Jenn and Steve have been married for seven years. Both are happy with their relationship, and in fact, their high ability to discuss their needs and wants with one another has recently lead to a decision to become open to someone else being a part of their existing connection. The idea is that each of them, including their new partner, would be considered equal partners. Each would also agree to be sexually active only with other members of the group — “polyfidelity” is what they thought it was called. Both feel it would add to another dimension to their relationship and are committed to making it work. They want a safe place to discuss their process in all of this with a non-judgmenal, outside observer.
Marcus and Dan are on the verge of ending their 2 year relationship as it has become abundantly clear that each had different ideas of what it meant to be “open.” Marcus thought that it meant that both could have casual sexual encounters with or without the other being present, while Dan imagined that any outside sexual “playing” would be done together, and that the two of them would be looking for a third person to join them as partners as well. But of course, neither of them really clarified that with the other at the outset, and the fallout from their different ideas has made things a bit of a mess. Both feel distant and miss how things used to be.
Sarah, Ken, and Erin have been in an open poly marriage for going on five years. They have two wonderful children together, and think that it is time to place their children into daycare. However, when they attended the daycare interview recently, it was a trainwreck. The interviewer was at first confused, thinking she was talking with two biological parents and a step-parent. When she figured it out, it got even more awkward as she tried to apologize and became extremely red-faced and embarrassed. The three of them left the interview concerned that their children may struggle a bit because of common myths about polyamory or simply as a result of the botched interview.
Jim came to counseling individually to address a variety of issues. Chief among them was that he could never quite shake his sense of loss at the way his primary partnership with his ex-girlfriend had ended after two years, even though they still now enjoyed an occasional sexual and emotional connection. All of this came to a climax recently when his ex called to announce she was getting married to the man she’d been in a primary relationship with since she and Jim separated. He felt confused at how intensely jealous and angry he felt. Intellectually he agreed with the principles of ethical and consensual non-monogamy, but if this was any indication, he wasn’t sure he was wired for it.
Consensual Non-monogamous Relationships
Those in monogamous relationships commit (sexually and emotionally) to one individual. On the other hand, consensually non-monogamous individuals commit emotionally and sexually to more than one person. There are many different types of non-monogamous relationships, and each is special and often unique, and people enter non-monogamous relationships for many reasons — for example, they may feel that their love doesn’t have to be limited to one individual, or casual sexual relationships outside a pair of committed partners may not be viewed as taboo.
As with monogamous relationships, non-monogamous relationships need to be based on trust, good communication, and honesty. If someone enters a non-monogamous relationship with poor motivation (for example, simply to please their primary partner), many negative consequences can occur. Jealousy, feelings of abandonment, dismissiveness, control issues, and resentment could contaminate a once healthy and vibrant relationship. If open, honest communication is a necessity for monogamous relationships, it is all the more so for non-monogamous ones. Partners continue to discuss boundaries, feelings, responses to one another, ways to promote safety within the relationship, and more!
A Basic Overview to Types of Non-Monogamous Relationships:
There are many different types of non-monogamous relationships. Four of the most common types are swinging, open relationships, polyamory, and polyfidelity.
- Swinging is when a couple engages in recreational sexual activity with other couples. Sex, instead of intimacy, is the main drive behind swinging. Couples may develop feelings for each other, but the development of more emotionally and relationally intimate relationships is atypical as it is not the primary emphasis. Swinging couples experience a strengthening of their relationship and remark that seeing their partner be more fully sexually satisfied is fulfilling.
- Open relationships are when one or both members of a primary relationship engage in sexual relationships outside of the primary relationship. Most importantly both members of the primary relationship must agree to the outside sexual relationships. If one individual does not know their partner is sexually intimate with someone else, that is not an open relationship – it is cheating! Instead, open relationships are built on trust, openness to others, and a belief that outside sexual experiences will not damage the primary relationship. As with swinging, persons in open relationships experience a strengthening of their relationship as each partner’s needs are met more completely.
- Polyamory is when individuals engage in committed and romantic experiences with more than one person. Those in polyamorous relationships may be married, and the primary partners have romantic relationships with individuals outside of the primary relationship. Polyamory does not focus on casual sex – romance and emotional connection is a core tenet instead. Nevertheless, these committed relationships are not closed off to other individuals. If a new partner is found, and all members of the polyamorous relationship agree, the new partner is welcomed into the committed-romantic relationship.
- Polyfidelity occurs when a committed and romantic relationship becomes closed. Therefore, those in the relationship (three or more individuals) become limited to each other.
There is a difference between ethical, consensual relational/sexual non-monogamy and other things that may have a similar look from a few thousand feet away. For example, polyamory is not an excuse for having poor boundaries – persons inside polyamorous relationships, perhaps even more than others, still need to have a stable sense of self and other, so that they can understand where their own feelings and needs begin and others end. In that sense, persons who are thinking about consensual non-monogamy are wise to discuss the ways in which they have experienced boundaries, abandonment, rejection, and a host of other emotional concepts, prior to opening things up.
Also, simply because they involve more people, it stands to reason that polyamorous relationships may be at higher risk for problems if not well attended to (though some research actually suggests the opposite may be true). For example, fear may spike when a new individual is introduced into the primary relationship. One partner may begin to feel neglected or hurt. Discussing reasons for these feelings is vital to help the primary relationship stand strong, and counselors are typically able to provide a safe forum in which to accomplish that.
Perhaps as a best-case scenario, if partners considering adding another partner comes to counseling in advance of beginning their search, a Change, Inc. St. Louis counselor can help them set out clear-cut rules for both themselves and others within the relationship, and later reflect on them as well. Issues such as time management with different partners, introducing a new partner to friends and family, and other potential problem spots can be detailed out during session times. Counselors can also help couples who do not feel accepted by their friends and family with feelings of rejection or betrayal. Working through the anxiety of “coming out” as non-monogamous can increase the couples’ feelings of self-worth and strengthen their bonds.
Also, because of the views that our culture tends to hold around non-monogamous relationships, counseling may be needed to help flesh out feelings of conflict that may arise, some of which may be internalized. In other words, some individuals aspiring toward non-monogamous relationships eventually discover that their disposition and/or socialization (lessons learned from culture, parenting, religion, etc.) may get in the way, and that may necessitate slowing down or disembarking altogether.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, those in non-monogamous relationships may need to see a counselor for the exact same reasons as those monogamous relationships. Jealousy, resentment, irritation, frustration, and feelings of abandonment are hardly concepts limited to polyamorous relationships.
Common Polyamory Myths
Like most other subcultures, polyamory is replete with its own share of myths. Here is a list of common myths, and a brief response to them from frequent authors on the subject of polyamory, Cherie L. Ve Ard and Franklin Veaux.
Love is Limitless
“Love may be limitless in the abstract, but in the concrete world of work and conflicting schedules and finite resources, it is limited indeed. Put simply, there is a finite boundary on the number of people one can love, and spend time with, and a finite boundary on the emotional resources available to anybody.”
Anyone can be poly if they can just get past their social conditioning or their monogamous upbringing.
“Not everyone is able to choose polyamory. Social conditioning aside, there are many people who seem to be naturally predisposed to monogamy, and a few who seem permanently wired for it, just as there are many people who seem permanently wired to be poly…Some poly folk seem to believe that monogamy is an accident of social conditioning, nothing more; everyone would, or could, be poly if it weren’t for a monogamous upbringing getting in the way. The reality is more complex than that.”
Poly People Don’t Feel Jealousy
“Anyone, polyamorous or not, can experience doubt, insecurity, and jealousy…A good goal in any relationship, polyamorous or not, is to strive to create a set of mechanisms for dealing with insecurity and jealousy.”
Poly People are Just More Honest
“The same values that make for successful polyamorous relationships–honesty, integrity, compassion, respect, trust, love, understanding, good communication and conflict resolution skills–also make for successful monogamous relationships. Polyamorous people don’t automatically possess these skills, any more than monogamous people automatically lack them; and, like human beings everywhere, polyamorous people do not always live up to their own ideals.”
Polyamory is a Cure for Cheating
“There is a profound difference between the mindset of a monogamous cheater and the mindset of someone who is polyamorous. A poly person is not generally driven by the same motivations as a monogamous cheater; people do not cheat because they are ‘really’ poly but don’t know it.”
Suggestions for Right Now
- Talk with your primary relational partner honestly – ask what they see that you need to work on before you add others to the mix. Remember that all romantic relationships – consensually non-monogamous or not – are to one degree or another an expression of our early childhood experiences, for better and worse. In fact, it is no secret to therapists that many of our childhood experiences with parents tend to recreate themselves in our adult lives. On the positive side, this may mean our adult relationships contain openness, honesty, laughter, mystery and intrigue, and commitment. On the other hand, it may also mean that our adult relationships are peppered with feelings of rejection, counterproductive arguing tactics, unmet expectations, betrayal, or even abuse. So, if you had a particularly difficult childhood or witnessed a lot of dysfunction within your parents’ relationships, adding multiple partners to your own is likely to increase your sense of internal conflict, as well as your external conflict with others, especially if you have never really processed that with someone.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate! If you want to open up your relationship, it is important to discuss everything from desires to boundaries to “what if’s” (i.e., what if _____ happens even though we didn’t plan it – what then?”). For example, to start everyone might write out what they want from the new relationship. Differences of opinion are likely, and if an impasse is reached, counseling will help.
- If you wish to engage in an open relationship, it may be wise to discuss the notion that one partner may begin to feel neglected. This is likely to strain the primary relationship, especially if one or both partners have historically had issues with an abandoning parent or romantic partner. Date nights, open communication, and couples therapy can decrease feelings of abandonment. Always remember that good assertive communication can go a long way.
- With multiple relational partners, it can be easy to lose one’s self a bit. So, take time for yourself — yoga retreats, guided meditations, movie nights, etc. — all ways to increase self-care! We must be open, honest, and compassionate towards ourselves before we can be that way with anyone else.
- Safe-sex practices are a top discussion priority if you are considering a polyamorous relationship. Period.
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