Explaining alternatives to monogamy

If you ever have to explain polyamory to family or friends who have never come across the idea that there’s an alternative to monogamy, how do you do it? More importantly, how do you explain things if it’s your own relationship(s) you’re talking about? Personally, I have no idea! I can tell you how not to do it. Making your ‘open relationship’ status visible to family on Facebook, thinking “they’ll ask if it needs explaining”, and then promptly forgetting you’ve done so is not a good way to begin that discussion. But, after years of pondering and missing golden opportunities in conversations with my parents due to simply being too scared to “come out”, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Sadly, in the weeks that followed, I didn’t get a chance to explain much about how ethical non-monogamy works, but I did manage to reassure my mother that a) my relationship isn’t on the rocks, b) we are still very much in love, c) I wasn’t forced into anything, and d) it makes us both very happy indeed to live our lives this way.

So, how should I have done it? Non-monogamy in general, and polyamory more specifically, is a very tricky concept to explain to people who have been happily monogamous their entire lives and have no concept of there even being another way of life. Although I did manage to get the most important point across to my parents – that it’s consensual! – there was an awful lot that I missed out because they weren’t yet ready to learn more. Perhaps the time will come when I can point them towards an article I wrote on polyamory for BitchBuzz last year?

“It’s about being intimate with more than one person. Sex, love… the works. It’s about the understanding that, for some, one person alone simply cannot be their ‘everything’. It’s also about the radical notion that love is not finite. You can love more than one child, right? Try applying the same concept to romantic love. For some people that’s not just possible, it’s also desirable.”

When I first discovered ethical non-monogamy, the additional connections I made were physical only and so there was very little need to tell anyone else. After all, why would I come out to friends, family and co-workers about being a swinger? That just amounts to telling people too much about your sex life, and who wants to be thought of as an over-sharer? People I saw more often were referred to simply as ‘friends’ in wider conversation, which wasn’t exactly a lie, so my conscience was clean. There was just more to those friendships than most people would think. After a while though, things became more serious and so the need to share what had become a very important aspect of my life became far more pressing.

In recent years, I have had three additional relationships which haven’t really been discussed with family or co-workers. Not because I’m embarrassed by them, or because I’m trying to hide the truth. My silence is simply because I just don’t know how to begin the conversation. Once people start asking questions, I can tell them that everyone involved knows what’s going on and there’s no lies or cheating. I can tell them that it’s about consenting adults who trust and respect each other. I can tell them we negotiate boundaries, stick to agreements, communicate honestly, and remain loyal and committed to those we are in a relationship with.

We all have friends and family members who satisfy little parts of us that our partners don’t. The friend who loves cocktail bars like you do, while your partner prefers a real ale pub. The sister who loves action movies more than your other half who will never go to see one with you. The mother who chats for hours about the random crap you like, or the friend who loves the political discussions that your partner would rather avoid. Even people who have never contemplated the existence of something other than monogamy are familiar with the concept that we all need a few people around us in order to be happy. Poly people do more things with these people than non-poly folk do, but it’s essentially the same idea. I reckon that, if you can understand that, the rest will come in time.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, One Sub’s Mission, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.

7 thoughts on “Explaining alternatives to monogamy

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  1. I think you're right about this – time is the crucial thing. I suspect that, even for those whose first response is negative, over time they'll see that their worst fears for you (the general you, rather than you-Lori) haven't come to pass, and different relationship structures are actually just as awesome/boring/frustrating/happy-making as monogamy. I hope so, anyway – I like to think that, beyond emotional knee-jerk reactions, people are fundamentally rational and sensible.

  2. Agreement all round.

    I have always been a fan of the upfront disclose with added get out clause! ie: “The situation is this, it makes me feel this, I wanted to share that with you. I understand you might not want to know any more so I wont say anything further, but if you do want to discuss it at any point, then that's great..”

    I have used it for good things (new relationships) and bad things (health issues) and I honestly find most people accept what you're telling them or enquire further. Topic regardless, it just seems to be a tactic which is difficult to get angry at! If they shut down and ask no further, well, that's their choice and that should be respected. You've done the right thing. If they want to know more, great! You get to explain and as your post here is a brilliantly articulated explanation of how and why it works for you, I'd use pretty much that! 🙂

  3. I really like that description in the last paragraph – I think it's a great way of explaining it in familiar terms, so that it doesn't feel so alien or scary.

    Great post!

  4. @closeenoughtoread – I like to think that people are fundamentally rational and sensible too. Over time, anyone will hopefully be able to see that the relationships of their non-monogamous friends are not much different to their monogamous friends, as far as happiness levels go. Well, I'd say we get more of the happiness, but we also get more of the bad stuff too so I guess it balances out 🙂

    @Amanda – As everything happened quite gradually for me, there was never really a point where I felt that it was the ideal time to “come out” to my family. There was only what felt like too soon… and then what felt like too late! I shall use your technique in my next braving-the-subject email though. Seems like a very sensible plan.

    @J – I tried to find another description to the “you can love more than one child” analogy because, although that is most certainly true, I have somewhat overused it in the past! Glad this one works OK too. Freja's post on romantic vs parental love is a fantastic summary of why that example works. Different type of love are more similar than most people think.

  5. I've often had the “don't know how to begin the conversation” feeling too! Or more accurately, I don't often want to talk about it, because it isn't important, and I just want to drop it in to conversation without making it a big deal. A friend of mine who is in a civil partnership sometimes just says, “my partner, she…” and move on. Most people don't need too much explaining about same sex relationships anymore. But polyamory needs explaining, so to use the correct terminology about partners, metamours etc, it needs to actually halt the conversation to explain, which I don't always want to do. I sometimes feel that to come out requires me to stop everyone mid-discussion and say “EVERYONE TALK ABOUT ME AND MY SPECIAL SPECIAL RELATIONSHIPS!!!” Urgh. So sometimes I just say “my friend” and move on.

  6. @Freja – That's it! I couldn't quite put my finger on why I found it tricky to bring up the subject, but it's definitely because I don't want it to turn into a “let's all talk about ME!” session. I want people to know, but I don't like telling them face-to-face because it feels… weird. For example, the only time my colleagues and I are all standing around the office chatting is when we're celebrating someone else's birthday. Limelight-stealing is so *not* my thing. Mind you, neither is conflict or confrontation! Perhaps I should just tell everyone about my blog instead :-/

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