Therapists who have not had a great deal of experience or education around the issue of nonmonogamy may worry about their ability to work effectively with individuals or couples who have, or are considering, a nonmonogamous arrangement. We all have preconceived ideas and judgments about what makes relationships effective, and it is important to examine how those notions compare to research and clinical experience.
Prevalence of Nonmonogamy
One important point to consider is that you may already be working with someone in a nonmonogamous relationship. Many individuals who are in open relationships or other nonmonogamous relationship configurations report a reluctance to disclose their relationship status to their clinicians for fear of being judged. With some professionals openly acknowledging an inherent bias against nonmonogamy as a potentially healthy and satisfactory arrangement (Greenan, 2003, and Ruskin, 2011), and with anecdotal reports of therapists insisting upon sexual non-exclusivity as either the root cause or at least a symptom of dysfunction within a relationship, people seeking therapy have reason to be wary. When beginning treatment with a new individual, it may be beneficial to be explicit in asking if they are monogamous or not.
Some segments of the population are more likely than others to be in polyamorous or nonmonogamous relationships. Studies have shown that same-sex male couples, for example, are more likely to report an agreement that allows for sex outside the relationship than either opposite-sex couples or same-sex female couples (Gotta et al., 2011). Additionally, older same-sex male couples seem to be more likely to have such an agreement than their younger counterparts (D’Augelli, Rendina, Sinclair, and Grossman, 2007; Wheldon and Pathak, 2010). This may reflect a change in values related to monogamy among younger cohorts of gay and bisexual men, or it may be related to the finding that most open relationships do not begin open (Hickson et al., 1992; Spears and Lowen, 2010), so some same-sex relationships among younger men may transition to a nonmonogamous agreement later.
Benefits and Challenges of Nonmonogamy
It is also important to note that research published on nonmonogamy frequently finds that there is no significant difference on measures of satisfaction and adjustment between partners in open relationships and their monogamous counterparts (Blasband and Peplau, 1985; Kurdek and Schmitt, 1986; Wagner, Remien, and Carballa-Dieguez, 2000; LaSala, 2004; Hoff et al., 2010). So while notions that nonmonogamous relationships are less fulfilling or healthy than monogamous ones remain prevalent, they are simply not supported by research.
There are additional challenges, as well as benefits, that partners in nonmonogamous relationships may experience. A therapist who presumes that nonmonogamy is less functional may have difficulty recognizing those benefits, while a therapist striving to demonstrate an affirmative stance may have a harder time seeing the challenges. A small collection of both the potential benefits and challenges is listed below:
- Opportunities for more honest discussion about sexual needs and fantasies
- Increased possibility of exploration of emotions such as jealousy and insecurity
- More deliberate attention paid to identifying and highlighting the primacy of the relationship
- Greater possibility of jealousy and other uncomfortable emotions
- Increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and infections
- Stigma and judgment from peers and family
All Relationships Are Unique
Another important thing to keep in mind is no two nonmonogamous relationships are identical, just as no two monogamous relationships are identical. Some relationships have strict rules governing sex or emotional connections that occur outside of a primary pairing, while others have few to no rules, and others still do not recognize a primary pairing at all. Partners in nonmonogamous relationships may benefit from exploring the rules they have in place to determine what function they are designed to serve, and whether they are effective in meeting that goal.
Just like with monogamous relationships, no two nonmonogamous relationships are identical.
It may be helpful for therapists to become familiar with some of the common terms associated with different types nonmonogamous relationships (open, poly, monogamish, etc.) and to be able to identify the differences between them. Most helpful, however, would be to remain open to the possibility that a relationship may not fit neatly into any of the most common categories. Below is a list of generalized definitions for some common terms a therapist might encounter:
- Open relationship: A relationship in which the partners agree that sexual activity with people outside the relationship is acceptable.
- Poly or polyamorous relationship: A relationship in which multiple partners participate. This may mean that three or more people form a primary relationship, but it may also mean that a primary relationship exists between two people, and each has one or more additional partners.
- Triad: A polyamorous configuration in which three partners are all in a relationship with one another.
- Vee: A polyamorous configuration in which one partner is in a relationship with two other individuals, but those individuals are not in a relationship with one another.
- Monogamish: A mostly committed partnership in which occasional exceptions are made for outside sexual activity.
- Emotional fidelity: A requirement that relationships with others outside the primary relationship not be emotional in nature.
- Compersion: A feeling of pleasure that comes from seeing one’s partner in a relationship with another person.
Therapists seeking to educate themselves further on issues of nonmonogamy and polyamory may find the following resources helpful:
- Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
- The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures by Dossie Easton
- The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships by Kathy Labriola
- Blasband, D., & Peplau, L.A. (1985). Sexual exclusivity versus openness in gay male couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 395-412.
- D’Augelli, A.R., Rendina, H.J., Sinclair, K.O., & Grossman, A.H. (2007). Lesbian and gay youth’s aspirations for marriage and raising children. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 1(4), 77-98.
- Gotta, G., Green, R., Rothblum, E., Solomon, S., Balsam, K., & Schwartz, P. (2011). Heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male relationships: A comparison of couples in 1975 and 2000. Family Process, 50(3), 353-376).
- Greenan, D. (2003). Do open relationships work? Gay couples and the question of monogamy. Psychotherapy Networker, 27(3).
- Hickson, F.C., Davies, P.M., Hunt, A.J., Weatherburn, P., McManus, T.J., & Coxon, A.P. (1992). Maintenance of open gay relationships: Some strategies and protection against HIV. AIDS Care, 4(4), 404-419
- Hoff, C.C., Beougher, S.C., Chakravarty, D., Darbes, l.A., & Neilands, T.B. (2010). Relationship characteristics and motivations behind agreements among gay male couples: Differences by agreement type and couple serostatus. AIDS Care, 22(7), 827-835.
- Kurdek, L.A., & Schmitt, J.P. (1986). Relationship quality of gay men in closed or open relationships. Journal of Homosexuality, 12, 85-99.
- LaSala, M.C. (2004). Extra-dyadic sex and gay male couples: Comparing monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 85, 405-412.
- Ruskin, K. (2011, October 7). Open relationships: Expert advice. [Web log post] Retrieved from http://www.drkarenruskin.com/2238/open-relationships-expert-advice/.
- Spears, B., & Lowen, L. (2010) Beyond monogamy: Lessons from long-term male couples in non-monogamous relationships. Retrieved from http://thecouplesstudy.com/wp-content/uploads/BeyondMonogamy_1_01.pdf
- Wagner, G. J., Remien, R. H., & Carballo-Dieguez, A. (2000). Prevalence of extradyadic sex in male couples of mixed HIV status and its relationship to psychological distress and relationship quality. Journal of Homosexuality, 39, 31-46.
- Wheldon, C.W., & Pathak, E.B. (2010). Masculinity and relationship agreements among male same-sex couples. Journal of Sex Research, 47(5), 460-470.
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