Receiving “Open, Honest Communication” Takes Courage

I’m sure you’ve heard the key to a successful relationship is “open, honest communication.” While these terms mean something different to nearly everyone, most can agree that a situation in which openness and honesty are met with negative consequences is hardly conducive to trying again and again to achieve it. Unfortunately, this often happens when it’s an explicit condition in a relationship between folks attempting to navigate non-traditional territory and finding themselves on unstable ground.

You’ve probably also heard the phrase: “it is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission,” and while I don’t advocate seeking permission to act autonomously, this line of reasoning informs the compulsion to hide one’s actions if one believes they will be persecuted for them. It is, after all, less daunting to face potential fallout after the fact than risk rejection or judgment at the outset.

If I cannot trust the words that come out of your mouth, I don’t want to hear any – it is that simple. Lying is a dealbreaker. I would rather someone end their relationship with me than lie to me about anything. 

However, insisting on honesty when you are unwilling to process the information with grace is both unreasonable and unfair

I have been guilty of not being a safe place to be honest. I’d get scared and attempt to put the responsibility for managing that on my partner because I’d see them as having caused the issue. Sometimes that led to a partner withholding information from me or intentionally misleading me in order to keep themselves safe. That in turn led to a loss of trust and a perpetual cycle of fear on both our parts. As much as I was harmed by dishonesty, I had to admit I caused harm as well. Coming back from that took time as we discovered things about ourselves that needed to change, and other things that needed to be fostered and reinforced. 

Honesty requires vulnerability and if the recipient cannot honor that vulnerability, they perhaps do not deserve what their loved one is attempting to communicate.

So how do you become a safer place for someone to be honest?

Take ownership of your fears. If someone is afraid to tell you they’ve met someone they’re interested in because you descend into a pit of sadness each time, you’ll need to figure out what about that makes you so sad, and then address it. This could mean asking for reassurance or just admitting you’re scared and allowing yourself to be loved through it. 

Lead by example. If you want someone to be forthcoming with information, you too need to be forthcoming with information. I’m not saying you should update your partners everytime you find someone attractive, but if you’d tell a close friend about a new interest, why not your partner? If there is something I’m compelled to hide from someone I’m close to, I know I’d better do the exact opposite of that.

Communicate that even though you struggle at times, you’re not interested in your partner suffering as a result. Say the words, mean them, and follow through. 

Leave the past in the past. Most of us will not have long-term relationships that don’t weather the occasional storm, but dredging up a past you’ve agreed to move on from is not conducive to progress when you’re asking someone to be vulnerable. If you are tempted to weaponize the past, talk yourself out of it, even if the only trophy you win is not regretting it later. 

And if you continue to feel as though you’re riding a roller coaster in an attempt to process new information, consider you perhaps don’t need to know those things. Sometimes the pieces of knowledge that impact us most negatively are simply none of our business and we could function just fine, or better, without them. It is entirely possible to make yourself miserable under the mistaken impression you need more of something than you actually do. I used to have an agreement with a partner that we would give each other a heads up if we were going to be physically intimate with someone new. That didn’t last long as we both realized we didn’t truly want to receive that information, and we could reasonably expect the other one to do that with whomever they chose to. But when you’ve been raised with a dominant narrative, you’re going to stumble a bit when you try to write one for yourself that flies in the face of it. 

A couple years ago one of my partners wrote a piece about acting out of trust vs. fear. I suppose you could consider this a companion piece to that, as his was about being brave enough to be honest and mine is about being brave enough to accept honesty. Both are scary places to stand at times, but when you find the courage to do so, fear is replaced with something far calmer and easier to manage.

Photo by 珂 许 on Unsplash

When to Disclose

When do I tell someone I’m interested in that I’m polyamorous?

I see this question posed a lot in online forums when the topic of dating is up for discussion. My answer is very simple: first thing.

I’m on one or two online dating sites, and my status as a non-monogamous person is very clearly referenced not only in the body of my profile, but also in any filtering criteria I’m allowed. When someone new expresses interest in me and I see potential there, my first message always includes a query regarding their awareness of me being polyamorous and if so, if they know what that means.

From what I’ve observed in the non-monogamous community I have access to, there are a large number of people who defer disclosing this information about themselves until after they’ve met a potential partner in person, claiming that being up front about being non-monogamous scares away too many people.

Well . . . sucks for them, but guess what? That’s not ethical.

As much as I would love to live in a society in which monoamory, polyamory, and the 537 shades of “open” in between were each as normalized as the other, I do not. I don’t owe anyone my measurements or my GPA or my profession or my star sign, but I do owe them the courtesy of not wasting their time and possible emotional investment in something that’s never going to be on the table for them: namely, a relationship with someone who will never be limited by anyone else in the number of romantic partners she has.

I think back to when my boyfriend and I were first chatting. I met him in person without his wife and he was very forthcoming about being married. That evening we struck up a non-stop conversation online that continued for weeks. To be quite honest, I started to fall for him immediately – and if he had been of the mind that disclosing his relationship status or polyamorous nature to me was going to ruin his chances, and I were someone for whom monogamy was the only option, I could have been hurt. Emotional investment happens on a different timeline for everyone, and if we can’t respect that, we have no business being out there accepting these interactions.

But it’s really more awful than just that . . .

If you say you’re inclined to wait until someone is invested in you to disclose what is in most cases a deal breaker in our society, then what you’re really saying is that you see emotional manipulation as a valid tool in your relationships. Newsflash: That makes you a bad person, and a terrible partner.

The moment you know you’re interested in pursuing a connection with someone, you are bound by ethics to disclose your non-monogamy to the object of your affection. I’m not going to get into when you should be telling your other partners about this new person – we all have different agreements there, and they may even vary from one partner to the next – but I am unwavering on this edict: You cannot claim to practice ethical non-monogamy and enter into an exchange with the intent to deceive in order to secure another person’s connection to you. The two are mutually exclusive.

That’s all I have to say about that.

 

Desperately Seeking Normal

One of the reasons I write this blog is to contribute in whatever small way I can to the normalization of polyamory. I want the way I love to not be weird to people. It feels normal to me, but at times I’m struck by how my treatment of it as normal is seen as aggressive by others.

If I talk about my girlfriend and my boyfriend, I’m “talking about poly” when really, I’m just talking about relationships . . . as you do. My ups and downs just look a little different sometimes.

If I use words that are specific to polyamory, I’m “talking about poly” when really I’m using words that make the most sense in my life. People “talk about mono” all day all night, but it’s not notable because that’s all anyone sees unless someone like me makes a point of being visible.

Being visible is how shit gets normalized.

I get that when something outside the scope of normal gets brought up over and over again it can feel like saturation or promotion. But what are my options? Do I pretend that I have only one partner? Do I pretend we’re monoamorous? Of course not.

No one needs me to pretend to be anyone other than myself because nothing I’m doing in my relationships affects anyone who isn’t in them, regardless of whether or not they think it does.

So why is normalizing polyamory important?

Because anytime people are allowed to be themselves, they flourish.

You cannot tell I’m polyamorous to look at me. The assumption is that I’m not. That is how our society views relationships and anything outside of that is taboo or unethical. I mean, there are plenty of unethical relationships happening in and outside of monoamory, but poly is not inherently so. It’s not even mostly so.

I have encountered more people claiming to be mono and lying about it than I have encountered those who are poly. Mono relationships don’t have a monopoly on ethics, by any stretch. In fact, I believe that if poly were more acceptable in mainstream society, we would see far more ethical behavior with stigma eroded in favor of honesty.

But there is no path to that without normalization.

And there is no path to normalization without visibility.

And there is no visibility without talking about it . . . so you will have to forgive me for insisting on being visible. If you don’t see me for who I am and give me an opportunity to show you I’m perfectly normal, ethical, happy, and healthy, then I won’t be able to hope that someday I won’t have to be a secret in certain situations.

Honesty Doesn’t Hurt Me

I say this to those closest to me quite a bit: you can’t hurt me with the truth.

What I mean by this is:

  • More information is better – because I don’t know what I don’t know. You may be feeling something you’re afraid to admit – but I can’t help you if you don’t name it. Also, knowing you’re in a bad place but not knowing why will lead me to imagine the worst.
  • Negativity breeds in captivity – and holding onto a bad feeling or a resentment won’t make it better. Once you’ve sat with something for a moment to understand what you’re reacting to, it’s best to speak your truth. At the very least, you get to give voice to your experience. Best case? I get to own my piece and we both get to move forward.
  • I want to help – because if I’m in a relationship with you (romantic or otherwise), I want to invest in your happiness and security. I can’t fix your problems, but I can hear you, and I can do things differently (if I need to) or hold your hand (if that’s helpful).

And while all of these are important to remember when communicating in any relationship, they are of critical importance when you’re navigating the polyamorous landscape.

I could go on and on about why, but I think an illustrative example will best explain what I mean.

Say I’m out with two partners. Things are going swimmingly in our little pod until suddenly I sense a disturbance in the mutual-affection continuum! Perhaps someone gets a little quiet as they experience an unexpected feeling, or maybe someone said something that was misunderstood or landed wrong. In any case – we all sense a discomfort. For one of us, we’re holding back on saying what’s wrong for fear of burdening the other two with what might be nothing. For the other two, we’re stuck not knowing what the heck is going on or what we may have done and how to fix it. This could get yucky, fast

        “What’s wrong?”

         “Nothing.”

Sound familiar? It’s the first step on the path to increased insecurity, uncertainty, and misunderstanding . . . and it’s a deadly practice in a polyamorous situation. Bad enough when only two are involved, but the potential for disaster in polyamory is multiplied by the number of relationships, as everyone is affected.

Know these things:

  • It’s okay to misunderstand someone and ask for clarification – it’s not okay to assume the worst and build a massive resentment against them without giving them a chance to explain. You will rarely hear me call something “unfair” but this really is. To everyone.
  • It’s okay to have a feeling that makes you uncomfortable – but I assure you, the people who care about you most want to make you feel secure. Letting them do what they can in the moment shows you trust them. It gives them an opportunity to make a change if necessary, or to just listen to you say what’s real for you.
  • And like I always say: you can’t hurt someone with the truth – there is no ill intent in speaking your truth. Just saying how you feel is not a demand for special treatment or accommodation. It’s not a tantrum. It’s not a punishment or accusation.You can’t hurt someone with honesty.

I am lucky enough to be partnered with people (and they are partnered with people) who value communication, directness, and honesty. I don’t know how to do polyamory any other way. The anxiety birthed by unspoken bad feelings and multiplied between us is too much to bear. An investment in direct and rigorous honesty has brought a depth to my relationships that I cannot fathom living without.

So know this also: Your feelings are always valid, even if they’re a product of something you wish you weren’t dealing with. So, out with them! It’s not as scary as it seems. You may even find your connections stronger for it in the end.

Photo by Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash