Polyamory Couples Therapy

Polyamory / Nonmonogamous Relationships


Three friends lying under a tree, legs in the airPolyamory, meaning "many loves," can be defined as the practice of having or pursuing multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. Falling into the category of ethical nonmonogamy, polyamory is becoming increasingly recognized as a relationship style, although monogamy is still the norm in many cultures. Polyamory is distinguished from polygamy in that polygamous people are married to more than one person, whereas polyamorous people may or may not be married to one other person.

Many of those who pursue polyamorous relationships find them fulfilling, and when challenges arise, a therapist or other mental health professional may be able to help partners navigate polyamory and other nonmonogamous relationship styles. 

Understanding Ethical Nonmonogamy

In many cultures, monogamy is still upheld as the ideal structure for committed relationships, but nonmonogamous relationship styles are increasingly being recognized as a valid choice. Monogamous cultures tend to support the ideas of “soul mates,” “true love,” and marriage as the goals of committed relationships. In an idealized version of this model, people generally engage in romantic relationships in order to find one person to spend their future with, believing once that person is found, they will no longer desire other relationships.

However, people pursue relationships in a variety of ways. Some people find a monogamous relationship style works for them. They may choose a partner and spend life committed to that one partner. Others move through a series of monogamous relationships, seeking out a new partner when they experience waning attraction or lack fulfillment. Still others find monogamy does not work for them and choose to pursue some form of nonmonogamy. 

Ethical nonmonogamy is an informed choice, not something a person pursues only at the request of a partner. While people become aware of their desire for or tendency toward nonmonogamy in a variety of ways, it is generally considered unhealthy when people enter a nonmonogamous relationship without choosing it for themselves.

Some pursue an open relationship or choose to share partners out of the desire to experience casual intimacy with multiple people. Others find they experience love and affection for multiple people at the same time, and they may feel unhappy or stifled when in a monogamous relationship. For many, polyamory may be an unalterable aspect of identity, not a phase or a temporary lifestyle while waiting for "the right one" to come along.

Infidelity is not considered to be a form of polyamory. Though some polyamorous or open relationships may have different rules or standards regarding the information shared between partners about their other relationships, most exist on the basis that some information about each relationship will be shared for reasons of safety, consent, and trust.

Polyamory in Popular Culture

Polyamory has recently received significant attention in the media. Showtime’s Polyamory: Married and Dating highlights the lives of a polyamorous triad and two married couples who move in together as a polyamorous foursome. A number of books offer advice on polyamory. One such book, The Ethical Slut, is considered by many to be a helpful guide and a good starting place for those who choose to pursue polyamorous relationships 

Due to the recognition of polyamory as a legitimate relationship style, people may be increasingly likely to identify as polyamorous. People in polyamorous relationships may raise children together, and married people may make additional long-term commitments to lovers to whom they are not married. Some dating sites feature selective filters for nonmonogamous relationships, and many people use these sites to find friends and potential partners.

Although polyamory is becoming more accepted, one challenge to the way it is viewed is the lack of inclusion of people of color, whether in the media, research studies, or in events and groups. People of color often report feeling “othered” or fetishized at polyamory events or in groups, and this marginalization may lead some to be reluctant to join communities that do not seem diverse or welcoming. Thus, people may feel excluded from a lifestyle natural to them.

Because plural marriage is not legal in the United States, polyamory has an ambiguous legal standing—even for those who do not wish to marry more than one partner. Laws generally do not specifically prohibit sexual relationships with more than one person; however, adultery is still grounds for divorce in many states. Thus, married people who are polyamorous may be violating their state’s terms of marriage even if they have chosen different terms, leading to potential complications. Other complications and conflicts may arise when partners in a polyamorous relationship raise children together but not all partners have legal rights to the child or children, or when multiple people attempt to buy real estate together.

Polyamory Terms

There are as many ways to carry out polyamorous relationships as there are polyamorous people. There are some identities within polyamory, as well as more common types of relationship structures that emerge. While the following is not an exhaustive list, it represents many people who are polyamorous.

  • Hierarchical polyamory: This describes when one of a person’s relationships takes precedence or priority over others. Typically, this is seen when married partners have other relationships outside of their marriage but do not intend to marry or cohabitate with others. The marriage becomes the primary relationship; another partnership is secondary; a third is tertiary, etc.
  • Couples privilege: Couples privilege typically applies to partners in a primary relationship who practice hierarchical polyamory, though this may not always be the case. Partners may demonstrate couples privilege by having “veto power” over the other partner’s dates, dictating rules about other partnerships, or simply maintaining a hierarchical relationship dynamic. Because not all people are “out” as polyamorous, couples privilege can mean the couple’s relationship is public, while all other partnerships remain closeted from friends, family, and social media.
  • Metamour: A partner’s partner is a metamour. Some metamours may never meet, while others get acquainted or even develop deep friendships.
  • Unicorn: A unicorn is typically a bisexual woman who is interested in being in a relationship with a couple—usually a heterosexual man and an LGBTQ+ woman. Named for their rarity, unicorns may be expected to be equally devoted to each party and not date outside of the triad relationship. Couples looking for this dynamic, especially on dating sites, are sometimes called unicorn hunters.
  • Polycule: A group of people with partners in common is called a polycule. A polycule might be small—for instance, a husband, wife, and the husband’s boyfriend—or can be many partners and partners of partners.
  • Relationship escalator: Romantic relationships tend to have a trajectory or progression of milestones that are viewed as deepening the relationship. Examples of this might include traveling together, meeting family, moving in together, or having a bonding ceremony such as marriage. These milestones, and the mind-set of wanting or needing to achieve them, is known as the relationship escalator.
  • Solo polyamory: This describes when someone has relationships and dates, but is committed to maintaining an independent life and does not intend to marry or move in with any partner(s). People who practice solo polyamory generally eschew the relationship escalator.
  • Relationship anarchy: Those who believe in relationship anarchy strive for fluidity in all types of relationships. They may not label relationship types or distinguish between friendships and partnerships. Personal freedom and spontaneity take priority in the philosophy of relationship anarchy.
  • Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT): Not all people are comfortable talking to a partner about a different partnership, or hearing about their partner’s other relationships. A “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy means each partner is free to date or seek other relationships, but they agree not to discuss those pursuits with one another. This works for many people; however, because communication is known as a primary tenet of polyamory, a DADT policy is sometimes seen as a red flag by others in the community.
  • One-penis policy (OPP): Seen almost exclusively in relationships between a heterosexual man and a LGBTQ+ woman, a one-penis policy is a type of contract in which the woman agrees she will date or have sex only with people who do not have penises. The inverse—a one-vagina policy—is rarer. Like DADT, the one-penis policy is often seen as a red flag.
  • Kitchen table polyamory: Frequently regarded as an idyllic polyamory dynamic, kitchen table poly is a scenario in which a polycule cohabitates. It’s named for the idea of all partners being able to gather around the kitchen table for breakfast.
  • Comet: A comet is a long-distance polyamorous partner.
  • Compersion: Compersion is when a nonmonogamous person feels contentment, elation, or warmth when a partner experiences joy with a different partner or potential partner. Not all people who practice polyamory experience compersion, and for some it is cultivated over time.

Polyamory Flag

polyamory flagThe polyamory flag has three stripes—blue, red, and black from top to bottom. In the center of the flag is a gold Greek lowercase pi symbol. Pi represents the first letter of polyamory, as well as the concept of infinite love.

The blue stripe of the flag symbolizes communication and honesty with all partners; red represents passion and love; and black is a reference to the closeted nature of many polyamorous relationships that are hidden because of intolerance or possible rejection.

Polyamorous Celebrities

Few celebrity couples have revealed they have an open or polyamorous relationship dynamic, though it’s common for tabloids and fans to speculate about celebrities’ personal lives—especially after anything resembling a scandal. Celebrity couples who have made murky remarks about the openness of their relationships include:

  • Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith
  • Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
  • Robin Thicke and Paula Patton
  • Ethan Hawke and Ryan Shawhughes

Other celebrities who have more explicitly talked about nonmonogamy or polyamory, or who have documented consensual relationships with multiple people concurrently, include:

  • Mo’Nique
  • Margaret Cho
  • William Marston, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne, co-creators of Wonder Woman
  • Scarlett Johansson

Therapy for Nonmonogamous Partnerships

A couples counselor may be able to help a person navigate the beginnings of a nonmonogamous relationship, and therapy may be a safe place for many to discuss their goals for and concerns regarding a nonmonogamous relationship. An increasing number of mental health professionals specialize in addressing the challenges of polyamorous relationships.

Partners who remain committed to each other but also wish to explore intimacy or relationships with others may find therapy a supportive space to discuss the topic. Issues that may affect nonmonogamous partnerships include:

Some people may find that, despite their interest, a polyamorous lifestyle is not for them. Therapy can help one arrive at and clarify this realization and may also provide a safe environment to discuss this with a partner. 

Case Examples of Therapy for Polyamory

  • Interest in polyamorous lifestyle threatens partnership: Eliza, 29, and Morton, 28, seek a couples counselor who specializes in nonmonogamous relationships. Both Eliza and Morton are interested in opening their partnership, but they have different ideas about how to pursue an open relationship. Eliza is heterosexual, while Morton is pansexual, and he states his desire to pursue casual or friendly sexual encounters with anyone to whom he is attracted. Eliza is supportive of Morton's orientation and encourages this. However, she tells the therapist she is not interested in casual sexual encounters. Based on her relationship history, she knows she has the capacity to love more than one person at the same time, and she wishes to pursue men in the hopes of making other romantic connections while remaining committed to Morton. Morton expresses his frustration and discomfort with this, telling the therapist he does not believe he has the capacity to care for other people in the same way he cares for Eliza. He thought Eliza was satisfied with his role in their partnership and he feels threatened by her professed interest in other men. In therapy, the two work to set up boundaries for their relationship as they begin to pursue other intimate connections and, with the help of the therapist, explore ways to show and reinforce their commitment to each other and their relationship. They each make goals for themselves: Eliza, to communicate her feelings about others clearly and share with Morton her attraction or interest in another, and Morton, to trust Eliza's commitment to him and the life they have built. They decide to continue in therapy as needed to address and work through any concerns—such as jealousy, resentment, or miscommunication—as they arise. 
  • Addressing the challenges of parenting while in a polyamorous relationship: Joni, 32, and Hallie, 38, enter family therapy with their mutual partner, Oscar, 35, and their son Marcus, 9. They report no issues affecting the family dynamic but express the desire to talk through issues that may arise as they continue to raise a child as a polyamorous triad. Joni is Marcus' biological mother, and Oscar is his father. Joni and Hallie are legally married, and the three consider Marcus to be equally parented by all three adults. One issue they bring to therapy is how Marcus will explain the relationship in school and to his friends, if doing so becomes necessary. Marcus tells the therapist that he thinks his parents' relationship is "fine" because "they all love each other, and they love me," but the adults worry that in a few years his views will change, and they want him to grow up accepting of relationships that exist outside social norms. Although Joni, Hallie, and Oscar express mutual happiness and satisfaction with the relationship, they also discuss what might happen if one or more of them wishes to leave the partnership, exploring ways to prevent any negative impact on Marcus. The therapist helps them address these issues and gives each of them a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns, and they decide to continue periodically in therapy in order to prevent possible conflicts. 

References:

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  7. The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists And Centerfolds. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2014/10/27/359078315/the-man-behind-wonder-woman-was-inspired-by-both-suffragists-and-centerfolds
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Last updated: 09-10-2018

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