When to Talk Poly: A Case for Self-Disclosure
When it comes to being polyamorous, many of us have difficulty deciding if and when we want to tell others. I’ve met people who prefer to keep their polyamorous status a secret; I’ve met others who are open and even flagrant about it. Some of us don’t really have much choice; if you work in a conservative industry or come from a religious background it might be wise to tread cautiously or not at all. I often liken it to coming out as gay thirty years ago; it’s something that’s generally considered taboo, and is often misunderstood or judged as morally inept. Circumstances aside, when is it a good idea to tell others about polyamory?
Self-disclosure is the process of revealing private feelings, thoughts, beliefs or attitudes to another person.1 When to self-disclose personal information is not a straightforward decision. There are considerations to be made:
* Who our audience is: You should tell a potential love interest about being poly pretty much right away for the sake of honesty and transparency. If it’s your boss or an acquaintance you might not feel inclined to tell them right away, or ever, if it won’t influence your relationship with them.
* Where we are in our own timeline of discovery: Most people want to wait until they’ve cemented their decision to be poly before telling people (nothing like springing a life-changer on people then turning around to say “just kidding!”). The more you understand about your situation the better equipped you are to take questions and judgments.
* How acceptable the topic of disclosure might be: Some people may never tell their parents about their polyamory because they’re old fashioned, or will never understand or accept it; after a careful analysis they decide it’s not worth the risk.
* How we convey our message: It’s much more productive to say “I want to tell you about this change I’ve made in my life because I care about you and want to be open” than to say, “I’m poly, there’s nothing you can do about, so just accept it.”
Disclosure can be a tricky thing and sometimes there’s a lot riding on it (insert dirty pun here). For example, if I tell a new acquaintance about my proclivity for live animal porn, I might very well risk losing a potential relationship. (And for the record, the only live porn I prefer is the kind between Homo sapiens). The decision making process for this kind of thing is extensive and often includes some type of cost/benefit analysis. Here’s an example of how complicated that process can be:
Figure 1: Model of disclosure decision making in a single episode. Reprinted from “Self-Disclosure in Personal Relationships” by K. Greene, V.J. Derlega, & A. Mathews, in (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships (p. 414), by A.L. Vangelisti & D. Perlman, 2006, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
There are some benefits to self-disclosure. Compared to non-emotional small talk, people who self-disclose tend to feel closer to the people they’re disclosing to, thus catalyzing potential friendships.2 Self-disclosing can strengthen qualities like honesty, educating others and positive-self image (especially when the topic of disclosure has to do with romantic or sexual orientation).3 Even so, there can be risks, like losing trust or creating confusion.
When we’re trying to decide how we’ll interact with people it’s sometimes a good idea to empathize. What if you’re the one listening to someone else disclose personal information? Turns out, the listener of a self-disclosing conversation experiences even more enjoyment and closeness than the person doing the disclosing. So, both people in the conversation get some benefit out of it (and even more so when the disclosure is reciprocal). The more we know about those around us, the more likely we are to connect with them.4
When is a good time to disclose? That’s up to each one of us to decide for ourselves, depending on our situations. There’s no straightforward answer to this question, but it’s a good idea to think about it carefully, engage in conversations with people you trust and maybe even have practice dialogues to prepared you for questions and consequences before letting the cat out of the bag. You know your people better than anyone, so you’ll have a better idea of when to tell them about being poly. And who’s to say they’ll even react the way you want them to or think they will? Your motivation to tell them should come from within you, as a desire to be close and open with people, rather than trying to gauge their reaction or prove a point.
1 Derlega, V.GJ., Metts, S., Petronio, S., & Margulis, S.T. (1993). Self-Disclosure. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
2 Slatcher, R.B. (2010). When Harry and Sally met Dick and Jane: Experimentally creating closeness between couples. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 279–297.
3 Wells, J.W., & Kline, W.B. (1987). Self-disclosure of homosexual orientation. The Journal of social psychology, 127(2), 191-197.
4 Sprecher, S., Treger, S., & Wondra, J.D. (2012). Effects of self-disclosure role on liking, closeness, and other impressions in get-acquainted interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.