I have been married for 25 years, and for the past two years I have also been in a committed relationship with another woman, who is also happily married. Both of my love relationships are open, honest, healthy, and thriving, and I consider myself blessed to have the extended family that I do, with all the community benefits thereof.
I have not always been poly, and in fact such relationships were completely off my radar until about ten years ago, when it became clear to me and my wife that we had gradually, over the course of our marriage, developed a pronounced mis-match in terms of our erotic/sexual appetites and predilections (I wanted it; she didn’t). At that time, after much discussion, we agreed that I would try to get my needs met outside of our marriage. It was then that I discovered the world of “alternative” relationships and couplings (and what a wide and varied world it is – bless you, OKCupid!). Here and there I dated, and in the process my wife and I gradually learned to deal with jealousy and other issues specifically related to poly relationships. I believe that because of this work, we are better individuals, and better partners for each other.
Not everyone sees things this way, however, and herein lies my problem. When I was monogamous, I could discuss my relationship freely, without fear of judgment. Now that I am in two love relationships, I hesitate to discuss the totality of my family situation with anyone other than my closest friends and family members for fear of judgment and suspicion. Many people see the poly paradigm as evidence of instability or immaturity; they assume impending doom. My experience demonstrates just the opposite, and I would love to share my experience openly. How should I proceed?
I'm tickled every shade of rosy by your question, because it has such a simple answer. If you've ever taken a creative writing class, this will be a well-worn cliché, but it's the best advice I can offer you:
Show, don't tell.
Let me amend that slightly: Show, don't tell...until asked.
The most effective way to share your experience is to share it directly. You don't need to explain the ins and outs of your complicated love life to people you're worried will judge you. All you need to do is give them opportunities to see you and your extended family just being yourselves.
Personally, I am a fan of public displays of poly affection. No, I am not suggesting you pile four to a park bench for a group grope, or round-robin fondle each of your partners in front of the waitstaff at a nice restaurant. I'm talking about behavior that would normally be considered appropriate in public – except for the small fact that it completely subverts the monogamous paradigm.
I recently went to a holiday office party with my boyfriend and his wife. Although a couple of his colleagues know the whole story, most do not. The three of us interacted the way we normally would: we sat near each other, we touched one another occasionally, and just generally gave off a “we're all in this together” vibe. Because I had never met most of the people there, I got asked a few questions, and I answered them candidly. But of course, no one asked me, “So, wait – if you have a husband at home, then what are you doing here with these people?” No one asked my boyfriend, “Are you actually fucking them both?” And no one asked my boyfriend's wife, “Are you fucking them both?” That wouldn't have been polite. You can usually count on people to be polite in public, unless they have a truly staggering amount of alcohol in their system.
Later, in a more private setting, they may ask for an explanation. At that point, you've been given an invitation, and can share as openly as you like. In some cases, you may choose not to share very much. The week after the holiday party, my boyfriend was cornered by one of the office staff, who half-jokingly demanded to know what was going on: “So who was that other woman you brought? Your girlfriend?” He laughed and responded, “Let's just say she's a really good friend, and leave it at that,” which was the professional thing to do. However, if he had been asked a similar question by someone with whom he had a closer relationship, someone with whom he felt more comfortable sharing the details of his personal life, he would have been able tell his story to a listener who was already open to hearing what he had to say.
Here's the thing: effective communication requires openness on the part of the speaker and the listener. If you are talking to a person who has already decided you are on your way to hell in a handbasket, there is nothing you can say to change his or her mind. No matter how good your argument is, it will fail to persuade someone who isn't listening.
Most people have very strong opinions on the subject of intimate relationships. They think they know what works and what doesn't. If you tell them you are making it work with a wife and a girlfriend, they simply aren't going to believe you. However, if you show them you are making it work with a wife and a girlfriend, they will be dying to know exactly how you do it.
A note of caution: don't allow yourself to become too image-conscious. When you're in the spotlight, it's quite natural to want to look your best – but remember, your life is not a performance. Since there is no way you can keep your chin up, your shoulders back, and your gut sucked in for the rest of your life, you might as well keep it real.
Dandelions & Delight,