Open Relationship Models and Therapy
There are many ways to hold a personal relationship. One relationship model that works for a lot of people is to have an open relationship (also called poly, monogamish, or poly fidelity). In this blog, I am not going to define open relationships, but if that is what you are looking for you can find plenty of information on the internet with a simple search. I will say briefly though, that open relationship models are not cheating: open models by definition are honestly engaging in multiple relationships that are consensual and above board. In this article I share a bit my experience as a therapist who has lived experience with open relationship models, and how that is affecting the connection with my clients.
In terms of attitudes toward poly relationships, you can find books and articles that say this is wrong (evil, immoral) and you can find books and articles that say monogamy is not natural, and that those that practice it are under illusions of socialization and doomed to fail. The reality that I am seeing in my practice does not fit on either end of these extremes. For many, open relationship models are just as valid as monogamy, although if you do identify as polyamorous, you might need to be careful who you share this with, as it can cause you to come under fire from folks (relatives, colleagues, etc) who believe monogamy is the only way. On the other hand, if you don’t feel like you can come out as being poly, you might be restricting your choices in partners (people have a hard time finding you if you are in a closet). As for dissing monogamy as being under an “illusions of socialization” or “doomed to fail;” I find that harsh judgements toward someone’s lifestyle choice falls on the side of ill-mannered, at best. This blog, as the title indicates, focuses on open relationship models , but just for the record, I do understand how monogamy functions, and have folks in my practice that are monogamous, and I totally support their choice!
When I opened my profile on TherapyDen I had the opportunity to indicate that I was a poly friendly therapist. Personally, when I first came out as “poly” we called it non-monogamy (yeah, I’m that old) and it was not super popular (I was actually informed by a lesbian who was 15 years my senior that “we already tried non-monogamy and it didn’t work”). My lovers and I read Ethical Slut (Dossie Easton, Janet Hardy) and did the best we could. In 1998, while in the throes of a bad break up with a lover (while maintaining a nesting relationship) I had a (lesbian) therapist try to convince me if I would just be monogamous my life would be a lot easier. After several sessions of resistance on my part, I was able to get her to stop making this suggestion by stating “That doesn’t help; you would never tell me if I was straight my life would be easier. I am not monogamous; telling me my life would be easier if I was is not helpful.” Since the issues I was dealing with in therapy were more about my personal reactions to childhood trauma (as is often the case in therapy), I did find the therapy helpful and ultimately walked away with the idea that as long as a therapist was not judgmental about poly issues (or could be educated to be non-judgmental), good therapy could still happen.
While I will still back that opinion up, I have recently had a number of folks in my office that are poly and I have come to realize that I am, in fact, uniquely qualified to help folks navigate the intricacies of multiple relationships. Here are a few things I have helped my clients appreciate:
*Each new addition of a relationship needs to be processed in a unique way, no matter how many years you have (or don’t have) under your belt as a poly person, incorporating a new partner/lover can require new approaches because every person is different.
*As with most things in life, staying present, and showing up for what is real, right now, is the most useful way to meet the challenges that are current in your relationship (rather than wish they had unfolded differently, or that the person your lover/partner is attracted to was different in some way).
*When distress occurs, it can usually be traced to some kind of survival mechanism learned in childhood. Learn to recognize your own distress patterns, and help your loved ones recognize theirs (in a loving way, of course). Compassion for yourself and others is key here! For more hints in this arena, look around at my other blogs, maybe especially “Don’t Take It Personally”.
This next point does not fit easily in a bullet point, so you’ll have to maneuver through the format change: One thing I have encountered in my poly relationships, and have seen in my client’s struggles is the idea that the sexuality my lover shares with someone else somehow brings that other person’s energy into the bed with me. For example if CJ is intimate with Robin, and then later chooses to be intimate with Jan (by the way, Robin is Jan’s metamour in poly talk), Jan may be concerned about Robin’s essence coming into the space between Jan and CJ. For some, this energy sharing is seen as an advantage, for others it can be threatening. If someone finds it threatening, it might be useful to ask the threatened person if they think the energy they share with people follows them into intimacy with others. Whether yes or no, the exploration is useful. Personally, I find that my sexuality is mine, and when there is a person that ignites my sexuality, while wonderful, that is much less relevant than my belief that I have sovereignty over my sexuality. Let’s just say, however, that you do feel that “Robin’s” energy invades your space; in that case it can be useful to lean into the uncomfortable feelings, explore where you feel that in your body, and investigate what other ideas are being generated by the feelings you are having. Caution: if you try to find support for this with someone who has a strong monogamous bias you may hear—covertly or overtly—that if you would simply choose monogamy it would solve your problems.
Relationships are important; they matter at all stages in our lives. From my perspective folks either lean toward monogamy or they lean toward poly and trying to talk someone out of their position is not usually useful. People can make choices beyond their natural tendencies: I have a good friend who is married and monogamous, even though she is naturally bisexual and polyamorous. Whatever your model, be honest with yourself and the people you are being intimate with, and if you are poly, it might help if you have a poly friendly therapist.