Thursday, October 13, 2016

Another reason why

This past weekend I received a lot of sad texts.  Both Tinkerbell and The Flautist had a rough time of it with family, and for both it was because they are polyamorous.  Their situations are different but there are some really important similarities.  Both came out to their families thinking that it would be fine and that people would be okay with it and both have had real problems being accepted.

It is worse on the holidays.  Something about ritual time together winds up the stress and anxiety level and having people be hostile to you in that situation is hard.  You can't get away without offending people and so often you have your own desire for a happy family time get torpedoed by people who insist on belittling or dismissing your choices.  I think because holidays are so wrapped up in other sorts of tradition people get into the mindset that everyone ought to pretend to be perfectly average people so you can all fit into the nice 'normal' box.

I am lucky with my own family this way - some of them really don't get my choices, but they haven't ever made it a problem when I visit.  I don't expect people to convert and I know that for many polyamory is inexplicable but as long as they decide to just set it aside and treat me as they always have I won't fuss.  I don't discuss it around Wendy's family, as I am sure that would be a disaster (though what shape the disaster would take I can't say exactly) so in that regard I am in a similar boat to my paramours.  Keeping silent to avoid a mess isn't fun, especially for me.

This is why I talk about polyamory here and why I won't just shut up about it.  People who accept all kinds of other life choices still consistently react badly to news that their relatives have open relationships or are polyamorous.  Moreover because it is still a small, fringe sort of thing people feel justified in being awful to polyamorous people.

Somehow because poly is still on the margins people largely have it in their heads that it is okay to be cruel and unpleasant to poly people in order to try to get them to stop doing it, or at the least pretend it doesn't exist.  There is a pervasive idea that just talking about poly is somehow offensive, crude, or rude, and that is so messed up.

If a polyamorous person is trying to recruit you, then certainly feel free to be dismissive.  But even then you should expect that if you try to recruit them into monogamy that they will be equally dismissive.  But if all they ask of you is to accept their way of being then you need to just do that.

Right now our society is in a place where it is expected that if a polyamorous person comes out to their family they will end up being treated badly.  The norm is that you either shut up and hide in the closet or end up being made miserable.  I shouldn't have the expectation that people I care about are going to be made unhappy every holiday and that I will get lots of stories of woe.  Who needs family that acts like that?

The way I fix this is by being loud.  The way the world gets better in this way starts with people knowing that poly exists, that lots of people do it, and that there is nothing wrong with it.

My being loud probably won't help the people romantically involved with me, certainly not quickly.  These changes take time.  But fielding sad texts on holiday weekends (and sometimes sending ones of my own) because of anti poly bigotry shouldn't be a feature of my life, and I am going to take what steps I can to nudge the world to a better place.


  1. While I agree with much of what you say are the likely reactions to coming out, I disagree that this is due to bigotry. I think it's a strong word, and one that should be used cautiously.

    Whenever someone faces something new, they try to link it to something "similar" in their life. Now for, say gay marriage, this isn't too hard to see similarities to marriage (to which society approves) and feels more natural to them.

    Poly though would seem more similar to adultery (on either the male or female side) which society disapproves. If you are expecting them to simply accept it because "that is the way I am and it makes me happy" then you are expecting a great deal. Nor would I expect them to be as accepting if your spouse came forward and also said she was happy with it, since it could be seen as a "saving face" statement.

    I do think it is getting better, but I don't think it's going to change very quickly at all. Being loud helps, but I don't think pointing to others and blaming them for needing to "stay in the closet" is going to be helpful.


    1. I do think it is helpful. Being in the closet SUCKS. It ruins your relationships, because they end up feeling incredibly shallow in inauthentic. Pushing people to lie to you, hide things from you, or change their lives to suit your irrational desires for conformity is crappy.

      I totally understand bad early reactions. That isn't bigotry. A parent flipping out at the outset is normal, though not good. But when you have time to ask questions, reflect, research, and consider, you need to come to the conclusion that people are going to do what they do in their relationships and you have to just accept it. In the long run if you can't do that then it is bigotry.

  2. Some speculation: I think part of the difference between coming out as poly vs. coming out as say queer is that society has more or less accepted the idea that sexual orientation is not a choice. That idea helps to make it less of personal attack on the person hearing it. It makes sexual orientation a trait, not a value. If that's the case a parent might be uncomfortable, but as long as they can convince themselves that they're not hearing "take your values and stuff it", they can probably find acceptance. Whatever some people say, I don't think poly is analogous – it may intrinsically suit some people better than others, but it is first and foremost a radical philosophy. It is for real saying, "I don't share one of your deeply held values". You can try to minimize that by showing that you do still share some of their other values, but I can't see any way to eliminate that aspect completely. I would imagine that many parents would have a particularly hard time with that. And on top of taking it personally, they'll probably assume that society will be even harsher in judgement than they are being, which is an extra source of worry.


    1. It is true that people are mostly now accepting that being queer is not a choice. I think there are real problems with that, but it has been an advocacy talking point and it worked. However, I don't agree that poly is all that different. There are definitely people who are absolutely miserable in monogamy and are absolutely born that way. There are also people like me who are happier with polyamory but who can get by monogamously. For me is it partly a 'born that way' thing, and partly a choice/philosophy. I think they are very similar in that regard, as many queer people are truly born that way and can't be otherwise, and some can just suck it up and pretend to be straight and get by ok.

      In both cases it is shitty to try to force someone's personal life to conform to your own, or to society's accepted norms.

      I totally get that parents are going to flip out at least in part because of society's expectations. They don't want to have to answer questions like "So what is your daughter doing these days?" with "Oh, dating an older married man" and then have to defend that situation. I get that. I absolutely excuse temporary freakouts and legitimate worry at the outset. What I don't excuse is continuing crappy behaviour in an attempt to 'correct' the offending behaviour via punishment and shame. That never works, as everyone knows.

    2. I don't think you are saying anything different from me, unless you are disagreeing with the statement that polyamory is primarily a philosophy. Let me put another way. If that's not the case, why do we need books, blogs, conversations on ethical non-monogamy? If those didn't exist, what would 99% of people who describe themselves as "born that way" be doing now? They might not be monogamous, but it would likely be manifesting as something quite different. Anyhow, the point was not to hash up this argument, but to look at what's going on from the point of view of an outsider (e.g. a parent). I think it's this. The outsider first tries to find an analogy that they can accept, but then finds that the analogy is flawed in crucial ways, and doesn't it help them accept the situation. Then what? I agree continuing crappy behaviour should not be excused, but it you want to try to change it, you need to know where you stand.


  3. Here I come to dissent with defenses of privileged people's emotions. Regarding people learning by thinking of something "similar" it was awfully hard for people to think that gay relationships were similar to straight relationships for vast swaths of human history. Recently we've pushed that out to, what, 60% of the population? Poly relationships are more like monogamous relationships without cheating than they are like monogamous relationships with cheating, and anyone who immediately thinks that they are more similar to cheating is bypassing the obvious dissimilarities because they think "poly bad". The judgement (different is bad) is first, the rationalization after.

    As for sharing values, if you come out poly and your parents give you a hard time, the value they are displaying is being mean to their children because of their children's life choices. So I think rejecting their values, to their face, would be perfectly fine. If you have a deeply held value that people who choose to organize their romantic and sexual relationships in a way you are unfamiliar with are bad people, then your deeply held values are stupid and awful.

    As children are we responsible for tiptoeing around our parent's bigoted feelings? Maybe they need to grow up.

    Unfortunately many poly people actually have the deeply held value of standing by their parents (despite their parent's lack of value on standing by their children), so they don't want to just walk away from that relationship. I think walking away is the best option - either your parents can figure out that it is more important to them to have a relationship with you than to judge your sex life and act accordingly, or they actually aren't worth knowing.

    Attacking people as being bigots might not be likely to change who they are, but maybe the point isn't to change who they are. Maybe the point of not hanging out with someone who insults you isn't to change them but rather to protect yourself because they will not change. Maybe the point is to tell their privileged, entitled asses that they can't go around treating people like crap, that they have to respect other human beings, and that their behaviour won't be tolerated. If they don't like it, remind them that the issue is going to be resolved by generational churn and one day we'll be able to write "Now that you're gone, poly people are free" on their graves. Their dearly held values count for nothing.

    1. Understanding is not defending. It's the first step towards making informed decisions. It sucks that too often this burden falls on the shoulders of less privileged people, but that doesn't change the fact that without it we are lost.


    2. I think I'm showing a lot of understanding. Underlying all of their mean-spirited comments is some weird knot of neurons that raises their cortisol levels when they hear about people having non-traditional relationships. The solution is therapy or mindfulness or apologizing when you have a moment where you take out feelings on other people around you.

      I don't have a lot of interest in trying to understand the rationalizations that people have for translating bad feelings in their body into bad actions towards others. I think that's ultimately an understanding of nothing - the rationalization can just be replaced by another if it ceases to function.

      If I wanted subjective understanding I'd have to be the person in that situation and say, "You know, Mom, you keep making these negative comments about me and it hurts me when you do it. I'd like to understand why are you doing that. How does it make you feel that I'm poly?"

      But in the end, whatever understanding you have, I feel like you have to say, "I'm sorry to hear that my life choices are creating pain for you, but even when we have bad feelings we are responsible for how we act on them. I love you, and love does not mean letting people hurt you, so I expect you to stop demeaning me."