Why it can be hard to discuss how out you are (or want to be) early in poly/open relationships

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October 14, 2012 by aggiesez

Since I published my National Coming Out Day post, I’ve gotten into an interesting discussion on the excellent forum on Polyamory.com.

To recap, my Oct. 11 post was: Coming out: How “out” are you as poly, really? And why? In it I explored some basic issues and considerations about being out in various contexts about your polyamory or preference for honestly open relationships, from the perspective of solo people who don’t have (and may not want or be seeking) a primary partner of their own.

This included discussion of some real or perceived risks in being out, and how people in these relationships can consider their own “outness” needs and priorities — as well as the benefits of communicating and negotiating these clearly (with both primary and nonprimary partners) early in relationships.

I received some thoughtful comments to that post, which are worth reading.

I also raised this topic, with my post as a touchstone, in this Polyamory.com forum thread.

That thread has drawn many intriguing responses — mostly from the perspective of poly people who are part of a primary couple, but also from a few solo poly people. It’s well worth reading to get a range of views on this topic.

One point from my original post was that when a poly/open relationship is still in the early phases, maybe just starting to progress beyond casual dating or the initial rush of NRE, it can be surprisingly difficult to ascertain how “out” in various contexts your new partner really is.

Sure, the poly motto is “Communicate, communicate, communicate” — so you’d think we’d all just ask about outness early on, to lay the groundwork for future discussion, negotiation, and consideration and to make sure all partners and metamours are on the same page. And indeed, one longtime solo poly person questioned in that forum thread how any poly people would not be completely clear about a partner’s outness early in a relationship.

But after speaking with many poly people (solo and in primary partnerships), I’ve learned that real-world polyamory often falls short of this proactive ideal.

That includes me: My most recent long-term relationship hit the rocks a few months ago big time due to issues that my boyfriend, his spouse and I could — and should — have discussed  early in the relationship. But we just coasted along, while he and his spouse obscured how not-out they truly are. This definitely wasn’t the only reason why things ended badly, but it played a key role in the damage done.

Here’s what I’ve found, as I mentioned in this post to that thread:

—————-

From my own experience, and that of many poly people (solo & not) whom I’ve asked about “outness” lately, it seems that usually this topic doesn’t get discussed clearly and specifically early in a relationship.

Discrepancies tend to emerge only after the relationship is well established and there’s substantial emotional investment. And what seems to be the most common way that outness discrepancies become apparent is when a nonprimary partner inadvertently transgresses an outness-related boundary of the primary couple, which the primary couple never disclosed and often is unwilling to negotiate about.

Another common situation is when the nonprimary partner unexpectedly finds themself excluded, avoided, or demoted to “friend” status without warning or negotiation at an event or in a social setting.

There are various reasons for why people usually don’t discuss outness clearly and early in poly/open relationships.

  • Early in any kind of relationship (even most mono ones) it’s usually seen as pushy or moving too fast to make public mention of a relationship (such as calling someone your “girlfriend”) within the first few months. During initial “new relationship energy” (NRE) it’s hard to tell how serious a relationship might be in the long term. So for people with relationship experience, outness usually isn’t much of an issue early on.
  • People often like to imagine they’re more open or braver than they actually are.
  • Poly people often initially meet, fall in love and socialize within the poly community. When that’s your main social context for a new relationship, it isn’t always apparent that, say, a longtime poly primary couple may be considerably or entirely closeted in other social circles.
  • Often people feel that that it’s unromantic to clarify outness boundaries early on, that this kills the NRE buzz because it clarifies limits rather than hopefully embraces possibility.
  • Often primary poly couples assume that the norm is that, outside the poly community, they get the prerogative to maintain the appearance (and privilege) of mono couplehood — so nonprimary partners “should” expect and be willing to roll with that.

…Of course, your mileage may vary. If you’ve seen differently in your poly/open circles, if the poly people you know generally think very clearly about outness and discuss/negotiate it frankly and — especially — EARLY in new relationships, I’d find that very encouraging. From what I’ve seen and heard about, that’s usually not how it plays out in the real world, unfortunately.

———–

So: How does my assessment of typical real-world poly behavior line up (or not) with what you’ve seen from the poly people you know or have been involved with, from your poly community, and with your own poly/open relationship behavior? I’d love to get more views on this, especially from solo poly people. Please comment below.

FOLLOWUP POST, Oct. 14: Why it can be hard to discuss how out you are (or want to be) early in a poly/open relationship

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6 thoughts on “Why it can be hard to discuss how out you are (or want to be) early in poly/open relationships

  1. Jkelly says:

    I’d say that this doesn’t line up all that well with my experience, but that’s not to say that I find it hard to believe. Your first three reasons make a lot of sense. I’m just left wondering where the other partners are in the dynamic you’re describing. It sounds as if the poly- community is composed solely of couples, neither of whom are dating anyone else, and single people. That’s a very mono- sounding poly- community!

    In my network someone closeting one or more of their relationships would be something that would get commented upon; being out is the default assumption. My impression is that it’d be weird for a surprise closeting to happen. That’s not because everyone necessarily has a frank, transparent conversation about being out early in a relationship (although I imagine that’s at least sometimes the case), but because even people new to the community are going to observe and interact with the partners of people that they might consider dating. That means that they’re going to have a sense of what a potential relationship would look like, and how partners get treated.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks, JKelly

      I realize different people have different experiences of the poly/open community, and there are regional variations in local poly/open culture. I can say that what I reported is what I experienced of the poly community in the city where I lived for a few years, and the city where I live now — which are about 4 big states apart from each other.

      But I wanted to hear others’ experiences, which is why I asked, so thanks for responding :-)

      You wrote: “It sounds as if the poly- community is composed solely of couples, neither of whom are dating anyone else, and single people. That’s a very mono- sounding poly- community!”

      Allow me to clarify: What I’ve experienced are poly communities that appear to be heavily couple-centric — that is, there are a lot of poly/open/monogamish primary couples who have non-primary partners. Those non-primary partners seem (as far as I can tell) to be pretty evenly split between solo people and people who also have their own primary partner. Plus a smattering of co-primary situations, and some small networks where no one really has a primary relationship, etc.

  2. Lily says:

    You know, when I first dated my girlfriend, we were both brand-spanking-new at poly. At the very beginning of our relationship, we didn’t even hold hands in public! Most of the time we spent together was in the nearby city where she lives, and she was a little worried about the fallout if people in her neighborhood saw her being affectionate with me.

    Now, in a monogamous context, I would have dumped someone who refused to hold hands with me. But that’s because there’s very little at stake: what would they be risking by holding hands at me? For my girlfriend, it was a different question, and I was willing to let her have some time to figure out what she wanted for herself. Two years later, PDA is most certainly on the menu and has been for a long time. I suspect if my girlfriend started a new relationship now, it would be on a completely different footing: she’d probably be comfortable with PDA right away, because she’s already been through the process of doing that for the first time.

    • aggiesez says:

      Yep, Lily. As I said, people should be free to make their own decisions about how out they want to be. Sounds like in your case, you agreed to go along with the closeting your girlfriend requested. Was that something you and she discussed and overtly agreed to? And if so, how far into this relationship did that happen?

  3. SunPisces says:

    One of the things that bugs me about the polyamory community is that it seems that this is about more than a relationship between individuals (2, 3, 4 or more) and more about making a political statement. I don’t rub my monogamous relationships in people’s faces and so rubbing my extra girlfriends or my wife’s boyfriend’s in others’ faces doesn’t even occur to me. I’m not trying to make a statement, I’m trying to enjoy the company of those I love. What the rest of the world thinks is moot. I will kiss a girlfriend in public and I will kiss my wife in public and I will hold hands with both of them at the same time if the situation is appropriate, such as walking down the Pearl St. Mall. My sex life and love life is NOT political and that political attitude is what puts me off from most poly groups and most actively political poly people.

    • aggiesez says:

      Whether or not you think being out is “political,” this is a deeply personal relationship issue, because we’re talking about real people with real feelings, not props or roles.

      Non-primary partners to people who also have a primary relationship often deeply dislike or resent being treated like a secret — especially if the non-primary relationship becomes significant, emotionally invested, and long-term.

      When you’re in a relationship with someone who has another partner, and they have one and only one “public” relationship, and that’s not you, and it never will be you, that can feel very disrespectful and just plain shitty.

      If a condition of being in a non-primary relationship with you is that you will expect the non-primary partner to remain closeted to some extent, or at least to be complicit in concealing the relationship in all or some circumstances, that’s a pretty important consideration that needs to be disclosed up front. It shouldn’t ever be presumed.

      Choosing not to be out is a valid choice — but it’s one that needs to be communicated clearly and responsibly. Speaking from long experience, trying to wing it on this particular issue is especially likely to cause a lot of misunderstandings, resentment, and heartache.

      Also, the fair way to approach this is to be willing to explain to a potential non-primary partner *why* you and/or your primary partner insist on not being out — what exactly are you trying to preserve, or avoid? Often there are multiple ways to achieve any relationship goal that do not involve one person having to shoulder a disproportionate burden or risk.

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