When I meet other professionals, I am usually quick to say that I work with the LGBTQ+ community. It takes a longer conversation, usually, for me to include that I serve kinky and nonmonogamous populations as well. This is stigma.
When I attended an experiential training for therapists working with polyamorous relationships several weeks ago, I felt a sense of protectiveness about where I was going and whom I should tell. This is stigma.
When someone wants to invite a partner to an event or introduce them to other important people in their life but ends up feeling paralyzed in a labyrinthian decision-making process predicting the social safety of that decision … this, too, is stigma.
If you’re reading this article you’re probably curious about polyamory on some level—personally, politically, professionally, or all three. Most of us have a positive or negative bias toward the idea of consensual nonmonogamy, depending on personal experience and the relationship values one holds dear. I have encountered very few people who hold a neutral view of polyamory. But cultural fears shape a lot of conversations, both public and private, preventing people from being able to communicate openly and authentically about whom they love. In other words, our culture’s hang-ups and, often, our own deep-seated fears prevent polyamorous people from abiding by their own values to communicate openly and authentically with and about the people they care about. Navigating this disconnect can create a sense of self-splitting between the personal and the public—which might even include family and friends—perpetuating distress and isolation. These factors have serious implications for mental health.microaggressions and micro-oppressions? First off, you don’t have to be poly to support the rights of others to decide that open relationships are right for them. Choosing to stand up in solidarity with intentionally and consensually nonmonogamous parties can happen gently. Below are seven ways to challenge what Designer Relationships authors Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson call ”default monogamy.”
1. Stop assuming monogamy is the default. In their guide “Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships,” Michaels and Johnson (2015) provide useful tools for Big Discussions and demonstrate how relationship terms can be tailored as uniquely as the people who participate in them. As the subtitle suggests, they are certainly not anti-monogamy—indeed, most proponents of polyamory will agree that polyamory is “not for everyone.” But authors point out when you avoid talking about the boundaries of your relationship for fear that mentioning the potentials will mean “monogamy will forever be broken,” it creates a sense of ambiguity and anxiety for partners. The consequence of the monogamy default, the fear of having that conversation, is that no consensus is reached about what monogamy really means.
2. Stop assuming that polyamorous relationships are “watered down,” cheaper, or shallow somehow—that they can’t “go deeper” like healthy monogamous relationships do. By necessity, people in consensually nonmonogamous relationships are “communication ninjas,” says Johnson. Preliminary studies of open relationships suggest moderate-to-high levels of happiness (Loving More, 2012), or at least comparable self-reported levels of relationship functioning (e.g., intimacy, satisfaction, jealousy) alongside those engaged in monogamous relationships (Conley et al., 2017). Some people do desire sexual and/or romantic exclusivity to feel safe and protected, but many people report that their participation in consensual nonmonogamy is an act of empowerment and helps them grow.
3. Switch up your language. A simple “partner or partners” goes a long way. Reducing or modifying the phrase “significant other” helps. Once you commit to being an ally in this way, you’ll start to notice mono-normativity is everywhere!
4. Consider developing new standards of event invitations. In “Why I’m Still in the Polyamory Closet,” Michael Carey writes about just how emotionally exhausting it can be to consider everyone else first when you want to do something as simple as go on a date with a partner or meet a partner’s parent. But if you yourself are hosting an event, you might be surprised to learn that some of those you know are already in an open relationship.
For example, if marriage (not currently poly-friendly at the federal and state level) is in your future, bust out your “couple privilege” and get creative with the wedding invitations. This is tricky, because it assumes a greater cost for you, but rather than assuming each guest might bring a plus one, you could invite them to indicate the number of guests they are bringing and specify that they be committed partners. Many guests do not bring a plus one, and even your friends with multiple partners are unlikely to choose your special day as their “coming out” debut—but it’s nice to be included, particularly on such a monogamy-oriented occasion.
5. Challenge the notion that it’s all about sex. When a lot of people hear “polyamory,” they cringe, thinking it’s a lifestyle comparable to swinging or cult polygamy. This is probably the biggest barrier to open communication about open relationships, and it has wide-ranging implications—from being afraid to come out to coworkers for fear they’ll think you’re on the prowl (Carey, 2013), to children being removed from their parents’ custody for fear of being exposed to sex (North, 2009).
6. Debate the accusations that polyamory is just an excuse to cheat, or an effort to relabel behavior that is considered cheating. YES, both of these things sometimes happen, but not with greater frequency than what is found in relationships assumed to be monogamous. In general, consider the intense ethical foundation it requires to actually maintain consensual relationships with multiple partners. More Than Two provides a great FAQ about how to tell the difference between polyamory and cheating. As Michaels and Johnson (2015) point out, “any relationship can be selfish and greedy.” These traits are not restricted to those who choose to engage in open relationships, and many would argue those consensual nonmonogamists are more committed to fighting those tendencies than most!
7. Scope out reading and resources. Examine your beliefs and keep an open mind. Some other good references are Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino, The Jealousy Workbook, by Kathy Labriola, and More Than Two, by Franklin Vieaux. If this is new territory, expect that you might get triggered, and read responsibly and in smaller chunks. Society for Sex Positive Culture director Allena Gabosch summarizes, “Polyamory scares people—it shakes up their worldview” (North, 2009). When we get scared, we put up walls and engage with our defense mechanisms. Thoughts and ideas can’t tear apart relationships all on their own, however—only actions and behaviors can. The more intentional we are with our relationship decisions and choices, the more likely we are to experience trust and intimacy, whether it’s with one partner or more.
- Carey, M. (2012). Why I’m still in the polyamory closet. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2013/09/05/why_i_m_still_in_the_polyamory_closet.html
- Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 205-232. doi:1177/1745691616667925
- Fleckenstein, J., Bergstrand, C., & Cox-II, D. W. (2012). What do polys want? An overview of the 2012 Loving More survey. Loving More: Found on the Loving More website: http://www.lovemore.com/polyamory-articles/2012-lovingmore-polyamory-survey/
- Michaels, M. & Johnson, P. (2015). Designer relationships: A guide to happy monogamy, positive polyamory, and optimistic open relationships. Jersey City, NJ: Cleis.
- North, A. (2009). Why does polyamory freak people out? Jezebel. Found on the Jezebel website: http://jezebel.com/5325677/why-does-polyamory-freak-people-out
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