First holiday season out as polyamorous advice...
Updated: Jun 19
by Sage Agee December 20, 2022
As we enter the thick of the holiday season, I can't help but feel nervous about how to navigate it this year. My long-term partner and coparent and I decided to try out polyamory earlier this year. What I hoped would be an easy transition into having lots of people around to eat meals with has become a bit more complicated. Though much of it has been joyful, organizing our holiday schedule is more overwhelming than usual.
Before the pandemic, our holidays were often chaotic and meant driving back and forth from towns an hour apart to meet all the obligations of both sets of our divorced parents. In some ways, I think this gave us a solid framework for spending holidays with multiple families of different partners.
Family is always expanding for polyamorous people, and so are our traditions
To put my reservations at ease and get some advice, I reached out to my friend Ethan, who has been openly polyamorous for five years, and Dulcinea Alex Pitagora, a psychotherapist and sex therapist based in New York City.
"Trying to fit within the constraints of socialized normativity can be challenging for anyone, and for polyamorous people, this can play out in a number of ways depending on the relationship structure," Pitagora said.
This rings true to me. It has been a year of reframing what family means to me, which is constantly echoed in my horoscope; it won't stop telling me I'm in a phase of "expanding my home." I've poured a lot of energy into both my romantic relationships and queer friendships.
Ethan is one of nine kids from a conservative Kentucky family. His experience of family has always been one of expansion, and when he moved to Portland, Oregon, he started to find language for being polyamorous. "In a lot of ways," Ethan said, "coming from such a big family set me up perfectly for polyamory."
During the holidays, he prioritizes time with found family and partners. He also prioritizes creating new traditions. "My chosen family has tools for communication in a way my family in Kentucky doesn't," Ethan said, recounting past holidays spent with multiple partners volunteering at local shelters.
Over recent years, I have felt confident about slowly deconstructing the holiday traditions I grew up with and establishing strong boundaries about gathering with family members in regards to my own energy and safety. What I feel less confident in, however, is talking openly about polyamory with family members I will see at gatherings, and subsequently talking about my family dynamics with new partners as they enter into this part of my life. I asked Pitagora how to talk to family members about the topic when there might be some confusion or anger about this way of doing relationships.
Pitagora explained that it's all relative — literally. Emotional and physical safety within families of origin are all important factors to consider, as well as how much your partners are consenting to be out to other people and what they want to disclose. They also recommend being transparent with people about the relationships you're in and your identities. While these conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult, they can result in more closeness and intimacy with families of origin.
As someone who grew up in a family where setting boundaries is often seen as a personal attack, this has been something I have had to learn from scratch. I've noticed that around the holiday season, I tend to revert back to people-pleasing behaviors and tend to engage in interactions that don't actually feel good for the sake of keeping the peace. And for those of us with more than one partner and multiple gatherings with extended families or friend groups to attend, discomfort may be heightened.
While there may be no way to completely avoid uncomfortable situations like these — aside from just staying in with a cup of hot cider and a stack of books until the season passes — there are ways to get ahead of things. As usual, it starts with good communication. "The most important thing is to talk about boundaries among partners, and revisit the conversation regularly should needs or boundaries change based on life experience or immediate context," Pitagora said.
It's all about communication and inclusion
Ethan also suggests keeping the lines of communication open, especially during a time when we are likely all feeling a bit emotional. "Our inner child comes out around the holidays," he said. "Having an honest conversation with the people you're close to about their needs and your own needs is important, and sometimes your needs should come first. People can choose how to react or not react."
What I'm excited about most this holiday season is creating new traditions with both my chosen family and my family of origin. When thinking about starting new traditions, Pitagora recommended getting everyone involved to make sure you're on the same page about what feels right, and doing what you can to make everyone feel included. "Compare and contrast to find common ground, and identify what feels like it's missing that can be added into the mix — all the while reminding each other that any feeling of obligation to do anything, in particular, is a form of socialization, and can be let go if you want to let it go."
Pitagora makes sure to acknowledge that having any identity outside of what society considers the norm can be difficult, including during the holidays. It can feel isolating and make you feel stigmatized, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, and none of those feelings are your fault. "It's just hard living in a world that de-prioritizes your experience during a time that's supposed to be joyful," Pitagora said. "Having said that, being polyamorous usually also means you're open to more expansive versions of love, which could lead to more expansive joyfulness. How do you want to lean into these additional opportunities for love and connection this year?"
As I snuggle up near the woodstove with my family, I remind myself about some of the reasons I love being polyamorous in the first place. It brings so much more love into mine and my child's life, as well as more opportunities to create new traditions — not just around the holidays, but finding ways throughout the year to celebrate the remarkable experience of growing a family and finding a community that accepts you.