Therapist Reflection: Polyamory and Practice
Talia scheduled an appointment to determine “what is needed to help her decide if she can be in an open relationship?” I asked Talia several inquisitive questions about the “when, what, and how” of her journey prior to sitting in my office. She informed me that her partner, Nina, wants to explore being non-monogamous. Talia explained that she has been struggling to “wrap her head around the concept.”
This is where it gets very interesting, for me, as the therapist. Additionally, this is where I find that some therapists can go off the rails with their clients. Typically, or in my experience, with couples, the partner who reaches out for therapeutic intervention is the partner that is struggling with “the idea, the concept, or the practice” of non-monogamy. What I have found is that many of my clients view polyamory as the EXACT opposite of monogamy which emphasizes sexual exclusivity versus sexual promiscuity. This is a frightening understanding for many folks in society. Therefore, as a therapist, it’s imperative that the couple is able to define what consensual nonmonogamy (opening up or polyamory) is or is not; so, that I can understand how to help them through their process. More simply, what is each person's personal goal or interest with opening their relationship?
What is the reason this is so imperative?
One of the greatest gifts I received from my training as mediator, which has been invaluable in clinical practice, is to first gain a clear understanding of each person’s goals and interests to determine if they are shared or conflicting. In this case, Nina has stated that she wants to explore nonmonogamy. For Nina, this could mean research, talking to her partner about options, or considering the pros and cons of nonmonogamy. For Talia, this could mean immediately physically exploring with other perspective partners. A dispute involves the settlement of competing goals and interests – problem-solving. So, the dispute of different goals and interests may simply be resolved with Talia and Nina having a conjoint therapy session and settling on what exploration means for each of them; and if and when, they take the next step. Conflict occurs from fundamental differences in values and needs. Nina has voiced that she wants to explore nonmonogamy. Talia is questioning and having difficulty understanding relationships outside of monogamy. Understanding whether it's a dispute or conflict for Talia and Nina greatly determines the best strategy for help.
Resolving a dispute
I have found the most success comes from first answering a few questions:
Is this something that both people in the couple shares an interest in doing? What is the goal to meet (i.e. sexual exploration, novelty, enhancement of relationships)?
Is each person together on where they are going (i.e. research, dating, dating together or solo, sexual or emotional, etc.)?
What has prompted this conversation or consideration?
So after the client settles on the goal for them, next we start the collaborative negotiation process. This is where we explore or identify fundamental differences with values and needs which are the barriers to original goal. This may mean going back to re-examining goals. This is not a linear process but fluid and creative. The relationship is transforming.
Some things to consider with negotiation (The Basic Skills of Negotiation Handout):
Is each person ready emotionally, mental, physically, and intellectually to cope?
What are is the understanding of accessibility, visibility, and transparency?
Encourage the client to not assume an understanding of anything. Encourage the client to try things out in the short term be open to re-negotiate when an agreement is not working for both.
Don't simply focus on logistics, which are important, however consider the impacts to family, work, social media, and the other person who may be involved.
Dr. James Wadley (Presentation from PolyDallas Millennium 2016) offered these considerations (paraphrased):
How does one manage self-care?
Explicit and Implicit Boundaries? – spatial, contextual, time
What are the questions that need to be answered about courtship of other partners? (i.e. falling in love, sexual, emotional, mental) –Are we able to service, support, and keep the primary relationship? If you struggle with that now, how may that impact adding other partners?
The role of the therapist
A disservice to the client occurs when the therapist attempts to employ strategies that focus on the couple’s transformation or realigning of values or needs versus first, resolving if the couple can settle on a shared goal or interest. This creates a breakdown of the mutual collaboration and participation with the client in the negotiation process of for consent and for understanding. A gridlock is created.
I have been guilty of facilitating a couple into this gridlock. Early in my practice career, through my zeal and misguided projection of my values “that all couples can have a non-monogamous relationship.”
This leads to one person, in the couple, staying in a place of polyagony or perpetual limited consent. This leads to unhappy endings for all invested.
This is the importance of finding a therapist who is experienced, knowledgeable, and grounded in the self-determined needs of the client. It’s important for therapist to have an awareness of self and bracketing (setting personal agendas and personal lives aside) when with the client. This is a transformative process that needs affirmation and acknowledgement of both person’s needs.
In the end, Talia and Nina reached a point of experiencing an open relationships at the emotional level and activity partners (travel, sports, and other social events). They found that this is where they both wanted to go; what they both needed; and how they can both be happy with sustaining and not compromising their values.
This is the beauty of collaboration, humility, and positive regard for the client by the therapist.