Out On The Couch
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.
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
By Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
Many people, across all walks of life, occasionally need therapeutic services. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, it can be difficult for anyone to contact a mental health therapist. However, if you are polyamorous or curious about exploring polyamory, you may struggle even more with reaching out to a new therapist or opening up to your current therapist about your relationship style, as many therapists lack knowledge and may have judgmental views of consensual non-monogamy (Schechinger, Sakaluk, & Moors, 2018). You may want to explore mental health services as an individual, to work through some aspect of your relationship, or you may want to pursue therapy with a partner, a metamour, or more than one person in your polycule. If you are currently monogamous and thinking about opening up your relationship, you may want to seek both individual and couple therapy in order to explore the relationship options available to you both alone and with your partner.
Alternately, you may be interested in receiving mental health services for a reason unrelated to your relationship structure. Whether you are experiencing depression, anxiety, work-related stress, processing trauma, or working on something else, you may know that your polyamorous relationship structure is not the cause of your distress but is still an important part of who you are. You don’t want a therapist who will automatically blame your relationship structure for your anxiety; you want someone who can differentiate between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy relationship (regardless of the style of that relationship) and focus on the actual causes of the anxiety you are experiencing.
For these reasons, it may be important to you to find a polyamory-friendly or polyamory-affirmative therapist. When we say a therapist is “polyamory-friendly,” this means that they are open-minded and accepting, but may not have much knowledge or experience in working with the polyamorous community. When a therapist is polyamory-affirmative, they have extra knowledge or training about polyamory, and may have gone out of their way to gain this experience. A polyamory-affirmative therapist will also be outwardly supportive of your relationship style, able to acknowledge how societal expectations and oppression may affect you, and be able to help you deconstruct these societal narratives.
Finding a therapist who is a good fit can be a challenging process for many people, but it can be especially challenging within the non-monogamous community. Many people within the community have often had difficulty with finding an accepting and knowledgeable therapist in their area (Anapol, 2010; Schechinger, Sakalk, & Moors, 2018). Some people have reported that their therapists told them their polyamorous relationship was problematic, the cause of their depression, or meant that they had an insecure attachment style (Anapol, 2010; McCoy, Stinson, Ross, & Hjelmstad, 2015). If your therapist is not aware of, comfortable with, and sensitive to your relationship style, it can be very difficult to achieve your goals in therapy, and may actually lead to more distress for you as the client (Graham, 2014; Williams & Prior, 2015).
To those who are polyamorous, it may be unsurprising to hear that relatively few therapists have heard of polyamory, and even fewer therapists have actually worked with polyamorous clients (Weitzman, 2006). It can be extremely frustrating when you go to therapy and have to spend the session educating your therapist about polyamory. Of course, every relationship is different and unique, so you will have to spend some time telling your therapist about your individual situation and what is bringing you to therapy. But you shouldn’t have to use your session time to educate your therapist on polyamory in general, or defend your relationship style to them. While therapists are slowly becoming more informed about polyamory, they are still far behind in becoming knowledgeable and competent in working with the community (Johnson, 2013).
However, this does not mean that finding an understanding and supportive therapist is a lost cause! There are many ways to find a therapist who will be accepting of your relationship, and it is important to check all of these avenues to find the person that will be the best fit for you.
First, try online searches and directories for polyamory-friendly professionals. Some of these resources include:
- The Polyamory-Friendly Professionals Directory: https://www.polyfriendly.org
- The Kink Aware Professionals Directory (KAP): https://www.ncsfreedom.org
- The Open List: Openingup.net/open-list
- The Polyamory Loving More Member Professionals List: https://www.lovingmorenonprofit.org
- The “Meet our Experts” section of The Affirmative Couch: https://affirmativecouch.com
It is important to understand that these resources do not have a process to verify the credentials of the professionals that are listed on their sites. However, most (if not all) of these professionals have had to seek out a listing on the site, which took some time and effort. Therefore, these directories are likely to have therapists who are at least polyamory-friendly, even if they are not entirely knowledgeable and competent in working with the community.
Another source to find therapists are more general directories, such as Psychology Today or Good Therapy. You can search these directories based on your location and read the profiles of various mental health therapists. These directories do verify the licensure status and credentials of the therapists listed on their websites, but you may have to read through more profiles to find someone who is supportive of your relationship style. There is no guarantee that the therapists listed here will be polyamory-friendly or affirmative, but it is possible to find someone who has listed polyamory as one of their specialties within their profiles.
Once you have a few names of therapists in your area, check out their listings on other sites or their own website. One way to determine their level of knowledge is to look at how they are marketing themselves. On these directories and other sites, do they simply say they are “open to working with polyamorous clients”? Or do they say something like, “I am familiar with hierarchical polyamory, non-hierarchical polyamory, solo polyamory, and relationship anarchy”? The second therapist in this example may be more polyamory-affirmative, more knowledgeable, or have more experience in working with polyamorous clients than the first one, as they are familiar with the expansive terminology within the non-monogamy umbrella. If the therapist has a blog or professional social media pages, it may be helpful to look at the types of articles they are writing about or sharing, as well.
If you cannot find polyamory-friendly professionals in your area, try looking at other parts of the state you live in to find a therapist who provides online services. You may be able to find a therapist who is willing to book online video chat sessions with you in order to give you the care you deserve. Or, if you have the time, funds, and ability to travel farther than you normally would, it may be worth it to drive a longer distance to see a polyamory-friendly therapist in person in order to gain access to a therapist who will understand your relationship.
If you are still struggling to find a therapist who is accepting and knowledgeable about polyamory, you may want to look at LGBTQ-Affirmative therapists, even if you identify as heterosexual. These professionals may be more open to non-traditional relationship styles and may already work with some non-monogamous clients, although they may not advertise it or consider themselves knowledgeable. This may be an option as well if you are seeking more individualized care that is not explicitly focused on navigating a polyamorous relationship.
Although polyamory-affirmative therapists are difficult to find, they do exist! It will be very beneficial to find a therapist who is right for you and understands your relationship. If you don’t want to spend hours educating your therapist about your relationship style, try using the above resources to find a professional who better suits your needs.
Learn More from Stephanie M. Sullivan
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the twenty-first century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Graham, N. (2014). Polyamory: A call for increased mental health professional awareness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 1031-1034. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0321-3
Johnson, A. L. (2013). Counseling the polyamorous client: Implications for competent practice. VISTAS Online, 50, 1-10.
McCoy, M. A., Stinson, M. A., Ross, D. B., & Hjelmstad, L. R. (2015). Who’s in our clients’ bed? A case illustration of sex therapy with a polyamorous couple. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 41(2), 134-144. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2013.864366
Schechinger, H. Sakaluk, J., & Moors, A. (2018). Harmful and helpful therapy practices with consensually non-monogamous clients: Toward an inclusive framework. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 879-891. doi:10.1037/ccp0000349
Williams, D. J., & Prior, E. E. (2015). Contemporary polyamory: A call for awareness and sensitivity in social work. Social Work, 60(3), 268-270. doi:10.1093/sw/swv012