In the spring of 2015, I was planning my wedding (featured here!). However, the elephant in the room was that I was in love with someone else. My non-fiancé partner was a huge part of my life, and I couldn’t imagine them not being at our wedding. The problem was, I hadn’t told my family about the polyamorous aspect of my life or my long-established queerness. It was one of those things that I cowardly wanted to save until there was “something to report,” lest I draw my parents into my straight-presenting relationship and the hypothetical non-monogamous sex and love I was open to having with imaginary future people of indiscriminate gender.
Which brings me to my first point…
Get comfortable with your truth (by coming out in safe spaces first)
Comedians “work on material” as a way to hone their set. They deliver to an audience of friends, loved ones, pets… over and over. And over. Chefs will make the same dish five ways before they decide which one best represents them. Musicians practice music until… well, you get the point. Our friends, being the ones we choose to be near, often know more of your truth than your family ever could. My friends knew of my openness for years, so when I found myself in a committed poly relationship, it didn’t come as a shock to them. I felt supported already, and on the off-chance my biological family wasn’t on board, I had a chosen family to support me. I had been coming out to them for years while I got comfortable with my own identity.
Get used to saying the words with which you identify. Slip them into conversation with strangers, even; “partner and wife,” “husband and girlfriend,” “partners,” “queer,” “boyfriend and nesting partner,” “poly”… whatever applies to you. Try them on.
Once you’re sure-footed in your own identity:
Try not To have expectations
Families are just people fumbling their way through life and hoping the good stuff sticks and the shitty stuff doesn’t.
One realization we had (or should have had) about our parents and family, is that they aren’t perfect. They are just people, like us, fumbling their way through life and hoping the good stuff sticks and the shitty stuff doesn’t. I am fortunate to have kind, compassionate parents who have always been supportive of anything I wanted to do. So when I came to them with this, I was quite devastated that I wasn’t blindly supported immediately. I felt very judged by their difficulties and had a hard time seeing the situation from their point of view.
My expectations of blind acceptance got in the way of realizing that they were concerned for my happiness in a way that I couldn’t understand. I called off a wedding a few years prior on a similar timeline (two months out), so when I came to them with this, it looked like I was pulling a ripcord. Coming out as polyamorous at 32, eight weeks before my wedding with the added facet of my queerness was a lot to expect immediate comfort with, and I know now that they deserved more of my patience. Hence…
Be patient, but not too patient
My insistence that they could trust me to be the captain of my own happiness I could tell the wheels were turning.
My timing was shit, as I didn’t have the time or energy to traverse a more difficult landscape than I expected. My parents, supportive as they may be, are still a white, middle class couple with four kids and a 35-year marriage in the conservative central valley of California. They couldn’t possibly have the breadth of life experience I had, with eight years in San Francisco in the early 2000s tromping around the city to drag shows, liberal colleges, festivals, and pride parades with queer, trans, rainbow haired, costumed friends of every flavor and color. My admittance had to come with a caveat that they deserved a minute to catch up. I’m here to say that they did catch up, slowly at first, but upon my insistence that they could trust me to be the captain of my own happiness I could tell the wheels were turning.
It is quite easy to be stubborn in the face of a challenge like this; drawing from religion, past generations, a deep-seated sense of order — I can only imagine that, as a parent, it would be difficult to see your child making choices that could harm their future. Separating that from what they feel might harm THEIR vision of your future to support you anyway takes a strong and selfless love. Tossing an alternative to your family’s vision for you might cause some resistance, anger, sadness, mourning, etc. While this is normal, it should come to a stop at some point when they learn to separate who you are from who they want you to be.
The inimitable Dan Savage says (in relation to coming out as LGBT+, not specifically poly, but there are parallels whether or not you believe polyamorous is an orientation) we should not fear our parent’s rejection. Be patient, give them time, but ultimately it’s YOUR decision to be in their life. If you’re facing abuse from loved ones about your choices, put a time limit on it (Savage says one year is fair). Give them the resources you can: books, support groups, conversations, visits, etc. Let them know this time limit exists and they don’t have to be perfect but progress is necessary. Continued abuse and stubborn resistance to change might mean that you have to walk away, at least for a time.
Don’t act like it’s cancer
Are you happy in your life and the choices that brought you there? Telling your loved ones about things that you’re excited about should be joyous. It can be scary, yes, but if you approach the situation with a bleak tone it will always live under that cloud. Tell them you are looking forward to redefining life on your terms. Remind them you are a healthy adult and this wasn’t a decision you made lightly, but that it is a path to your truth and happiness. Assure them that it won’t always be easy, but you need their continued guidance, as with any major life change. Say it with a smile. Tell them you love them and this is a step toward sustained health and joy, not something to fear.
Prepare to answer questions
You’ll get a lot of them. “Why are you getting married?” “Are you getting a divorce now?” “Do you all sleep together?” “What about your kids?” “Does ______ know?” “What happens in the case of pregnancy?”
Some may feel invasive. Some may offend you. For the most part, they will come as innocent attempts to understand. If they are offensive, feel out if they were intended that way and gently educate if necessary. Be kind. This is where your relationship changes and you help your loved ones shape into more accepting and open-minded people. Another great way is to…
Don’t shy away from mentioning any partners. Involve them as much in your familial relationships as they are involved in your life. On phone calls, tell your family who you are with and what you are doing. Tell them your partners say “Hi!” and encourage your partners to acknowledge them however they feel comfortable, like signing a card together or sending a “Happy Birthday” text. Stop by with your partners to say hello if you are close by. Note: These are suggestions for a non-abusive scenario; you wouldn’t want to put your partners or yourself in danger.
Hopefully they will begin asking about your partners unprompted, and maybe even give them a little gift for a holiday! I remember the first time I felt this comfortable acceptance I was in my parent’s kitchen over Christmas and my mom hugged me from behind on her tippy-toes and said she knew I missed my partner (who was quite tall). I continue to notice these moments and they mean the world to me. When I went through a devastating breakup last year, I was glad I could ask my parents to be there for me because I had kept them informed about my life even though it was hard at first. Now, in a different wonderful relationship, they are happy for me, love my partner, and continue to be supportive because I trusted them to grow. Lastly…
Set a good example
Stereotypes exist for a reason. Most people think open relationships are a last-ditch effort to stay in a crumbling situation. To be frank, this is often the case. If you are confident that this is a healthy choice for you (whether you have any partners or not), do your best to be an advocate for ethical non-monogamy. Communicate with your partners, your loved ones, your friends about your life. Let them invest emotional energy in you. It’s a small community and we have to support each other and create allies. Sometimes problems will be blamed on your non-monogamy, and this can be another opportunity for conversation. If you see a therapist, seek out a poly-friendly one.
Ultimately, do what’s right for you. Whether or not your loved ones can accept this, they deserve a chance to try. In the meantime, create and become part of a community that will lift you up and support your truth.