This is a little out of the blue, as it started as a forum post up until I realised I was proselytizing. Then I decided to put it here instead, since what else is a blog for?
Now I've mentioned this topic before
, and referenced this relevant post
, but having bumped into the forum thread
about whether or not to be open about poly relationships on Modern Poly
, I wanted to go into more detail about my views on this, as it is something I've experienced both sides of, and I have pretty strong views on this topic.
An academic article I came across recently had this to say about secrecy in relationships: “greater secrecy was associated with reduced commitment to one’s relationship, lower self-esteem, and more reported health symptoms ...poses a threat to partners’ personal health as a result of generating negative affect (e.g., nervousness and fear)“
In other words, being secretive about your relationships not only sucks as an experience, but it can also make you ill.
And now I'll tell you a story:
My own experience stems from when I was still quite new to poly (or at least to the idea that it was actually okay to be the way I had always been anyway) and still hadn't found a support network, online or in person.
I moved to a small and isolated community with a partner, let's call him P. It wasn't a highly religious place, but it was VERY old-fashioned in attitude. From having been very open about everything with our UK community, suddenly P was terrified we were going to be shunned by our new social group if either of us put a foot wrong, and he felt his job was at risk if this happened, so he demanded that I conduct my other relationships with the utmost secrecy.
I was not happy about this, but I put up with it because I loved him, we lived really well together, and thought we were in for the long haul. I went back into the closet both about being poly, and about my bisexuality as well, after one incident of platonic late night film-watching at a male friends house sparked a nasty whispering campaign that got back to P's ears and he felt very uncomfortable about it. If I couldn't be 'safe' around the men of the neighbourhood, I sure as hell wasn't going to give them more rumour fodder by coming out as bi. This was the sort of place where upright chaps stood around and talked about 'the gays' as though they were from a different (and highly contagious) planet. Being different was WRONG. It was like having walked onto the set of the Stepford Wives.
So I snuck around for several months, loathing the place more by the day, loathing myself also, and feeling like I was being watched, and whispered about everywhere I went. I know this wasn't entirely paranoia either, because certain rumours came back to my (and P's) ears from trusted sources. It was not a comfortable place to be. Being secretive about a relationship in such a tiny community is frankly, near impossible, and I literally worried myself sick at times.
As luck had it, shortly after I started seeing A (and for unrelated reasons), P and I hit a dealbreaker, and decided to call it a day. A had a somewhat different view about how to act in public – in short, if you act as though you are doing nothing wrong, people will respond accordingly. So we did. And it worked. We acted as though we were doing nothing wrong, and sure we raised a few eyebrows – I was still living pretty happily with P, and we were winding our relationship up slowly and amicably, but at the same time I was openly dating A, and the three of us were spending time together as friends. - but we were accepted at face value. Suddenly the goldfish bowl community seemed a much friendlier place, and I was genuinely sad when I left to move back to the UK (and y'know what, I managed to challenge some of the homophobic attitudes while I was there, too).
The curious thing here is that A and P were in exactly the same line of work – in fact, they were colleagues, yet P fretted about losing his job by being 'outed' (even about his partner's behaviour), whereas A felt the best way to safeguard his job was in fact to be open about things from the start.
In a way, they were both right. Essentially, P created the danger - and it was a real danger - of being blackmailed and exposed, entirely out of his own fears and discomforts. A, by being open and up-front, blew any possibility of blackmail or rumour out of the water, and created a safe space for us to exist right there in the public eye.
From my own experience, and judging by the careers of plenty of notable politicians (pick some examples local to you!), I'm tempted to say that the latter 'open' policy being better in the long run is obvious. (A little note here: being 'open' does not have to mean yelling loudly to everyone in town 'I am dating X, Y and Z!' - it can just mean not lying or changing the subject it if someone asks you 'are you dating y?'. It doesn't need to mean snogging in public, but it does mean smiling and nodding when people see you together in town, rather than ducking your head down and hiding. It means walking with pride, as long as you're doing something that *you* feel is right.)
How the story 'ends' – I'm still in contact with P, but only occasionally. He went back to monogamy, and doesn't appear to have looked back. On the other hand, several years on, A is still very much a partner of mine, as well as seeing several other women, and he's still working for the same employer, who is well aware of our situation, and fine with it. So far, it's happily ever after.
Now everyone who finds themselves in a situation where they feel a need to be secretive has their reasons, and some of them are perfectly valid – there is no legal protection (yet) against discrimination towards poly people, and it takes a lot of balls to stand up and say 'this is who I am and I am proud of it'. Like joreth
, I have chosen a line of work (as an artist) that means I am free to be just as open as I please knowing that it might lose me a client or two, but it will never lose me my job. - but what I keep on seeing time and again, in my own life and those of other people, is that it is quite astounding what even closed-minded folk will accept if you present it to them with pride and pleasure, rather than fear. Even more astounding is the difference it will make to your life, just knowing that you can stop looking over your shoulder to see who's watching.
Honestly, I think secrecy should be a last resort for people who are absolutely certain that their lives and/or families are directly at risk if they open up, and even then it makes me want to put my pointy breastplate on to charge down and rescue whoever is stuck in that situation*.
If it's only fear of public opinion stopping you, I would recommend every time, go open, march out with your head held high and smile. It's a leap of faith, but it's well worth taking.
*Sadly I don't actually have a pointy breastplate, or a charger, but I totally would if I did!