And Some Things to Maybe Say Instead.
This one is for the friends and family camp - the people in polyamorous folks’ lives who mean well and might be surprised to be learning this about their loved ones, and want to not insert foot into mouth.
Who is your favorite partner? People love all their partners. Favoritism, primacy, and a pecking order almost never play into it, and you’re backing someone into a very uncomfortable corner by asking this. You’re invalidating any relationship they don’t designate as that “favorite” as well. Some people, being hierarchical, might try to explain that to you instead, and that will most likely just muddy the waters of perception by answering a question you didn’t ask. Instead, something like “So, you love [Partner A] and [Partner B]?” while you wrap your head around it, and if you’re really having trouble with it “A similar kind of love?” and then drop it or move on to a different question is your best bet.
So it’s like cheating? Every polyamorous person has gotten this question and hates it, because we do this specifically because it’s NOT like cheating. It’s the opposite. It’s everyone knowing everything instead of secrets and sneaking. This question often comes out of personal experience with cheating so a STATEMENT like “I have a lot of relationship experience that involves cheating so non-monogamy isn’t for me, but it seems like you’re happy. I’m happy for you,” goes a really long way. If a friend or family member is taking the time to come out to you, it usually means they would prefer a supportive response (and if you’re bothering to read this I’m going to assume you’d like to give one). Questions you can ask are things like “So, do you hang out with your partner’s other partners or just know about them?” - especially if you first ask “Hey is it okay if I ask a couple questions about how your new relationship works?”
Intrusive questions about sex. There’s a lot of variety here - where does everyone sleep?; do you all sleep together?; is it all orgies all the time?; are you all freaks in bed?; are you constantly looking for other people to join your relationship?; aren’t you worried about STIs?; what if one of your partners wanted to sleep with [insert horribly inappropriate person here]? - polyamorous people get all these questions, all the time. Especially if they live together in a non-couple configuration, and are visibly open beyond that. How dare a polycule not be contained to a group small enough to share a bed and then close, this must mean they are sexual deviants who are destroying the world. Mostly, just don’t. If you’re someone’s best friend who talks about these subjects with them and they bring them up first, talk about them naturally with them as you would have when they were monogamous and dating. Don’t bring up horrible catastrophes any more often than you would for a mono person. Bring up testing with new people just like you should with your monogamous friends (if you aren’t with your monogamous friends, start doing it).
But what about the kids? What about them? The studies that exist show that children of polyamorous parents are fine, at pretty much the same levels as children of monogamous parents. Families and love of all kinds are comprehensible to kids in a much simpler way than to adults, and honestly, so long as people are being age-appropriate directly in front of the kids (which I’ve never met parents who aren’t, and I date poly parents pretty much exclusively the last several years, now that I am one), it’s hard to go terribly wrong, if we listen to the findings of the 20-year-study by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff. So, crying “But the children!” is a strawman for the discomfort of adults. Instead, if what you’re trying to discuss with your loved one is future kids, say “are you sure you’re prepared for the challenges associated with an alternative family style?” and have THAT conversation with them - find out if they’re planning to have kids at all - and if they have kids, find out if they’re planning to integrate their partners as parents in a way that affects their parenting at all. They might not. They also might tell you it’s not your business. It often isn’t.
Don’t you get jealous? / What if your partner loves them more? Everyone gets jealous sometimes, because we’re skeletons riding in animated meat sacks, and the point of polyamory is that we and our partners also may love other people. More is kind of a useless word, emotions flow and love is not a loaf of bread. This is a silly question to ask. Monogamous people can get jealous of hobbies, of jobs taking too much time, of friends - there’s no magic pill for jealousy. Having chosen to allow romantic relationships as an option isn’t the source of additional jealousy, just a direction it might happen to flow in today. Our partners choose to stay with us because they love us and our relationships are meaningful and unique. That’s enough and important. If they’ve said they’re happy to answer questions about their relationships, something like “do you struggle with romantic jealousy and how do you deal with it if so?” might be appropriate, but if someone hasn’t opened up the floor to questions so to speak, sticking with a statement about yourself like “I struggle with jealousy too much for anything but monogamy, but you guys seem really happy and I’m happy for you!” is a better bet.
If someone invites you to ask questions about polyamory, here’s a few good questions that I think folks would be generally pretty happy to answer:
How did you become polyamorous? (warning: lots of people’s origin stories are “I met somebody!”)
How long have you been involved in polyamory?
Are there any resources you’d suggest I look at for more information on polyamory? (I recommend Elisabeth Sheff’s When Someone You Love is Polyamorous)
Who are your partners? How long have you all been together? (throw in some awww sweet noises here)
How do you manage holidays? Is it different every year?
How have your family (ies) reacted -if that isn’t too sensitive to share? (if you aren’t family in question)
Do your partners have other partners? Do you all hang out together generally or…? (Let them explain their situation)
Do you struggle with jealousy, and how do you overcome that?
If at any point they aren’t talkative, you stop asking questions and thank them for sharing.
End the conversation by affirming that they sound happy and you’re happy for them.
Honestly, opening up to you to share about their life can be a big deal for your loved one(s). Some of us have had kind of a hard time sharing with our families or friends on this journey. Setting people up for success in some of these conversations when they’re having a hard time with others can be an important part of supporting them effectively.
I’ll be teaching my Beyond the Kitchen Table: Modes and Models of Parallel Polyamory class at Tethered to Wifi 2.0, the digital version of Tethered Together, on Saturday March 20 from 11:30am -1pm. The con as a whole runs from the 19-21 and you can get tickets at tetheredtogether.net. Tickets are $30 until sales close the day before the event. There are a lot of great presenters on topics ranging from relationships to movement to rope and a couple cool shows; come play with us!
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