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I’m poly — can I ask to bring both my partners to work events? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I know you’ve answered a couple of questions from managers of polyamorous employees who want to bring more than one partner to events, but as a relatively junior employee … what would be the best way to go about asking if it’s okay to bring two people?

My institution (higher ed) throws large-scale events occasionally that don’t require exact head counts, and I’m not worried about that, but for something like: my manager recently hosted an event for just his academic group and their significant others at his house. It ended up being on a day during which one partner was working, so it was a moot point this time, but if that sort of situation occurs again (either here or at future jobs), do you have any suggestions about the most diplomatic way to see if it’s okay to bring a plus-two without coming across as taking advantage of his generosity? Am I overthinking this?

I am not explicitly out as poly at work (mostly because I don’t socialize much with my colleagues and I’ve only been here for 10 months) but I’m willing to be — it’s a liberal institution in a liberal city, although I think my manager is fairly old-fashioned.

I have been with one partner for 11 years and the other for six, so they’re both serious relationships that I would like to acknowledge socially. I would be much less interested in drawing attention to myself if it wasn’t two people I foresee having around for the rest of my career.

I don’t think you’re overthinking — it’s genuinely tricky.

First and foremost, I’d want to know more about your willingness to be out at work, particularly to your manager. Especially with a manager you describe as old-fashioned, there’s a real risk of professional consequences. At a liberal institution, that might not mean open discrimination — but it could mean, for example, that your manager is suddenly less comfortable with you, is less inclined to recommend you for high-profile projects or promotions, and/or doesn’t mentor you or champion your work in the same way.

Or not! It might not lead to any of those things. But make sure you’re considering what you know about your boss and how willing you are to take those risks.

It sucks that that’s the case! Your personal choices shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. But here we are.

Assuming you’re willing to accept that risk, though, what are the logistics of asking to bring two people instead of one? Well … I sat on this question for a while because I couldn’t settle on an answer that felt right and finally realized I needed to bring in someone with more expertise in poly issues than I have.

So I talked with Dr. Liz Powell, psychologist, speaker, and author of Building Open Relationships (they/them).

But first, full disclosure, my initial thinking about this question was overly focused on, “Is it a burden on the host if multiple people want to bring multiple partners and suddenly the gathering is bigger then initially envisioned … and therefore can you alternate which partner you bring for smaller events?” Dr. Powell’s response to that convinced me that’s not the right way to look at it.

Here’s what they said:

I agree with you that my primary concern is the reaction of the more conservative manager. Being polyamorous isn’t a protected category, so it’s really easy for people to make your life miserable if they want to. Before coming out and asking to bring both of your partners, I would consider:
1) What are the potential consequences (positive and negative) of coming out to your manager?
2) What’s the worst-case scenario? (Losing your job, having your work curtailed or micromanaged, what else?)
3) What are your relationships like with the people at the same level as and above your manager?
4) If your manager decides to be a jerk, would the people who can overrule them be likely to have your back?
5) How much risk are you willing to assume? What are you unwilling to risk or unable to deal with losing?

As for the slippery slope part, I strongly disagree with you there. If someone was throwing an event that included an invite for their colleagues’ children, they wouldn’t cap how many kids someone can bring. Mononormativity / amatonormativity tells us that each of us gets to have one significant person and that person is/will be our romantic/sexual partner. However, that’s just not true! If someone in the department had five kids and someone had none, we wouldn’t say that the person with five kids should be forced to choose which two or three of their children they’ll bring to an event. The letter writer has been in each of these partnerships for years and saying that they should accept only ever having one recognized partner is unkind to everyone involved. How should the letter writer choose which one is their public partner and which one isn’t? How would that be kind or caring to the partner who’s now essentially a secret?

In terms of the etiquette around this in the polyam community, having one socially recognized partner and one who doesn’t get to be socially recognized is generally frowned upon these days. While it’s still sometimes necessary, there’s been a lot of writing and discussion about the ways in which an unrecognized partner is harmed by being hidden and denied. It’s similar in some ways to a closeted queer person denying that their partner is anything more than a friend — yes, you may need to do that to keep yourself safe, but you’re hurting the person who doesn’t get a choice in whether their relationship is ever seen by others.

The harm to the (potentially) secret partner is core to why my overall recommendation to this letter writer would be to think over the questions in my first paragraph alone and then sit down with both partners and collectively come up with options that all three of them could be happy with. Maybe the letter writer alternates which partner they bring to events and then if anyone asks they can choose how to talk about it. Maybe one partner doesn’t actually want to go to work events, but just wants to be sure that the lw acknowledges that they exist (by putting up pictures with them, talking about them with colleagues, etc.). Perhaps what feels best to all of them would be for neither partner to go to events if the letter-writer can’t risk coming out as polyam. Would it make sense to talk to someone at the school about whether they have any policies in place to protect against discrimination related to relationship structure? Maybe the three of them will come up with all kinds of ideas that I can’t even imagine! By making this a problem that all three of them get a say in addressing, the letter-writer can be sure that no one feels like they’re being treated as disposable or like a less “real” partner and the lw can get help thinking about possibilities.

On the positive side, this kind of conversation with the manager, if it went well, could help them re-evaluate their guest policy on the whole. What if someone is single but wants to bring their bestie or a close relative? Is the cap about cost or space or is it just going by the standard mononormative script? What’s the goal of these events and who would they want to feel welcome there? For instance, are partners invited because they’re assumed to be central to the employee’s life, because otherwise people go to fewer events, or because the manager wants to invite their partner, or because that’s how it’s always been? Clarifying these kinds of goals for the manager can make it easier to determine who to say “yes” to including along with the employees and prevent slippery slope issues from happening (though I don’t realistically think everyone bringing two people is likely). If the issue is cost, maybe the employee and their partner chip in a bit? If it’s space, is one extra person really a problem? Or would that make the alternating partners at events solution a better one?

I hope that helps, letter-writer.


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