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What It’s Like to Tell Your Friends and Family You’re Polyamorous

Jesse Donaldson

Jesse Donaldson

“It was basically like I'd said: ‘Mom, I have to tell you something. I eat chairs.’”

Image source | Shutterstock

Over the seven or eight years I've been practicing nonmonogamy, I've never felt the need to keep it a secret.

My girlfriend and I don't exactly shout it from the rooftops, but if it comes up in conversation, we're happy to be honest. Our close friends have known for years. Our families roll their eyes and change the subject. When new people find out, their reactions tend to fall into very specific categories; Some say "Oh, I could never do that," and immediately get awkward. Others are morbidly fascinated. Still others get suspicious, and ask if you're trying to take them home. A few try to take you home (bless them).

In any event, the question of whether or not to be overt was always a pretty simple one for us. We don't have kids, or sensitive jobs, or families that might discriminate against us for our choices. On the "lifestyle" spectrum—which involves everything from swinging to polyamory—we fall somewhere in the middle, so we can afford to take a pretty casual approach to who we tell. We've never had to officially "come out" to our friends or family, or announce our status in any public fashion (making this, in some ways, an article about coming out that involves my coming out, which is about as meta as a piece like this should be allowed to get).

But that's not the case for everybody.

For some, the question of when and how to go public with their nonmonogamy can be a daunting one. There's very little research on the topic, but what does exist suggests a robust stigma toward nonmonogamous relationships, to the point that, in a study comparing two otherwise identical couples, participants rated the nonmonogamous pair as worse in every way—even when it came to things like paying taxes or flossing.

Collected below are stories from couples who have chosen to open up about open relationships, stories about coming out and coming clean—the good, the bad, and the just plain awkward.

It's complicated

A couple of weeks ago, we were setting up a joint Facebook account. You know, for lifestyle purposes—using both our names and with a bunch of sexy pictures. But then it went out to everyone in his contact list as Someone You Might Know. And pretty quick, we got a phone call from his sister that our niece had found the page. I mean, she's 20, but his side of the family is pretty vanilla. Our friends and coworkers, and my side of the family, a bunch of them know, but we haven't talked to his side of the family about any of that. And there's a picture of me in shackles, and one of us, um, engaging, with strategically-placed stars in all the right spots. It's not something she or any of them wanted to see. So we madly started deleting everything. I called my sister and said "Didn't you see it? Why didn't you tell me?" And she said "Well, I thought you guys were outing yourselves." So, that page is gone now, until we figure out how to block everyone we need to block.

—Jennifer, 45

'Mom, I eat chairs'

The threshold for my wife and I was once we started dating someone together.

We brought our girlfriend to our annual open house Christmas party. This was maybe six weeks after we'd first met her, and it was turning into something where we were both dating her, but it was before we'd really established what the exact nature of the relationship was, or what it meant long-term. It was during that honeymoon period, when you're really passionate about someone, and that energy was apparent to some people—to the point where someone even commented on it. At that point, some of our friends knew about our marriage, and others didn't. The more someone gets involved in your life, the more uncomfortable it is to pretend it's something it isn't, same as if you were dating someone in a monogamous fashion, and telling people they were just your friend.

So at some point, we figured "OK, we don't like lying about it—even lying by omission." So we made a conscious decision to out ourselves to some specific people. And that was important precisely because it was unconventional. People can start to make assumptions about your relationship, or they can interpret it wrong. Some people might see your interactions, and interpret it as being an untraditional relationship, but others might think "OK, this person's cheating on their partner."

We had these neighbours across the way who were close friends of ours. And they'd seen our girlfriend over a lot, and she knew them and their kids, and it was obvious that she was staying over regularly. And that she was involved in our lives in some non-trivial capacity. We went over and told them, and it was pretty undramatic. They said: "Yeah, we figured." And we were like: "Oh. That was easy."

We also sat my mom down and straight-up told her what the deal was. And she was supportive, but not understanding. She got pretty flustered. She talked about how she didn't understand it, because it was never something she felt she'd need to do. Her marriage to my dad was very traditional, in that it was monogamous and it wasn't passionate or romantic. The notion of doing something that nontraditional was completely foreign to her. It was basically like I'd said: "Mom, I have to tell you something. I eat chairs." She couldn't relate to it. "Um, okay. I support you. But that's a very weird thing to do. Are you sure it's such a good idea?"

I mean, this is nothing compared to what other people have to go through—if you're outing yourselves to your parents as gay or trans, for example. But it's definitely a challenge to sit down and come up with the words. To say "OK, we're doing this." But you're doing it with someone, which in some ways is a much easier thing to do. It's nowhere near as uncomfortable as having to do it on your own.

—Bryan, 32

'They know about choices'

[My husband's girlfriend] comes over all the time. I see her a lot. We have kids, and they're aware that she's here, and that sometimes she and daddy sit on the couch and cuddle and hold hands. They don't know more than that—they're three and six—but we're raising them to understand that this kind of relationship is okay. They know about choices. They know that they can love whoever they want. We feel like it's good for them. If we hid that from them, they might grow up thinking it was wrong.

—Anna, 35

'We had a very Church and State mindset'

Our parents don't know, and we don't see that happening in the foreseeable future. It seems unnecessary. And with my family it would be judged on a very harsh level. They're not really religious people, but it goes against everything they've ever been taught about what a relationship is supposed to be.

Nonmonogamy is less taboo than it used to be, but we want to make sure that more people have the appropriate information, so they can make their own decisions.

We've come out to friends, but it's a selective process. When we first started exploring consensual nonmonogamy, we had a very Church and State mindset about the whole thing. As in "our real life and the lifestyle shall never meet." But then we started to meet people, and became friends with those people, and started hanging out with them in more and more regular settings. The lines got blurred and eventually disappeared altogether.

In life there are these stereotypical milestones: you get your driver's license, you can legally drink, you fall in love, you find a career, maybe you get married, you perhaps have a kid, you buy a home, etc. These are all things that we celebrate and share with the people around us because they're big things that affect who we are. But then you have something like being in the lifestyle, which can hugely change your life. You're bursting with excitement, new ideas, confidence, and yet you feel like you can't really talk about it. A coworker or friend asks how your weekend was and it gets a little awkward because you want to be able to say: "Saturday night we went to our regular sex club, danced, partied, and had an awesome foursome with another couple. How was your weekend?"

—Trevor, 40

'If you have the guts to ask a question, I'll have the guts to answer'

We've been open to the world for a long time. My parents know, our coworkers know. Everybody knows. We've been together for 18 years, and in the beginning, he was actually married. So when we started being together in a monogamous relationship, I had my doubts. All my friends were saying "Once a cheater, always a cheater," and I'd never been faithful a day in my life.

Between the two of us, we have four children, and all four children know. Their ages range from 28 to 11. And when our kids were young, we would sometimes have friends stay over, and if the kids came into the bedroom in the morning, and there was a third person, they'd ask: "Who's that?" And I'd just tell them "You know how you have sleepovers? Sometimes mom and dad have sleepovers as well." If you normalize it when the kids are young, it's not an issue. They've been surrounded by it, so they don't have the same judgements that the rest of society might have.

I'm a sexologist, so my kids have always been exposed to a massive amount of information about human sexuality. I've always told my kids: "If you have the guts to ask a question, I'll have the guts to answer." We've always gone to Wreck Beach. Our kids have very solid body acceptance, they feel comfortable. And when we introduce our friends, they understand what that means. And our kids have gone: "OK. That's not something we want to do ourselves, but go for it." I mean, my daughter, I think she's going to become a nun. She's 16, she's absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, and she's so uptight sexually, sometimes it feels like she's not mine.

Nonmonogamy is less taboo than it used to be, but we want to make sure that more people have the appropriate information, so they can make their own decisions. Because some people that come out receive a lot of judgement. And we had that too, mostly in the beginning. Some people would stop talking to us, or when it came to contracts, we would sometimes not get them. So it can affect your work relationships. There was a period of time where we weren't invited to dinner parties. And I've definitely had stupid questions. You'll always find people with weird attitudes, or some picture of what an open relationship means. Like anytime you have a party, it's going to be this massive orgy in the middle of the living room.

In the beginning, people were betting we'd break up pretty much right away. But after 18 years, we're still here and kicking, and now people are going "Huh." That's against all the odds, in their book.

— Renee, 47