Coming Out Strategy 1: Say Nothing
When my wife and I first got together with our girlfriend Alexis we were only looking for a night of naughty fun. So we never planned on telling anyone. But one night became two and then three and eventually we couldn't get rid of her. Or we all fell in love, depending on how you look at it.
As our relationship grew and strengthened we wanted to share our joy with others. But coming out as poly can be tricky because there is both an emotional and a sexual dimension. And while it's acceptable to tell people about your relationships, most of us are more discreet about our sex lives. The challenge is how do you discuss the emotional dimension without talking about the sex?
We first turned to the internet for advice, where several people told us to say nothing. According to this theory, you just have people over and let them see you together. That way they'd get an understanding of the relationship without all those words getting in the way.
We tried this approach with a married couple and found it surprisingly ineffective. During dinner the three of us chatted, made googly-eyes at each other, tried to be warm and friendly, and thoroughly confused the couple. It appears that not saying anything conveys very little information. We thought we were being friendly and fun; they thought we were creepy and weird.
Later they asked what the hell was going on and my wife explained our relationship style. They got angry and told us that no good could ever come from it. They announced that we could no longer be friends and they haven't talked to us since.
Clearly, saying nothing was not the best approach.
Coming Out Strategy 2: Say Everything
The next people we told were Alexis' parents. They were both stunned. Her father said, "I'm going to need another glass of wine." This from a man who only drinks beer.
But they seemed to adjust quickly. Seeing how happy we are together made it easy for them to accept our triad. Then they proceeded to tell the rest of the family and suddenly I had a whole new set of people to buy birthday presents for.
When her grandma heard she giggled and said, "Oh, I didn't know you could do that." When she thought about it some more and said, "Well, I don't think it's for me." But she's been sending the three of us Christmas cards ever since.
Later, at a party for her parent's thirthieth wedding anniversary, we met Alexis's entire extended family, over 10 aunts and uncles and cousins by the dozens. Most made no mention of the fact that we have a different kind of relationship. Except Aunt Sadie. After talking with my wife and I for a while she said, "Well, I wanted to meet you and make sure you weren't creepy."
Coming Out to People You Don't Know
We go to a lot of parties. With three social people in a relationship it's easy to have a big network of friends. And many of them practice alternative lifestyles. But I still get tongue-tied trying to tell people about our triad.
I don't want to come across as a creepy guy using two women (even though I'm certified Not Creepy by Aunt Sadie). But to do that, I sort of have to explain that my wife and my girlfriend are also lovers. As in, they have a romantic and sexual relationship. As in, they do it. And that's not something I usually tell people that I've just met.
No matter how many times I say, "Nice to meet you, this is my wife and this is my girlfriend, they fuck each other too" it still sounds awkward.
One guy I told looked at me with awe and said, "Oh, I get it. You're the man!" No, really, I'm not the man.
First of all, I'm genderqueer. Most days I don't identify as a guy at all. But beyond my gender, calling me "the man" assigns a certain hierarchical structure that our triad lacks. I'm not in charge. We are a triumverate!
At another party a guy saw me flirting and asked, "How many women do you need in your harem?!?" Of course the answer is infinite, but that's beside the point. I'm not building a harem; that'd be way too much work. And I sort of resent the heteronormativity that harem implies. I don't want to capture women and make them my concubines, unless it's consensual.
Explaining Polyamory To Yourself
People have a lot of assumptions that make it difficult to explain, or even figure out, alternative lifestyles. Monogamy has a roadmap that we all know. You meet someone, fall in love, get married, have kids, start to resent each other, wonder why you settled for less, fight, separate, fight over custody, divorce, find a new someone, and repeat. With polyamory there is no road map; every relationship is unique.
One of the things they say about being poly is that you don't have to expect everything from one partner. I've found this to be true. I was married once before and it was a traditional, monogamous relationship. I felt a lot of pressure to be everything to my wife: husband, breadwinner, lover, best friend, activity partner, etc. Eventually it proved to be too much (or maybe it was her obsession with Martha Stewart).
With poly there is an understanding that no one person will fulfill all those roles. So there's a lot less pressure on each relationship. Of course there can be jealousy too. Like, why do you need someone else to be your pirate? Why can't I be your pirate? I could get a parrot. I don't really like ruffled shirts, but I could get one!
This is just a hypothetical example, of course. The point is, because I'm poly I don't have to get a parrot or a ruffled shirt or start committing crimes on the high seas. My wife can get that need met on someone else's boat.
Some poly people say that you should pick partners based on mutual interests. If you like to bowl but your primary partner doesn't you can go out and find a lover who likes to bowl. Now, I see nothing wrong with that, but it seems to me if poly isn't about the sex, then why do you need to be sleeping with your bowling partner?
I think more often poly relationships happen the other way around. You meet someone you like and start sleeping together. Later (the morning after), you discover you have some mutual interests, like going to renaissance fairs. (By the way, renaissance faires are a great place to meet people who are poly. And pirates.)
Not Having To Explain Anything
What I've learned so far is that, no matter what I say, some people will never understand polyamory or my relationship choices. Right now we are planning on moving in together. My parents called to tell me they don't approve. My mom said it's not a good idea for my wife and I to have someone else living with us. She said, "What if you need to fight?"
Surely we can fight while living with someone. Growing up I had a brother and a sister and we fought all the time. So I think "fight" might have been code for "make a baby." And "why do you want Alexis to move in with you" might have been code for "when are you going to give us some grandchildren?".
In the end, we all have to find our own path in this world whether other people accept us, or even understand us. Our path may not be for you. And your path may not be for us. But if we do cross paths, maybe we could hang out, go bowling, and sleep together.