Friday, December 20, 2013

Should I Tell My Parents I'm Poly?

Dear Viny,

I'm a single Mom happily involved in what I anticipate to be a long-term poly relationship. I've been with my lover in a poly pod situation for 9 months. He and I continue to grow stronger as a couple, and our families (his wife, her OSO, and all of our children) are also growing into more of a community together.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to be out to my parents about my poly relationship, but not if it's going to cause me all kinds of stress and discomfort. When I was a teenager and came out as queer, my parents handled it 'right' ("We love you anyway"), but we never spoke about it, and they never asked about my relationships. My parents have seen me through a variety of sexual identities (undefined, lesbian, bisexual) and they've seen me marry and divorce, but sexuality has always been this big awkward subject we avoid talking about. As much as I've grown and changed, I am still sensitive to my parents' concerns and criticisms, and I have sometimes felt the need to lie about my relationships to preserve my sense of self. I should add that the way they handled my divorce several years ago made the whole experience enormously harder for me. They claimed to be supportive but their comments made me furious and miserable.

It's hard to predict how they might react and how I might feel if I told them about my current situation. My brother, who is a psychologist and has a much closer relationship to my parents, advises me not to tell them, saying they “wouldn't understand.” My concern is that they might see us in the only way they can manage – in a bad light. But then I feel guilty for selling them short perhaps, and leaving them out by not sharing the source of much of my happiness. What if they reacted in a loving way? Am I being unfair if I don't give them a chance to be supportive? If I choose to keep my romantic life private, do you have any tips for how to not feel guilty about it? Thank you.

A Reluctant Daughter


Dear Reluctant,

Hang on a sec while I tie back my hair, roll up my sleeves, and don my heavy-duty gloves: this is one sticky wicket of a question. I'm glad you asked it, though, because so many people in alternative relationship configurations are currently agonizing over whether or not to tell someone they love about...well, about all the people they love.

I know quite a few polyamorous people who still aren't “out” to their families. Some plan to stay in the closet indefinitely. Others dread the day when they'll finally have to sit the dear (or not-so-dear) old folks down and explain to them what the birds and bees have really been doing in those cozy nests and honeycombed hives of theirs. They're pretty sure the parental reaction to this revelation – “Mom? Dad? Guess what? I'm [insert non-monogamous sexual identity term-of-choice]!” – is going to fall somewhere in the range from “What?” to “WHAAAAT???!!!

There are some wonderfully open, surprisingly savvy, exceptionally accepting parents out there. Unfortunately, yours don't seem to be among them. “We love you anyway” isn't exactly marching in the Pride Parade, knowwhatimean? I'm sure your brother is correct: Your parents are not going to understand. They will worry about you. They will worry about your child(ren). In the initial freak-out phase, they may even say some truly nasty things.

Nevertheless, I think you should tell them.

I would give the same advice to anyone with basically loving, basically sane parents: If you have something “big” to share – I'm gay, I'm poly, I'm asexual, whatever – share it.

I'm not saying you have to tell them now, or even that you should tell them now. In fact, it might be better to wait a while. There is something to be said for having a good chunk of time under your belt (“Junior and I have been an integral part of a jolly poly pod for over a year – and would you believe it, the world hasn't ended! No one's laced the Kool-Aid yet, but I'll keep you posted, okay?”). I am, however, suggesting that you plan on telling them before too much time goes by. Start preparing yourself now. If you want to have a meaningful, healthy relationship with your parents in the future, there will come a time when you will want them to know who you are and what your life is like, at least in accurate outline. Even if you just want to facilitate good grandparent-grandchild connections, you will ultimately need to come clean, and when that day comes, you won't want a pile of lies in the way of the truth.

Believe me, I understand your reluctance. It took me eight years to come out to my own parents. They're wonderful people, both of them, and I love them dearly. They are also conservative, repressed, devoutly religious Mormons. It was painfully clear to me that the best I could hope for was, “We love you anyway.” We did get there, eventually, but their initial response to my old news went something like this: Why did you have to go and ruin everything? We don't NEED to know what goes on in the privacy of your bedroom, we don't WANT to learn anything about your immoral lifestyle, and we have NO INTEREST in ever meeting any of your “extraneous” people. What good can possibly come of your telling us something we didn't want to know?

I'm going to share a portion of the long letter I wrote to my parents in January of 2007, in which I answered their rhetorical questions, because it explains why I chose to come out, and also why I am encouraging you to come out to your folks as well. (You can read the whole letter here – but I have to warn you, it's practically a novella.) 

...For a very long time, I wondered if I was making the right decision in keeping you in the dark about really important things going on in my life. We are NOT talking here about my private sexual life. We are talking about my life. When people start dating someone, fall in love, and end up moving to be in the vicinity of that person, or make the decision not to move on account of that person, it’s almost always the case that their family, friends, and even acquaintances are at least aware of the relationship that is exerting such an influence on every decision being made. I felt I was always having to hide from you, to omit, to change the topic, and this went against my very strong commitment to complete honesty. It especially pained me to have to worry about [my son, still an only child at age 10] innocently disclosing something to you. It wasn’t just my own discomfort that was the problem, either. [My husband] was never very comfortable with the fact that you guys didn’t know, and worried about what to say if ever you called while I was away for the weekend. Then, after [my husband's mother] knew the whole story, she had to feel uncomfortable about keeping something from you, too. To make matters worse, it’s not just other people in the family who’ve been unwittingly drawn into this intrigue: I’ve actually had to warn my neighbors not to say anything to you. The whole ruse was getting truly ridiculous. When [my son] started saying things that made me think his relationship with you two was being compromised, because he didn’t feel he could “really talk to you” since you “wouldn’t approve of our lives,” I began to think it was high time to stop lying to you -- that my desire to spare you grief was not really an excuse for my own cowardice.

Several months ago, I was editing a manuscript for a therapist, and came across some mental exercise in which readers were admonished to reflect upon what they’d do if they knew that they had only one more week to live (or something along those lines). I realized that I didn’t want to die without my own parents knowing who I really am. You may think that it’s selfish to want to be remembered accurately after my death; you may not even sympathize with that desire at all. But I place great value on authenticity and truth, in all its splendor and all its ugliness.... Anyway, I realized that if I would want to tell you the truth before I died, I should be telling you the truth now.

As for what good could possibly come from having told you something you didn’t want to hear, only time will tell, I guess. Both of you have lamented that there is more distance between us now, as though my having revealed the truth has actually widened the rift. As I said to Mom, I have known just how wide the rift is for a long time now. It was only an eventuality for you; it was an actuality for me. All I’ve done is cleared the fog away, shown you what was at your feet all along. I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe that ignorance is bliss. Fake bliss doesn’t count. Bliss that can be shattered by the truth doesn’t count. So, here we are: this is reality. It may look bleak to you, but I see a lot of hope here. Any gain we make now, any advance in our understanding and acceptance of each other, will be a real gain. We have a solid foundation now for re-building our relationship, if we choose to do so. And I know that I want to have a meaningful relationship with both of you, and am committed to working to make that happen. I love and care about you both. Sometimes I wish I could make you happy, but that’s something you will have to do for yourselves.

The way I see it, Reluctant, there is no way you can keep your romantic life completely private, because your romantic life has become such a big part of your everyday life, and your everyday life is entwined with the everyday lives of so many others. You are a mother: you do not have the luxury of complete privacy. It's one thing to teach children social discretion – “Sweetie, there is no need to tell the UPS delivery person that the reason I can't come to the door is because I'm on the toilet!” – and it's another thing entirely to ask them to lie for you.

At its best, polyamory is about creating relationships grounded in honesty and mutual respect. It's also about showing up as your authentic self and doing the work, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable. It's about maintaining healthy personal boundaries while granting others their autonomy. And it's about courageously cultivating love. I believe that whenever we apply these principles in our interactions with other human beings – our parents included! – we are making the right choice.

Snowflakes and milkshakes,


  1. I dread the day when I will have to tell my parents. But I'm glad that, when I do, I can point them here.

    Thank you.

  2. I'm thinking as I read,they may be hoping you don't tell them. Or that you'll make some vague statement like, "We're all such good friends, we're raising our kids together."

    Then they can be quiet too, and let it happen without drama...seriously, do you really think they *need* to know what happens when the lights go out? I bet they don't think so.

    (Pay no attention to me. Monogamy's too hard for me...I'm just looking for my hat-)(Grin)