Now that I know what polyamory and non-monogamy are and identify as such, sometimes I wonder who else I meet or pass on the street also identifies that way. Because of the stigma and discrimination, most people are discreet about having multiple relationships or partners, especially if they have children or have a job that would not approve. There’s no way of knowing if the three people sitting at the next café table are just three good friends, a couple and a friend, a triad, or some other combination, unless they explicitly tell you so.
I started thinking about this while on vacation with my husband and two kids in Texas. At the hotel breakfast, I noticed a group of 5 adults probably in their late 20s/early 30s, 3 women and 2 men. They all interacted like best friends, but it wasn’t clear if any of them were partnered up together. It instantly crossed my mind that they might be ethically non-monogamous. Of course, I guess I’ll never know since I never got around to asking them. Then again unless they were extremely confident in who they were, they probably wouldn’t bring it up to a couple who appeared heteronormative and monogamous. Little do strangers know, we are just two of a three parent household, two of an established MFM V triad, two of a five-person polycule that has the chance to keep expanding. But we appear monogamous, we appear ‘normal’, because that’s what people assume.
The False-Consensus Effect
People are naturally going to assume that others are like them unless told otherwise, which is known as the false-consensus effect (Wiki, VeryWellMind). It’s the “false”-consensus effect because it often is proven not to be true. For example, I naturally just think any other mom I meet or encounter on social media is a stay-at-home mom, unless she explicitly mentions her job (that’s me assuming that others are like me). Does this make sense? No, not really, because according to a Pew Research Study from 2014, only 29% of women are stay-at-home moms. So, statistically, only 3 out of 10 women I encounter should be stay-at-home moms. That means that I am probably wrong in 70% of cases.
“Because monogamy is the dominant relationship form in the US today, it is pretty much taken for granted that we all know what it is, and all want to participate in it” (PsychTodaySheff).
The majority of people you encounter are currently monogamous and are going to be mostly surrounded by monogamous people (or people who appear to be monogamous but aren’t). Therefore, according to the false-consensus effect, monogamous people are going to naturally assume all others are monogamous unless told otherwise. That’s how my husband, boyfriend, and I can pass as just a couple with our friend in public settings. However, statistically, 1 out of every 5 people you know are non-monogamous or have tried non-monogamy at some point in their life (PsychologyTodaySheff). A lot of people just never admit it or are public about it.
When making a decision about whether you think someone is ethically non-monogamous or not, your mind will immediately bring up examples of relationships. If most of those immediate examples are of monogamous relationships, you will assume the people are monogamous. If most of those examples are of non-monogamous relationships, you will think the people are non-monogamous. The examples that are most available to your mind seem to be the most probable outcome to you, which is known as the availability heuristic (VeryWell).
This effect plays out interestingly for me when you change factors around. For example, I will assume that heterosexual couples with children are monogamous, but I will wonder if groups of young people without children are non-monogamous. I will assume homosexual couples are monogamous, but I will wonder if heterosexual couples without children are secretly swingers or looking for threesomes. These assumptions show the false-consensus effect of my own experiences. Most heterosexual couples I know that have children are in fact monogamous, and those without children are more likely to play around sexually. I am very limited in knowing homosexual couples, or any other LGBTQA+ couples, so my mind defaults to assuming they follow the norm of being monogamous. Your natural assumptions are going to be very different from mine depending on your experiences and friends.
Because of the availability heuristic, as you are exposed to the possibility of ethical non-monogamy, start joining groups of other like-minded people, read books about it, and become friends with others practicing it, you are going to start wondering who else in your life is secretly ethically non-monogamous.
“We are taught that monogamy is the gold standard and anything that strays from that is problematic or flat out wrong. Thus, people who are not monogamous nor want to be are judged and often seen as having something off about them” (PsychTodayKort).
This is where we come in. Since non-monogamy is not the societal norm, it is up to us to normalize it. The more we bring positive examples of non-monogamy into the public eye, the less people will be surprised by it or judge us for participating in it. So, how can we do that?
First, make sure you’re educated on what non-monogamy is and what it means to you and your partners. The last thing you want to do is have someone ask you what non-monogamy means and have yourself stumble over words and look like a big clown. I’m not saying you have to have a robotic response memorized, just know some general talking points you want to hit when the topic comes up. Read up using the plethora of books available on the topic, like More Than Two, Opening Up, The Ethical Slut, or A Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory. Or hit up a few blogs/podcasts.
Be open about it (if you can)
As long as you aren’t in danger of losing your children, your housing, or your job, be open about your relationship status. Don’t throw it in people’s faces in an annoying way, like talking about it every two seconds. Just act normal about it, like other people act about their monogamous relationships. Drop it into normal conversation like it’s not different from the norm. For example, when someone asks what you did over the weekend, rather than lying and saying “oh, I hung out with my husband and our friend,” tell the truth. “My husband, my boyfriend, and I went bowling and then grabbed drinks at the bar.” Yes, you’re going to get some looks and reactions, but the more normal and calm you act about it, the more normal and calm others will generally react. If you whisper “my boyfriend” or wince when you say it or act in any other way that you are ashamed or scared of their reaction, then the other person is going to pick up on that and feel like what you are doing is wrong and that you know it.
Support others through social media
If you aren’t able to be open about it yourself, consider supporting others who are. Most polyamory/non-monogamy groups on Facebook are ‘secret’ or ‘private,’ which means that if you join them, it won’t show up on your profile for everyone to see. (Of course, if other people you know happen to be in the group, they will be able to see you’re also in the group.) If that’s not private enough for your circumstances, create a separate Facebook account to participate in these groups. Or create a Reddit account just for commenting in non-monogamy subreddits (I did this very early on in our opening-up process, so that my participation would not be tied to my personal account). You can create a separate account on almost any social media site so that you can still be a part of the non-monogamous community without risking being outed. Once you’re a part of a group, you can offer advice and support to others.
I’ll never know if that group of people at the hotel were just friends or a polycule or something else, but I hope whatever their status that they are happy. Maybe next time I’ll have the courage to ask!