In May last year I publicly ‘came out’ about being in a polyamorous relationship. In a piece I wrote for the Guardian, I described my relationships with James and Martyn, who I have now been dating for ten and two years respectively. I described our belief that love is limitless. Loving a second, or even third person, does not diminish the love we have for anyone else.
I was really nervous about coming out in such a public way. Whilst I’d told family and close friends about my new relationship with Martyn, many others did not know. I feared — and have received — rejection, shame and stigmatisation.
What I did not expect however was the flood of people who got in contact — nearly always privately — to tell me about their experiences of non-traditional relationships. Friends, acquaintances and strangers were soon messaging to tell me about their relationships, and the stigmatisation and rejection they too have received. I have begun to realise the depth of the community of people who are hiding their relationships from the people they love the most.
Take Cynthia for example. Cynthia met her current husband whilst married to her former husband. The three entered into a polyamorous union, spending three years living together. They were happy. Yet, when her family found out, things went awry.
“When my father realised what was going on we were completely cut off from my family,” Cynthia explained. “I received a whole series of completely nasty emails saying you are not welcome home and all of my siblings were called and told not to contact me. It was put in the framework of if the old generations of the family found out it was effectively going to lead to the death of my grandmother.”
After nine years together Cynthia and her first husband ended up splitting up, in no small part, she says, because of the outside pressure on their relationships. She now lives with her current husband, who she has children with. Her parents are back in the fold, but with the assumption that her non-monogamy is part of the past. Silence is the best option, primarily out of fears around custody.
“When my father realised what was going on we were completely cut off from my family.”
“Before we had the kids one of the biggest fears we’ve had is that when we did have kids my parents would try to sue for custody. That is because it’s happened. I know people where it’s been brought up in custody debates and there have been several very high profile cases in the states where it’s happened.”
Rejection from family is a theme that runs throughout the stories I’ve been told. Tanya, who currently has a number of both deep platonic and “quasi romantic” relationships, described to me how her mother reacted.
“I told my mum that I was going interstate to stay with a partner and his wife for a few days. I think it really worried her. She told me that the wife said she was okay with it but wasn't. That really she was going to murder us in our sleep.”
Tanya remains closeted to her father and step mum, assuming they would be unlikely to approve. She has also been unable to come out at work, fearing she’ll be fired due to her relationship status.
This again was not uncommon. Jacob, who is currently dating two women, is genuinely worried that coming out will lead to him losing his job.
“My work is as a primary school teacher. I genuinely believe there is a real risk of losing my career for this. As a male who works with children every day, there's a high level of scrutiny on some of my choices; which is fine. But I feel like poly gets a bad enough rap that I'm unwilling to open up about it.”
"I can't actually open up about my personal life at work, which means that I kind of have to keep my distance from my coworkers - and good teaching is highly collaborative, so that makes a genuine impact.”
This has an impact not just on his career, but his relationships as well.
“Both my partners are understanding in general. I think, though, that it promotes a sense of disconnection. I can't actually open up about my personal life at work, which means that I kind of have to keep my distance from my coworkers - and good teaching is highly collaborative, so that makes a genuine impact.”
Darren, who is in a ‘triad’ relationship (i.e. dating two other people who are also dating each other) and is expecting a baby soon, faces similar issues. He explains:
“My professional life has me in a management role, in a very traditional company. Homosexuality, transgender issues, and “non-traditional lifestyles” are publicly accepted, but prevent career advancement, and are quietly shunned.
“Having to call my boyfriend a housemate takes a toll. I have to lie to a lot of people around me, manage my language, and be careful of what details of my weekend and evenings I share. My relationship isn’t impacted directly, but the stress that this 'double life' causes can take a strain.”
Hearing these stories make me question whether the nuclear family is actually as dominant as we think. Is there an underground of people breaking our relationship norms but who are unwilling or unable to talk about it? Figuring this out may be difficult, but we can get a sense.
I spoke to Brook Urick, the public relations manager of a new dating site for people interesting in exploring non-traditional relationships, called OpenMinded. In the site's launch week, it had 36,000 sign-ups and now has a total of 185,400 members.
Interestingly, this membership is extremely diverse. The site has roughly equal numbers of self-identified cis male and cis female sign-ups, whilst approximately 45 per cent of members identify as heterosexual, with 23.5 per cent and 22 per cent identifying as bisexual and homosexual respectively. Spreading across the US, UK, Canada, Australia and France, this represents a relatively broad swathe of our population.
Yet this growing community still faces significant discrimination. Gallup polling out of the United States from last year showed only 16 per cent of Americans found ‘polygamy’ to be morally acceptable. That is an increase of 9 per cent over the past 14 years. As I’ve noted before,it is often the most progressive communities who react so strongly to non-traditional relationships out of fears that discussion of the issue will result in the rollback of hard-fought wins. The people who we often feel we should be able to turn to are also often the ones who reject us first.
"It would be good if more people could be 'out' about non-monogamy, but the world just can't cope. It's a shame because it can be a good thing. I have had a really positive experience with it overall."
This, again, is born out in my own research. Linda is in a non-monogamous relationship with her partner of more than 12 years. Being out to virtually no one, she lamented how people would react.
“Almost no one can deal with the idea of non-monogamy, so there's really no point becoming the freak show,” she said.
“I think it's kind of a pity that we have to keep it a secret. It would be good if more people could be 'out' about non-monogamy, but the world just can't cope. It's a shame because it can be a good thing. I have had a really positive experience with it overall.”
This is the reality many people still face. A growing segment of the community who cannot and do not feel comfortable talking about their relationships. These are not people who are breaking the law or engaging in harmful activities. They simply love or have sex with more than one person at a time. Yet, in doing so, they are still required to hide in shadows, suffering stigma, fear and shame.
**All names have been changed for this article to protect people’s identities.