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Bisexual Polyamorous Clients in Therapy

Posted: 7-21-21 | Stephanie Sullivan

A bisexual flag with a cost/benefit graph. The benefit line leads to the infinity heart symbol. This represents how psychotherapists should work with their bisexual polyamorous clients to understand costs and benefits of engaging in polyamorous relationships.

Before getting into this article, I would like to locate myself. I am a white, bisexual, able-bodied, ambiamorous, cisgender woman with anxiety and a chronic illness who has been in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships. As someone who identifies as bisexual, has navigated both polyamorous and monogamous relationships, and specializes in working with these communities, I believe that it is important for clinicians to understand the unique experiences of bisexual polyamorous individuals.

As an affirmative therapist throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have worked with clients with marginalized identities who have been experiencing higher-than-baseline levels of anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. This has filtered into much of our work, even if their primary presenting problem was originally to navigate their sexual orientation or relationship orientation, or to navigate concerns within their relationships. COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that, as clinicians, it is important to recognize that our clients’ identities do not exist in a vacuum – just as our own identities do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, it is always important to take into account the impact of both internal and external factors in clients’ lives while working with them – as well as how our own experiences may or may not come into the therapy room. 

Potential Benefits of Polyamory for Bisexual Clients

Bisexuality has been defined as “the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree” (Ochs, n.d.). Studies show that bisexual people prefer polyamorous or open relationships in greater frequency than people of other sexual orientations (Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994). One benefit of polyamory for bisexual people is: “polyamory and bisexuality propose a plurality of loves, both in the number of partners and genders thereof” (Anderlini-D’Onofrio, 2004). Polyamory can be a beautiful thing for many bisexual individuals who want to add diversity to their sexual and romantic lives with people of more than one gender. 

However, they don’t always have a “preference” in their partner’s gender; it is more about the people they are dating and how polyamory enhances their lives. In fact, 70% of bisexual polyamorous participants in one study did not care whether their partners were of the same or different genders at any one time (Weitzman, 2006). Their preference for polyamory, therefore, may come from the fact that more bi-identified men and women tend to believe that monogamy in relationships is less enhancing and more sacrificing than gay-identified or straight-identified individuals (Mark, Rosenkrantz, & Kerner, 2014). 

Bisexual Erasure and Strategic Identities

Polyamory offers an exceptional way to provide a buffer against bi erasure or invisibility and challenges the risk of falling into heteronormativity (Robinson, 2013). In fact, non-monogamy has been identified as a “strategic identity” to maintain bisexual visibility in the world (Klesse, 2011; Moss, 2012; Robinson, 2013; Weitzman, 2006). A strategic identity is an identity that serves a political, social, or interpersonal function. In this case, the function of polyamory could be visibility and support of bisexuality as an authentic identity. When bisexual individuals can express their identity more fully and be visibly bisexual, especially in the context of a polyamorous relationship, they also tend to have more: 

  • Freedom to have partner choices of all genders, 
  • Freedom to speak openly about the full range of their attractions and fantasies,
  • Opportunities for group sex, and 
  • Sexual and romantic enjoyment of different genders. 

Therefore, if bisexual individuals engage in polyamorous relationships, they can express their sexuality more freely – both for themselves and within the larger world. 

Potential Disadvantages of Polyamory for Bisexual Clients

There are also unique disadvantages to being both bisexual and polyamorous. These individuals may be doubly stigmatized as “confused” or “promiscuous” (McLean, 2011; Weitzman, 2006). They may experience prejudice and discrimination from both the gay and straight communities (e.g., prejudice from gay partners about other-gender partners; prejudice from straight partners about same-gender partners). This internalized stigma and biphobia from partners (either monosexual or bisexual partners) can also lead to potential increased rates of intimate partner violence. Turell, Brown, and Herrmann (2017) found that bi-negativity and the oversexualization of bisexual individuals was a risk factor for higher rates of jealousy and IPV. This risk was highlighted by bisexual participants who are also polyamorous. 

On an individual level, bisexual people may experience guilt about reinforcing the stereotype that “bisexual people aren’t/can’t be monogamous.” And, they may also experience their own or others’ misperceptions that same-gender relationships are somehow less important than other-gender relationships (Weitsman, 2006). 

As clinicians, it is our duty to challenge these cognitions if we have any of them; by reinforcing these stereotypes, we would be harming our bisexual clients as well. We can challenge our own thoughts and feelings through: 

  • Being curious about clients’ lived experiences
  • Identifying and being curious about our own reactions and expectations for our clients’ lives
  • Reading, following, and engaging with media created by bisexual polyamorous folx 
  • Educating ourselves about the reality of bisexuality and polyamory
  • Seeking supervision or consultation with another polyamory-affirmative clinician

Clinical Work with Bisexual Polyamorous Clients

Having explored the potential advantages and disadvantages of polyamory for bisexual individuals, clinicians will hopefully be better positioned to provide a safe space for their bisexual polyamorous clients. Helping bisexual polyamorous clients with their relationships may include talking about safer sex practices with many genders, assessing for biphobia, assessing and creating safety plans for IPV, as well as addressing any other clinical issues.

Clinical work may include an exploration of how competition shows up in their relationships (if it does at all). Some partners of bisexual individuals may take comfort in knowing that they are currently the only person of a particular gender that the person is dating; therefore, they may feel as though there is less of a risk of their bisexual partner leaving them. For others, they may be acutely aware that their body is different from that of their metamours’; therefore, they may be concerned about never being able to fulfill a particular role or sexual desire for their partner (Armstrong & Reissing, 2014).

In doing this work, affirmative clinicians should also be on the lookout for any potential biphobia or IPV within a relationship. Couples’ therapy or multi-partner relationship therapy is not recommended in cases where IPV is prevalent. 

Unique Stressor: A “Choice” 

Bisexual polyamorous people also often are asked to make a choice between a partner and their relationship orientation. This is because potential other-sex partners of bisexual individuals tend to have expectations of monogamy (Armstrong & Reissing, 2014). This decision is a frequent reason couples end up in my office: one person craves non-monogamy, while the other can only envision a monogamous relationship for themselves. This is not always related to one person having a bisexual identity, but it can be one aspect of mono-poly relationship experiences. When faced with a monogamous-minded partner, some bisexual individuals do end up feeling like they have to make a choice, and may explore their options in our office. Some questions a bisexual client may be struggling with are:  

  • Do I stay in a monogamous relationship, or do I go? 
  • What does this say about my identity? 
  • Am I being true to myself?
  • What will my community think?
  • Will I be rejected from bisexual spaces or polyamorous spaces? 
  • Would I be a “sell-out” for choosing a partner of one gender or choosing a monogamous relationship? 

Bisexual erasure happens to bisexual folx all the time; it is a weight we often feel, even if we aren’t expressing it. Therefore, an affirmative clinician should try to be aware of both the explicit and implicit choices that a client may be making when they are exploring the pros and cons of their relationship structures and how they are designing their relationships. While polyamory may help some bisexual folx combat bi erasure and be more visible, it also brings other difficulties with it. There is no one “correct” way to structure relationships, but exploring the various options, benefits, and disadvantages with bisexual individuals may help clients find the best choice for themselves and live more authentically in their life. 

References 

Anderlini-D’Onofrio, S. (2004). Plural loves: Bi and poly utopias for a new millennium. Journal of Bisexuality, 4, 1-6, doi:10.1300/J159v04n03_01

Armstrong, H. L. & Reissing, E. D. (2014). Attitudes toward casual sex, dating, and committed relationship with bisexual partners. Journal of Bisexuality, 14, 236-264. doi:10.1080/15299716.2014.902784

Klesse, C. (2011). Shady characters, untrustworthy partners, and promiscuous sluts: Creating bisexual intimacies in the face of heteronormativity and biphobia. Journal of Bisexuality, 11, 227-244. doi:10.1080/15299716.2011.571987

Mark, K., Rosenkrantz, D., and Kerner, I. (2014). “Bi”ing into monogamy: Attitudes toward monogamy in a sample of bisexual-identified adults. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1(3), 263-269. doi:10.1037/sgd0000051

McLean, K. (2011). Bisexuality and nonmonogamy: A reflection. Journal of Bisexuality, 11, 513-517. doi:10.1080/15299716.2011.620857

Moss, A. R. (2012). Alternative families, alternative lives: Married women doing bisexuality. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 8(5), 405-427. doi:10.1080/1550428X.2012.729946

Ochs, R. (n.d.). Bisexual: A few quotes from Robyn Ochs. Retrieved from https://robynochs.com/bisexual/

Robinson, M. (2013). Polyamory and monogamy as strategic identities. Journal of Bisexuality, 13(1), 21-38. doi:10.1080/15299716.2013.755731

Turell, S. C., Brown, M., & Hermann, M. (2017). Disproportionately high: An exploration of intimate partner violence prevalence rates for bisexual people. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 33, 113-131. doi:10.1080/14681994.2017.1347614

Weinberg, M., Williams, C., & Pryor, D. (1994). Dual attraction: Understanding bisexuality. New York, NY: Oxford Press. 

Weitsman, G. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6, 137-164. doi:10.1300/J159v06n01_08

Check Out Stephanie’s CE Courses on working with polyamorous clients

 

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

Managing Jealousy in a Polyamorous Relationship

Posted: 6-14-19 | Stephanie Sullivan

jealousy and polyamory

Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT

Keywords: Polyamory

When people are first introduced to the idea of polyamory, one of the first questions they ask is often about jealousy. How do people in polyamorous relationships manage jealousy? Are they ever jealous? In the vast majority of polyamorous relationships, jealousy does come up at some point. However, jealousy can be broken down to determine what your real concerns are. When you recognize what is bothering you, it is possible to manage this challenging feeling. You may even reach a point of compersion, in which you feel joy when your partner is with another partner. You may feel this because you are happy that your metamour is making your partner happy. This article will provide some tips if you are attempting to navigate jealousy within a polyamorous relationship. Therapists who work with polyamorous clients may find this article to be a helpful guide as well.

A step that is often missed or overlooked when moving away from jealousy and into compersion is the feeling of neutrality about something. If you have been jealous about something often, it may be more realistic to strive toward a feeling of neutrality before attempting to feel compersion. Feeling neutral or even a little less jealous is always a step forward! If you notice that you only feel some anxiety when your partner is on a date with someone else, rather than having a panic attack, that is still progress! Moving forward by recognizing those small steps is essential in the process of managing jealousy in polyamory.

When thinking about your own jealousy, it is important to explore where this feeling is coming from. There are three different parts of jealousy to consider. First, there are the worries and doubts that occur based on a person’s suspicions and perceived threats to the relationship. Second, there is an emotional component to these thoughts and worries. You may feel anxious, uncomfortable, angry, fearful, or insecure about yourself or your relationship. Third, you choose how to respond to your thoughts and emotions, which becomes the behavioral component of jealousy (Knobloch, Solomon, & Kruz, 2001). Your reaction could be to ignore the jealousy, to be angry, to have a conversation with your partner, or many other reactions and behaviors.

Jealousy may be triggered in a number of ways. You may witness an interaction between your partner and your metamour that triggers your jealousy. You may also feel jealousy even at the idea of what could be occurring between your partner and metamour. Regardless of how the jealousy is triggered, if you find yourself experiencing it, you may need to think about where that feeling is coming from and tune in to yourself. What thoughts are you having, what emotions are you feeling, and how are you reacting? Are you comparing yourself to someone else, feeling competitive with another person, fearing the loss of your partner, or feeling a loss of control in your relationship or in your life? Are you feeling neglected by a partner? Do you have a fear of missing out on the activities they are doing with someone else? All of these thoughts and feelings can lead to jealousy (Sheff, 2014; Winston, 2017).

Journaling is an excellent way to do some self-reflection and allows you to explore and take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than blaming outside influences. Once you have an idea of where your jealousy is coming from, you will be better equipped to discuss it with your partner and manage that jealousy! If you have trouble identifying where your jealousy is coming from or managing jealousy, it may be helpful for you to find a polyamory-affirmative therapist to help you explore these things. A good polyamory-affirmative therapist will also be able to help you identify and practice tools for managing jealousy.

Constructive communication is one tool you can use when you are feeling jealous. Constructive communication focuses on maintaining your relationship and engaging in open discussions with your partner(s). It also facilitates good feelings about yourself and your partner(s). Research studies have shown that people who use constructive communication about jealousy are more likely to be satisfied in their relationships than people who use destructive communication techniques (Guerrero, 2014). However, destructive communication techniques (such as yelling and blaming a partner) are used most often in our media, especially in popular romantic comedies (Frampton & Linvill, 2017). Therefore, this is what we are often exposed to and “taught” to use when we are feeling jealous; because we are certainly not taught how to communicate constructively in school.

So, how can you engage in more constructive communication when you are experiencing jealousy in a polyamorous relationship? Constructive communication can be achieved by engaging in positive behaviors toward yourself or your partner. Some examples of constructive communication may include getting dressed up for yourself to feel good about yourself or being extra nice to your partner and focusing on the things you appreciate in your partner, rather than your jealousy (Guerrero, 2014). Another example of constructive communication is simply telling your partner that you are feeling jealous and engaging in an open discussion with them about that jealousy and where it is coming from. It is important to approach these conversations with care and consideration for how your partner is feeling, as well. You may approach this conversation by stating something like, “I have been feeling jealous lately, and I would like to talk about where this is coming from for me.” This sentence allows you to take responsibility for your own emotions without placing blame on your partner or causing them to feel defensive.  

Another way to communicate when you are experiencing jealousy is a technique put forth by Dedeker Winston (2017). She calls it the “Pay it Forward” technique. This is a type of constructive communication that facilitates positive feelings in yourself, rather than jealousy. Winston recommends sending texts of gratitude to friends, family, or other partners to tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Using this technique may help you feel more thankful for all of the good that you have in your life, rather than remaining stuck in cycles of jealous thoughts.

It is important for your partner(s) to remain open to hearing about your feelings of jealousy, and to respond to your requests, if they are reasonable for your relationship. For example, if you are feeling jealous that your partner took their other partner to a new restaurant that you want to try, it is perfectly reasonable to ask your partner to take you the following weekend. In addition, if your partner is experiencing New Relationship Energy (NRE) and spending a lot of time with a new partner, causing you to feel neglected, it is not unreasonable to let them know, and to request more quality time with your partner. However, if you are feeling jealous and make a request that limits your partner’s time with a new partner to once a month, that may be seen as unreasonable and unfair to the other relationship.

Beyond addressing things directly with the partner with whom you are feeling jealous, you may reach out to a friend or another partner so that you are involved in your own life or with other people, rather than focusing only on what your partner is doing (Sheff, 2014; Veaux & Rickert, 2014; Winston, 2017). This will help to reduce the intrusive thoughts you are having about what your partner is doing, and will help you create a more positive emotional state. Mindfulness techniques work well for this too, so that you are engaged in your own present moment, rather than anguishing about your partner’s activities and whereabouts.

How you react when you are feeling jealousy is important to consider when you are exploring the possibility of a polyamorous relationship. Do you yell at your partner, act rude, argue, or forbid them from seeing the person that triggers jealousy for you? Do you engage in violence, and hit, shove, or threaten to harm your partner or the person you are jealous of? Or, do you try to also make your partner feel jealous? If any of the above are true for you, you may be engaging in destructive communication patterns (Guerrero, 2014). Not only is this destructive to your relationship, but it is also harmful to your partner, as many of these behaviors are abusive. If you find yourself engaging in violence or threats of violence toward your partner, it is important that you seek help from a mental health clinician or take a break from your current relationship, as you may not be ready to be in a relationship. If you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in these behaviors against you, it may be time to seek support from a mental health clinician, family and friends, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Seeking support to maintain your own emotional and physical safety is crucial when leaving an abusive relationship.

In a polyamorous relationship, it is important to remember that placing restrictions on your partner generally does not help you to work through jealousy. Unless these restrictions are temporary, while you actively work to figure out what is triggering your jealousy and how to manage it, the restrictions may end up only leading to even more distrust and higher levels of jealousy. Controlling your partner or the things that trigger your jealousy will generally not be helpful in a polyamorous relationship. Placing these restrictions on your partner long-term may only facilitate mistrust, as you are then caught up in thoughts about whether your partner is following the rules or lying to you about what they are doing. Likewise, snooping through your partner’s belongings, phone, or email will also not be helpful to control jealousy or to facilitate more trust within your relationship (Veaux & Rickert, 2014; Winston, 2017).

The above behaviors are also invasive and abusive. Jealousy is not an excuse for abusive or controlling behaviors. Trust is important in any romantic relationship, and may predict relationship satisfaction (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Rubin, 2010; Wieselquist, 2009). Therefore, it is important to ensure that you can trust your partner and to respect your partner’s autonomy, privacy, and boundaries, both before opening up a relationship or before entering into a relationship with a new partner. Sometimes, this may mean healing old wounds before getting into a relationship with a new partner, if you feel that you will not have the ability to trust anyone. Especially in this case, you may want to seek support from a polyamory-affirmative mental health clinician, so as not to carry baggage from an old (or current) relationship into a new one.

Many people may also try to keep score in their relationships, thinking that as long as their partner is spending more time or money on them than on anyone else, they will not feel jealous of their partner’s other partners. However, keeping score like this will often lead to even more distress, as it is simply another way of controlling what your partner is doing. It does not allow your partner the opportunity to show that they are actively making an effort to see you if you are telling them that they have to see you a certain amount. This strategy may actually end up having the opposite effect that you want to achieve, because your partner may begin to feel resentful or controlled about how much time they must spend with you. When you stop keeping score, you can be sure that your partner is reaching out simply because they want to see you and prioritize you in their life.

Once you feel you have identified where your jealousy is coming from, your needs are being met, and you are actively managing jealous feelings, you may be able to start feeling compersion. Compersion can be facilitated through the understanding that your partner is not there only for your own gratification. You may need to change your perspective on what you can reasonably expect from a partner, and recognize that you want them to be happy just as much as you want yourself to be happy. You can ask yourself what brings your partner joy, and if you want them to experience that joy. If you do not want them experiencing that joy, it may be helpful to ask yourself why you do not want this. Compersion can occur through the knowledge that you do want your partner to be genuinely happy, whether that happiness is caused by you or someone else (Hypatia, 2018).

No matter what stage your relationship is in, it is natural to feel jealousy! If you have a difficult time managing jealousy, or feel that your partner is being unfair to you, it may be beneficial to seek either individual therapy or relationship therapy from a polyamory-affirmative therapist. This therapist should be equipped to help you with these struggles and help you and your partner(s) navigate your relationship agreements, communication, jealousy, and much more. Check out Finding a Polyamory-Affirmative Therapist for more info!

References

Campbell, L., Simpson, J. A., Boldry, J. G., & Rubin, H. (2010). Trust, variability in relationship evaluations, and relationship processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(1), 14-31. doi:10.1037/a0019714

Frampton, J. R., & Linvill, D. L. (2017). Green on the screen: Types of jealousy and communicative responses to jealousy in romantic comedies. Southern Communication Journal, 85(5), 298-311. doi:10.1080/1041794X.2017.1347701

Guerrero, L. K. (2014). Jealousy and relational satisfaction: Actor effects, partner effects, and the mediating role of destructive communicative responses to jealousy. Western Journal of Communication, 78(5), 586-611. doi:10.1080/10570314.2014.935468

Hypatia. (2018). Compersion: Polyamory beyond jealousy. Middletown, DE: Author.

Knobloch, L. K., Solomon, D. H., & Cruz, M. G. (2001). The role of relationship development and attachment in the experience of romantic jealousy. Personal Relationships, 8, 205-224. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00036.x

Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Veaux, F., & Rickert, E. (2014). More than two: A practical guide to polyamory. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.

Wieselquist, J. (2009). Interpersonal forgiveness, trust, and the investment model of commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(4), 531-548. doi:10.1177/0265407509347931

Winston, D. (2017). The smart girl’s guide to polyamory: Everything you need to know about open relationships, non-monogamy, and alternative love. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.