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!