Ask Richard: Considering an Ultimatum to her Intolerant Family


For Humanist Network News
August 19, 2009

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Dear Richard,

I'm in a polyamorous relationship. I've been married to my husband for almost four years, and for the past three we've had a live-in boyfriend.

At this point in our relationship, we consider all three of us to be equals – the marriage between me and my husband is no more or less binding or meaningful as our relationship with my boyfriend. The three of us are best friends – more than best friends, we're family. We're all in our mid-twenties, and we all have college degrees and complete financial independence from our parents.

My husband's family and my boyfriend's family are both very liberal and mellow.  They hadn't been familiar with polyamory before we told them about our situation, but they took it in stride and treat us normally.

When we told my family (evangelical fundamentalists), they took it horribly. My parents were furious that I'd told my siblings (who are younger than me, but 18 and up) and compared our situation to pedophilia.

One of my siblings hasn't been in contact with me for months now, having cut me off immediately after getting my letter. The rest of my family has handled this the same way they handled finding out about my atheism – they just avoid the topic. As long as no one brings up my boyfriend's existence, they're happy to keep making small talk and sharing family news.

I don't want to allow them to keep pretending like this forever, and I think that at some point, I'm going to tell them that they'll have to choose between being dicks about this and having me in their lives – and that means acknowledging the existence of my boyfriend and treating him like part of the family.

I do know, however, that they need some time to adjust and get used to the situation, so I've decided to give them a year before I do this.

So: Should I tell my family now that I'll eventually expect this from them? I think that they're assuming that we can go the rest of our lives the way we've been acting, and I don't want to shock them by suddenly springing an ultimatum on them a year from now.

On the other hand, I'm afraid to broach the subject at all, when things have been relatively pleasant, and I'm not looking forward to the emotional upheaval of another angry, negative reaction from them. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

Polyamorous and Proud

Dear Poly,

I can understand your frustration and hurt. Sitting around at family gatherings pretending that your boyfriend doesn't exist is an immature way to respond. I gather from your letter that they have not even met him.

If you continue to go along with the charade, it will most likely increase your frustration and resentment. They will sense it, and probably respond with tension of their own. Eventually things will boil over, even if the precipitator is an unrelated issue.

The method you are considering is a risky gamble. To answer your question, yes, if you must do this, give them the year's warning. But that year may be an awful buildup to an awful conclusion. Think carefully first.

Ultimatums should be used only as the last possible recourse, and often should not be used at all. They are acts of desperation. In an ultimatum, somebody is going to lose, and often everybody loses. Sometimes people think that an ultimatum is just a high-ranking card in their hand, an ace that one tosses on the table to keep the game going. No, it is a game-ender.

Never bluff with this. Never issue an ultimatum unless you are completely prepared to follow through with what you threaten to do.  You must be crystal clear what that consequence will be like for you as well as for them.

If you don't follow through, then your credibility will be zero in their eyes, and even more abuse, belittlement or dismissal could follow. By issuing the either/or challenge, you are saying that you have no confidence in their ability to negotiate, and you have no confidence in your ability to negotiate.

Are you really there yet? Have you exhausted all possible attempts at negotiation? Are you ready and willing to cut off all contact with your family just as hurtfully as your sibling has done to you? What will you have gained versus what will you have lost?

I suggest something in between here and there: gradual engagement. What I suggest will take quite some time, and it will require higher levels of patience and maturity than you may have ever mustered before.

Begin working on one family member only, whoever is most likely to be willing to just listen to you. It may take several separate sessions: Privately, talk to that person about your hurt feelings from your sibling's abandonment of you, and from the others' decision to pretend and ignore someone who is very important to you.

Avoid expressing your anger and indignation, which are secondary to your root feeling, hurt. Faced with anger, people will immediately defend or counterattack. Just express your hurt.

As I discussed in a previous post, frequently say that you love him/her. As s/he begins to understand how you feel, start introducing your boyfriend in small increments. First just show a picture. Later, briefly describe how he feels about a few things. Gradually make your boyfriend a real human being in his/her eyes. Eventually arrange a casual meeting with him away from the family home.

Hopefully, you will begin to have one family member who is more interested in supporting your happiness than in doggedly supporting a family consensus. Then the two of you can work on the next person, and then the next…

This might not continue and progress flawlessly, with no hitches or bumps, and it may not work at all with every family member. But I think that you're much more likely to gain more allies in your family, and you will have gently broken up the monolithic rejection of your chosen relationships.

Poly, doing the quick and brutal solution instead of all this work can be very tempting, but atheists do not just have the advantage of rationality and emotional maturity on their side in a debate, they also have the responsibility to live by those qualities in their daily lives.

We must rise to the challenge of our choice to be self-defining and self-responsible. We must provide the patience and courage that those around us cannot yet marshal. Believing only in our mutual humanity, we must not give up on our fellow humans.