open. She came to me to discuss it. Not long after, another coworker revealed that she and her husband swung by dropping the names of some cruises that specialized in such a thing, which I immediately recognized (having heard of them via friends who swing, even though I don’t frequent that scene myself).
And other folks came to me asking (admittedly offensively worded) general questions about consensual non-monogamy and seeking resources to read more about it.
For a time, I became the office educator on those matters.
And now that I write and educate for my main job, I love not having to worry about someone outing me. Since I’m already really, really out because of articles like this one.
Coming Out Is Something You Do (or Don’t Do) Over and Over
That said, it’s important to note that coming out isn’t a “one and done” proposition.
Even if you decided you want everyone in your life to know, you’re likely to have to repeat yourself a bunch of times in order to accomplish this.
Sure, you can put it up on your Facebook or Twitter profile or whatever. Post a series of statuses proclaiming it. But some people aren’t going to read it. It won’t show up in their feed because of the algorithm — or maybe they’re taking a social media break.
I suppose you could host a “coming out” party, invite everyone important to you, and then make it a big reveal there. But then again, some people might not show up. Or they might come late or leave early.
It’s possible that you could rely on second or even third-hand spread of the news, as people who know you gossip about it with one another. But this doesn’t always happen. And it’s possible that you don’t want them to learn that way, that you’d like to have some control of the way that people learn. And that they have an opportunity to ask you questions about it. Or raise any concerns.
Even if you do manage to tell everyone that you want to know, you’re likely to have to have those discussions again with any new people you meet later that you want to know. I meet new people all the time. And because I don’t have “polyamorous” emblazoned over my forehead, I’m often presented with the decision whether I bring it up or not.
I Don’t Lie About It When Directly Asked, But I Only Talk About It When Relevant
Here’s my personal approach to coming out: If people directly ask me about being polyamorous (or bisexual, for that matter), I don’t lie about it. I tell the truth.
I have asked the followup question in some situations where someone asks a deeply personal question that I’m okay with sharing the answer to but I’m a bit iffy on how the person would take it, “Can you handle any answer to that question? If so, I’ll answer it.”
(If I feel like the question was inappropriate and something I don’t want to divulge, then I won’t ask this followup but will instead set a boundary around answering the question.)
Sometimes, the person drops the matter instantly. But if they say yes, then I’ll answer truthfully.
For me, it’s been a different matter being out at work versus being out with friends and family. In my current job, where I often write about non-monogamy and kink for a living, the fact that I’m polyamorous (slash ambiamorous) is extremely relevant. So in my current position, I talk about it a lot.
In the position I held before this, as the manager of the training department of a psychological consulting firm, it was rarely relevant. So I almost never talked about it.
I Find It’s Often Very Relevant in Personal Settings, So I’m More Out to Friends and Family
But when it comes to friends and family, who I’m spending a lot of time with, who I’m dating, and my personal life are extremely relevant. I’m closer to my in-laws than I am to my family of origin. My mother-in-law has read both of my books, regularly reads my blog, and has been extremely supportive of my husband’s status as a polyamorous person (something that predated our relationship). She has let us know that we’re welcome to bring any of our other partners up for family dinners if and when we’re at that place. It’s overwhelming and sweet, and I’m so glad to have that kind of support from her.
I’ve come out to my own parents. While my mother-in-law is fantastic, my own mother basically pretends we never had the conversation. We live 900 miles apart and really don’t get along. We see each other every few years (and for me, it’s always a stressful time, those visits).
This is the exact same pattern she had around my same-sex relationships. She leans on bisexual erasure and points towards the fact that I’m in a straight marriage as proof that I’m over “my gay phase,” which includes a six-year relationship with a woman that she acknowledges with an eye roll before quickly changing the subject. To her, my same sex attractions were a form of deviance akin to spray painting buildings or underage drinking.
She seems hellbent on ignoring how close I remain to current female “friends” (in truth, my girlfriends) because the fact I’m married means I’m “straight now.” Or whatever.
You know, your garden variety bisexual erasure.
But I don’t sweat it. Her avoidance of it is a coping mechanism — it’s not a failure on my part. I can explain my life to her, but I can’t understand it for her. And that’s something I’ve had to accept.
Everyone Has Different Risks, and That’s Okay
I get that everyone has different risks that they’re facing by being out. And that’s okay.
I don’t judge people who don’t come out. I’ve even dated some — and even though it could be pretty inconvenient at times as they hid our relationship, I’ve tried to be understanding of it.
I’ve found this is especially the case with partners who have children. They might not be out because they fear a custody challenge. Or, in one case, someone I was dating got some help with babysitting and childcare from their mother, and they were afraid if she knew that their marriage were open that she would stop helping out. That she’d assume she was babysitting so that she and her husband could pursue relationships that she didn’t approve of.
In reality, she and her husband took turns babysitting their kids when the other went out. And the childcare assistance from her mother was really just there because of their work schedules.
But her mother might not understand that. And would likely jump to the other conclusion and have a hard time trusting assurances from her daughter that it was not the case (feeling betrayed and distrustful that she’d been kept in the dark about the open marriage for so long, a case of “you lied about this, why wouldn’t you lie about that?”).
Was it challenging for me at times when I was introduced to my girlfriend’s family as a friend? You bet. It was a hit to my self-confidence… and provoked the worry that I was a “dirty secret,” a feeling I’d had many times as a young woman dating straight-identified girls who wouldn’t acknowledge our relationship in public.
On the other hand, I could completely see where she was coming from. And the fact that she introduced me to her friends as her girlfriend helped assuage the fear that she was afraid of me. And affirmed that it was really just worried about childcare.
I’m Glad to Take Risks for Those Who Can’t
The other big upside of being so out is that I can contribute to polyamorous representation by doing so. I’m frankly a lot of people’s one polyamorous friend. Their reference for what polyamorous people are like. And my relationships are their example of what polyamorous relationships can be.
As one friend put it: “Until I met you, I didn’t really know polyamory was possible. Or that it was something that people like me could happily do. It was always something those people did. People who were fundamentally different from me. Meeting you really opened my eyes. It made it relatable.”
Sometimes this means that people start questioning whether they want to pursue polyamory themselves — but not always. Just as common is that people who know that they themselves prefer monogamy are more accepting of other people who prefer consensual non-monogamy and develop a better fleshed out model of what it can look like, rather than defaulting to the only kind of non-monogamy most people are familiar with: Non-consensual non-monogamy, a.k.a., cheating.
In either case, I’m always glad to see more representation from those who can afford to be out, and I’m glad to be a small part of that.