It seems like it should be easy, telling the truth. Most people start their open relationships assuming that truth-telling is a no-brainer.
That’s the point of being polyamorous, right? You get to be open and honest about your multiple attractions and love interests.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out to be so easy. Where is the line between disclosure and privacy?
One partner says, ‘If you don’t share, you’re withholding, and that’s tantamount to lying.’ Another partner feels a responsibility to protect the privacy of their relationships with other partners. Who’s right?
In a perfect world, partners would be in ongoing dialogue about their disclosure and privacy preferences. Neither partner would assume that she knew what the other meant when she committed to telling the truth until they had actually talked about it. Even then, partners could get tripped up.
Consider this scenario:
You are fluid-bonded* with two partners and have agreed to practice safer sex with other partners. You have an agreement that you will let each other know if one of you would like to have unprotected sex with someone.
But one of you has a “slip-up” and finds yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing to disclose to your partners that you have broken the agreement. You feel guilty and you want to protect your partners’ health by practicing safer sex until you can verify your own health status.
This requires that you tell your partners the truth about violating the original agreement, which is TERRIFYING! You know your partners will be hurt and angry. He may feel deeply betrayed. There is a chance she will want to leave you. Telling the truth feels like it threatens the very survival of your relationships.
In these moments, telling the truth takes a lot of courage and a willingness to risk tremendous loss. When facing those prospects, many people falter—despite having deep commitments to truth-telling.
What if you’re on the other side of this quandary? Your partner manages to tell you that he has broken an agreement. You have a commitment to listening deeply and you want to make it easy for your partners to share their truths with you, even the difficult ones.
But when you hear that your partner has broken a sacred trust, you find yourself flying through the roof! Both you and your partners are left devastated and blind-sided by the intensity of the feelings that emerge.
For many, this is not the end of the road. People negotiate all kinds of arrangements for managing these kinds of dynamics.
One set of fluid-bonded partners has an agreement that if a partner comes home and says “we need to practice safer sex for the next six months”, they agree not to pursue any other details about what happened.
Another group agrees that if someone shares a particularly difficult truth, partners will first process their feelings and reactions somewhere else, not with the person who just took the risk of disclosing something painful.
Still others agree to a sort of cooling off period — they agree to “close all the exits” (David Schnarch) for six months until they’ve had time to work through the fall out.
There are more ways than I can name here for navigating this terrain, but the important thing to remember is that telling the truth is a skill. Yes, privacy and disclosure agreements need to be agreed upon up front, but the work doesn’t stop there.
The ability to tell the truth, both as an individual, and in your relationships, requires nurturing. Don’t just stop at the agreement to tell the truth. Talk about what it means, and then stay open to learning more about the places where you’re vulnerable around truth-telling. Keep asking for the support you need to get better and better at saying what’s real.
So, poly people, what agreements have you made with your partners about how to handle those difficult truth-telling moments?
*Fluid-bonded means that you’ve made an explicit agreement to have unprotected sexual contact (of some kind) with a partner or partners.
**If you’re considering open relationships and need additional support, check out my new group, Pathways to Open Relationships. It starts in August!