The other day on the phone, my girlfriend, “J.,” referred to me simply as her “friend.” I wasn’t bothered by it. We’re not always explicit about the nature of our relationship. The same goes for her husband, “T.,” who also happens to be my boyfriend.
T., J., and I have to make judgment calls every time we refer to each other in public. Whether we’re talking to friends, co-workers, or total strangers, we have to decide how to label our relationship with each other—that is, if our relationship is any of their business in the first place.
We talk about this a lot. J. is self-employed as a bodyworker and as a yoga instructor, and she worries that her clients will be biased against her alternative lifestyle. T. is a doctoral candidate whose livelihood depends on maintaining a good reputation with his colleagues. That’s also why I’m referring to them by their initials.
T., J., and I are polyamorous, meaning we are involved with more than one person at the same time. But not everyone understands or is comfortable with our choice to be in multiple relationships at once. So we have to be somewhat careful as to how we go about it.
I met T. and J. more than two years ago on OkCupid. When I signed up for the site, I already had a boyfriend, David, a man I lived with and considered my partner for many years. So I was only interested in those who accepted my relationship status.
T. and J.’s profiles referred to each other, a common practice for polyamorous people on OkCupid, and, to me, an indication that a couple is happily open. I messaged them both, but heard back from T. first. He introduced me to J. a month later.
The term “polyamorous” has become a bit of a catchall for individuals who are non-monogamous, but I would say the majority of us tend to be interested in multiple romantic relationships. That means we’re not just into casual sex or friends with benefits, although we tend to be open to all sorts of arrangements. We believe that we are capable of loving and committing long-term to more than one person.
We believe that we are capable of loving and committing long-term to more than one person.
David and I have since broken up, and T. is currently my only boyfriend, but I have no qualms with having two individuals assume that role. In fact, there have been times in my life when I’ve introduced someone as “one of my boyfriends.”
Even though it’s far from perfect, I find dating online less stressful than meeting people in person. If I meet someone at a bar, for instance, I’m usually required to decide the right time to disclose my relationships and my chosen lifestyle. But I don’t need to have that conversation if I meet someone on an online dating website like OkCupid, where I list myself as single and “strictly non-monogamous.” My profile puts it all out there: “I am polyamorous. I consider myself single and some day want to find a primary partner, but I do have people I love and feel romantically toward that I hope will always be a part of my life.”
“Primary partner” is a controversial term in the poly community. Basically, it means exactly what it sounds like—someone who comes first. Some poly people believe it’s wrong or unfair to establish a hierarchy of people. But to me, having a primary partner is tied to my desire to one day have an open marriage. In short, I’d like to one day have what T. and J. have.
People who bother to read my profile know what my deal is from the start. With questions like, “Would you date someone who was already in a committed relationship with someone else?” and multiple choice answers including “Yes, even in secret” and “Yes, but only if everyone knew,” I am able to filter out those who not only are interested in an open relationship, but an ethical one.
Still, the messages I receive are across the board. I tend to hear more from men than women or genderqueer folks. I’m messaged by people who don’t pay attention, who list themselves as strictly monogamous or who consider homosexuality a sin; I’m contacted by men telling me I’d love their wives, and by women who want me to have a three-way with their boyfriends. I’m messaged by many men who don’t want anything serious and take my non-monogamy as an invitation for hookups (and sometimes, I will admit, it’s tempting). I’m also contacted by men who love the idea of polyamory, but have never tried it before.
I’m contacted by men telling me I’d love their wives, and by women who want me to have a three-way with their boyfriends.
Yet I still consider virtual spaces, such as dating sites and other social networks, safe spaces, because they allow me to paint a more authentic picture of myself. These spaces feel safe because I’m either interacting with strangers, or with people who are there for the same reason I am. I also self-identify as kinky, and for those of us who participate in some sort of alternative lifestyle, labels like “kinky” and “polyamorous” can alienate us in the mainstream world, but they can also serve as a way for us to find like-minded communities online.
Fetlife, a social networking site for those interested in the BDSM lifestyle, and polyamory groups on Meetup are safe spaces where I can be authentic about who I am and what I desire, without fear of judgment. Some of my closest friends are people I’ve met through these websites. They are queer and straight; monogamous and non-monogamous; penthouse-dwelling business consultants, grocery store clerks, acupuncturists; Asian, mixed, black and white. The one thing we all have in common is the desire to test the boundaries of intimacy.
The other thing we have in common is the need to hide these parts of ourselves from the outside world. We all agree that the coming out process never completely ends: Every time we start a new job, make a new friend, or go to a family reunion, we all choose when, how, and how much to share. That’s complicated by the fact that many of us, myself included, can “pass” as straight or monogamous, or as a part of the heteronormative majority.
The coming out process never completely ends—every time we start a new job, make a new friend, or go to a family reunion, we all choose when, how, and how much to share.
Passing is the underbelly of coming out. When you pass, you have to constantly make a decision as to when it is and isn’t OK to expose yourself. This can be extremely stressful. In fact, the Atlantic recently reported on a study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. The study found that those who were “open about their sexuality had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout . . . and lower cortisol levels, than those who were still closeted to friends and family.”
When I think about coming out as polyamorous to my loved ones, I worry what my mom will think. I have dreams where she is angry with me. Once, I was telling my dad, who knows that I’m polyamorous, that I feel a tinge of anxiety whenever my mother says she loves me. “Because she doesn’t know you?,” he asked. And it’s true. She doesn’t. Not completely.
My mother grew up with the conservative view that homosexuality is a sin. She’s currently trying to come to terms with the idea that that view might be wrong. While I’m proud of her for questioning this belief system, I’m not even ready to tell her I’m bisexual, let alone that I’m currently dating both a man and a woman.
T. feels the same way about his parents. Once, his parents called him on his birthday while I was in the car with T. and his wife heading to a late-night dinner and a movie. While he was on the phone with them, I remained quiet in the backseat. He didn’t want to explain why I was there with them, effectively erasing my presence from his and T.’s lives.
When David and I started seriously dating other people while we were living together, we decided to label ourselves as “in an open relationship” on Facebook. We were concerned that acquaintances or casual friends would see us holding hands or flirting with someone else and ask if we were still together, so we wanted to preempt that concern by being public about our relationship status.
Disclosing this information to hundreds of people in our social sphere felt simultaneously liberating and uncomfortable. I was proud of my open relationship, but I also felt like I was flaunting my personal life in front of everyone’s faces. So I decided to use Facebook’s privacy settings to create a “safe” group, so only people I felt comfortable with could see my relationship status.
David and I were able to be relatively public about our open relationship, because we were both in jobs that we knew wouldn’t care. But T. and J. don’t have that luxury, and I am afraid of damaging my relationship with close family members if I come out as poly.
While I’m deeply proud of the level of openness I’ve achieved surrounding my sexuality and my relationships, I am awaiting a chance to be open to all. I’m waiting for my boyfriend and girlfriend to have the same freedom. I’m waiting for a chance to talk to my mom and restore our intimacy. I’m looking forward to a day where it feels safe to not have to second guess being fully myself.
Photo via Max Fleishman