Your Doctor Needs To Know

In 2016, when I was 40 freaking years old and a divorced mother of three, I had a doctor tell me I should not consent to having barrier-free sex with anyone who didn’t have to pay to get rid of me [cringe]. She said this to me as we were wrapping up my annual exam and my semiannual STI panel, during which I’d mentioned having made the decision to stop using barriers with a sexual partner of mine. I spent about five seconds in a state of speechlessness and then asked her if she was open to some feedback on that opinion. She indicated she was, which was fortunate, because she was going to hear what I had to say regardless of her willingness.

I reminded my doctor that this particular partner already had someone he’d have to pay to get rid of, (this means “married to” in case you’re not following), and that I didn’t think I’d ever be in that position again with anyone. I told her that I saw her bit of unsolicited advice as incredibly mononormative and as such, it didn’t apply to me. Additionally, I wasn’t simply consenting to this: I wanted it. Oh wonder of wonders . . . it’s not always some guy pressuring some gal into ditching condoms *eye roll.* I went on to inform her I intended to continue to decide whether or not to use barriers with folks based on my comfort level with their sexual practices and that I may do so with more than one person at a time.

I wanted the ability to be transparent about that with her so I could receive the best medical care for my situation.

To her credit, she was quick to reconsider what she’d said and apologize. She also thanked me for calling her out on it. Her acceptance of my assertions and validation of my concerns meant I retained her as my primary care physician for as long as she practiced at my clinic. Had she not, I would have found someone else to provide my medical care.

After all, doctors are service providers, and if I don’t like how they treat me I will find someone who is a better fit.

When I started seeing a therapist a couple years ago, I told him I was non-monogamous, queer, and identified as non-binary in terms of gender. I also told him I needed a therapist who was not only tolerant of those things, but supportive and encouraging. I didn’t see a productive future in therapy with anyone I’d have to talk into accepting me. He, too, thanked me for that direct assertion. This was important to me because it empowered me to hold him accountable for anything that did not feel supportive in that regard. Therapists, too, are service providers.

In the greater non-monogamous community, I witness a lot of fear around being “out” in society. Some of this is a fear of rejection by family, friends, or social communities. Others risk losing their children in adversarial custody battles, or their jobs under morality clauses. But I see this fear leading to remaining closeted with medical providers, and that means folks aren’t receiving the best care for their lifestyles.

It’s important to remember your doctor cannot report any details of your care to your employer or ex-spouse, they can’t gossip about you around town, and it’s in your best interest to be completely honest with them about all aspects of your life.

I recently read a post from a woman who asked her primary care doctor several times about birth control options after her IUD was removed. Her doctor dismissed the questions because her husband had had a vasectomy! It was that post that inspired me to write this blog. Non-monogamous folks sometimes resist being transparent even in safe spaces because the judgement of mononormative folks can feel so very defeating. But I’ve got news for you about your board certified care providers: they aren’t better than you just because they have a certain degree. Nothing about their certifications qualify them to levy moral judgement against you and let it affect their treatment of you. They probably have more education in certain areas, sure . . . but you’re the expert on you. 

You wouldn’t take your car in for routine maintenance but withhold that it’s been making a funny sound when you get over 50mph. You wouldn’t hire a nanny to watch your children and keep it a secret that one of them is allergic to bees. You can’t expect anyone to provide services to the best of their ability when they’re missing pertinent information.

A good doctor will listen to you when you tell them about you, and then they’ll treat you based on the information you give them without shame of any kind. But remember: in the absence of information, all they have are assumptions, so you need to do your part and be forthcoming. 

So how do you go about moving from a fear of stigma to advocating for yourself with medical professionals?

  • Interview your medical professionals prior to enlisting their services; this could be a phone call, an email, or a quick chat before your exam. I like to keep my clothes on with new doctors until we’ve had a chance to meet fully clothed; I don’t find meeting new people in a paper gown to be a best practice. I have yet to meet a doctor who did not respect me for this practice.
  • Familiarize yourself with privacy laws in your country, (HIPAA in the US, PIPEDA in Canada, etc.). In the US, I haven’t been able to legally access the medical records of my children since they reached the age of 12, and that is exactly as it should be. 
  • Develop a sense of entitlement when it comes to the quality of your care. You are a consumer whose money is just as valuable whether it comes from an employer funded health insurance company or a government funded one. Your socioeconomic status does not mean you deserve substandard care or consideration of your situation. 
  • If necessary, fake it ‘til you make it. There is no greater boost to confidence than a positive lived experience. If you cannot summon a feeling of entitlement to good medical care, act like you do and see what happens.

Your medical staff rely on your trust in them to provide you with the best possible care – if they betray that trust, they deserve to hear about it from you. It might feel intimidating to bring something to their attention that made you feel invalidated, unsafe, or not listened to, but a good provider will be grateful for the education and correct course.

And if your doctor (or therapist, or nurse, or anyone in your chain of medical care) intentionally attempts to make you feel bad for sharing pertinent information with them? Get mad about it! Report them to whatever board is responsible for overseeing their license and find someone else to take care of you, because you’re worth that.

Look, the thing I want you to most take away from this blog is this: you deserve the best possible care for your life. You’re also the only one who can seek out the right people for the job . . . so that means you’re in charge. You are. So act like it. 

**Caveat: this blog is written from the perspective of a US citizen and some of the information is specific to that locale. 

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

Telling The Kids

One of the most common questions I see agonized over in ENM community groups is how to walk one’s children through the concept of intentional non-monogamy. The default position appears to be to keep one’s children in the dark, likening one’s rejection of compulsory monogamy to sexual deviance. 

I have a different take; no one is surprised!

I started having kids in 1995 while I was solo-poly and had a couple regular partners. Throughout the years, my son met the ones I cared for the most deeply. He wasn’t old enough at the time to grasp the difference between a platonic and a romantic relationship, but he did experience me caring for more than one individual. When he was four years old, I married monogamously and had two more children. When that marriage ended in 2014, I began dating again non-monogamously; it never occurred to me to hide that from my three children. 

I’ve only ever had the one monogamous relationship, so to me the return to non-monogamy came very naturally. My kids were 12, 14, and 19 at the time. The two youngest had a normal adjustment period seeing their mom date someone other than their dad, but bringing them out to meet the spouse and child of one man I was dating, and then introducing them to the spouse of another man I began to see regularly, helped them see that what society had taught them about compulsory monogamy was up for challenge and negotiation based on the wants and needs of the folks involved. I could not pretend to hold a view of non monogamy I did not agree with.

When it comes to my children, I am perhaps transparent to a fault when it comes to my interpersonal relationships. I never pretended I wasn’t a wild teenager, hid the fact that I was a mother at 18, or otherwise gave them the impression I lived a life conducive to being president of the United States. No, it was important to me to show them that I was authentically flawed, but still a good person. You know, normal. Honesty is highly valued by me. I believe you cannot be of strong character if you lie to manipulate those around you. This includes manipulating them into accepting you. It can be intimidating to be honest with your children about not falling in line with the other parents they come in contact with, but I assure you it’s worth it.

At first, my kids didn’t want their friends to know much about it, but I did let them know I wouldn’t be lying about my life to anyone, and if my partner’s wife happened to come up in conversation, that would just be what it would be. Gradually, their comfort with the situation grew. My kids participated in family holidays with my partners, and I made sure to ease new people into the situation with casual visits and zero pressure. Over time, it just became our normal. Beyond that, they learned that their mother is a safe place to challenge societal norms they don’t agree with.

Here are some talking points to keep in mind if you choose to open up to your kids:

  • Non-monogamy is not inherently sexual! Relationships can be sexual, but most relationships aren’t sexual as a primary driver
  • Emotional bonds don’t threaten other emotional bonds
  • Love is not a finite resource
  • Toxic monogamy culture values possessiveness and codependency 
  • Monogamy is a valid choice for a relationship structure, but it’s just that: a choice; monogamy does not mean a relationship is more successful, important, or meaningful
  • Most relationships end at some point, regardless of structure

When my oldest child got married, I had the privilege of performing the ceremony. Prior to the wedding I acted as their premarital counselor. The curriculum I devised included a discussion of monogamy; it was important to me that they not see monogamy as compulsory, and that they talk to each other about how they felt about it. After all, they were very, very young! To my relief, they’d already discussed it and decided monogamy was what they both wanted, for now, but also acknowledged that could change and they agreed to remain open to a conversation on that topic should it arise. Readers, I don’t know that I have ever been more proud of two young people. Also, I might be biased. Regardless, I felt validated in my decision to live my life openly with my kids resulted in open minds and accepting hearts.

I don’t think there’s a perfect time to “come out” to your children. Older kids may need to process some feelings of betrayal, particularly if they’ve been under the impression their parents had so-called conservative family values, but younger ones will accept whatever you present as normal. I treated it like it was normal because it was, and as the kids matured, they appreciated my honesty. 

Compulsory monogamy and it’s bodyguard, the Dominant Narrative, have some pretty harmful and long term effects on our society. Possessive and codependent tropes work against healthy relationships and not for. Just like you share closely held spiritual beliefs and political leanings with your progeny, I encourage you to share your authentic relationship values with them.

Whether you’re monogamous or non, if you champion monogamy without challenging its often toxic application, you will be doing your children a real disservice.

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Coming Out as Non-Monogamous

In a perfect world, coming out wouldn’t be necessary; we would feel free to be our authentic selves and live our lives without negative consequences. But in most of the world, negative consequences are a valid fear for many.

Let’s not dismiss those. You may have heard horror stories: being ostracized by family, the vengeful ex-partner leveraging it to wrestle custody away, or employment in jeopardy. While these consequences are indeed possible, they are thankfully the exception and not the rule.

You get to evaluate what your risk profile is when deciding to come out!

When doing that, be honest. Don’t find reasons to not be out. Instead, find the reasons you want to be your authentic self. For the longest time, I thought I was “hiding in plain sight” to justify not being fully outright about who I was. In reality, I was still actively hiding this part of myself and not being honest about the nature of my relationships. That was unfair to my partner(s), those close to me, and even myself. Frankly? It’s caused irreversible harm . . . and I won’t do that again. As a result of coming out, my life and relationships have been that much better. It wasn’t the easiest decision I’ve ever made, but I have zero regrets. I found my fear was rooted in people not accepting me as my authentic self, rather than not accepting my partners. Rejection sucks. 

It helps to know where your support comes from and start there. Doing so helps foster a feeling of acceptance for who you are, aids in keeping you accountable, and generally allows you to show up as your best self. Having a proper support network will go a long way towards helping you feel safer in being your authentic self. For tips on finding/forming it, read Support Networks.

I’ve practiced some form of ethical non-monogamy my entire adult life, dating back to my senior year of high school when I dated multiple people at once. In my young adulthood I encountered people from the swinging community, but after very brief research I decided it wasn’t for me. Regrettably, I spent time as a much bemoaned Unicorn Hunter (for more on ways that route is often problematic, read Unicorns R Us). Ultimately, I craved autonomy. And for that, I needed to be honest about who I was.

Once I made the decision to come out, I opted to come out fully. Family, friends, work, you name it. I told those closest to me in person while most everyone else found out via social media. I no longer hide it and speak freely of my partners. Fortunately I haven’t had anyone walk away because of it. Some folks struggled early on, and some made snide remarks. When I reinforce my stance that this is who I am and others are free to be a positive part of my life or not, all that passes.

The best part about being out for me is not worrying about people finding out and dealing with the imagined fallout. I took that control back and did it on my terms. By coming out, I was able to show the important people in my life that they mattered more than outside opinions, and I showed myself that I matter as well.

When you treat non-monogamy like it’s something weird, (or shameful, deviant, immoral. . . you get the point), others will perceive it as such. Treat it like it’s normal because it is. Treat your partners the same as you would any partner in a monoamorous relationship. Include those who matter in your life at the level you WANT them at. You get to decide how you show up, not society.

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Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.