Coming out in pieces

I grew up in a very liberal town. Since I was very young, I was aware of the experience many gay kids have with coming out to their loved ones. It always seemed difficult but necessary, something you just had to do one day as you became an adult. Why would you ever deny who you were? It seemed silly to do that.

My adult reality has been a little more complicated.

I identified as bisexual for a long time, though I did not date many women. I had some experiences with and attractions to women, some strong and meaningful. However, the bulk of my dating and relationship experiences have been with men.

I’ve mentioned the idea of “passing” before and I think my mostly hetero-leaning bisexuality allowed me to mostly pass as a straight person in any cases where it might matter or be difficult. I’ve never considered it something to hide, but there is the reality there that I can, if I want to. Since I’ve never fallen deeply in love with a woman and the issue of declaring my sexuality has never really forced itself to the foreground, I’ve sort of been spared having to really deal with the issue of “coming out” in a meaningful way. In my social groups, or when the topic comes up, I have no problem saying that I’m bisexual and sharing my point of view from that side.

So what?

What I’m trying to explain is this: I’m very much aware of the privilege of my options.

When it comes to polyamory, I’ve always taken an open, “make no assumptions” approach to romance and dating, and never thought to hide that from anyone. It seemed a silly thing to hide, it did’t occur to me to hide it. In my early 20s, when I was dating a lot, I wasn’t keen on the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” because it implied commitment to one person, and I didn’t like that one bit. It felt wrong, untrue, and I didn’t use these words if I could help it. I lost out on some opportunities to date really nice people because they couldn’t (or did not want to) deal with my refusal to forsake all others, even in an abstract way, when there technically were no others at the time.

With Husband, we were technically open, and very liberal, anything-goes people in general, but we were not actively dating others. This made us effectively monogamous for years, in our own eyes and in those of our friends and family. Since there were no others in our lives, why correct them? Why even think about it? We were lulled into a comfortable social status and had no reason to question or disrupt it, until we decided to start dating. One thing leads to another, and we have Boyfriend in our lives now, for which we are grateful and happy.

So it happened that, even though I never made an effort to hide anything from anyone, I have felt pretty closeted in some situations, and that sucks.

I’ve come to understand from personal experience how there might be many levels of closet and out-ness. How you could be out to your friends, your social group, even coworkers if you socialize with them, but not your family.

There are levels of out-ness.

I tend to see the following levels of out-ness with things like sexuality and polyamory:

  1. Totally closeted and dating or having sexual encounters on the side, in secret, probably using the internet.
  2. Out to a very small group of people, such as one social circle but not another.
  3. Out to friends and most social circles but not all.
  4. Seemingly totally out, but actually, only selectively. This is where it gets really tricky, the tipping point. A person can seem to be out, can even be an activist for gay or kinky or poly rights, for example, yet be totally closeted when it comes to coworkers or family or certain friends.

And then there was me for an unplanned long time – totally out except for certain family members. I don’t think any of these are good places to be, but it’s a gradual journey, and I do not really fault anyone at any stage in this journey.

Coming out, at any stage, requires vulnerability and potential risks, from being misunderstood or patronized to being disowned and rejected by loved ones. I do think it is worth it, though, knowing that the more people who do come out, the more good examples there will be, and the easier it will be for the next generation, and the next.

I feel this journey is a responsibility we have to those that come next. And I feel strangely in the middle of making it, though it may be slowly, at my own pace.

Advice to a new polyamorist: Everything changes

I’d been talking to a friend off and on about polyamory, and she got in touch again a little while ago. We no longer live in the same city since I’ve moved to SF, but I think we’ll keep in touch. We have a lot in common. She’s married, too. Now she has a young child. She and her husband are young and going through a lot of life changes.

About a year ago, we had lunch and she confessed to being interested in, and perhaps even jealous of, my open marriage. This was almost funny to me because I always admired her and thought she had everything in her life so well put together, that it hadn’t occurred to me that she might think anything similar of me. (Sidenote: Everyone has a wish list and a list of questions and worries, everyone, always.) We talked about marriage and relationships in general, the level of commitment that being open requires, the difference between “open” vs “swinging” vs “polyamory” vs “polyfidelity” etc. There are a lot of definitions to play around with and learn about. It was a lively lunch discussion. It seemed like she was yearning for more freedom and more time to explore, but with her young family, it was just a wish, put on the back burner for a while.

So, when she reached out to me again to ask me more about this topic, I was not surprised. She had just asked her husband to consider an open marriage, to give his consent to her dating. She seemed relieved and pleased that he had given that consent, but also worried because of the way that he gave it. It also worried me.

He said, basically, “Do what you have to do, but I don’t want to hear about it.”

What does that really mean? she wondered. Does that mean he doesn’t feel he has a choice, that he feels forced in to something he doesn’t want? That would be the opposite of her intention, which she said was to expand their relationship within the bounds of honesty, love and mutual respect. And, polyamory is what she wanted, not just a special dispensation to hook up with people at parties. She sought the ability to explore additional relationships, build more connections, and allow for the possibility of multiple loves.

What if she found someone else who was special? What if she fell in love? How would he react to this possibility? she asked him.

His response was, again, not what she hoped to hear. He’d be unhappy but he would find a way to “move on.”

Hardly the response of a person open to the idea of “multiple loves” existing simultaneously.

My advice to her was very basic, but the best I could come up with (and still is): Don’t rush. Give him time. Don’t rush. Communicate a lot. Check in with him a lot and ask a lot of questions and take an interest in his feelings and fears. If he’s anything like my husband (and it sounds like he is), he won’t be the most forthcoming with his vulnerabilities and emotions, so sometimes one must really work to discover them.

I thought about this a lot over the next few days, as it turned out that, she and Boyfriend, both back in the city I left, discovered a connection between…themselves.

Boyfriend then came to discuss it with me and, essentially, make sure he had my permission to see her.


I was taken completely by surprise. It’s been a while since I’ve been so surprised. I’d had no idea. Neither had they, he insisted. I had some very hard days as I obsessively wrestled with a cold wave of emotions and questions.

Over and over, I asked myself: Had she asked me for advice but hidden her real motive? Why would she do such a thing when she could just talk to me honestly? This just didn’t sound like her. I couldn’t see a reason for her to do this and I couldn’t see her, the person I knew, doing such a weird thing. It was a creeping suspicion, the fear of betrayal, yet I couldn’t square it with reality. I also briefly touched, but nearly immediately rejected, the idea that they were already involved, and were coming forward now to mend the mistake. Knowing them both, I knew this just didn’t make any sense.

Then, there are all the fears lurking just below the surface of my life, things like, What if he doesn’t come to join us here? Our plan had been that he would also move and we would continue to plan our future together. Was he seeking a new relationship as a way of anchoring himself there, seeking reasons not to move? This really scared me; the thought of Boyfriend calling me one day to say he’d changed his mind and wouldn’t be moving really shook me and my whole concept of what the next few years would be. It scared me even more because I hadn’t really considered it – I’d started to take for granted that he’d come, and now I was forced to admit I wasn’t sure of anything. This uncertainty was monumental in my mind.

Finally, there was the battle in my heart over the concept of poly itself. I reasoned with myself that there was nothing to fear, that I knew both of them and could trust them. That the beauty of poly was the ability to pursue surprises and romantic experiences just like this. But I was afraid.

Fear takes lots of forms. My fear was jealous, worried and deeply vulnerable and raw.

After a few emotional emails and a long phone call, Boyfriend and I came to a place of understanding, and I was able to make a step that was very hard for me.

My epiphany came, as they often do, while I was in the shower. I wondered, What would happen if I accepted that I may not be able to perfectly trust anyone, and that is ok? What if I accepted that, yet decided to act with perfect trust anyway? Would that allow me to open my heart more? If the real problem in this situation is not whether he dates someone new (because that’s never been a problem in the past), or who he dates (in this case, someone I really like) – the problem is my fear that he will not move, that he somehow does not want our own relationship to continue.

In the end, I wrote my friend a short letter, telling her that at first I felt foolish for not knowing, but realized she would never do anything to hurt me. I told her that whatever happened next, I was her friend, and they had my blessings.

I’d never written a letter like that before. Sending it felt a little like jumping off a cliff. All of the voices of a dominant culture of monogamy whispered to me that perhaps she’d laugh at me, perhaps I was wrong to trust her, or Boyfriend, or anyone, ever.

What happened instead was that she wrote back a longer, heartfelt letter, expressing her gratitude and reaffirming friendship. We talked again that day and I felt as though I could breathe for the first time in days. Of course, who knows what will happen; first she needs to work more with her husband, to see if this will work for him at all, surely a way more formidable task than talking to me! Just shows that humans are so good at building huge towers in our minds, no matter what has actually happened or will happen. We torture ourselves with not knowing, trying to know.

The real source of my epiphany about trust, of course, is Husband. He has been patient and trusting through everything between us for over a decade. Lots of it has been, frankly, ugly and difficult. My own experience has proven to me that falling in love with a new person won’t take away my love for him. I would be far less successful in learning to grow beyond my own immediate reactions of fear and jealousy without his example.

So, back to advice for new polyamorists.

Today, I’d give this advice to new polyamorists. It’s not just for polyamorists; it’s some of what I have learned from polyamory that applies to everyone in every relationship:

Respect and value what you have. Never take anyone for granted.

The person you’ve been with for years still has things to teach you, if you are able to pay the right kind of attention.

Do not torment yourself by assigning negative intentions to people in your mind – ask them and trust them. When in doubt, try to choose the good intention, the positive solution.

Everything can change in a moment, so live fully in each moment. Be real. Don’t lie. Face up. And move ahead.

Invite love. When given the choice, even if it’s complicated, say yes to life.

It won’t be simple or worry-free. But it will be interesting and, probably, completely worth the trouble.

How not to behave when you meet your husband’s girlfriend

Meeting your husband’s new girlfriend is hard. I don’t care how open minded or liberated or positive you are, it’s going to make you anxious and nervous and worried. What if we don’t get along? What if she isn’t really ready to meet the wife? What if she seems nice but actually is going to try to break up our marriage or something? What if I am a failure as a poly person because I even have these thoughts and worries?

Yeah. I had all of these thoughts and many more like them before I first met my husbands’ first post-marriage girlfriend, a few years ago.

I made a lot of mistakes when I met her. Now, though, my totally botched experience will (I hope) help someone else before they mishandle this situation like I did.

I was inexperienced, it was new, and I was, to be honest, feeling really insecure and afraid. Husband had been hit hard with NRE, and I didn’t feel great about it at the time. I was trying to stay positive, trying to remind myself that everything would be ok and that he should be allowed to feel what he felt and celebrate it. I wanted to be able to celebrate it as well, but I was having a really rough time doing that while on the roller coaster of new-poly-experiences-insecurity.

I also knew that I had suggested we meet and all hang out several times and there was always some reason why not. In other words, I was feeling weirdly…avoided. I worried that she was avoiding meeting me because she didn’t care about forming a respectful relationship with him – with us – but rather that she was hiding something, had some bad motives, and would not bat an eye at hurting him or causing collateral damage to me or our marriage. I was also fiercely protective of him, worried about him being hurt by someone else, because I knew, from his side anyway, there were genuine and deep feelings forming already.

So. These things happen, and until I met her, I wasn’t going to feel comfortable about her place in our lives, whatever it would be. Things felt fragile.

Oh, and I was freaked out because I thought we looked kind of alike and that seemed weird and hit some of my insecurity buttons. Weird, maybe. (Is it?)

Nowhere is it written that if you’re dating a person who is already in a committed relationship, you HAVE to engage with or even meet your metamours (aka, your partners’ partners). However, I think it’s a best practice. It shows openness, interest, respect for the life they have beyond you, and hey, you can meet great new friends. It just seems like the logical and respectful thing to do. You don’t all need to become lovers or best friends or even good friends, but being friendly will make everything way more pleasant. Your mileage may vary but I think it’s good for all the individuals involved and good for the health of the various relationships.

When Husband finally was able to set up a time when we could all get together after work for a drink, I was quite nervous. The occasion has been strangely built up in my mind and I didn’t know what to expect. I am a pretty shy person, and I also sort of unconsciously took the attitude that she ought to be trying to impress me. As a non-poly friend (quite unhelpfully) told me, “She should be trying to prove that she is good enough and belongs there.”

Now, I recognize this attitude for what it is: Sensible in the context that it was coming from a monogamous person who views poly as a problem or something to “deal with” rather than a conscious choice and opportunity to make new connections. And worse: Poisonous to the fostering of those hoped-for new connections.

So what did I do?

I walked in to the bar and saw the two of them there, sitting side by side. They looked nice together. I had a difficult physical reaction – nervous tightness in my chest and throat, pounding heart. She and I hugged hello and looked at each other. We ordered drinks and I realized that I had not prepared anything to say or any questions to ask or anything at all, because I had assumed that they were running the show – that this meeting was about her being presented for my inspection. Again, pretty poisonous attitude, created mostly subconsciously by years of training by a monogamy-centric world.

There were some awkward silences amid the small talk about who we were and what we did. In retrospect, her attitude was a bit standoffish and condescending, which I picked up on and felt quite hurt by. In a less vulnerable state I may have seen it for what it probably was – uncertainty, insecurity perhaps, something I could relate to and empathize with. But, I was not in a place yet for empathy. I was absorbed with my own emotional self-preservation. At one point I even said: “This is not about me, this is about you two.”

How’s that for a passive-aggressive emotional distancing strategy.

I was wrong, of course. It was about all of us, together. It was not about the new girlfriend being “presented for approval” to the wife. It was not about the new couple seeking approval in any way from me. It was also not, as I irrationally felt in the moment, about me being presented for inspection by the new girlfriend, either.

What I wish it was and what it ideally should have been was an honest and open minded meeting of people with good intentions in common. While years have now passed, and I feel in retrospect that she and I would not have ever really been good friends or seen eye to eye on many things, I know I did not really allow for that from the beginning. I began the meeting with so much doubt in my heart, I did not really leave enough room for friendship to grow.

I felt so lost and vulnerable at the time that all I could do was try to avoid the situation when I should have faced it and asked myself what good intentions everyone might have, and how I would behave differently if I believed in everyone’s best intentions.

What would I have done differently?

I would have been welcoming and inquisitive. I would have come prepared with some actual things to ask her about herself and her life. I would have been more forthcoming about myself and not sat back waiting to be asked and approached. I would have made more of an effort instead of reasoning that she should be the one to make the effort since she was the one entering “my” relationship. And if she was still less than kind or unresponsive to me, I would not have locked myself away in a huff – I would have asked Husband sooner and with more vulnerability, less anger, to support me, show me care, and give me some more time, which is all I needed, and which I am sure he would have gladly given me.

How should you behave with you meet your partners’ new partner?

Remember that you have the opportunity to be the welcoming committee. You’re in an open relationship and one of the benefits is fun new people. Here’s one now!

Assume the best intentions until proven otherwise. Your partner (who you love and trust, right?) thinks this new person is great. Maybe they are!

Treat the new person as though they might be the nervous one and you wish to put them at ease. You do, right?

You know – behave the same way you’d behave with any new friend coming in to your world…rather than the way you’d approach an invading army. I wish I had.

Hierarchy is just an assumption

Hierarchy is something that gets mentioned a lot when introducing people to polyamorous relationships. I remember very clearly speaking with one non-poly friend, telling her when I had met Boyfriend, and telling her that I thought he was really special. She got very serious and wanted to know, “That’s great, but Husband is still the most important, right?”

The answer to that is always, “It’s complicated.”

I understood her to mean she cared about me, about Husband, about our marriage and our life together, and for that reason she didn’t want to see me screw it all up because of some crush. She was operating within a framework where interests outside the marriage = threats, and her comment was intended to bring me back to safe ground.

Maybe the answer was more like: Of course, yes Husband is the most important. But he’s the most important for all kinds of reasons beyond his socially acceptable title of Husband. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others to also be as important, regardless of title.

Hierarchy is deeply problematic, yet it is assumed in many poly relationships, especially when some of the people involved are married. Even though it is a relationship style practiced by those looking to break free of social expectations and remove themselves from the norm, there is a tendency to fall back on accepted modes of organizing their lives.

Hierarchy can resolve issues in advance by dictating things like “the marriage partner’s wishes always come first” – sure it can – but this type of solution can only be unsatisfying over time, even insulting. Is there really a reason to make sure a rule, rather than just communicate on a case by case situation and see what makes the most sense in order to get the most needs and desires met, regardless of title? If both Husband and Boyfriend want me to do something at the same time, shouldn’t I get to choose based on the situation which thing I want to do, whether I want to fill either need at all? If the rule was, Husband always comes first no matter what, wouldn’t Boyfriend end up feeling like a second class citizen in the relationship? I can’t imagine that ever feeling fair or right.

There are plenty of people who are fine with applying labels such as “primary” and “secondary” partner to their relationship roles, and I have no issue with that, so long as it’s conscious and voluntary. What I have a problem with is the assumption. It’s hard to describe or even explain in polite conversation, but sometimes I feel something unnamably wrong when someone refers to Boyfriend as my “secondary” partner – as though they are belittling the relationship because we aren’t married, something that always upset me before Husband and I were married and someone referred to him as “just” a boyfriend. Our relationship isn’t any less real, I want to say. Words either inflate or trivialize, and I wish they would just describe without doing either of those other things. But it seems awkward to correct people or go down this rabbit hole, so I usually don’t. Maybe I should.

How do you gently correct a well meaning person when they speak this way? Is it even my place or job to do so? Sometimes it’s better to just sigh and smile and move on, is this one of those times?

How do others handle the idea of hierarchy in their poly relationships?

What is polyamory?

Here’s a dictionary definition, from Wikipedia:
“Polyamory (from Greek πολύ poly, “many, several”, and Latin amor, “love”) is the practice, desire, or acceptance of intimate relationships that are not exclusive with respect to other sexual or intimate relationships, with knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It may or may not include polysexuality (attraction towards multiple genders and/or sexes).”

For me, the definition that resonates most is this one: “Consensual, ethical, responsible non-monogamy.”

Seems simple and to the point, but within that definition is contained a lot of rules, effort and work for anyone involved.

For something to be ethical, it must be consensual. For something to be ethical and consensual, it must be discussed, honestly, openly and among equals. Those involved must know what they are getting into, agree to it freely, without coercion of any kind, without emotional blackmail or fear of reprisals.

Polyamory is something I’ve always felt made logical sense, since before I ever heard the term. When I was young, I recall being confused by television plots that hinged on someone getting suicidally or homicidally upset by their boyfriend or girlfriend dating someone else behind their back. Why not just talk about it? I wondered.

In college, I always dated multiple people. I would go on dates and quite early on (like maybe before the main course arrived but after the salad?) I’d ask, So, how many people are you dating right now? It seemed to me a matter of basic respect that I would not assume they didn’t have other stuff going on, just as it was a matter of basic respect that they should tell me honestly if I asked. Often, this question seemed to take people back. Some friends applauded my blunt approach and others cautioned me not to ask questions like that because it would “send the wrong message” but it always worked for me. I believed (and still do) that it sends the accurate message that I value blunt honestly above pretty much all else; that I wouldn’t make assumptions but that you shouldn’t, either.

I can’t recall when I first learned the term “polyamory” but it was probably some time in college. I was involved in BDSM, sex education, assorted sex-positive clubs, parties, communities etc. Still, I didn’t start really identifying as such for some time, because it was so hard for me to understand why a “poly” life needed identifying, why most people wouldn’t just admit that they had emotional needs that went beyond whatever one person they were dating, why so many insist on denying that about themselves and their partners, and why so few people seem to take the time to have open discussions with their partners about what they want, what boundaries they will agree to, what they want out of their relationships.

To me, “poly” is a kind of shorthand for a type of highly conscious relationship-building. It indicates a high standard of honestly, forthrightness, a willingness to communicate a lot, and an ability to look at oneself in relation to others with an occasionally cold, analytical gaze.

It is also, despite several years of semi-incidental monogamy in my past, pretty much the only way I understand how to have relationships.

(How two highly conservative, monogamous, married, straight hetero parents produced me, I have no idea. It probably has something to do with all the fantasy and sci-fi books they left all over the house.)