Explaining Polyamory: The Culture Gap

Mostly some typo and grammar fixes here, but I also clarified the importance and right to self care when dealing with people who don’t believe that polyamory can be a viable relationship. June 29, 2017
Had some kind of tech glitch that kept this from posting last Thursday, so It’s going live today instead. Sorry folks!

A while back, a question came up in the Yahoo! PolyResearch group about explaining polyamory to a loved one. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the question come up, and it stuck in the back of my mind as an idea worth exploring. (And these days, an idea that manages to stick in my mind has to be pretty impressive given everything competing with it for attention). I don’t expect this to become a huge series, but to keep it from being a wall o’ text, I’m gonna break it into two or three parts.
Before we talk about explaining polyamory, I want to discuss something that is critical to the way people react to polyam — the Culture Gap.

The Gap is a major issue when explaining the idea of polyamory to many people, but it’s biggest danger is that it is often invisible. We, the folks who believe or know that polyamory can be a functional relationship style (gonna emphasize this — we aren’t talking religious issues, ethics, morality or anything like that, just whether or not polyam can work) are on one side of the Gap. On our side of the Gap are many people who do not like or approve of polyamory, but accept that it can work. The people believe that polyam is flat out impossible are on the other side of the Gap.

Alright, my run-ins with the Gap have been with Baby Boomers, but I’ve met some monogamous people from the Baby Boomer generation who were very easy to talk polyam with. Conversely, I know people who have run into the Gap with people close to my age. 20 and 30 somethings who were old enough and culturally aware enough to be horrified when Ellen Degeneres went public on an airport PA system.


There is no easy way to reach across the Polyam Culture Cap.

The Gap, plain and simple, is the division between folks who grew up in a world of relationships where there was one (and only one) True Way. Not in the sense that heterosexual monogamy was necessarily morally right, but in a much more fundamental way. For people on the other side of the Gap, heterosexual monogamy (or in some cases just monogamy or just heterosexual) is a Law of Nature. Anything else is simply impossible to make work because it violates the fundamental nature of relationships. Non-monogamy is as doomed to failure as attempting to make mothers stop loving their children and gravity turn off. When you tell these people you are polyamorous (or any other variety of non-monogamy) they hear the equivalent of “Guess what? Gravity got turned off, and I’m gonna jump off this cliff.” They KNOW, flat out KNOW, fact of life, law of reality, that when you jump off that cliff you are going to fall far and land hard (after all, their feet are still stuck to the ground, ergo gravity still works). Your relationship is doomed to failure because it is IMPOSSIBLE, and you are going to end up heartbroken.In my experience, most younger people in the US are on our side of the Gap — folks under [35], hell most anyone who came of age during or after the Summer of Love. Alternative relationships and alternative lifestyles may not have been approved of. They may have been considered sinful and immoral and wrong. But they clearly happened and were possible. This is also why the Gap isn’t purely a generation gap. There are folks who fought in World War II who were exposed to alternative relationships and know it is possible to have a healthy and happy life while not being heterosexually monogamous. It’s not a blanket thing. But with people who grew up in a culture where they were not exposed to alternative relationships, and know, Law of Nature, that monogamy is the only thing which can possibly work, the Gap is very real and very dangerous.

Explaining polyamory to on this side of the Gap is easier. Many people on this side of the Gap still won’t approve. Whether they have too many ideas based on religious polygamy, moral objections or anything else that makes polyam stick in their craw sideways; there are a number of people who won’t like you being polyam on both sides of the Gap. But people on this side of the Gap are easier to discuss and explain polyam to because you aren’t turning their worldview upside down. Stretching the limits of people’s tolerance isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than convincing them you are suddenly immune to gravity.

So to be clear: no matter how well you explain polyam to folks on the other side of the Gap, no matter how many studies you offer or how persuasive your logic is, the only thing that will convince them that polyamory is safe and won’t lead to inevitable harm and hardship is for them to see you jump off that cliff, and not get hurt. Only experience can change this kind of instinctive knowledge of the way the world is.

Dealing with loved ones who are on the other side of Gap can be very difficult. They will not accept your choice, and they will probably try, repeatedly, to convince you that you are making a mistake. Some may get angry with you, lash out, refuse to speak with you until you come to your senses. Some will assure you, with love and sympathy, that when it all falls apart they will always be there for you to help pick up the pieces of your life. Sometimes the sympathetic ones are the most frustrating.

It can help to keep this in mind: as difficult as dealing with folks on the other side of the Gap can be, they are acting the way they are because they care for you and are afraid for you. They don’t want to see you hurt, so they will do everything they can to pull you away from that cliff. They are, in a really frustrating way, desperately trying to protect you.

That said, also remember that you don’t owe them a place in your life and if you need to step away to take care of yourself, that’s okay.

Image Copyright 1994 João Paulo Lucena used under GNU 1.2 and CC 3.0

(Originally posted April 2012)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *