Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
I have started a great new-ish relationship. It’s sweet and hot and exciting and all the good things and I feel really good about it. However, I am resisting telling people about it and/or reluctant to discuss it even though I’m happy because I am in a relationship with two people who are married to each other. We’re a triad or a trio or whatever one might choose to call it. I didn’t know I was polyamorous necessarily, but this thing happened and it feels right.
But things come up. People say “Oh, you look so happy!” and I want to talk all about my relationship but I don’t really know how. My friends/family aren’t conservative people at all, but I don’t know anyone else who’s out about being in a polyamorous relationship and I don’t think they do either. For sure nobody talks about it and there’s very little out there about my kind of situation (as one joining two). I don’t want to lie, or pretend that there’s nothing new and great happening because that feels dishonest, which is not how I want to be in the world.
So what do I do? Where do I start?
• • •
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Well, first: good for you that you were able to recognize love when it came along and didn’t get stuck in the place of resisting it because it looked different than what you expected or imagined. I work with people at a variety of stages of life, and one of the things that comes up over and over when we talk about things like love, sex, romance, and companionship is the truth that these things don’t always come in the parcels we expect and that they don’t always all come from the same person, either.
But, I think you’re right – there’s not much cultural conversation about polyamory (having multiple relationships at the same time in an open and aboveboard way). There are occasional sensational articles, usually illustrated with that one photo of the six white-people feet in a white-sheeted bed (polyamory is pure and clean and, uh, white!) but the whole world is still pretty oriented toward the couple as the One True Way of having a “real” relationship (and the heterosexual couple, at that). There are a couple of good books, but they are mostly aimed at people who are already exploring polyamory. Which means that anything you’re up to that looks outwardly different, like being in a relationship with two people who are married to each other, is going to require a little extra time and care (and bravery) in the disclosure.
Which is, in and of itself, so interesting to me. It would be a much more culturally-acceptable narrative if this couple had broken up so/because one of them could take up with you. People are so much more comfortable with the idea of love as a one-on-one idea that they are emotionally more prepared to empathize over and support a typical-looking relationship that leaves upset and hard feelings in its wake than an unexpected or less-common relationship structure that all constituent parties are quite delighted by. Anyhow.
First I want to say, it may not be as hard as you imagine. It’s reasonable to feel like there could be a lot to help friends and family talk through in the conversation. But more and more people have started to discuss openly the issues contained in the cultural idea that somehow your spouse is supposed to be your best friend and your hottest lover and your co-parent and your emotional support and that you’re supposed to do all of those things for each other for fifty years and if you can’t you’ve failed. Some people manage this complicated question with serial monogamy, some with clandestine affairs, some with robust friendship or kinship networks that take some of the pressure off the partnership, and some with varying forms of polyamory. So even if your best friend or your Aunt Petunia or your co-worker has no friends that are out as polyamorous, they may be more willing than you think to imagine some benefits of it that you might be enjoying and be happy for you without a lot of education or explanation required.
In practical, advice-columnist terms, my stock answer about “how do I tell someone important something if I think they’ll react badly” – usually deployed about coming our as queer or trans but equally relevant here—is to first assess the temperament of the person you’re telling. I’m someone who finds emotional surprises very taxing, and I often don’t react well when I get surprised (and then I feel like shit later for having let my surprise-reaction overtake my more measured, more thoughtful response). If you graphed my reactions, they would spike high and then dwindle to a calmer and more open place once my fear and upset subside. So if the person you’re telling is like me, give them some room to have their initial reaction privately – send an email or a text - and then ask to discuss later. My husband, on the other hand, reacts to surprising news very, very calmly and then his feelings about it rise and unfold – his graph starts out easy and low and then it spikes later. If you were telling someone like him, you might tell them in person and ask to check in via text or email in a few days.
It’s also useful to remember that sometimes, a reaction isn’t the same as a response – what you get first is the reaction and later (sometimes five seconds, sometimes a decade) comes a response. If the reaction isn’t great, you may need to remind yourself that it’s just the reaction part of the process. The response from someone who already likes you may be much better once their initial reaction phase passes..
Similarly, you might want to decide ahead what kinds of questions you’re willing to answer (and perhaps have a little list of links at the ready that you can send people to get some of their more common questions answered if you feel like the question is valid but you don’t necessarily want to go into it all right then and there. Are you prepared to talk about group marriage? Are you prepared to talk about group sex? Are you willing to discuss any impact anyone imagines this might have on your work trajectory or your other friendships? Are you willing to entertain requests about who else you tell? I feel like half the queers and trans folks I know have a story about being exhorted by their parents not to tell a grandparent because “it would kill them!” and that never actually being the case. Knowing ahead of time that these are the kinds of questions that might come up may help you understand your position about them before Petunia is gesticulating with her Pall Mall in your direction, and that will – in turn – help you have a response prepared.
Last, I would say that the narrative about “coming out” – as LGBT2Q, as poly, as whatever you are – is a fairly new and fairly North American phenomenon. It’s obviously fine to come out, and there are some benefits to it, like that you can share your squee about your hot new thing with people whom you expect to share your happiness. There are also benefits to other people beyond yourself; one person coming out makes room for two more to see themselves reflected on the landscape of possibility. But don’t let yourself get distracted by this coming-out imperative if it feels like it might be destructive or debilitating in other ways. You can work around if you need to, and that’s not a bad or cowardly or whatever-other-judgemental-thing choice. It’s simply a statement of priorities. You may not value differentness or differentiation in that way, and that is 100% okay.
(Once more for the people in the back: coming out, or not, isn’t a marker of someone’s “realness” or bravery or whatever. It’s a personal choice, and people should never be pressured, rushed, or outed. Ever.)
I hope all these conversations go super well, Brave Correspondent, and I hope that your new loves continue to lavish you with love and care and other things that make you feel great. I hope (and frankly, expect) that your friends and family will greet your news well and in good spirit, and if they don’t or can’t that may tell you a whole lot more about them than it does about you or your relationship. The good news is that there’s time to make choices, and that the choices you make have a lot of very nice results at the end of some of those decision trees—inclusion and love and happy chaos and big family dinners and all manner of sweet and tender things. My wish for you, Brave Correspondent, is that you get to have—and fully enjoy—them all.
love and courage,