What Not to Say to Polyamorous People
Updated: Feb 14
By Ezra Elias Vivas
[Image of the polyamorous flag made by Jim Evans in 1995. It has three horizontal stripes, blue, red, and black from top to bottom, with a yellow pi (π) symbol in the middle of the red stripe, retrieved from Wikipedia]
Polyamory is defined as “a form of relationship where it is possible, valid and worthwhile to maintain (usually long-term) intimate and sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously.” In other words, it’s a relationship in which not only are you allowed, but often are encouraged to have multiple partners. This can be a remarkably strange concept for monogamous (non-polyamorous) people to grasp, especially because there are so many relationships that are covered under this definition. As polyamory moves further into mainstream view, you might find a family member, friend, or anyone else in your life coming out to you as poly. As someone who’s polyamorous and has had both positive and negative reactions to coming out, here are seven reactions that I wish I hadn’t heard.
“Is it a sex thing?”
Woah! That’s not any of your business. And even if it is a strictly sexual part of someone’s life, asking would still be invasive and rude; not to mention the fact that if it is a sex thing, they’re highly unlikely to be telling you. To assume immediately that a non-monogamous person is only doing this for sexual reasons also perpetuates the idea that polyamorous relationships are inherently more sexual than monogamous ones, and erases the fact that asexual people can be polyamorous. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, an expert on polyamory, said,“In truth, people with unconventional sexualities have fully three dimensional lives and personalities – just like people with a more conventional sexuality are not ruled solely by their sexuality or consider everything through the lens of sexuality.”
“I could never do that.”
Well, lucky you, because the person coming out to you probably isn’t asking you to! This is rude as it assumes someone has come out in order to hit on you, which is rarely if ever the case. Additionally, it takes the very scary and vulnerable act of coming out and makes it about you, when it should be about the person who’s trusting you to care about them and their life. Look, I get it. When someone shares a piece of information, it’s natural to want to try to relate, or share your perspective, even if your experiences are the exact opposite. However, consider: if someone responded to you telling them about a personal and vulnerable part of your life with an assertion that they are not like you, would you feel welcomed? Would you feel that this person cared about you? Would you feel that was an appropriate response?
“Who is your favorite partner?”
This is such a strange and loaded question to ask. Why would you ask who someone’s favorite partner is? What do you gain from knowing? Assuming the person you’re asking 1) has a favorite partner and 2) thinks it appropriate to share this information with you, what would you do with this knowledge? Would you use it to invalidate their other relationships? Why do you think there even needs to be a favorite partner? Asking this is akin to asking a parent if they have a favorite child. It draws upon the assumption that a person cannot equally value multiple individuals in similar ways. You may hear about hierarchical relationships; in which somebody has primary and secondary (and maybe even tertiary) partners. While you might jump to the conclusion that a person likely prefers their primary partner, sometimes a person is a primary partner because they cohabitate or have/raise children together. Even then, to ask someone who their favorite partner is in poor taste. Just don’t ask.
“Don’t you get jealous?”
Of course people get jealous. Polyamorous people are people, just like you, with wide ranges of emotion. In fact, polyamorous people tend to talk about jealousy a lot. Jealousy is an emotion that tends to stem from fear or insecurity. To act as though polyamorous people somehow don’t get insecure or aren’t afraid of anything is to deny us a part of our personhood. Just because widespread monogamous culture doesn’t find it necessary to encourage people to manage their jealousy doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. While it’s true that some polyamorous people may find themselves to be naturally less jealous, the fact of the matter is that polyamorous people are diverse and wide-ranging in emotions and experiences.
“Was one partner not enough for you?”
What a great question! Not only have you managed to paint the person who’s just put themself in a vulnerable position as someone greedy and unsatisfied, you’ve also managed to imply that none of their partners (past, present, or future) have been valuable ‘enough’ to them! What would that even mean, for someone to be ‘enough’ for someone else? Is the value of a person related to what their romantic partner thinks of them?
“That’s just cheating.”
This is a common misconception. A lot of the times, people (both monogamous and even polyamorous people who are just starting to learn about polyamory) assume that cheating in a romantic relationship is defined by having multiple partners. However, it may be helpful to instead think of cheating as ‘breaking the rules’ of the relationship. In a monogamous relationship, one of the rules is that neither person of the couple may have other partners, or engage in romantic/sexual activities with anyone outside of the monogamous couple. In a polyamorous relationship, the ‘rules’ of a relationship often look completely different.
“Isn’t that just an open relationship?”
This question isn’t strictly rude, and it comes from a place of well-meaning ignorance. If you know the person well, and they’re okay with clarifying and explaining, this question isn’t too bad, but it’s also one that can be resolved with some light googling. Make life a little easier for the polyamorous people in your life by learning difference. In an open relationship, partners may be allowed to have sexual relations outside of the couple, but remain romantically committed to only their partner. Even then, the exact boundaries and rules of an open relationship are subject to the desires of the people in them. Polygamy is the practice of having multiple spouses. It is often religious and is illegal in the United States.
There’s still a lot of stigma around polyamory. It can be a difficult thing to accept about yourself, and having people react negatively when you come out to them only makes it worse. Instead of asking personal, invasive questions, or putting people down, consider reacting with thoughtful curiosity and open-mindedness. Someone else being poly isn’t a threat to your monogamous preferences. Immediately reacting from a place of fear isn’t a good way to respond to anyone coming out.
Written by Writer Ezra Elias Vivas