“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Swipe This!
I am a happily married polyamorous, bisexual woman. I currently have two partners, my husband and my girlfriend and I love them both very much. Lots of my friends know this about me, but when Pride month came around this year, I realized I couldn’t hide it from anyone anymore. So, in early June I decided it was time. I made a public post on Facebook and came out as polyamorous and bisexual. I wrote about my girlfriend and how I have been with my husband for only six months longer than her. It felt good to tell the world about my love. Proud!
This was also how my parents found out, because I was too afraid to tell them any other way. I could tell my mom was avoiding talking to me, but I’ve had a busy summer so I didn’t push the issue. Then, I had a phone call with her this past Friday and she finally broached the subject.
Her reaction was everything I feared it would be.
She doesn’t understand polyamory so she has no idea how I can possibly have a healthy and good relationship with either partner. My mom said, “I have never even MET this person.” She wouldn’t call my girlfriend by her name or even say “your girlfriend.” She kept calling her “this person.” I told her she did, actually, meet my girlfriend, at my wedding, last June. And she was beside herself.
My mom hates not being in the know, and so I get that hearing about all this is hard. But, Jesus! I was so hurt by our phone convo that I had to pull over and cry.
She asked me, “How could you and [husband] get up there, in front of everyone, and say what you said [in your vows] with her in the room?!” I told her if she’d listened to our vows we made space for my girlfriend and future relationships because this is how we live, and we are happy, and it is wonderful. My marriage is NOT a sham!
She also said she was so hurt that she had to find out on Facebook, and that all she could think about was her “failure as a parent” because I didn’t tell her about any of this until now and it’s been going on for three years. She says she feels like she doesn’t even know me anymore. She’s so upset that I didn’t tell her in person and that I was afraid she’d judge me or push me away. She said that’s so hurtful and I must not know her at all.
My mom said she needed time to process, and heal and that I had to give her that time. She said she can see no future with me moving forward because she has “no models for this kind of behavior” and doesn’t know anyone else doing this so she can’t possibly imagine a future for me or for us.
I told her I was so sorry that her finding out from Facebook hurt her so much, as that was never my intention, and that of course there’s a future, and I am the same person I always was, as is my husband. When we ended our conversation, she said, “I have to go, but I love you very much.” But I have to tell you, I am not feeling loved by my mom.
She is making it all about her, and how she is devastated and this news was “like a bomb went off” or “someone has cancer.” And all I can think is, “My polyamory is cancer. Wow.” How can she think it’s a terrible thing that there are two people who love me?
All I want to do is call her up and yell at her, “I literally didn’t tell you this until now because I was afraid of you acting exactly how you’re acting!”
I don’t know what to tell her.
Loved but Not Loved
Dear Loved but Not Loved,
Most people like to think of love as a constant. Love is presented by our parents, friends, and partners as a fact, unwavering and indisputable. I love you. I will always love you. I love you forever. Don’t you know that I love you? But I’d argue that the most valuable kind of love—the love we need and crave most—is actually a verb. (This is not an original concept. Eric Fromm argued this as early as the 1950s, and relationship expert Esther Perel quoted him recently on the wonderful podcast On Being.)
Love is action. Love is both how we hold each other physically, and how we hold space for the feelings of others.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to feel unloved. Because, often, in moments when we need to be seen, or heard, or held, we are told, “I love you, of course, I love you!” by someone whose actions don’t back up that sentiment. Maybe we need new words for love. Because goodness knows the love that you do and the love that you feel don’t always line up.
In the animation above, Perel also describes the concept of ambiguous loss. I think it’s an apt description of what you went through with your mother when she called you on the phone. She was there, on the phone talking to you, and yet, psychologically, she was gone, unreachable and incapable of hearing you.
I think, as unlikely as it may seem to you, your mother had a similar experience to your own. Her daughter is present, and yet, upon reading your Facebook post, she discovered that the daughter she thought she knew is gone. Obviously, you are still you. And I agree with you that your marriage is in no way a sham. But from your mother’s perspective, crucial pieces of her understanding of who you were have disappeared. You are both experiencing grief. You certainly don’t have to nurture empathy for her if you don’t want to—I think your first and only obligation right now is to take good care of yourself—but I can’t help but wonder if recognizing the similarities in your experiences might help to soften the pain you feel in this moment. You are both experiencing a feeling of loss, of being shut out when you want to be invited in.
When your mother read your Facebook post, it’s clear to me that she felt shut out. But I think it’s important to recognize that when you wrote your Facebook post you took loving action toward yourself and your partners. Sure, there are people who might argue that technology is too distant and impersonal for such a big important part of your life. But I think they’re wrong. Technology is a tool. And you used it to create a safe space for yourself to share a very vulnerable part of yourself. You took something that could have been a source of shame and transformed it into a source of pride. What a beautiful choice.
You say you made this choice out of fear, but didn’t you also make it in order to protect yourself? Isn’t that a kind of love? You knew this news would be hard for your mother to digest and so, you gave yourself the safe distance you needed to open the conversation. I think what you did was actually quite brave.
Should you tell your mother that her reaction is the reason you kept your truth inside for so long? You can if you want to. You can get angry. You can scream and cry. Your mother already exploded her feelings all over you, so shouldn’t you get to show her the full mess of what you feel? Your mother asked you for time and compassion. And my goodness do I relate to how hard it is to give others what they cannot give to us. It’s tempting to have a tantrum. Tantrums are so easy and sometimes they feel great! Maybe you need one right now. Whether you share it with your mother or not is up to you.
Whatever you decide, I imagine you’ll get the most satisfaction and peace of mind, if you tell your mother what you feel from a space of real compassion for yourself and your choices. That can look like crying face to face. It can look like an angry phone call. It can look like a handwritten, heartfelt letter. There are so many choices available to you. But what’s most important is that you honor yourself and what you feel. Because once you do, you may feel pain or frustration, but you won’t feel such a panicked, urgent need for her to understand you and affirm you. You’ll already have affirmed yourself and you’ll be standing securely in your truth.
You say that your mom likened your polyamory to a cancer, and I agree with you that she’s got it all wrong. Your love is not a cancer. Shame is a cancer. It eats at you. It weakens you. And if you don’t bring it out into the light of day, it can utterly destroy you.
You already took several steps toward releasing shame when you wrote your Facebook post. So I wonder where else you might be harboring shame now. Do you feel bad or wrong for not delivering this message to your mother in the most perfect way, wrapped neatly and tied up with a bow? You’ve released the shame that you could have attached polyamory and your sexuality, but have you released the shame that you attach to being a daughter who sometimes disappoints her mother?
If you are still harboring secret shame, I hope you will bring it out into the light and let your own love and warmth transform it into pride. It is clear to me that you are someone who is rich in love and courage. And you deserve to be loved, as a verb, by yourself and by others. But the loving and doing starts with you.
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