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How To Tell People You’re Polyamorous, Part 1

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How To Tell People You’re Polyamorous, Part 1

Coming out as polyamorous can be tricky, first consider why and to whom.

Deciding when, how, and to whom to come out as polyamorous can be a daunting challenge. As anyone who has ever been to middle school knows, being an unconventional person is enough to attract negative attention—something that remains true even after junior high. If you are an unconventional person (or even a regular person that ends up in an unconventional situation) who is also a parent, then you are at special risk for the repercussions of that negative attention.

Obviously there are many situations in which polyamorists are able to speak freely and honestly about their family lives. Outside of those specific safe situations lies a vast and uncharted world of people who might be profoundly uncomfortable with polyamory. Most people don’t react very strongly to polyamory, but for those who see polyamory as threatening, it can seem quite menacing indeed. I do not mean to be alarmist, and in many situations it will be fine to come out as poly. However, before coming out at all, people should consider why they are coming out, and to whom. Once they have decided those things, it is easier for people to decide how they want to come out. This is the first of a two part series on coming out as polyamorous. Part I looks at the why and to whom, and Part II talks about strategies for coming out.


Is it relevant, necessary, and safe to come out to this person or in this situation? It is ok for relationships to remain private, and disclosed only on a need-to-know basis.  If your status as a polyamorous person/someone in a polyamorous relationship is both relevant and important to the relationship, then it makes sense to come out. If it is only slightly relevant or (especially) dangerous, then it is best to keep quiet about such a potentially risky topic. You can always come out later when it is safer or more relevant to the relationship, but you can never undo a poorly conceived disclosure that comes back to bite you later.

To whom?

Co-Workers: Less is more. Be certain that it is both relevant and safe to disclose intimate details of your life to this person. Drunken disclosures borne of momentary holiday party punchbowl (and subsequent copier) alliances are best avoided.

Friends: Depends on the person. If it is 1) germane to the conversation and/or relationship; 2) safe, in that this person has proven some level of open-mindedness and willingness to support freedom and alternatives or is a complete stranger; and/or 3) relevant to the level and importance of relationship. While you may not want to come out to the other parent you always end up chatting with while you wait for the kids after practice, but you might want to come out to your dear friend of many years who is about to meet your metamour (partner’s partner).

Family of Origin: Again, it depends on the person. Is it someone you are close to and will need to know in order to interact with or know you then you will definitely want to inform that person of important features of your life, including whom you love and your family life. You will want to come out to your dear sister who hangs out with you all the time, but maybe not so much to the third cousin you only see at the occasional Labor Day picnic.

In-Laws: How is the information that you are in a polylamorous relationship relevant to your relationship with the in-laws? Allow the relevance to guide the level of disclosure. If the entire polycule will be attending Auntie Clarice’s funeral, then a quick call or email letting the hosts know the number of people who will be attending is in order, but not necessarily a detailed description of who sleeps where and what kinds of safer sex methods the group has negotiated. If people ask, you can answer honestly and with a limited range of information or a full description, whichever best fits the setting and the questioner.

Children: Once again, it depends on how the old the child is and how much they are exposed to or involved in the polyamorous relationship. In general, poly folks tend to wait until the kid asks a question and then respond with an honest and age appropriate answer.

Does the child live with you? If not, then you can hold off on a big announcement until it is relevant to the kid. Kids whose home lives include parents’ partners around on a regular basis will eventually need to know who all these people are, once they realize their families are different from their peers’.

Institutional representatives (ie. teachers,health care providers, or Child Protective Service case-workers):  Answer all questions honestly, but do not provide additional information—at least until you are sure it is safe. If at all possible, get a sense of the teacher/nurse/case-worker and only disclose that the family is polyamorous if it is both 1) relevant and 2) safe, meaning that the person will possibly listen with an open mind to an explanation of the polyamorous family.

Working with Child Protective Services can be especially challenging, because they have such significant power to remove a child who is being abused or neglected, and often have broad discretion about how to interpret abuse and neglect. If the case-worker appears to be open minded or flexible, then it might be safe to talk about unconventional family characteristics before they become an issue. When case-workers appear to be extremely conservative it might be best to avoid disclosing the presence of a polyamorous relationship unless it is directly relevant to the situation with the child. When it is directly relevant and the case-worker will find out anyway, then it is best to bring it up yourself so you can control the timing and location of the disclosure, as well as indicating that you have nothing to hide.

Part II of this series will explore strategies for coming out to a range of people, from teachers to in-laws or kids.

[Elisabeth Sheff]

Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamory in the US, and the worldwide expert on polyamorous families with children. Sheff’s first book, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Families and Relationships (2014), details her 15-year study of poly families with kids and was just reprinted in paperback, and her second book Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families (2015) is an edited anthology of writings by poly folks. An expert witness and Guardian Ad Litem with a background in academic sociology, Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual minority families, kink/BDSM, and issues facing trans* people. She is the CEO and Director of Legal Services at the Sheff Consulting Group, a think-tank of experts specializing in unconventional and underserved populations. You can find her blog on Psychology Today at

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