How do you tell your parents things they don’t want to hear?

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my parents
I have a question for the Homies: How do you, as an adult in your agency, tell your parents things they don’t want to hear?

For many reasons, including my religious and ethical beliefs, I feel I need to tell my parents that I am in a polyamorous relationship. I’ve previously come out to them as queer and trans, which feels different from this conversation.

Coming out feels like I’m sharing some information about myself so they can change their behavior; telling them that I’m dating more than one person feels like I’m selfishly telling them something they don’t want to hear, so that I can live more honestly. How do I do this? -Colleen

Queer or straight. Poly or mono. Whatever. We ALL have had to tell things our parents didn’t want to hear. How do YOU have tough talks with your parents?

Comments on How do you tell your parents things they don’t want to hear?

    • I’m out as poly to my parents, and it has enriched my life greatly. And theirs. Polyamory is about more than your sex life. It is about building a family that happens to include more than one partner. Having to hide part of your family from your parents hurts. Not being able to bring my boyfriend of 11 years home to meet my parents would hurt as much as not being able to bring my husband home to meet my parents. Fortunately, after some initial awkwardness when I first came out as a youngster, my parents have embraced both of my partners, and things are really good for all of us.

    • I would think this is more about the author wanting to be able to include all their partners in family activities. Relationships are about more than sex.

      • As a mom of three grown children, I’m good with them bringing any friends home. I just don’t feel it’s any of my business what they do in private. Not exactly don’t ask, don’t tell, but everyone’s relationship with their parents is different. If parents ask I’m for honesty, however my kids have told me more than I wanted to know a few times and I’ve likely done the same. I like all their friends and I sometimes speculate on who’s doing who, but I really don’t need anymore information. Everyone should do what feels comfortable for them and what they think will be comfortable for their parents. Just ask yourself first, “Will them knowing more help this relationship?”

        • So do your kids not tell you about their partners at all? Are you completely unaware of their partners’ existence?

          Because if you have no objections to, “Mom, this is my boyfriend Jamal,” then you shouldn’t have any objections to, “Mom, this is my boyfriend Jamal and my other boyfriend Terry.” Both statements give you the exact same level of detail about their sex lives.

          • Hey, I’m the OP. The reason I feel strongly about telling them is because not telling them is starting to involve lying. I’m starting to have to duck questions on phone calls for things like where did you go this weekend? What have you been up to? Lying and saying “a friend” when I mean “my partner” feels dishonest, and not how I try and conduct my relationships. I agree with you that parents don’t want to/need to know stuff about my sex life. But I feel like I can’t lie to them about the mundanities of my life and be in good moral standing with myself. I’m a Quaker, and a big part of that for me is standing in the light and truth with everything I do, even when it’s hard.

        • So do you refer to your children’s primary partners as their “friends” and refuse to acknowledge that they are anything more? What if they want to, say, hold hands?

          While there are lots of sorts of open relationships, “polyamory” usually denotes more than one romantic partner. Not just sex partner, *romantic* partner. As in, arm around the shoulders, kiss on the cheek, share-a-bed-on-a-weekend-visit, more-than-friends-ness. Hiding that is hard and sucky.

          • My children have never hesitated to talk to me about anything, but I do live in a different city so this does not come up often. The only thing I wanted to say was not every parent is going to be open to poly amorous lifestyles so those who are in them should proceed thoughtfully with knowledge of their own situation. I just don’t want anyone to be hurt or words to be said that can’t be unspoken. I did not mean to put anyone on the defensive or be critical of their choices.

    • Polyamory isn’t just about sex though, is it? It’s about love, dating, romance – things you generally do tell your parents about. If you wouldn’t keep your boyfriend or girlfriend a secret from your parents – they know you have sex, you don’t need to talk about it – then is that really different from not keeping your boyfriends/girlfriends a secret? Presumably you care for them and date them just as a non-poly couple would each other.

    • I just had a baby. My mom knowing WHY I wanted my “roommates” there instead of her I feel was necessary to avoid drama and hurt feelings. Luckily she’s known for years and it was a not issue, but I can only imagine if she hadn’t

    • This exact same argument has been used against gay, lesbian, and bi people who want to come out. And the counterargument is the same: this is about so much more than just sex.

      • I think I’m coming from a different prospective than most as I am so much older. My biggest struggle with my parents was telling them I was going to get a divorce from a husband they hated. That was in 1970. I stayed in my second miserable toxic marriage for 37 years so I didn’t have to tell them I needed to get another divorce. I finally left after they died. These were not parents you would want to come out to in any way. I reared my own children to know they had my unconditional love, not matter what. Personally I am “serially monogamous” and have no shades of gray in my sexual orientation, but all of my children do. I’m fine with that and they know it. I go to a church that is “open an affirming”. I was married there for the third time by our pastor who happened to be homosexual. I have listened to many tearful stories from the rainbow of people who go there about trying to talk to their parents about these subjects. All I want to say is each of us has some inkling of what kind of reception they will get from their own parents and there is no one size fits all way of talking to them. Baby steps may be best if you are unsure. I wish love and joy to each of you as you move forward in this journey.

        • Agreed 100 times. It depends on the family, and no-one knows your family better than you. My parents are rigidly obsessively Catholic. My having a boyfriend without marriage was enough to cause a seven year estrangement. I built up a sorta okay relationship with them again when I had a child. I set boundaries and my grade-schooler is not allowed to spend time alone with my mom yet as my mom is a toxic manipulator with mental health issues. This carefully limited interaction is still important for me and my child and I want to keep things that way.

          No way am I ever ever telling them openly about my girlfriend. They suspect, they are not stupid, but they do not push the issue and neither do I. Delicate status quo is fine for both parties. (Side note, my siblings know and are ok)

    • I don’t think polyamory is about sex, though, necessarily. It’s more akin to telling your parents that you’re dating someone. Which is to say, for most people, you don’t tell your parents about your first coffee date but you do tell them if you’re getting fairly serious. I would think telling your parents about being in a somewhat serious relationship with multiple people would fall under the same umbrella.

    • Others have said it already, but it’s as much about your sex life as telling them that you have a boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance(e)/spouse. Just because someone may have two or more to introduce doesn’t make it about their sex life.

    • Everyone’s already said what I was going to, about it being about more than sex, just like any relationship. I just wanted to second the awful lying feeling. I don’t think it’s fair to my close family or my second “husband” (quotations because it’s not legally true) when I refer to him as my friend when we’ve all been together for years. And, for a different angle from an actual parent, my dad was actually upset that I didn’t trust him enough to tell him sooner.

      That’s more to the point of OP’s question. When I told my mom, I framed it like this: a wonderful, rare thing has happened to Husband and I: we fell in love with another person. This may not exactly work for you — we’re closed and a triad — but I think you can put the focus where you want it: on the depth of feeling rather than on sex. Let it be about letting them in on another/other important people in your life. They may not recognize more than one SO in their lives, but you do, and that is how you’d like them to be seen.

    • 1. Polyamory is a relationship dynamic, not a sexual orientation.
      2. Asexual people both exist and have relationships, including polyamorous ones. Not only is polyamory not just about sex, often it doesn’t involve any sex whatsoever.
      3. Equating living honestly, authentically, and openly with “just wanting to shock” one’s loved ones is both ignorant and needlessly cruel, especially on a forum in which the individual is asking for advice to minimize harm (rather than “shock”).
      4. If something shocks you, it’s an opportunity to reexamine your assumptions. If the heterosexual couple holding hands in public is doing so to express love, the homosexual couple holding hands in public is not automatically doing so because they are “just trying to shock” others. If the daughter who tells her parents about the person she is dating is doing so because she wants to share an important part of her life with her family, the daughter who wants to tell her parents about the people she is dating is not doing so because she is “just trying to shock them.”
      5. Since your comment hurt me (and others), should I immediately assume your intention was harmful? Did you type it only to “shock” us? No. You explain and defend your actions and beliefs in several followup comments. Once more, with feeling: your intention is not defined by my reaction nor is the rightness of your choices (including posting your comment) defined by my personal assumptions, experiences, or beliefs. Please try extending that to others, particularly when they are vulnerable.

      • Ok, i get it, now please stop. I truly regret that I ever made a comment and I never will again. I had no evil intent and I’m sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. Clearly it’s a topic I don’t understand. Now please leave me alone.

  1. In general, the best way to tell anyone anything hard is to rip the Band-Aid off, be firm, and be loving. Don’t hedge around your point by making statements that could confuse someone unfamiliar with poly. Explain how you live, explain why it’s important to you that they know, and explain that it changes nothing about how you want your relationship with them to progress. (In other words, tell them you still love them and still appreciate them.)

    Do a little soul-searching beforehand so that you can answer the question “What do you want from us?” if it comes up. Are you looking for their support? Do you want to bring all your partners to Christmas dinner? Do you want absolutely nothing to change except how much they know about you? Whatever your answer is, if you don’t know it, you can’t tell them what you need.

    I recommend keeping the rest of your day clear as well. If your talk goes poorly, you probably won’t want to have to face the dentist or your boss afterward. And remember that if your parents don’t accept what you have to say, that doesn’t mean they never will. Loving parents aren’t always the first to jump onto new trains, but I’ve seen many “never!” parents buy a train ticket when they see how happy their baby is. Just keep showering your parents and your partners in love and focus on your own spiritual well-being.

    If you haven’t seen it, Ash Beckham’s “Coming out of your closet” talk is fantastic. It may help you a little.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this question to appear somewhere. I’m in a similar situation – is it selfish of me to tell them? – but I’ve never came out as anything before.

    • I don’t think it’s any more selfish to tell your parents about multiple boy/girlfriends than it would be to tell them about just one. If you just have sexual relationships with passing partners, then your parents probably don’t want to know, but if there are important people in your life, I think most parents would want to know (or at least, should want to know).

  3. I don’t have anything to add really advice-wise, but the second I saw this I went ‘polyamory’ because that’s a conversation I know I’ll have to have sooner or later with my parents. Lo and behold I find others are in the same boat as me. Seeing other people also trying to navigate the nuts and bolts of polyamory makes me feel like I can do it too.

  4. Coming out as Bi happened more by accident then planning. Stressful situation (car accident) when I just lost it that my mom kept thinking my girlfriend was guy. She came around to it but it took a bit (months).

    So in preparation for the poly talk, I tried to hedge my bets a little. My mom generally needs time to get used to the idea of an idea. My sister has been amazingly helpful. She says things like, well if M like girls too, whenever we’re talking about significant others.

    Try kind of poking around the edges and getting a feel. If you can try to get a sense of where the objections will come from, so you can be prepared. Is it tradition, are they worried you’ll get hurt, etc. Your parents love you, after all, their objects come from a place of worry.

    I’m a big fan of the band-aid approach for much of my communication but with a caveat, timing. OMG timing. Don’t decide on the talk if there is anything else going on, that’s stressful distracting, etc. If my mom is already on the edge of overwhelmed having a heart to heart ain’t gonna happen. Just panic and withdrawal.

    After timing, practice what you want to say. Emphasize the points that mean the most to you. Examples: “I’m in love. My partners love me. I’m at home when I’m with them. I want to include them in our family life. This isn’t a phase this is me sharing something important with you.” etc.

    And also practice the points that important to the parents, “They really care about me. This works for us. We’ve been together for a while. You can have sometime to get used to the idea. See they’re regular people. They love me. We have a plan in case something happens.”

    My mom needed to meet my second partner and see her as a person before I could throw in, btw this is my girlfriend. She also needed time to wrap her head around it once we’d told her.

    Depending on your parents and how they process big things this maybe a conversation you have more than once.

  5. I recently had to share the news with my parents that my marriage was ending. In the past when I’ve shared big news, there has been a tendency for them to swing the issue back around to them and then I end up comforting them. So this time I sent them an email explaining what was going on and making it clear that, for now, that email was the only thing I would be saying about the matter. I don’t think they were thrilled with the approach, but it saved my sanity.

    • Thanks for mentioning this aspect. My mother is incredibly narcissistic, making all of my problems about her. The email-and-don’t-try-to-help (because that’s the worst part; she thinks she’s helping when she makes me be the caretaker of her emotions) is probably how I’ll have to handle my next crisis, whatever it is.

  6. I think it depends so much on your relationship with your parents. My mum has a strong sense that she is responsible for supporting her children and we have a close loving relationship so telling her things is very straight forward. Dad is more selfish but also more radical and open minded, and the love is still there so again, straight forward.
    My in laws are a nightmare, narcissistic and conservative, everything is about my mother in law in particular and it’s safe to say, the relationship is much poorer.
    I guess my point is, the best way to share uncomfortable news really depends on the relationship with the other party. Do they love you? Is it unconditional? Is it healthy? How important is the news that your sharing and what do you hope to achieve. In this instance, I can imagine that you want your parents and your poly family to come together as a supportive community, is that likely?

    • So, it’s a little complicated. My parents ADORE me and my partner and are SO CONFUSED by me. They’re very on-beat and just don’t get why I feel the need to do things like activism in the queer and trans community. I feel like I need to tell them so I can be honest with them about the basic content of my life, and I would love for all of them to be able to meet at some point.

      • Your desire here feels very unselfish to me. Each person has a right to be their whole own selves. Maybe with the (slow) progress of society, other aspects of who you are have become easier to discuss. Polyamory, as I am learning since entering my first of these relationships, is hard for even my most supportive progressive friends to get. So, I think polyamory is just as valid and important to who you are as the other aspects that your parents have already accepted. If it is causing discord within you, then it certainly is valid to address with them. After all of this, I guess I am just trying to say I do not think this is a selfish motive, and a do not think it is a less important part of who you are than any other aspect.

        • I’m so with Fawn on this. All I want to add is that, all you can do is share the information with them, after that it is up to them what they do with it. Maybe they will pretend like you said nothing, maybe they will be really keen to meet your poly family and support you, maybe they will continue to be confused. However it sounds like, no matter what they do, they love you and are doing their best (despite their confusion and your hopes for the future)

  7. I just had a similar conversation with my therapist this morning about if I should tell my parents about my (recently diagnosed) depression or not. She was making the point that it was about having an authentic relationship with them. I am not sure I want to hurt them for something they don’t need to know.

    As for the how, if I tell them, it will probably be a fairly straight forward, hey, I wanted you to know…. deal. Casual, not a sit down family meeting thing. But one day when I’m over there for dinner or a visit, bring it up.

    Still not sure if I will or not.

  8. When I came out as poly to my parents, I did it via email – that way, I could anticipate a number of their initial questions/objections and supply answers right away. The structure of the email was more or less like this:

    “Partner and I are poly, which means that we have multiple relationships with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. We’ve actually been poly for X years. Before you ask:

    1) Partner did not pressure me into it. It was my idea.
    2) We’re being safe and careful.
    3) We’re very happy this way and don’t plan on changing.”

    I also linked them to the Wiki page on polyamory and to a few other 101 resources so they could educate themselves.

    It seemed to work pretty well. Since then my mother has gone back to pretending like that never happened, but that’s neither here nor there.

  9. When I was in major arguments with my mother about my wedding, and how I didn’t want a “legal” celebrant there on the day (we decided to do that separately – it’s incredibly difficult for laypeople to get ordained here in NZ), I e-mailed her exactly what my feelings were. Both of us are stubborn as mules, and easily driven to tears and shouting, so that way I could express exactly what was going on, why I made that decision, how her reactions had made me feel, and tell her what I needed – without her interrupting. She was then able to think about my points and respond without me yelling at her. It was really effective.

  10. My personal way of dealing with my parents and my relationships is that if I expect my parents and my partners to interact, everyone needs to know (at least in theory, if not detail) what’s going on. That means that partners need to be known as partners to my family, and partners need to know they are known. If it’s JUST sex, then no one needs to know; honestly I doubt I would introduce a casual sexual partner to my family anyway. But if that person is a PARTNER, the parents get to know that.

  11. I’d like to hear what advice others have about breaking other types of news their parents won’t like. Our problem is religion. We are having a baby and my husband is dreading telling his mother we aren’t interested in having our child baptized. We are atheist but we haven’t “come out” to his very Catholic mom about this and have avoided the issue, but with our kid it’s going to have to come to a head.

    • Both our mothers are also very Catholic and we just didn’t have the conversation until my mother asked about baptizing our 2 month old daughter. We told her that we weren’t going to do that at this time, but let our daughter decide what path she wanted to take when she was older. It went surprisingly well, but we had also had a non-church wedding so she may have been expecting it already. I also know that my mother performed a lay baptism so our daughter wouldn’t go to hell if she died. Whatever….no harm done and it helps my mother sleep at night. Good luck!

  12. So… my experience is a bit more complicated, but it is certainly worth sharing for anyone who has a different sort of “bad news” to share with their parents.

    In our case we needed to tell my father that we didn’t want him to have a ton of access to our children. It was an awful thing to contend with all around. It required us to acknowledge certain family taboo subjects (like the childhood stuff that we all pretend didn’t happen). We had to decide whether we wanted him involved at all (which we did, in part because my mom deserves access to our children, and because he isn’t a completely crazy or evil person). Ultimately, we talked to a therapist and decided that even though we would never trust him with our children, we didn’t want to cut him completely out of our lives.

    In the end we decided that our kids could have visits with their grandfather with us present, they just couldn’t spend the night in the same place as him, or go anywhere on their own with him.

    Telling that to my parents was awful and involved 2 years of grief around it (one for each child, but I’m not sure why they had to freak out twice). And to be honest, even though it’s been 8 years since we asserted our rules, my parents still haven’t gotten over it. They both feel like we’re punishing them unfairly for stuff the “may not have happened.” It’s a bit crazy making… but 2 of my 3 siblings have made similar boundaries for their children, so ultimately my parents have gotten over it, even if we do have to deal with the occasional nasty comment.

    The world doesn’t always come in neat and tidy packages. Even though my family as a great deal of issues to contend with, it’s still better to have them as part of my family. Having clearly established boundaries makes that possible for us. It is definitely the HARD way, but I think it’s worth it. (And the fact that they live over 12 hours away really helps too!)

  13. I’ve never “come out” to my parents. This is not the same as being “in the closet.” I simply rejected the closet entirely. The first time my parents noticed bruises on my arms that I did not hide, I answered their questions honestly about my partner, our dynamic, and the consensual scene that resulted in their appearance. Since their focus was primarily on my safety, the majority of that conversation was focused on ethics, safe words, etc. I let them lead the conversation with their questions, and when they felt they’d understood enough I let them change the subject. At no time did I act as though what I was doing was something I had to explain from a place of shame. Proudly owning my choices and explaining with calm and patience demonstrated to them more than simply my words. They felt the authenticity.

    As for polyamory, I told my parents that I had begun dating someone and I’d like them to meet him (both so they can know him and so I could get their opinion of him). My mother questioned if this meant I was no longer seeing my primary partner. This opened the conversation to explain polyamory, and once more I let them lead the conversation with their own questions. Their concern, once again, was my safety and so I explained ethical nonmonogamy and what that meant specifically to my relationship(s).

    By the way, my parents and I have never had a conversation about sex. There wasn’t even a birds and bees. But they do know I am kinky, queer, and polyamorous (although they may struggle with the vocabulary), and they know I am safe and loved. And I, in turn, feel more loved because I know my parents see a much fuller picture of who I am and what is important in my life.

    I hope my experience helps you in some way.

  14. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too. My parents are so wonderfully open and supportive, and if I were gay, I wouldn’t think twice about coming out to them. But they are very into monogamy. I have been openly skeptical of monogamy for many years, and they invariably take it as an indictment of their chosen lifestyle rather than an expression of my own relationship ideals. I fall more in the solo-poly category, so for me it’s not really an issue of introducing them to my partners, but I do feel like I am keeping something from them that is a very important part of my life. I entered my first poly triad as a secondary partner almost a year ago, and while it is still quite new in the whole scheme of things, I feel like that is a long time to keep it from the people I am close to. I have been trying to figure out where the line is between being private about my love life – which I am in any case – and being closeted.

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