5 Tips for Talking to Your Family About Polyamory
For traditionally monogamous couples, the idea of bringing a partner to a family function for the first time can be a source of stress. If you're ethically nonmonogamous or practicing polyamory—which is when you're in an intimate relationship with more than one partner—the idea of meeting the family can introduce a whole new level of anxiety.
"Unfortunately, people hear polyamory and they really do often think it's just about sex," said David Singer, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in kink and polyamory. According to Singer, people who identify as poly understand that mutual love and respect, strong communication skills and trust—rather than just sex—are the actual building blocks of successfully maintaining multiple partnerships.
There are risks and rewards to coming out as poly, and for many people, the benefits of expressing their full identity—and allowing their relationships to be seen and celebrated—can far outweigh the challenges. But it's not always easy to start that conversation. If you need an assist, here are five ways to approach talking to your family about polyamory for the first time.
Emphasize the emotional commitment
Not all ethically nonmonogamous couples are polyamorous, but experts recommend that if you and your lovers do identify as poly, lead with the relational aspects of your connection: the commitment, the emotional investment and, above all else, the love you have for them.
"Your family is probably going to hear the 'poly' part first, but emphasize the 'amory' side," Singer said. Explain to your family that these are people who make you feel love and joy, and emphasize how much these relationships mean to you, he added.
While the language you use to describe your relationships is a personal choice, being specific about the emotional commitment you've made can help inform how it's perceived by others.
"When your family can see you treating (multiple partners) with tenderness and care and concern, it can set a tone for them and create a model for how they can interact with that person," said Caitlin V. Neal, resident sexologist for sexual hygiene company Royal and a sex coach who specializes in polyamory.
Anticipate challenges and pushback
Talking about poly or nonmonogamy has a way of triggering fears and insecurities that other people may have around relationships. Family members may hear the word "nonmonogamy" and equate it with sexual infidelity.
"We all have an experience of someone having sex outside of their primary relationship," Neal said, "and usually our exposure to that was mixed with pain, trauma, the end of the relationship."
It can be hard for people who don't have experience or knowledge about poly to understand how much work goes into making poly relationships thrive, Singer noted. For that reason, it's a good idea to have someone you trust—a friend, one or all of your partners or even a healthcare professional—available to provide aftercare and support once you talk to family members, in case things don't go as well as you hoped.
Remember that timing is everything
When it comes to introducing secondary partners to family members, it's important not to move too quickly. "Everything should go at the pace of the slowest-moving person," whether that's you or your partner, Singer advised.
In addition to taking things slowly, be tactful about when you introduce someone and how you start that conversation. Ideally, have an initial talk before any big parties or events, so you can give relatives space and time to adapt, process their feelings and understand your expectations about how you'd like your other partners to be treated. It takes emotional intelligence and strong communication skills, Neal said, but these are important qualifiers of being in a poly relationship—or any relationship, really.
If you're still worried about how your secondary or tertiary partners will be received, consider arranging a meet-and-greet in a space that's comfortable and familiar to you and your partner(s). According to Singer, this can help offset some anxiety and also give your relatives an opportunity to see how everyone interacts on their own turf.
Stay positive—even if it seems hard at first
Feelings of fear and uncertainty can be common when people are planning to talk for the first time with family about poly, and that's OK.
Even if the conversation goes poorly at first, experts urge folks to stay hopeful. Allow the family to ask questions and don't get defensive if a relative is confused or frustrated initially. It can be a teachable moment and a chance to educate your family about what poly means to you, the value it has for your life and, most of all, the joy and happiness you gain from each of your partnerships.
"(Coming out as poly) can be a beautiful opportunity for new connections to bloom and to see your family through new eyes," Neal said.
Even if it takes time and requires patience and flexibility, it's worth it if you ultimately can see a future where all of your partners are welcomed into your family and respected as an important part of your life.
Actually, you don't have to introduce them
There's no right or wrong way to talk about being poly. However, it's important to know that you don't actually have to come out as poly if you don't want to make that choice.
"It can feel really good to be seen for who we are and feel like we're able to show up in a space as our whole, full self," Neal said. "But sometimes life just isn't perfect, and we have to make calculations based on what's going to be best for all people involved."
You don't have an ethical obligation to come out as poly to people outside your relationships, Singer said, and you're not betraying your partnerships by choosing to stay private about them if all parties directly involved prefer it. If, for whatever reason, you or your partners are having doubts about coming out, respect that. Everyone else can mind their own business.