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When Polyamory Goes Wrong - The Secret Relationship

The Mammoth sky resort. The Wipeout Chutes are between the rocks at the top right.

The story

Olivia and Paul are polyamorous. They have been married for many years. All that time, they have had an open relationship, transitioning to polyamory more recently.

Olivia loves to ski, but Paul hates the snow. So Olivia joined a ski club in Los Angeles that organizes group outings to the Big Bear and Mammoth ski resorts.

On a weekend trip to Mammoth, Olivia met Quentin, a younger guy and a great skier. They had great fun skiing together and felt a strong mutual attraction. When Quentin made a pass at her, she explained that she was married and polyamorous. She would love to date him if he was okay with that. He said that he had never been polyamorous before, but he was willing to give it a try. He also disclosed that he had been having sex with Rebecca, another woman in the ski group. Olivia said that she was okay with him having a relationship with Rebecca - that’s what being polyamorous is all about - but he needed to check if Rebecca agreed to this polyamorous arrangement. Quentin replied that this would not be necessary because he never had an exclusivity agreement with Rebecca. Their relationship was entirely casual. Olivia replied that, even so, Rebecca needed to be informed of Quentin’s relationship with other people. Quentin argued that he didn’t want that his relationship with Olivia became known to Rebecca or anybody else in the ski group. Since they knew that Olivia was married, he would be labeled an adulterer and a womanizer. He cautioned Olivia that she would also be considered a cheater. Olivia told him that she didn’t like secrecy, and that she would have to tell Paul because that was an important part of the agreement in their marriage. In fact, she wanted Quentin to come home and meet Paul. That’s the way they normally did these things, she explained.

Quentin came over for dinner and he got along fine with Paul. Still, he later insisted that Olivia did not tell Paul intimate details about him. She thought that was reasonable. Quintin seemed a very private person. She also realized that it would be hard to explain polyamory to the whole group and agreed to keep her relationship with Quentin a secret.

Time went by, and the relationship between Olivia and Quentin worked quite well. They fell in love with each other. Quentin took her several times to his apartment. Clearly, he wasn’t keeping any secrets from her. Still, he went out occasionally with Rebecca and never told her that he was dating Olivia.

Their time together was mostly during the trips with the ski group, and it became increasingly awkward to keep their relationship a secret. Quentin insisted that they booked separate hotel rooms. In the middle of the night, he sneaked into Olivia’s room to have sex.

Quentin was naturally secretive and demanded that Olivia did not divulge to the group many details about his life. She often wondered what others knew, and what she could and could not tell.

But the worse part was that, since Rebecca was single, Quentin had no problem kissing her and having public displays of affection with her. After many years of being polyamorous, Olivia had learned not to be jealous, but it bothered her that people saw Rebecca as Quentin’s girlfriend. She actually liked Rebecca and worried that she would be hurt if she ever found out about her relationship with Quentin.

There were even awkward days in which the three of them skied together. It was Quentin who was the most uncomfortable in those situations. She told Olivia that it was her who he loved. Olivia didn’t know if that was true.

However, one day Quentin and Rebecca got into a fight. Quentin took Rebecca down the Wipeout Chutes, a double-black diamond run in Mammoth. Rebecca had fallen, sat down on the steep slope, and insisted that she would not move until the ski patrol came to help her. Quentin waited with her for hours. Afterwards, she was mad at him for putting her in danger, and he was mad at her for freaking out and not skiing the chute, something that he thought she was capable of doing. They broke up over that.

When ski season was over, Olivia kept seeing Quintin through the summer. But, somehow, the magic was gone, and they drifted apart. When the next ski season came, Quentin had a fiancée. Soon, he married her and moved to another state. Olivia kept skiing with Rebecca and the ski group, but she never told anybody them about her relationship with Quentin.

Like all my other stories in the “When Polyamory Goes Wrong” series, this one is fictitious, but based on real-life situations I have witnessed. I made up the names of the characters following the alphabet - we have gotten to the R for Rebecca, so far.

Was it wrong for Quentin not to tell Rebecca about his relationship with Olivia?

I think it was. Even if Quentin had a casual, non-exclusive relationship with Rebecca, she deserved to know. Any relationship entails physical (STDs) and emotional risks, and people in them should be informed of the existence of other sexual partners. Rebecca could have fallen in love with Quentin and get hurt when she eventually found out that he was dating Olivia. Besides, non-monogamy is ethical when everybody involved is fully informed.

Should Olivia had told Rebecca?

That’s a more difficult question.

It was Quentin’s obligation to tell Rebecca, not Olivia’s. If she told Rebecca, it could have been taken the wrong way: as a put-down, as a declaration of war over Quentin, or as something that Olivia said just to hurt her. There is simply no gracious way Olivia could have told her.

If things turned sour, a likely outcome was that Rebecca would have revealed the relationship to the group, confirming Quentin’s fears.

Olivia had other options. She could have broken up with Quentin, or threatened to do it if he didn’t tell Rebecca. Some people are often a bit cavalier about wanting other people to break their relationships when they are less than perfect. In reality, sexual attraction and love weigh quite heavily, and we are willing to make hard compromises to keep the relationship.

Olivia did not compromise about telling her husband Paul. She did right on her side of the polyamorous interaction.

Was it wrong for Olivia and Quentin to keep their relationship secret?

This is just another example of in-the-closet and out-of-the-closet problems. Quentin drew Olivia into a polyamorous closet, just like some gays who are in the closet force their boyfriends into the closet with them.

The polyamorous closet should not be taken lightly. In my experience, in the progressive areas of the developed world, it’s far easier to be openly gay than to be openly polyamorous. Been openly kinky falls somewhere in between.

When you think about it, there are some clear reasons why monogamous people fear polyamorous people. If somebody is gay, he is not going to interfere with your relationship, whereas a polyamorous person could potentially seduce your partner. Moreover, the mere existence of polyamorous people represents a direct challenge to the beliefs and values of monogamous people, like the sacredness of sex, the justification of jealousy or the demonization of sexual infidelity.

For these reasons, it is likely that at least some people in the ski group would have ostracized Olivia and Quentin for having a relationship. This would have snowballed through the group until they were completely marginalized.

If Olivia would have come out to the group as polyamorous before she started dating Quentin, she could have softened the blow. But she didn’t do that because it’s quite comfortable for married polyamorous people to pass as monogamous, just like some bisexual people choose to pass as heterosexual.

It was not completely unreasonable for Quentin to demand privacy, especially considering that he was new to polyamory. It turned out that polyamory was just a phase for him. There is nothing wrong with people experimenting with polyamory and then going back to being monogamous.

Yes, one of the core values of polyamory is not being secretive. However, in the face of societal repression, many polyamorous people live partially or completely in the closet. The social stigma attached to sexual infidelity and open sexuality is very strong. Conservatives see polyamory just as an excuse for adultery and debauchery.

We should keep that in mind when we condemn cheaters and people who practice casual sex. We may find ourselves in the same boat.

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