Mono-Poly Relationships in Therapy - The Affirmative Couch

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Mono-Poly Relationships in Therapy

Posted: 4-1-21 | Stephanie Sullivan

Image of various rainbow colored birds on a wire and a couple having a heart to heart discussion to represent the nuances of a monogamous and polyamorous relationship. On top, it says "Ask Us Anything" to represent the Affirmative Couch's series in which therapists can ask questions about affirmative therapy and get details responses.

Ask Us Anything: How does a therapist deal with a couple where one partner prefers monogamy and the other wants to be polyamorous?

 First, we can consider the many ways in which one might ask this question, which can change its meaning. There are several situations when this will come up in the therapy room, and a therapist may help different couples navigate this in various ways. I prefer to say “work with” rather than “deal with,” due to the negative connotation of the latter. 

  1. How does a therapist work with a couple in which one partner is monogamous while the other is polyamorous and wants to open up the relationship?
  2. How does a therapist work with a couple in which one partner is polyamorous while the other is monogamous and wants to close their relationship? 
  3. How does a therapist work with a couple in which one partner is just realizing they are or is coming out as polyamorous?

These are similar questions, but address slightly different concerns. One involves the possibility of opening up the relationship; another involves the possibility of closing the relationship; and the last may have several different implications for the relationship.

Couples’ Histories and Presentations

Mono-poly relationships are possible and can be fulfilling, but each couple may come to different conclusions about how they want to go about this kind of relationship. It is important to note that the way a therapist can help couples to navigate their relationship depends largely on how the couple presents, as well as their history together. 

For example, consider a couple that has been married and monogamous for 17 years. One partner started saying that they are polyamorous only after their partner found out about an affair. Their situation is markedly different from that of a couple featuring one partner who was polyamorous when the relationship began while the other partner was monogamous. The couple finds that this is coming up as an issue in their relationship a few years later. 

These two cases also contrast greatly from a couple in which one person learned about polyamory and brought it up to their monogamous partner. This couple ends up in your office as they attempt to navigate their differing needs in the relationship. 

Therefore, it is essential for a therapist to first gather a history of the clients and how their relationship is currently functioning, as well as to learn whether they have had past issues with trust or commitment. Some individuals do come to therapy with the belief that polyamory will “fix” their relationship. It’s worth noting that in many cases, polyamory can help one or both partners feel more fulfilled and less pressured, but in other cases, the relationship should be strengthened before anyone tries to open it up–if the couple does indeed want to stay together. 

Relationship Agreements and Moving Forward

The history that the therapist gathers should include questions like, “Have you discussed your relationship agreements in the past? What are they and what have they been? Were your relationship agreements openly verbalized, or were they assumed? How, if at all, have you negotiated your current relationship agreements? What does monogamy/polyamory mean to you?” All of these questions will offer valuable insight into what each partner is seeking, each person’s understanding of the relationship as it stands, and where they may be able to find common ground. 

The initial agreements that the couple had at the beginning, or for the majority, of their relationship are very important here. Deciding whether to open a relationship may share some parallels with deciding whether or not to have a child. Having a child is a life-altering decision, and there is nothing “right” or “wrong” about wanting or not wanting children. However, if both partners had an understanding that they were on the same page for years, and now one person has changed their mind about wanting children, this can be an insurmountable difference in what they want, and how or whether the partners can move forward with their relationship. 

Likewise, adding a new partner separate from the initial couples relationship will always change the dynamics of the first relationship–just as having a baby will change the dynamics between a couple who are new parents. This is not a bad thing! But it is something that all partners should be aware of. Often, the person who wants to change the initial agreements of the relationship will have to realize that this is what they are doing or requesting, and must be patient while their partner catches up or decides whether this is something they are able and willing to change for themselves as well. 

Relationship Orientations, Behaviors, and Identities

So, what does each partner in the relationship want? Sometimes clients will want their partners to share the same relationship behaviors and identities they have. What this means is that someone monogamous may want only one partner, and expect the same of their partner. Or a polyamorous person may have the expectation that their partner will also want multiple romantic or sexual partners. 

This is where couples therapy can get complex. If one partner has a monogamous relationship orientation but is comfortable with their partner maintaining other romantic or sexual involvements, there can be room for flexibility within the relationship. Likewise, if one partner has a polyamorous relationship orientation, but doesn’t care whether their partner has multiple partners of their own, there is flexibility here as well. Mono-poly relationships can work well as long as there is flexibility within the relationship and an understanding of one another’s relationship orientations and identity.  

Directions for Relationship Exploration

With this in mind, there are a few things to explore for a relationship in which one partner wants to open up:

  1. Would the monogamous partner be open to having their partner dating other people? 
    1. If not, do they cite jealousy as the reason for not wanting to open up, without much analysis behind this? Exploring the jealousy and what is underneath may be helpful. The intention here cannot be to remove the jealousy in order to help the relationship become polyamorous, but to address jealousy simply because it is healthy for the relationship. 
    2. If they are open to the idea, under what circumstances? What needs would have to be met to ensure that the partner continues to feel special and loved?
  2. Was this a shift in the relationship? 
    1. Did the couple first get together when both of them were single, and have they been monogamous with each other so far? Is the conversation now about opening up the relationship, even though the polyamorous partner had been open about their orientation from the outset?
      1. In this circumstance, the monogamous partner may have had fantasies that they could change their polyamorous partner, which may cause significant resentment.
    2. Or had the relationship started monogamously, and now the polyamorous person is coming out or talking about an interest in dating other people? 
      1. In this circumstance, the monogamous partner may have been taken aback by this interest, and it may trigger some insecurities about themself or the quality of their relationship. 
  3. Is there a control issue at play? The person who says ‘no’ to a request has the power in the relationship. Is there anything like this going on in the relationship that needs to be addressed?
  4. Does one partner feel judged for their monogamy? Sometimes polyamorous folx can assert that their relationship orientation is “better” and “more evolved,” and that the monogamous partner should shift their heteronormative, monocentric, patriarchal views of relationships and therefore open the relationship. This would be coercive and should be addressed directly in therapy.
  5. Does one partner feel judged for their polyamory? Sometimes monogamous folx can assert that their relationship orientation is “better” and “more secure” and that the polyamorous partner is being greedy or slutty, or is harming the relationship or their family and should therefore be monogamous. This would be coercive and should be addressed directly in therapy. 

Mono-Poly Couples in Therapy

Ultimately, there is a lot to explore when a couple is presenting as mono-poly, and there are many different directions that couples therapy could take. Couples therapists may find that it can be most helpful to assess whether the couple has a secure attachment to one another, or if they are relying on the structure of their relationship to either feel secure or to try to create distance. 

In addition, it is also helpful to remember that the goal of couples therapy is not necessarily to keep couples together. The goal of couples therapy is for each partner to increase understanding about themselves and each other; increase understanding about the relationship between the partners; and to create the love and connection(s) that each partner wants. Sometimes, this means that the couple will not stay together. And that’s okay. 

References

Benoit, S. (2019, April 11). This is What Couples Therapy Can Actually Solve. GQ. https://www.gq.com/story/couples-therapy-guide

Conner, S. (2020, February 24). Helping Clients to Negotiate Intimate Relationship Contracts. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/helping-clients-to-negotiate-intimate-relationship-contracts/ 

Hope, R. (2019, November 5). Exploring Mono-Poly Relationships. Polyamory Today. https://medium.com/polyamory-today/exploring-mono-poly-relationships-ae5e78bef452#:~:text=A%20mono%2Dpoly%20relationship%20is,other%20partner%20identifies%20as%20monogamous.&text=Relationships%20between%20two%20polyamorous%20people,of%20relationship%20is%20no%20different

Sullivan, S. (2019, June 14). Managing Jealousy in a Polyamorous Relationship. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/managing-jealousy-in-a-polyamorous-relationship/ 

Check Out Stephanie Sullivan’s CE Courses on Polyamory

 

Bisexual flag with 3 white unicorns in front. Underneath it says, "Multiplicities of Desire: Working with the Intersection of Bisexuality and Polyamory" Presented by Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT 3 CE Course" which is offered by The Affirmative Couch, an APA approved Sponsor of continuing education                           Geometric heart with infinity symbol in front. Underneath "Polyamorous Clients in Therapy: What You Didn't Know You Needed to Know Presented by Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT, 3 CE Course" which is offered by The Affirmative Couch, an APA approved Sponsor of continuing education                       People connected with dotted lines. Underneath it says, "Feminist Structural Family Therapy with Polyamorous Clients Presented by Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT and John Wall MS, ALMFT, 2.5 CE Course" which is offered by The Affirmative Couch, an APA approved Sponsor of continuing education

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