Romantic relationships are traditionally viewed as monogamous unions. More and more, however, people are exploring—and more accepting of—alternative relationships that are casual, open, or shared consensually among three or more people. Nonmonogamy is even called “relationship anarchy” in some circles, indicating a resistance to, or even a rebellion against, traditional relationship styles and societal expectations for romantic situations.
As more people explore avenues that don’t follow traditional cultural, sexual, or relational paths, the media have begun to pay attention. One assumption the media perpetuate about nonmonogamy is that the drive or motivation for polyamorous, casual, or open relationships is purely sexual. Many argue, however, that having variety in intimacy is at least as satisfying emotionally as it is physically. On the other hand, advocates for monogamous relationships argue that nonmonogamy may be akin to infidelity or a lack of control or commitment, and question those who choose a nonmonogamous lifestyle.
Many therapists are also beginning to address different approaches to nonmonogamy and any psychological concerns associated with it. While nonmonogamous relationships can carry their own sets of concerns, different types of romantic bonds can allow individuals to find freedom and intimacy in diverse, fulfilling ways.
This month, we asked our Topic Expert panel to provide some insight about nonmonogamous relationships and the unique issues people in such relationships may face. We asked the following questions: For those who pursue them, how might the benefits of finding or creating alternative or diverse relationships outweigh the possible complications? How can people safely explore nontraditional romantic bonds in the context of mental and emotional health? Are nonmonogamous relationships changing the field of couples therapy or even individual therapy? How?
Our Topic Experts’ responses follow:
- Lillian Rozin (aging and geriatric issues): “However you feel personally about relationships other than serial monogamy, many people choose these alternatives and seek our support as therapists. The most important thing we as therapists can contribute to the conversation is to remain nonjudgmental. I have met many people who have not disclosed their sexual preferences or choices in lifestyle. Sadly, I have heard of quite a few stories of therapists who simply told people that they needed to stop pursuing their nontraditional relationship choices. How is this supportive of the therapeutic process? Our job is to help people explore healthy expressions of their full selves. If this includes a polyamory lifestyle, we should be available to assist them in setting appropriate boundaries and guidelines so that they can move forward safely. If, as therapists, we cannot honestly be open to such lifestyle choices, we should step back and offer to refer them to therapists who can openly and nonjudgmentally entertain these issues.”
- Deb Hirschhorn (relationships and marriage): “There’s something special and magical about being human, something that is more than our capacity for language, thought, and emotion. That something is higher, and it includes the requirement to say ‘no’ to doing whatever we want just because it feels good in the moment. Monogamy requires discipline like that, as well as commitment, loyalty, planning, and caring. Having those characteristics feels good, too … but for longer than a moment. My own experience with people is that they rush to another companion before seeing the possibilities of healing the relationship they are in. When we overcome those challenges, we are greater, richer, stronger, smarter, braver people.”
- Christopher L. Smith (spirituality): “Nonmonogamy, at least as it has been traditionally defined, can be challenging for the therapist, especially depending on how it relates to the faith tradition of therapists and people they are seeing. As these alternate expressions play out, the therapist may increasingly be challenged by the individuals’ affinity to sexual traditions which, by the interpretation of holy texts, are not generally accepted as valid today. This interaction challenges not only the therapist’s thinking, but also the client’s, as they seek to understand what they see as sources of authority, especially in spiritual matters. These answers lead to shifting commentaries on the faith respective on monogamy just as the broader concept is changed by new definitions of monogamy.”
- Margaret Nichols (LGBT issues): “Nonmonogamy can confer many benefits: the opportunity to learn and grow through multiple experiences of intimacy; relief from the monotony of having sex with only one person for a lifetime; greatly extended support systems; and having hotter sex in general, not just with ‘outside’ partners but also with your primary partner. The LGBT community is more comfortable with nonmonogamy; up to half of gay male couples practice some form of it. What is new is the attention being paid in the mainstream. Therapists, I find, are behind the curve on this one, although a growing number, like myself and my colleagues, view open relationships as viable. We also have expertise in helping couples who want to try it. If you want to open up your relationship, remember that nonmonogamy exists along a continuum from threesomes to casual sex to romantic relationships. Each couple must agree on their comfort level and construct their own ‘rules.’ ”
- Jonathan Bartlett (relational psychotherapy): “Establishing trust is hard work. Repairing a betrayal of trust is even harder. Our confrontations with jealousy can feel like getting struck by a meteor. Heedless of those in its path, vicious in its reactive capacity to go on the attack, and deep in its wallowing indulgences, jealousy can sunder one’s best-laid contracts for polyamory to waste. Unfortunately, it is not until the raw power of jealous feelings have been unearthed and examined that we can begin to negotiate honest agreements about intimate partnerships. Once our self-protective needs are voiced and acknowledged, we can become more authentically available for stretching those needs. Whatever our contracts, it is our willingness to tolerate and speak to others’ needs and wounds that allows us to grow and heal in relationship.”
- John Sovec (LGBT issues): “In today’s relationship world it is important for both partners to be able to have their emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual needs met on a regular basis. There are many options available to couples to fulfill these needs, and each couple has the ability to create their own unique formula to accomplish this fulfillment. For many, that approach will be a traditional monogamous style based on a well-established model of relationship, which provides them with the fulfillment that they desire. For some couples, though, their desires may require an expanded view of the traditional model, which may include alternative romantic expressions. These alternative lifestyles can work very successfully if they are built on a foundation of trust, honesty, and open communication. When partners work together to set the parameters of an open relationship, they can deepen the bonds of commitment and, in the long term, strengthen their partnership.”
- Angela Lee Skurtu (relational psychotherapy, sexuality/sex therapy): “One important thing for couples to discuss is how they want to set and respect boundaries in their relationship. Each individual needs to be clear about his or her personal needs going forward. Polyamory can reveal many hidden needs that people aren’t aware of. For example, they may think they don’t want to hear anything about a partner’s outside sexual relationship, only to discover later that not knowing was worse than knowing. A willingness to negotiate and continue renegotiating the terms of the relationship as things progress can make this transition much smoother. Be honest with yourself if you are uncomfortable with the process, discuss this out loud with your partner, and be an accepting and respectful partner if you disagree with one another. If need be, explore the options with an outside party such as a therapist, a poly support group, or a helpful book, such as The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.”
- Moushumi Ghose (sexuality/sex therapy): “Monogamy may not be as instinctual as once was believed. Like marriage, monogamy is a conscious choice, and not necessarily the only lifestyle that makes sense. People are now more open to looking at alternative ways to maintain their lives without creating a major upheaval due to thoughts of infidelity. Concepts which once held true—such as the idea that you may only be attracted to one person who will fulfill your lifelong needs—are concepts which may not be true after all. Therefore, people embrace what might be more natural: open relationships, nonmonogamy, and polyamory. As therapists, we need to be open-minded and aware of this major shift, as nonmonogamy provides a viable outlet for many and many are choosing to explore this lifestyle. … Nonmonogamy, though ideal for many, does come with a whole new set of issues and concerns. Because of our monogamous conditioning as a society, getting into nonmonogamous situations, even when ideal, takes conscious and deliberate effort. Emotions such as jealousy, insecurity, and fear of abandonment are all things that will invariably pop up, just as they often do in monogamous situations. They are bound to be even more prominent in nonmonogamous situations. Individuals need to be aware of these emotions as they come up, develop communication tools around dealing with these issues, and recognize that dealing with these issues is an ongoing endeavor, not just a one-time conversation with a partner. It is also a good idea, if pursuing nonmonogamy as a couple or with a primary partner, to set guidelines first, and then realize that the rules and limitations will continue to shift and should be addressed on a regular and ongoing basis. If done deliberately and consciously, nonmonogamy can be an amazing way not only to learn about yourself, but also to push yourself to become more honest and genuine in all your relationships. I think in many ways we often default to serial monogamy even though, intuitively, many believe that a nonmonogamous path may be better in many ways.”
- Laura J. Reagan (posttraumatic stress/trauma): “Nonmonogamous relationships are quite clearly outside of the American cultural ideal. However, such arrangements might work better than traditional monogamous relationships for certain couples. I have met couples who are legally married with children, but are in agreement that they are most emotionally satisfied by keeping their relationship on a platonic level. For reasons both personal (‘keeping the family together’) and financial (preferring to support one household, rather than two, by combining their assets), they remain married and live under one roof. These couples also discreetly maintain separate long-term romantic relationships outside of the marriage to satisfy their desire for emotional and physical intimacy. To an outsider, this arrangement may seem odd, but these couples insist that it fits their needs at this stage of their lives, and that they will re-evaluate once their children reach adulthood.”
- Susan J. Leviton (LGBT issues): “Nonmonogamous relationships have some advantages over traditional ones, but they are not for everyone. The parties involved must have a deep sense of trust between them before considering opening up their relationship. Also, clear rules must be in place for this type of relationship to work well. Are friends and acquaintances of the partner OK or off-limits? Are long-term outside relationships permitted, or just brief encounters? These and dozens more questions need to be asked and answered. I would add that the individuals considering a nonmonogamous relationship need to have good ego strength in order to avoid jealousy, and to cope with the inevitable negative pressure from society at large. That said, an open relationship does have things to offer: less pressure on a partner to supply all one’s social, emotional, and physical needs; variety; and time apart for breathing space.”
- Damon Constantinides (identity issues): “Nonmonogamy and polyamory offer more options for people to find relationships that feel authentic to them. Seeing polyamory or nonmonogamy as valuable and legitimate alternatives to monogamy recognizes the capacity that human beings have to love and support each other. These alternative relationship structures also offer some learning tools for all of us. Built on a foundation of trust and communication, there is no limit to what a healthy relationship can look like. When people have the space to be real with their feelings and tell the truth, there is no need for cheating or lying. There is no right kind of relationship structure; there is only the one that works best for you and the people you choose to share your life and love with.”
- Betsy Sansby (depression and anxiety): “Any institution based on a set of vows that roughly 55% of its members break has got serious problems to sort out. Rather than condemning the huge number of couples who try and fail at a lifetime of sexual fidelity, it makes more sense to examine the reasons good people consistently fail to meet their own expectations. Given that true sexual monogamy is extremely rare in nature—and no, folks, swans don’t actually remain faithful to their lifetime partners, either—it’s time to start telling the painful truth: It is all too easy to fall in love with more than one person. And most affairs start out innocently (if naively), not intentionally. If we want sexually monogamous marriages to survive, it’s important for everyone to know the facts so we can learn from those couples who succeed at maintaining fidelity, in spite of the odds and influences.”
If you have experimented with nonmonogamous relationships, how have they worked in your life? What advice would you give to someone who was considering a nontraditional or “alternative” romantic relationship? Do you agree or disagree with our Topic Experts? Please share your opinions in the comments below.
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