Coming Out As Poly? Here Are Some Things to Consider:

If you’re a poly person who is considering coming out to friends, family, or coworkers, or a therapist working with a poly client who is weighing the pros and cons of coming out, here are some things to consider:

  1. The risks of coming out are real. The stigma around poly is a sad reality. Unfortunately, in the U.S., poly people have no legal protection from discrimination, meaning that it is possible to lose your job for being poly without legal recourse, and it’s common for out poly people to face discrimination around custody and adoption. If you’re a poly person considering coming out, you will have to trust your instincts to some extent. How likely do you think it is that your co-workers, family, or friend group will react well to the announcement? Consider: how do they treat members of other marginalized groups? Are there other people with “non-traditional” relationships in the family, friend group, or workplace, and are they treated with respect? How open-minded are the people you are considering coming out to, in general? If you’re thinking about coming out to a specific person, are they a good listener, with a demonstrated willingness to rethink their opinions and accept influence when they get new information? Do you trust them to respect your privacy, or are they gossipy? If you’re thinking about coming out in the workplace, consider: how public-facing are they? Are they likely to be subject to external “morality police”? What’s the culture of the workplace when it comes to relationships in general–do people talk about their partners, or do they generally keep personal topics out of the office? If issues arise, do you trust your boss or HR to protect you? If it all goes wrong, will you be able to find another job?
  2. The risks (and pains) of hiding are also real. How hard it will be to hide your poly relationship depends on a few factors. If your relationship structure is such that you have one primary partner and one or more secondary partners, it might be easier to present to the world as a person in a traditional monogamous relationship. If you practice relationship anarchy (multiple partners and no relationship hierarchy), it might be easier to present as “casually dating around.” If you’re in a relationship structure like a triad or a quad, however, it will probably be much harder to gloss over the details of how the relationship really works. You might want to consider this: how nosy are your friends, coworkers, neighbors, or family members? If they notice that you’re living with two or more people, will they pry, or will they let you decide how much info you want to share? On top of that, you will have to consider the potential emotional pain of not feeling free to talk about an important aspect of your life with people that you care about. Only you can assess how people around you are likely to react. You will need to do your best to determine if the rewards of being out will outweigh the risks.
  3. You can be out in certain contexts and not others. Most poly people end up being out in some situations and not in others, or to some people and not others. For instance, you might want to share your relationship situation with your friends but not your coworkers, or with your friends and coworkers but not your family, or with one trusted coworker but not the whole office, or with the neighbor who is very aware of your comings and goings, but nobody else. Each situation requires its own risk-reward analysis. However, if you’re going to be out to one group but not others, you’ll have to assess how likely the information is to spread. For instance, if you’re planning to come out to your friends but not your coworkers, consider: are there social connections between your friend group and your workplace? How trustworthy are the people you’re planning to tell? Are they gossipy? If you tell them “don’t share this with other people,” will they respect that request? Do they understand the risks they would be exposing you to if they outed you to other people?
  4. You can serve as an advocate, if you want to. If you come out you may find yourself in the situation of being the first openly poly person your family member, coworker, neighbor, or friend has met. That might mean you’ll be subject to some judgemental attitudes, as well as lots of possibly annoying, personal questions. However, it also means that you might be paving the way for the next poly person. If you answer the flurry of questions now, you might save the next person from having to answer them, and, by putting a human face on poly, you might help the people you come out to become more open-minded, knowledgeable, and less judgemental. In a small but meaningful way, you’ll be making the world a more welcoming place for poly people, and diversity in general. For some people, this makes the pain of facing judgement and stigma worthwhile. Others, quite understandably, would prefer not to be on the front lines of increasing tolerance and understanding. It’s up to you, and it is of the utmost importance that you make the decision for yourself, since nobody but you will be living with the consequences.
  5. You can seek out the poly community. There is almost certainly a poly community in your area, and you could connect with them for social and emotional support. Look for meetup groups, or google “poly group (your town)” and see what comes up. I have had clients who get a lot of benefit and value from these connections, and others who didn’t like them for one reason or another, but if you are feeling alone, you should know you are definitely not alone. Go check out your people, and see how it feels. At the very least, you won’t be marginalized and you can be as “out” as you wish. You should also know there are online groups, national groups, international groups, meet-ups, and conferences where poly people gather. If your local community feels too small, you might look further afield for kinship.

 

If you’re a therapist working with poly clients, it is important to strike a balance in your thinking about coming out issues. Recognize the marginalization that poly people face, and the potential risks of coming out; but also acknowledge the losses attached to hiding important aspects of life from loved ones. After weighing the pros and cons, your client may choose truth over safety, or vice versa, and they will need support for whatever they decide. These decisions also evolve over time, so expect to have an ongoing conversation as various aspects of related issues arise.

As a therapist, you can serve as an advocate, and as an information source.

  • When you talk about relationships, include poly and other forms of open relationships in your narrative. One way I do this is to identify myself as a “relational therapist” rather than a “couples therapist”. This distinction is important to me and to the marginalized populations I serve, and has no negative effect on the rest of my practice.
  • When you hear people say ignorant things about poly people or poly relationships, debunk the myths. If someone says “poly never lasts,” let them know they are wrong, and that actually polyamory is a perfectly viable relationship style. If someone says “poly is just a cover for infidelity,” let them know there is a huge difference between consensually open relationships and the lies and deception that go along with infidelity.
  • Be a resource for others who know less about polyamory than you do. Advocate for a nuanced understanding of relationships wherever you can. Every myth you debunk or question you answer about poly saves a poly person from a difficult and possibly intrusive conversation. You will make the world a better, safer place and increase tolerance for diversity every time you do!
  • Be aware: there are costs to coming out as a person who knows something about polyamory; almost certainly, people will wonder if you are poly, or just assume that you are. That’s the cost of being an ally. Take one for the team. This is how allies play a role in increasing tolerance for diversity, and it is an extremely important role. It is so important that the people who are experiencing marginalization not bear the entire burden of providing education and information about their own marginalization.

The world needs many more poly-competent therapists. If you’re hoping to increase your skills and knowledge working with poly clients, these past posts may be a good start:

What Polyamory Can Teach Us About All Relationships

Poly 101: Working With Jealousy

There’s No Such Thing As A One-Size-Fits-All Relationship

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple

 

Why Many Poly People Don’t Come Out

Coming out as poly is a fraught issue. The reality is that poly people often are subjected to significant discrimination when they come out. I have known or have worked with poly people who have experienced tensions at work, lost friends, had family members sever connections, and been subject to subtle and not-so-subtle ostracism. So it makes sense that many people in poly relationships choose not to reveal their relationship status except with their closest friends, or perhaps their therapist.

The option to remain closeted is a huge boon and a necessary choice from the perspective of the person who needs to protect themselves from marginalization. But of course it also prevents everyone else from gaining first-hand-knowledge about the reality of what poly relationships and people “look like.” Cultural mythology about polyamory is further perpetuated by marginalization. There are very few “out” poly role models, so it is not so surprising that most people are not aware that polyamory is a viable relationship style. Most people haven’t directly known of healthy, long-term poly relationships, not because they are so rare, but because they are so marginalized that most choose to remain invisible.

Of course, there is a cost to staying closeted. It can be very painful to hide the true nature of your relationships from people you care about. Imagine being in love and not feeling free to talk about it with friends and family, or to feel hesitant to introduce your new sweetheart to your community. Imagine pretending to be “just friends” when visiting family. Intimate relationships are important parts of who we are, and it is difficult to fully know or be known, when concealing important relationships and connections.

It is also difficult to deal with all the awkward questions that can arise when, say, you’re spotted out and about town with a different partner than the one all your coworkers know. That’s not the only situation that can give rise to awkward questions. Imagine choosing to come out as poly to your friends and family. What questions do you imagine your family members would ask? How comfortable would you be answering? Would you feel supported? Ashamed? Awkward? How would you respect their curiosity and still maintain your own sense of privacy around intimate matters?

Poly people face the risk of being stigmatized if they come out; they face the risk of being seen as cheaters if they don’t. They hope for closer, more authentic connections if they show up as their full selves in relationships with friends and family, but they risk damaged connections or being misunderstood or ostracized if they come out to someone who feels uncomfortable with it. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of “should I come out?”

If you’re a therapist working with poly clients, coming out issues are bound to arise sooner or later. When that happens, keep these nuances in mind. Remember that coming out and staying closeted are each risky and painful in their own way. In my next installment, I’ll be sharing some questions to help poly people and poly-aware therapists think through the complexities of coming out. Stay tuned!

Working With Secondary Partners

Last week, I wrote about a common pitfall that can crop up in poly relationships with a primary/secondary structure. This week, I’m going to be sharing some of my strategies for working with secondary partners.

Being a secondary partner in a polyamorous relationship can be rough. For those not versed in poly lingo, that means being in a relationship with someone who has another relationship that they consider “primary” and prioritize over their relationship with you. Not all poly relationships have a primary/secondary structure, but many do.

Being a secondary partner can work really well for some people–for instance, people who have a lot of other things engaging them in their lives (like creative projects, demanding careers, or other relationships). It can also work well for people who like their freedom and autonomy, or for those who aren’t interested in having a primary commitment, relational obligations, or a time-consuming connection in their lives.

At the same time, being a secondary partner can be very challenging. It often involves sitting with uncomfortable feelings, like uncertainty, jealousy, and loneliness. Dealing with lots of discomfort is nothing if not an invitation to examine desires, goals, values, and dreams. It can be an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth–while also being demanding and sometimes painful.

When you have a client who is a struggling secondary partner, it can be a challenge for therapists too. We live in a culture with a strong bias toward monogamy, and it is easy to hear about this kind of relational uncertainty and/or distress and leap to the assumption that the clients problems would be easily solved by leaving their poly partner. However, this “solution” side-steps several important things, including:

  • The client has chosen to be in this relationship and presumably has some desire to remain in it. Working with the client where they are, with the goals they have, is not just important to the therapeutic alliance, it also shows respect for their individuality, and honors diversity.
  • Secondary relationships are often quite workable and, for many, even ideal. With a little help and skill-building, this may be your client’s dream relationship.
  • The same skills that help secondary partners are also part of building a solid self in relationships of all kinds. Strengthening differentiation of self is a great relational investment.

Many clients, including some secondary partners, find building the following skills helpful:

  • Sitting with uncomfortable emotions and letting them come and go, rather than fanning the flames of jealousy or disappointment.
  • Understanding that meaning-making is optional, developing skill at identifying what stories they are telling themselves when things feel uncomfortable, and doing reality checks with their partner(s) to check their assumptions when needed.
  • Developing engaging, effective distractions and individual interests so that time spent separate from their partner offers opportunities for positive experiences, rather than having their life revolve around their partner’s schedule and availability.
  • Recognizing their power to make their own choices, and, ultimately, their ability to choose to leave the relationship if it isn’t working for them.