If you’re in the closet about being in a non-monogamous relationship (or several), you may be seeing a double whammy on the horizon: obligatory family holidays mixed with a conservative, sex-negative, and often close-minded political climate. You may be wondering just how much you should reveal about your non-monogamy to your family, who you should reveal it to, and whether or not it’s feasible to spend every family holiday from now until eternity explaining away all of your multiple partners as your “really, really close friends.”
If there’s anything that six years of practicing non-monogamy and countless coaching sessions with my non-monogamous clients have taught me, it’s that it is unquestionably harder to come out to family members than to anyone else in your life. Your family knows exactly how to push your buttons, not only because they’ve had years of practice, but because they were the ones to install those buttons in the first place. I had been happily out and proud inside my circle of friends for the better part of two years, but when it came time to have the talk with my aunt and uncle, my hands shook until I downed two strong cocktails faster than you could say “insta-drunk.”
I do not recommend the insta-drunk approach. To find healthy and effective alternatives, I spoke to some poly-friendly experts, therapists, and everyday people who have first-hand experience with the risks and rewards of coming out. Here are some important things to think about when deciding how, when, where, and if you should come out to your family this holiday season.
Be Honest With Yourself About The Risks Of Coming Out
The unfortunate reality is that not everyone is in a situation where it is safe to be out. Several factors can influence the kind of risks you may be facing, such as the political or religious affiliation of your family or community. Although you may already be bracing yourself for any number of reactions in the moment — surprise, shock, disbelief, or even anger — there may be long-term effects as well.
“I think the biggest risk to coming out would be the loss of friendships and alienation from the religious community I grew up in,” Allison, 24, tells Bustle. “I am a very private person, but I know that as soon as I came out to one of those people, word would travel fast, and I would be treated differently. Rather than asking questions or trying to understand, I know that I would be treated at as ‘Allison with a weird sex thing.’”
You may be willing to accept the risk of putting off or confusing your friends and family, but remember that the consequences of coming out can potentially be much more dire, especially if you have children. Polyamory researcher Dr. Elisabeth Sheff advises caution: “If you are vulnerable to someone in some way — emotionally, financially, legally, or personally — then consider carefully how they might respond before coming out to them. Finding out that a family member or friend is sexually or relationally unconventional can be incredibly disturbing for some people, especially if it goes against their deeply held religious values. If their negative reaction lands you in court facing a child custody battle then it might not be worth coming out to them unless there is a mighty compelling reason to do so.”
And remember, don’t feel guilty or ashamed if you’ve carefully considered the risks and determined that now is not the right time for you to be out of the closet.
But Don’t Forget The Benefits Of Coming Out Either!
Coming out may always feel risky to you on some level. You may be feeling uncomfortable and apprehensive, but if you don’t anticipate any seriously catastrophic consequences, don’t let your nervousness hold you back from enjoying the benefits of being out. You may find that you are giving yourself the gift of congruency: the person you are on the outside is the same as the person on the inside.
“I could finally breathe. Everyone encouraged me throughout my life to be myself. I finally felt I was being me, and if someone disliked how I live then they never really were a true friend of mine,” says Samantha. “I also feel another benefit is that I can raise my son to be more positive and less judgemental. He will be able to see the love and how to be true to yourself even against typical society views.”
Don’t forget that that personal authenticity can also help to remove emotional barriers between yourself and your family. Rather than causing strain, coming out may actually bring more harmony and intimacy to your family relationships. “If you have generally had a close relationship with your sister and then feel like you can't tell her about what you did last weekend because it involved both of your partners, a metamour, and someone you are just beginning to date, then that will introduce some distance between you and your sister,” says Dr. Sheff. “Coming out to her could allow you to be more honest with her about what you do with your free time and allow her to understand what is happening in your life.”
Make A List (And Check It Twice)
As you’re weighing the pros and cons, you might find that picturing a coming out conversation may feel much more daunting with certain family members compared to others. Counselor and gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox recommends a methodical approach when deciding who gets to know.
“Make a list of all of your family members and, next to each person's name, write your thoughts down as to what sort of relationship you have with them, how much you hope to maintain that relationship, and what you are willing to do to work towards keeping the relationship,” says Hoffman-Fox. “This will help you prioritize which relationships are most meaningful to you and, if necessary, which will be the ones you are going to put more patience, time, and effort into after you come out. More than likely there will be family members you choose to tell sooner than later, so it’s OK to set a pace for your coming out that feels healthiest to you.”
If you’re not yet ready for all of your family members to know, consider carefully who can and cannot be trusted to keep the news to themselves for the time being. Depending on how closely-knit your family is, word can spread fast, and some family members may learn your secret even if you haven’t told them directly.
“You don't always get to decide. I learned this the hard way,” shares Kenzie, 24. “I have a much better relationship with my dad and brother than with my mom, so I told them first...and they outed me.”
Remember That Timing Is Everything
So you’ve weighed up all the pros and cons, made your priority list of family members, and you’re ready to give the big talk! But when is the right time? Should you make a phone call to your parents the day before your arrival? Should you tap your wine glass and make an announcement during Christmas dinner? Maybe a quick, 30-second word vomit right before getting on the plane back home would be best…
It’s best to evaluate each family relationship individually and make a decision about timing that is unique to each connection. A general rule of thumb: avoid coming out on a day that is uniquely special to the person or people in question, such as their wedding, birthday, anniversary, bar mitzvah, etc. “I'm not out to my extended family because the only family event I've been to in the last year was a wedding ... and that seemed like a terrible time to start answering questions about non-monogamy,” says Kenzie.
What about the holidays? It may be a special occasion, but you can’t deny the convenience of having all the family members you rarely see face-to-face gathered in one spot. If you do choose to come out to your family at a holiday gathering, it may be beneficial to have an ally in the room with you. “This can be an intimidating scenario, since it will be hard to predict how the individuals in the family will react, so approach this with caution,” says Hoffman-Fox. “Ideally you'll have already told at least one family member prior to the gathering, so that person can be there to support you.”
Whatever Happens, Try To Keep Your Cool
The looming prospect of having a coming out conversation may be making you feel nervous. It’s important to remember that you are actually in a position of great power. Regardless of how your family reacts, you have the power to set the tone. That means keeping your cool before, during, and after the conversation.
The best way to be cool and collected beforehand is to give yourself plenty of practice. “Rehearse what you're going to say in advance,” suggests James, 29. “Run through objections, questions, and possible reactions (or overreactions) in your head and have your responses ready before hand. Write them down if need be. Record what you want to say and listen to it. Have a mock conversation with a partner and have them raise questions and objections.” Although there’s no way to predict every possible outcome or what your family member may say in the midst of their shock, you’ll feel much more confident heading into the conversation if you’ve gotten in a good trial run.
Doing your homework before the conversation can lay a great foundation for keeping calm during the conversation itself. If you’ve got your facts straight and you’ve said your piece, give the other person or people their space to have a reaction. There is nothing wrong with a person having particular feelings about your choices, but remember that you don’t have to escalate the situation by raising your voice, trading insults, or encouraging any other emotional drama. Keep your own side of the street clean.
And after the initial conversation has drawn to a close, the only thing you can do is keep doing you. At the end of the day, there is not a single person on earth who can argue with your happiness. If a family member wants to keep arguing about your life and insists that you are not happy this way, it may be time to simply say, “I understand and appreciate your concern for me. Rest assured that the choices I’ve made are currently making me very happy.”
Then walk away from the conversation, and keep on pursuing that happiness.
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