How Not To Be A Dick To To Your Polyamorous Friend

While the vast majority of my friends and family were incredibly understanding when I came out as polyamorous, some had questions and criticisms.

Sep 24, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

For many people, polyamory is a new and strange concept. The idea that romantic love is not a finite resource that can only be shared between two people can be confusing and frustrating, particularly if you haven’t been properly introduced to it.
 
While the vast majority of my friends and family were incredibly understanding when I came out as polyamorous, some had questions and criticisms. Even now, after about 4 years of being publically polyamorous, I know quite a few people who just “don’t get” polyamory. 
 
While discussing relationship structures which may be unfamiliar to you can be a bit awkward, and lead to misunderstandings, it is important to ask questions rather than passing judgements or making blind assumptions.
 
Most people will understand that you mean well and are simply curious. However, in order to avoid offense as much as possible, here are some guidelines on how to treat polyamorous friends with regards to their relationships:  
 
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A day out with friends to the Maryland Renaissance fair! From left to right, Jon, me, Kai!
 

 
1. Treat your friend and their relationships with respect.
 
If your friend comes out as polyamorous, whether or not you believe that it is a phase, treat them and their decision with respect. It can take a lot of courage to tell friends and family about a non-normative lifestyle, and being treated as if it were a passing fancy can be hurtful. Imagine how you would feel if someone interrogated your decision to be monogamous?
 
In the same vein, treat your friend’s partners and relationships the same way that you would treat them if your friend were in a monogamous relationship. If your friend refers to their partner as a “boyfriend/girlfriend,” follow suit. If you would invite a monogamous friend and his or her date to an event, accept that a polyamorous friend may want to bring their husband and partner, and not allowing this could be hurtful.
 
It is unlikely that your friend will start an orgy on your living room floor without permission, and more likely that they will behave perfectly “normally” in a public setting without being offensive. For my polyamorous readers, you wouldn’t bring a stranger to a party without asking the host first right? Make sure you clear it with your friends before you bring your partners to events!
 
2. Don’t ask a question that you wouldn’t want someone to ask you.
 
It was only when I came out as polyamorous that I experienced someone asking me if I had sex with more than one partner at one time! What a personal question! Unless your friendship is at a point where discussing sex openly is part of your normal conversation, asking “Do you all have sex together?” can be as intrusive and jarring as asking “What position do you usually have sex with your partner in?”
 
While some polyamorous groups do have sex together, others do not, and unless your friend has made it clear that these questions don’t bother them, do not assume that asking intrusive personal questions is acceptable. 
 
3. Just because they came out does not mean they want to be your “polyamory ambassador.”
 
It is totally natural to have questions about something you are unfamiliar with. I, personally, have no problems answering intimate questions about my love life. Partially, this is because I am naturally an open person, and partially because I really enjoy educating other people about alternative lifestyles.
 
While I am more than happy to answer almost every single question you may have for me about polyamory and my life, other people may not be so comfortable. I recognize that more often than not, you aren’t asking personal questions to be nosy or intrusive. You’re more likely asking questions to help understand and support your friend better. An excellent way to gauge how your friend would react to questions about their lifestyle is to simply ask “I have some questions, but they are rather personal. Would you mind answering them, or could you direct me to a resource that could?”
 
4. On polyamory and parenting.
 
I do not currently have children, and thus I may not be the most qualified person to discuss raising children. However, when discussing my life, many people feel the need to tell me that they hope for my future children’s sake, that I stop my polyamorous ways before I have kids.
 
My future intentions regarding children are not up for public discussion as they are no one’s business but mine and my partners, however I feel for polyamorous families who do have kids. I’d like to include a point about dealing with your polyamorous friends who are also parents: You may be tempted to raise concern about your friend’s lifestyle in regards to their children. I would suggest that you tread carefully.
 
No one wants to be told how best to raise their children. Unless you see signs of abuse and neglect, the well-meaning concern that you are raising over a child that may be happy and well-adjusted is the same kind of concern that people have raised about same-sex and interracial parents. If you trust and love your friend, have faith that they are taking care of their child to the best of their ability. 
 
5. Polyamory =/= cheating.
 
Cheating is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “being sexually unfaithful” and unfaithful is defined as “engaging in sexual relations with a person other than one's regular partner in contravention of a previous promise or understanding.” While people who may be unfaithful could and do use the  language of polyamory to explain or justify their choices, polyamory, at it’s core, is not a form of infidelity.
 
The philosophies of the lifestyle are rooted in openness and awareness from everyone involved. While this is not to say everyone’s polyamory looks exactly the same, most polyamorous people are not cheating on each other, or looking for excuses to. Many people who are polyamorous have partners who know each other, and those who have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy are often able to provide some proof that their partner is agreeable to the arrangement.
 
Do not assume that your polyamorous friend is cheating on their partner without all of the facts. If you must ask, a simple “Do all of your partners know about your arrangement?” is an acceptable way to ask without being too intrusive. For an excellent metaphor on cheating and polyamory, take a look at this incredible article from Poly Momma.
 
6.  Don’t assume that polyamorous friends are interested in dating you or your partner.
 
Just because someone is polyamorous does not mean that they are interested in dating you or your partner. This is very similar to the idea that just because your same-sex friend came out as gay or bisexual, does not mean that they want to date you. Unless you have a concern based on how they are behaving toward you, or your partner, just assume that they are not trying to start a romantic relationship with you.
 
If you do have a concern, a gentle “Hey friend, I have noticed you seem to sometimes be flirting with me/my partner, while I love and support you, monogamy is the norm in my relationship and I would appreciate if you could try to respect that.” will suffice. 
 
7. Orientation is not an indication of relationship status.  
 
Do not assume that just because someone is bisexual, or pansexual that they are going to be polyamorous. Do not assume that just because someone is homosexual, or heterosexual that they are monogamous. Do not assume that just because someone appears to be in a monogamous relationship or single that they are no longer polyamorous. The long and short of it, is that you should not make assumptions about your friend’s relationship or orientation based on the outward appearance of their relationship.  
 
8. Do not make assumptions about someone’s sexual behavior based on their relationship status.
 
The idea that someone is promiscuous because they are polyamorous is offensive. It is equally as offensive and hurtful as assuming that someone is prudish for only having sex within the confines of marriage. While some people who identify as polyamorous are comfortable with casual sex, others are not. There are many polyamorous people who do not believe in casual sex, or only have sex with established partners. Polyamorous people take on a number of different relationship structures in regards to sex and sexuality. 
 
9. Don’t question the reasons behind their relationships.
 
This point often comes in the form of “if you were just going to sleep with or date other people, why did you even get married?” There is a wonderful article about the “Relationship Escalator” that talks about the expectations of relationships and how they conclude. The reality is that people marry for many different reasons, whether it is for security, comfort, or love. It is not considerate to grill your friend on the reason their relationship is in whatever stage it is in. Conversely, it is not polite to ask your friends why they haven’t gotten married yet, because people choose not to marry for just as many different reasons. 
 
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This picture was taken a few days after I returned home from having my lung removed.
 

 
10. There is no one way to have a relationship.
 
For some people love is a finite resource. For others it is not. Non-monogamy and polyamory work in very different ways for many different people. Some polyamorous families include a hierarchy where one couple is a “primary couple” and those partners have secondary relationships that exist outside of that relationship. Others have more of a square or triangle shaped relationship.
Some couples have one polyamorous partner, and one monogamous partner.
 
These and many others are all relationship structures that can and do work when you put in the requisite communication and energy. With the obvious exception of abusive relationships, no relationship style or structure works for every person. Monogamy is no better than polyamory, and polyamory is no better than monogamy.The absolute beauty of life is that people are different. They have different opinions, lifestyles, and interests that make them happy. You may not agree with it, and you may not choose to live your life that way, but if your friend is not harmed or causing harm to another person, what is the difference between having one partner or many?