I’m in a polyamorous relationship. I’ve been married to my husband for almost four years, and for the past three, we’ve had a live-in boyfriend. At this point in our relationship, we consider all three of us to be equals – the marriage between me and my husband is no more or less binding or meaningful as our relationship with my boyfriend. The three of us are best friends – more than best friends, we’re family. We’re all in our mid-twenties, and we all have college degrees and complete financial independence from our parents.
My husband’s family and my boyfriend’s family are both very liberal, mellow groups. They hadn’t been familiar with polyamory before we told them about our situation, but they took it in stride and treat us normally. All three of us are invited to certain holiday events, and it’s not awkward if, for example, I hold hands with my boyfriend in front of my husband’s family or share a brief kiss with my husband while we’re around my boyfriend’s family. So far, so good, right?
When we told my family (evangelical fundamentalists), they took it horribly. My parents were furious that I’d told my siblings (who are younger than me, but 18 and up) and compared our situation to pedophilia. When pressed, they admitted that our situation isn’t illegal, it’s just “unethical.” One of my siblings hasn’t been in contact with me for months now, having cut me off immediately after getting my letter. The rest of my family has handled this the same way they handled finding out about my atheism – they just avoid the topic. As long as no one brings up my boyfriend’s existence, they’re happy to keep making small talk and sharing family news.
I don’t want to allow them to keep pretending like this forever, and I think that at some point, I’m going to tell them that they’ll have to choose between being dicks about this and having me in their lives – and having me in their lives means acknowledging the existence of my boyfriend and treating him like part of the family. I do know, however, that they need some time to adjust and get used to the situation, so I’ve decided to give them a year before I do this.
So: Should I tell my family now that I’ll eventually expect this from them? I think that they’re assuming that we can go the rest of our lives the way we’ve been acting, and I don’t want to shock them by suddenly springing an ultimatum on them a year from now. On the other hand, I’m afraid to broach the subject at all, when things have been relatively pleasant, and I’m not looking forward to the emotional upheaval of another angry, negative reaction from them. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.
Polyamorous and Proud
I can understand your frustration and hurt. Your family’s behavior says that they don’t respect you or your loved ones. It says that their moral rules trump their love for you. Sitting around at family gatherings pretending that your boyfriend doesn’t exist is an immature way to respond. I gather from your letter that they have not even met him.
I see three possible ways you could handle this. One, you could continue to go along with the charade, playing your family’s game and never bring your boyfriend over to their home or mention his name. This will most likely increase your frustration and resentment, and they will sense it, and probably respond with tension of their own. Eventually things will boil over, even if the precipitator is an unrelated issue.
The method you are considering is a risky gamble. To answer your question, yes, if you must do this, give them the year’s warning. But that year may be an awful buildup to an awful conclusion. Think carefully first. Ultimatums should be used only as the last possible recourse, and often should not be used at all. They are acts of desperation. In an ultimatum, somebody is going to lose, and often everybody loses. Sometimes people think that an ultimatum is just a high-ranking card in their hand, an ace that one tosses on the table to keep the game going. No, it is a game ender. Never bluff with this. Never issue an ultimatum unless you are one hundred percent certain that being turned down is possible, even likely. You must be completely prepared to follow through with what you threaten to do if they do not comply with your demand, and you must be crystal clear what that consequence will be like for you as well as for them. If you don’t follow through exactly as you said, then from then on your credibility will be zero in their eyes, and even more abuse, belittlement or dismissal could follow. By issuing the either/or challenge, you are saying that you have no confidence in their ability to negotiate, and you have no confidence in your ability to negotiate.
Are you really there yet? Have you exhausted all humanly possible attempts at negotiation? Are you ready and willing to cut off all contact with your family just as hurtfully as your sibling has done to you? What will you have gained versus what will you have lost?
I suggest something in between here and there: gradual engagement. Your family has responded in a less than mature way, but they could have done worse, by issuing you their own ultimatum and when you refused, consequently cutting you off. You still have contact with them, still have your foot in the door. Take advantage of it. What I suggest will take quite some time, and it will require higher levels of patience and maturity than you may have ever mustered before. You are worth that effort, and so are your husband, your boyfriend, and yes, even your family. You certainly, and possibly everyone else will grow from the process. Frequently taking deep, slow breaths, dividing your efforts into small steps, and talking regularly to your allies will get you through it.
Begin working on one family member only, whoever is most likely to be willing to just listen to you. The following may take several separate sessions: Privately, talk to that person about your hurt feelings from your sibling’s abandonment of you, and from the others’ decision to pretend and ignore someone who is very important to you. Avoid expressing your anger and indignation, which are secondary to your root feeling, hurt. Faced with anger, people will immediately defend or counter-attack. Just express your hurt. As I discussed in a previous post, frequently say that you love him/her. As he or she begins to understand how you feel, start introducing your boyfriend in small increments. First just show a picture of him. Later, briefly describe a few things about him, including both something that he does, and something that he feels. Gradually make your boyfriend a real human being in this family member’s eyes. Eventually arrange a casual meeting with him away from the family home. Hopefully, you will begin to have one family member who is more interested in supporting your happiness than in doggedly supporting a family consensus. Then s/he can work with you in an incremental way on the next person, whoever would be the second most open to listening, and then the next…
This might not continue and progress flawlessly, with no hitches or bumps, and it may not work at all with every family member. But I think that you’re much more likely to gain more allies in your family, and you will have gently rather than forcibly broken up the monolithic rejection of your chosen relationships to the point that your boyfriend will be able to attend gatherings, and people will be able to relax without pretending that he doesn’t exist.
Poly, I know that this and many of my suggestions to other people’s problems are a lot of work. Doing the quick and brutal solutions instead can be very tempting, but atheists do not just have the advantage of rationality and emotional maturity on their side in a debate, they also have the responsibility to live by those qualities in their daily lives. We must rise to the challenge of our choice to be self-defining and self-responsible. We must provide the patience and courage that those around us cannot yet marshal. Believing only in our mutual humanity, we must not give up on our fellow humans.