#PolyamoryProblems: How to Deal With a Closeted Partner

Dear DaemonumX,

My girlfriend is polyamorous, bisexual, and married to a man. She is closeted both about being bi and about being polyam. For example, she says she’s close with her father and they tell each other everything but he doesn’t know she’s bi or that her and her husband aren’t monogamous (let alone that I exist). I told her when we started dating that I could anticipate struggling with missing out on a large chunk of her life because she is closeted, but at the time it was a non-issue. I’m lucky that I am safely out about my orientation and my relationship structure. I would never ask her to do anything that would make her life worse, but I feel like I might miss out on a closeness with her if she doesn’t come out. How do I deal with feelings of being hidden?

-Casper

Dear Casper,

This sounds super painful and I’m so sorry your relationship is making you feel invisible. For those of us that have already come out of the many metaphorical closets, going back in is just not an option. This is a double whammy because you not only have to watch your girlfriend’s traditional hetero relationship be validated by her loved ones, they also don’t know about you at all. There’s a ton to unpack here so let’s get to it!

As much as it may feel personal, it’s important to understand that this isn’t about you. Your girlfriend’s decision to be closeted is hers and not based on how much she cares about you. This almost makes the situation more complicated, right? “If she cared about me, she’d be out!” It’s unfortunately not so easy. Everyone has their own pace for these things, and some people live their whole lives in the closet only for their loved ones to discover the truth in photos or journals left behind. The point being—she may never, ever come out. In order to continue dating her, you have to make peace with that fact now and forgo placing hope onto an outcome. Can you do that?

You didn’t mention the reason that she’s not out and I probably shouldn’t guess, but there’s a lot I can glean just from the few sentences you’ve written. You do mention specifically that it was safe for you to come out and also that coming out would make her life worse, which leaves me wondering what is the threat to her safety? What is at stake? Her current situation that seems to be a hetero marriage with close parental support sounds like a safe landing. Of course coming out as both queer and polyamorous are a threat to that privileged set up. I just am dying to know what there is to lose by coming out? Bigoted family, shitty friends? It’s literally a queer rite of passage—people do this all the time with much less of a cushion. She’s allowing people she is supposedly close with to make assumptions about her life that keep her in a comfortable social status, but also keep you locked in the dark like a dirty secret (unless of course that’s your thing). My spicy take is that it sounds like she’s lacking some integrity?

Every relationship has people coming together from different backgrounds and bringing unique life experiences, privileges, and power dynamics. I think to be in any kind of relationship ethically, the least we need to do is talk openly about these things and at most compensate for them with action. A simple example is class difference. If you have money and your partner is poor, you should share your money. This could be anything from paying the rent to just paying for dinner when you can. With polyamorous relationships, we then have added responsibility to be in conversation about how the dynamics of our other relationships may be impacting each person. Your situation is a great example. Your girlfriend is in a public-facing monogamous straight marriage. Do you talk about how this makes you feel aside from being hidden? Honestly her responsibility in holding this social privilege from her other relationship essentially means that she should be mindful about how to make you feel special and prioritized. Ideally, she’s also acting on making you feel special and prioritized. How can that ever happen if she’s hiding you?

Anyway, let’s get back to you. This is about you! These aren’t decisions that you can ever make for her and asking her or anyone else to come out is absolutely not something you should do. So, what can you do? I always say that the only person you should control is yourself. You can reexamine your relationship, figure out what you need, set boundaries, break up. You have lots of options!

Let’s talk about dealing with the feelings around invisibility and potentially missing out on intimacy that comes along with being folded into her life. When you love someone you want to meet all the people that they love. It’s healthy to want to learn more about someone and be endeared to them through their relationships to others. When that’s not an option, or is being withheld, it can feel stifling or lead to resentment. What do you need to feel secure and safe if you stay in this relationship? Let’s call on our best friend Boundaries. Boundaries are here to support us getting what we need. If you make a list of all the things you deserve in relationships like “I deserve to not feel invisible,” or, “I deserve intimacy,” then your boundaries should support those.

Boundaries for this situation can vary depending on how you feel. You can dial back your relationship to be more casual so that you don’t have any expectations of meeting her family. This may help you feel less invisible, readjust the way you think about intimacy with your girlfriend, and free up more time for you to focus on other dates. You can go a different route and ask to spend more time around people in her life that do know she’s queer and polyamorous (assuming there are at least a few more than the husband) to compensate for not getting to meet everyone who doesn’t know. Do you see how these are different ways of essentially supporting what you know you deserve?

There’s a bigger picture to think about here too, Casper. You could decide after successfully setting boundaries and asking for what you need and getting what you need that it just isn’t enough. You may decide that in order to truly prioritize yourself while not trying to control anyone else that you have to let this relationship go. Beyond the hurt of feeling hidden, so much life experience comes from being out as queer and being out as polyamorous that when one person in a relationship is still closeted it can feel like a serious imbalance. This could thrust you into a role of guide that you don’t necessarily enjoy or consent to. Through this experience, you could learn that a new dating boundary for you is that your partners must be out. That’s a fair boundary and will, at the least, ensure that you don’t get into a situation like this one again.

The options for dealing with your hurt feelings are many, and the path is yours alone. Think about what you deserve in this relationship, and all relationships, then create your list. How can your boundaries support you getting more of what you deserve? How can your boundaries protect you from further hurt? Please remember to prioritize yourself and your needs, detach from outcomes, and that you deserve to thrive.


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Daemonum X is a femme dyke, Polyamory Coach, and BDSM Educator. She is the founder and Editrix of FIST, a zine for leatherdykes.

DaemonumX has written 11 articles for us.

24 Comments

    • Tricky. I’d disagree with you. If being in the closet involves telling falsehoods to people you love, then… yes, by definition, that lacks integrity.

      More than that, good relationships, in my experience, absolutely depend on clear and honest communication. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is capable of maintaining a fundamentally dishonest communication within their other key relationships (friends, family etc.) it doesn’t look that good for you long-term.

      But! Each to their own. Every relationship, like every person, is different. If you and/or your partner/s can make it work despite the glaring disconnect between public and private reality, all power to you. I know it can work, I’d just suggest that it’s exceptional.

      • I would like to lovingly suggest that there is always a disconnect between public and private reality. Who we are is always relative to those who are around us. That shifting can be positive or negative. There is also not one definition of public – we can be out about being polyam to everyone except a relative for instance. And perhaps as another example be out to the way we perceive ancestral spirits to relatives, but not to other people in our lives.

        Each of us gets to determine what communication means to us, and what we communicate to whom. We never communicate everything to everyone (it’s impossible for starters!), it is always a choice. So, to me, we are all always making choices in what we communicate. We are always excluding aspects of ourselves whilst highlighting others, according to the type of relationships we have with each person.

        Therefore I do not believe that we can say that there is one way to be honest or dishonest. One checklist of items. We are all complex, shifting beings with complex, shifting interactions, learning about ourselves and others as we go.

      • Whew! This is wild. There are many, many reasons that you might not be able to come out to family, or might not choose to do so, that have nothing to do with integrity.

        You mentioned “by definition,” so I went over to Meriam-Webster:

        “Definition of integrity
        1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : INCORRUPTIBILITY
        2: an unimpaired condition : SOUNDNESS
        3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided : COMPLETENESS”

        While there are definitions in other sources that mention honesty specifically, you can’t divorce that from the rest of its definition.

        While someone staying in the closet can be stressful for a partner and may lead to a situation that is, in fact, untenable for a partner, finding a situation untenable (“I can’t stay in the closet with you”), it’s a far leap to get all the way over to “your inability to come out in this situation lacks integrity” which is SUCH a value statement.

        FTR, I’ve been the person who couldn’t come out (although that was prior to any relationships that I had), and I’ve also been the partner of the person who couldn’t come out.

        Anyway, to whomever is reading this: if you can’t come out yet; if you don’t want to come out yet; you’re okay. You don’t lack integrity. It will be okay. I’m rooting for you! <3

    • As someone in a straight-passing marriage, I did not come out to my parents as queer + polyam until I had been in another relationship for over two years.

      My partner did a great job not pressuring me to come out (I too am very close to my parents) and I could tell that the duplicity was becoming more and more taxing on both of us. Watching “The Happiest Season” was a very cringe-worthy reminder of the times I said some of Harper’s lines verbatim.

      I definitely agree that coming out is a western construct, and that often people do not come out for their own safety. I also often see needs of a relationship changing over time. As the NRE wears off, ORE is harder to come by when other forms of intimacy (ie sharing time with each other’s families) isn’t possible. I think many healthy, loving relationships don’t require quality time with partners’ families, and sometimes those needs shift.

      I wonder if the question-asker is watching their own needs change (ie the desire to be with a partner who is openly polyam), and in that regard, I think the advice of redefining one’s own boundaries is spot on.

      The question, advice, and comments are all really making me think! I’m so thankful posts like this exist.

      • while the described situation sounds familiar it’s really to broad of an issue without enough specifics to draw conclusions from and make the few judgements that have occurred.

        For instance I notice how this conversation is centered around the needs of an individual vs the needs of the relationship.

        There were things that were cringe worthy about the Happiest Season, but the real cringe is the focus of coming out as a way to validate a relationship. What was bad about the main character was the expectations they set that were just false. Abby couldn’t anticipate the situation because it wasn’t communicated and Harper started off with lying.

        Totally not our situation, we were always transparent. And while it was uncomfortable at times, we were always honest.

        In our case, our relationship was just as real before you were out, and just as real after. The pressure felt was just the overall awkwardness of when our relationship collided with your parents. It was those feelings and overall inability to have a solid backstory that made it difficult.

        If anything for a short time we shared more in our families when you were closeted, but the residual adrenaline rush of being found out was a bit much.

        I am glad you are out for you, but I do miss being able to be in the same room as everyone even if I had to be known as a friend.

        A part of me hopes that one day we can be in the same room again, but if not I’m not going to lose sleep over it.

        I can resonate with changing and shifting needs, and what I value is being able to communicate those needs to you. I’d also like to add that communicating those needs doesn’t mean you always need to fulfill them. It’s more recognizing they are there, and working together to know what that means for our relationship, and where I may need to seek this out in others.

        Give in mind seeking things out in other relationships is a bit more constrained due to a global pandemic, but I think it’s important that we recognize the agency one has in polydyanmics.

        If your needs changes and shift, but aren’t quite aligned with what your partner is capable of, then it may be that you will find that capability with someone else.

        I’m not advocating for dropping a relationship, or just jumping into something or someone else. But what I am saying is there needs to be space to be vulnerable with these topics, and completely honest about these desires. If anything, so we can mourn our expectations together, before creating that shared vision or expectation.

  1. Hi DaemonunX, I find it pretty unfair that you acknowledge that the partner may be unsafe if they come out, but think that coming out to bigoted family is a rite of passage. Just becausd lots of people have come out in less favourable circumstances doesn’t mean that this person has to, or should. I don’t care if everyone in the world knows about your relationship if you’re not ready to come out for whatever reason, then you just aren’t ready. And that’s the right decision for that person. If they can’t give their partner something they need because of that, then that sucks, but having conflicting needs doesn’t make either person lack integrity.

  2. In addition to some of the concerns expressed by other commenters, I’m having some trouble with this: “Honestly her responsibility in holding this social privilege from her other relationship essentially means that she should be mindful about how to make you feel special and prioritized.”

    This comes across to me as blaming a bi woman for the feelings her other partner might have about her hetero relationship, and putting the responsibility for fixing those feelings solely on her shoulders. In fact the wording of “making someone feel special”, even without this context, is uncomfortable for me for the same reasons. Our emotions are our own responsibility in any healthy relationship, and it is not up to our partners to “make” us feel any certain way. They may choose to do special things for us, freely of their own volition, but as soon as it is framed as an obligation, that starts to inch into emotionally manipulative territory.

  3. The comments here are really lacking empathy for the letter writer. She has every right to feel upset and that sounds like a really hard situation. Everyone seems to default to empathy for the closeted person but is having none for the out person which isn’t fair at all and they’re carrying a burden too.

    • Asking the advice columnist to have greater empathy / non-judgement for the closeted person does not at all negate having empathy for the letter writer’s burden. In fact several people expressed consideration for the letter writer’s needs as well. Empathy, thankfully, isn’t a zero sum game.

        • Hi Adela,

          You posted a criticism of my comment (along with others) that included an inaccurate assumption about me. I was clarifying my position in response to your criticism of me, on a topic that as far as I’m aware (and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) has nothing to do with race. I think what you are reading as condescension was in fact defensiveness, which is what I feel when someone accuses me of not being empathetic. Thanks for your time and have a great day.

          • Chandra,

            I also read your comment as extremely condescending and patronizing. You open your comment to me with “I don’t really even know where to begin with this comment…” which to me implies that my comment is somehow deeply misinformed or out of line. You state that I’m being “extremely and unfairly judgemental,” when I’m actually just discussing my perspectives on the coming out process, not “dunking on bi women.”

            While you state that these comments have nothing to do with race, your tone of superiority and the way you are interacting highlights hella privilege. Chill lol

          • Ok, I will make an effort to take your message to heart in the future. I am aware that I get hot-headed and reactive when I read something that triggers me. I am used to arguing with other white people, and it did not occur to me to consider that that style of argument would come across as wielding privilege even in circumstances where I was not aware of there being a privilege imbalance, but now that I have had some time to process your replies, I can see how it does. I apologize for my tone and thank you both for taking the time to make me aware of its impact on you.

    • This! I have been in many similar situations with closeted people and it’s really rough. Being closeted is complex and challenging, and I have empathy for that experience. I think coming out sucks and dislike that anyone has to do it. And being out but being kept a secret by a partner can be deeply harmful and damaging, especially considering this partner is married to a man.

      I think it’s currently an unpopular opinion that women who date men/are married to men have privilege. But historically, this is what the institution of marriage has been for-to provide women with social, economic and political capital via a man. Additionally, I think it’s messed up if you date women and/or queer people but don’t treat them with the same respect you have for male partners. That’s definitely something that should be examined! Coming out isn’t just a declaration to loved ones, it involves coming to terms with your own identities, and learning and unlearning herteronormative scripts. It involves learning how to love a woman or a queer person.

      I find it interesting how people are echoing “coming out is a western construct” without acknowleding the realities of being out in a western context. To state that coming out is a western construct doesn’t acknowledge that queer people who are out in the US (and many other countries) face violence and oppression. Some of us have been out before we ever came out. Many people face social and economic consequences for their perceived queerness, whether they’re out or not. This is complex because I think everyone experiences sexual fluidity to some extent. But only some of us face consequences for that fluidity-only some people are seen as a dyke or a faggot.

      Also, is this partner not from a western, individualistic context? Just because coming out isn’t relevant to some collectivist cultures, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant here-the person looking for advice seems troubled by their partners behavior! If coming out is a western construct based on individualism, why not bring your queer partner to dinner at your family’s house so that they too may benefit from the collectivist family structure of their partner’s in group? I know it’s more complex than that, but if we want to talk about collectivism, leaving your queer partner at the curb doesn’t scream interdependence to me.

      • I don’t really even know where to begin with this comment, other than to emphatically repeat that bi people are not at fault for, or responsible for correcting, the relationship inequalities resulting from patriarchal heteronormativity.

        Also, being closeted *is not* a privilege. If this person were out to her family and had an established expectation of non-hierarchy with both partners, and yet was treating one of them as an afterthought, that would obviously be a problem. But that is not what’s happening here. Framing someone who is in a clearly very difficult and possibly dangerous situation, who may not be able to safely come out, as not being “respectful” or not knowing how to love a queer person (?!) is extremely and unfairly judgemental.

        And for the record, I am saying these things from the perspective of someone who is in a polyam relationship with a bi woman myself – literally imagining myself in the position of the letter writer – so again, this has nothing at all to do with lacking empathy for their situation. It is possible to support and encourage the letter writer to take steps towards having their own needs met in this situation, without dunking on closeted bi women.

        • Chandra, you don’t have to begin because you don’t have to reply! If my comment doesn’t resonate with you you can read it and keep movin! I’m not dunking on bi women or anyone. Nowhere in my comment do I mention bi women. I’m speaking from my own experience, as a brown queer and trans working class dyke from the hood. My experience might be much different from yours. I did not say being closeted is a privilege-I am a person who is closeted!

          • it’s fair to say that the same could be said for your or any other comment that lacks agreement. this is clearly a topic of strong values and opinions. the principle seems relevant that there can be more gained from understanding than being understood.

            love to everybody in these times.

  4. I think we need to give up the idea that in poly relationships each relationship is going to be “equal” in every way.. Unless everyone involved forgoes ever marrying/living with/sharing finances with a partner (which frankly is impractical for many people in this capitalist society), there just always is going to be a power imbalance. Even in a theoretical situation where everyone is solo poly and trying to spend exactly equal time and energy on every person in their life, do you think it’s really practical that a person you just started dating is going to have the same intimacy and priority in your life as someone you’ve dated for five years? I think it’s better to think in terms of “does this person bring positive things to my life that outweigh whatever negatives the situation has? do I like dating them and want to keep dating them?” rather than obsessing over whether you can share everything their other partner shares with them… there are positives and negatives in every type of relationship.. the anchor partner might have certain intimacies and stability that you don’t and be involved in certain day to day life things that you aren’t, but for all you know the anchor partner probably at least somewhat envies the other partner who can be kind of the “fun” partner (it’s a lot easier to enjoy fun dating and sex and emotional intensity with the person who you don’t see EVERY day and have to argue over household chores with!)

    I do understand why it’s hard to date a closeted person when you have to also be in the closet with them (like if you can never walk around your town holding hands, or have to be excessively careful about what you say about your own life on social media) but I kind of question why you NEED to know their parents and be involved in that aspect of their life? I mean, I am biased because honestly I’m not super close to my family so stuff like that isn’t important to me.. I’ve dated many people (of all genders) who never introduced me to their family and tbh I am totally fine with not having to have awkward dinners with every disapproving parent of everyone I’ve ever dated. Like, do you REALLY want to meet Harper’s parents? Perhaps the partner is in the closet BECAUSE they know the parents will be dicks about things and it’s just not worth it! There are lots of reasons to just let your family think what they will.. maybe it would cause a huge drama fallout and rifts with cousins and siblings and other close people. Many they’d get cut off financially! You never know. I’m not even remotely in the closet, but there are things in my life that my parents/coworkers/etc. don’t need to know. My spouse and I are poly and they haven’t told their parents that we date other people, but do I really need my in-laws to know that my “friend” who I’m always out hiking with is actually my lover? I don’t even think my in-laws would freak out, it just would be an annoying, uncomfortable conversation, and my spouse has already had so many of those conversations about being queer/being trans/etc. that they don’t want to have another. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, other peoples families are kind of their own deal and I don’t really see how it wrecks a relationship to not have them in my life… I just think it’s worth considering WHY that’s so important to you, to meet the family. Is it because it’s part of the straight world’s relationship escalator? To me the whole point of being queer and poly is that we can construct the life we want as individuals without having to follow that set path.

    If it really is super important to the letter writer to be involved in family stuff though, I do agree that they probably should just leave, because that kind of relationship is already off the table and it’s likely never going to happen. Alternatively, letter writer might want to find their own anchor partner and be involved in THAT person’s family and day to day life, and still enjoy their current relationship for what it is?

    • I find this very dismissive. I’m convinced of the possibility of building non-hierarchical relationships, because I have them. If you don’t have them that’s fine, but they can exist and the letter writer has a right to ask for less hierarchy in their relationship construction if that’s what they want.

      The letter writer does not have to settle for being the “fun” partner if that’s not what they want, and while you eschew the straight relationship escalator you suggest they leave and find an “anchor” partner (what even is that, like a rock you tie yourself to?) if they want more commitment and involvement. I think you brought a lot of unexamined assumptions to your comment and it ends up as advice that is not constructive.

      • It seems to me that the letter writer went into a relationship with a married person expecting to be treated and prioritized exactly the way the spouse is in the relationship… I just don’t think that’s realistic. Like, maybe after they had been dating for years and years it could be worked up to, but I think it’s pretty natural that someone you’ve been with for a long time/live with/etc. would be more involved with your family than a newer relationship? Even if you aren’t taking being in the closet into account…

        But really, you can’t live with every person you date. You can’t share finances and legal stuff with every person you date. You can’t have the exact same relationship with every person you date.. Every connection is different. Anchor partner is a common term that I did NOT make up referring to someone you live with and build your common life with.. Like obviously some people do that with multiple people but that also requires all those people wanting to be involved with each other on some level too and that’s just not practical for everyone.

        Like clearly my comment triggered something for you, and I’m sorry about that, but different people have different perspectives and if the letter writer reads the comments they can see mine and it’s up to the reader to agree or disagree. It’s cool if you don’t agree with me.

        • I appreciate your point of view and I find it refreshing, as it’s not one that I see reflected often here and it very much resonates with me.

          I think there is the extreme end of hierarchy where people want to rigidly adhere to distinctly defined paradigms of primary vs. secondary partners, serious vs. casual relationships etc., and then there’s the extreme end of non-hierarchy where people want to rigidly adhere to the principle of everyone being absolutely equal. Neither of these extremes are compatible with what I see as the whole point of polyamory (for me! not speaking for others), which is to allow connections to flourish organically and not be stifled by pre-established constructs or expectations. How can I possibly know what my relationship arrangements are going to look like before I’ve had the chance to get to know the actual people who will be taking part in them? That seems very unrealistic to me.

          In this light, I absolutely agree with your point that when relationships are allowed to take their own natural paths, it’s normal for variations to develop in the areas of time commitment, emotional investment, social circle connections, cohabitation decisions, etc. As long as everyone involved is able to communicate their boundaries and needs in healthy ways, there is no reason people can’t maintain happy relationships regardless of hierarchical structure.

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