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Should I Come Out?: Making decisions about your authentic self.

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

In the realm of modern relationships, open relationships are becoming increasingly common. These relationships can offer many benefits to strengthen and deepen the connections of relationships, but they also come with their own unique set of challenges. A common early challenge of opening one’s relationship or engaging in polyamory is deciding whether or not to disclose your open relationship status to friends and family. Here we will explore this decision using a decision model exploring the utility of disclosure and the sustainability of non-disclosure.

I. Utility: How does coming out benefit me, my partners, and my life?

After years of working with multiamorous people, the one thing that is always sure is that every relationship will be unique. I have never met anyone in the same relationship as someone else, be that family setup, agreements, needs, resources, or any other inextricable part of relationships. Each has their own needs that will benefit and suffer in different ways when choosing how “out” to be in a generally monogamous world. Consider your pro’s and con’s when assessing the utility of coming out. Here are some common examples:

Benefits of Coming Out:

Honesty and Authenticity: Sharing your open relationship status with your family allows you to be honest and authentic about your life choices. This can lead to a deeper connection with your family members and allow for more interactions between your chosen family and your family of origin. There’s nothing like holidays with all of your loved one’s around to celebrate!

Potential for Understanding: Coming out can be especially scary when you’re not sure how your loved ones will respond. The impulse is often to assume that their reactions will be eternally negative. However, in sharing, there can be great potential for growth and understanding. Giving your family the chance to surprise you with their willingness to learn can be a wonderful healing experience for everyone involved.

Emotional Support: There will be challenges in any relationship, and it’s never a good idea to face life totally alone. When you face challenges in your open relationship, having family members who are aware of your situation can provide much-needed emotional support and guidance. Even when your family is monogamous, a significant portion of relationship advice that works in duo relationships is helpful for multi-partnered relationships because it is basic to all human connections. Take what is helpful and leave the rest.

Drawbacks of Coming Out:

Judgment and Disapproval: Unfortunately, not all loved ones will react positively to the news of your open relationship. When people are fearful of change, it isn’t uncommon for them to become defensive against the perceived threat. You may encounter people who are judgmental, unwelcoming, or even downright rude about your choices. Don’t take it personally; it tells you a lot more about them than it does you and your relationships.

Awkward Conversations: Multi-partnered relationships are not uncommon in the grand scheme of human history. There are even many cultures today that commonly practice forms of open relationships and have done so for thousands of years. However, in much of the “modern” world, particularly in the West, monogamy is firmly the norm. Therefore, coming out will likely include some awkward conversations explaining parts of your life that are foreign to monogamous people. And not everyone is kind or tactful about their questions. Should you choose to come out, prepare to have some of these conversations and set boundaries on what you’re willing to discuss for the sake of their curiosity. Remember, no one is entitled to your emotional labor, education, or time.

Privacy Concerns: Secrets once shared are no longer secrets. Once you disclose your open relationship, you lose the ability to control who knows about it, which might be a concern for some who value their privacy. If there are people in your life who you are sure you don’t want to know about your relationships, your decision-making process should include choosing who is trustworthy with secrets, should you need to keep them.

At Hannah Smith Counseling, I recommend listing out with your partners the potential benefits and risks of coming out, along with who you may want to come out to. This allows everyone to consider their needs and give informed consent to the process.

II. “How long can I keep this up?” The sustainability of non-disclosure

Life is long and complicated. When considering whether to come out, it is important to consider the variables that might make it difficult to maintain the secret. Living a double life is often an uncomfortable and demoralizing experience for people, and I have seen many people try to choose secrecy for the sake of avoiding potential discomfort rather than practical utility. At Hannah Smith Counseling, I generally recommend that people make major decisions based on what will allow them to be their fullest, most authentic selves—discomfort and all. In this spirit, let's look at how you might make a decision based on practical concerns. See a list of questions to ask about how sustainable maintaining secret multi-partner relationships may be for you.

1. Am I okay with dishonesty in my relationships? And to what degree am I comfortable with dishonesty?

When you’re around family and friends as a closeted multiamorous person, you will likely run into scenarios where you need to either lie about or omit details of your life. People have varying degrees of comfort with this based on their values, relationship closeness, frequency of interactions, etc.

2. Am I likely to meet friends or family that I am not ‘out’ with my partners?

If you live close to family or your partners, it may be likely that you meet ‘in the wild’. They may be confused about why you’re with someone who is not the partner they know about. Be prepared to manage these situations in a way that feels good for you and your partners.

3. How long will I need to hide my relationships compared to how long I’m hoping the relationships will last?

If you live far away from family and your relationships are set up in such a way that your family may only ever meet one of your partners, it might make sense for you to choose to keep your other relationships secret. But if you’re looking for long-term kitchen table poly, you may find it much more difficult to keep secrets after a few years.

4. Will I be violating my own integrity by living inauthentically?

People choose to share different parts of their lives for many different reasons. For many people, being able to share their full selves without censorship is a primary value that would cause great distress if violated. Consider to what degree living without secrets is important to you and how long you can comfortably live otherwise.

5. Will I limit myself or my relationships in ways that are unacceptable by coming out or not?

Regardless of your decision, your potential partners will need to make decisions of their own. Not everyone is comfortable with being out, just as not everyone is comfortable with keeping secrets. Consider how and with whom you are hoping to build relationships so your needs may align as much as possible.

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list. Your unique life and needs will inform what variables you need to consider when thinking about the longevity of your decision to come out or not. Feel free to add to this list with your partners as necessary.

III. Finding the Balance

In the end, the decision to tell your family about your open relationship is a decision only you can make. It's essential to weigh the pros and cons, considering your unique circumstances and family dynamics.

Tips to inform your pursuit of balance:

Consider your identity and values. Coming out as multiamorous may not even occur in the context of telling family members about existing partners. If you identify as someone who is likely to be in open relationships for your lifetime and as someone to whom authenticity is important, you may choose to come out as a single, multiamorous person

Choose the Right Timing: If at all possible, try to choose a moment where there is enough calm to allow your loved ones the time and space to process this new information. They are learning a whole new part of you and may need time to integrate that into their understanding of who you are.

Set Boundaries: Clearly communicate your boundaries with family members. Some people may try to push your boundaries, ask inappropriate questions, or be aggressive with their discomfort. Their reactions do not mean your boundaries are any less important or worth holding.

Be Prepared: Try to anticipate questions and concerns your family might have and be ready to address them. You don’t have to have all the answers, but being able to answer some of their questions calmly and confidently can help them build trust in your decisions.

Accept Their Reactions: Understand that not everyone will react the same way, and their reactions mean nothing about the rightness of your decision. I encourage you to hold boundaries on reactions that are aggressive or damaging to you while maintaining respect and care for reactions that are simply ones that aren’t your ideal.

Seek support: If possible, have partners/ friends/whomever ready to support you as your family processes your disclosure. Particularly if the news is not well received, it is important to have people around to remind you that being yourself is never wrong—it's just hard sometimes.

In the end, the sustainability of not sharing versus the utility of sharing your open relationship with your family depends on your unique circumstances and values. Remember that you have the power to make the choice that's right for you and your partners, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this complex dilemma. Coming out in any form is a highly individualized process that shouldn’t be rushed or taken lightly. There are very real consequences to living as one’s authentic self, which can be both positive and negative. Use this as a tool to inform your decision-making and choose whatever life you feel works best for you.

And if you need any further help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Hannah Smith Counseling. I would love to help you find and live your best life!

Hannah Smith, LPC, LCMCHA, NCC

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