A lot of poly people turn to online groups for support in their poly lives.
As one of the co-founders of one such group, do I think they’re a good thing?
Thing is, it’s a good idea to understand the limits of what an online support group is good for and what it’s not.
Polyamory, by its very nature, is just awfully intimate. The problems and issues that arise in poly situations are often about as close to the heart and the vulnerable spots as you’re able to get. When you get that close in, you start getting into things that are messy, private, and often just plain don’t show human nature in its best light.
The Internet, by its very nature, is public, it’s dynamic and can feed explosions. You post to a support group online and you’re very much jumping into the unknown. There may be thousands of people reading your words, even if the group feels cozy and intimate.
These are things you will not find in a good online support group:
Instant Validation of All Feelings
Don’t go to an online support group expecting that you’ll be petted and treated with kid gloves. If you need that, you want an in-person group, and will probably have to pay for it. It’s okay to need it, but even the fluffiest of online support groups is going to have someone who isn’t so fluffy. Online is a bad place to go when you’re feeling fragile. And yeah, I do feel fragile from time to time, just like the rest of the world. I talk to my friends, my family, and if it’s really bad, a professional counselor when it happens.
I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to anyone. Even a closed forum where one must be approved by a moderator to join isn’t very private. If it’s an open forum, this means when you complain about a love and what said love does, said love might wind up reading it. Then it’s possible to get one of those lovely catfights where everyone’s jumping in. If that’s your kink, okay. But if you’re looking for real solutions, that may not work out so well.
A horde of people to validate your virtue in a situation
I cannot count the times I’ve seem someone who clearly wanted to be told that she (it’s usually “she”, but “he” isn’t exactly unheard of) is the poor innocent victim and that everyone should start doing what she wants because she’s so sweet and nice and self-sacrificial only to turn into Medusa when it turns out that not everyone agrees with her take on the situation.
Validation that your situation is unique, special and that no-one’s ever encountered something like this before.
If you have spent more than five years watching people spill their guts on a polyamory discussion group, you have seen it all before. More than likely, you’ve done some of the stupid shit that’s being posted about, too!
Things to look for in an online support group:
People who’ve been there and done that
You want that. People learn best from experience. Bonus points if someone says, “Oh God, I fucked up like that once and here’s what happened to me…” There are online support groups for Polyamory in general, group marriages, monogamous/polyamorous pairings, poly and almost any kink you can think of… You’re sure to find some relatively sane and sensible people for reality checks in almost any poly situation. If most people in the group are into theory and there aren’t a fair whack of them who have been living poly, it’s probably not a useful support group. Beware the social engineers!
A willingness to deliver a reality check
The whole point of getting involved in a community is for the reality check, after all. If you never ever get questioned or called on anything you say, you’re not involved in a useful or growth-producing environment. While I don’t think the “stick of grandmotherly kindness” is something that needs to be hauled out at every instance, a gentle, “Are you sure X is gonna work out for you?” should come up frequently when you ask a question or present a situation. 100% agreement at all times means you might as well be talking to a mirror. If someone points out that they don’t think a situation is healthy, it’s worth examining. If fifty people say the same think, it’s worth hauling out the microscope to examine in detail. (Please not I do not say that one should automatically heed advice in support groups. I use the word “examine” on purpose because ultimately you are the only true judge of how to live your life. You’re only looking for advice and ideas, not direction).
A feeling that the group is mostly “sane”.
This is subjective and that’s okay. If you get the sense that the people are nuts, and not in a good way, you don’t need their advice.
Keep in mind, though, an online support group is not a substitute for real-life interaction. You don’t want to dump your social network in “real life” because you’re so excited to have found a group of people that understand your unique situation. There have been many studies that show that the online communities, while a great boon to some forms of social networking, have really taken a toll in how tolerant we are of people who are different from ourselves. You might have your online group, but keep your face to face friendships. It’s all necessary.