Out On The Couch
Bisexual Polyamorous Clients in Therapy
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
Helping Clients to Negotiate Intimate Relationship Contracts
It can be difficult to find guidance on writing effective relationship contracts, largely because the therapeutic community lacks consensus on the efficacy of such documents. Many clinicians believe that contracts serve the purpose of simply negotiating sexual acts and dynamics, and that by creating a contract, clients can sacrifice creativity and spontaneity in a relationship.
But this is a myth. Contracts can go far deeper than addressing what happens in the bedroom, serving as a viable and necessary tool for people in relationships to see and understand each other. Contracts can be created to help begin honest conversations about each individual’s wants and needs within a relationship.
I was first introduced to the concept of intimate relationship contracts in a college course on human sexuality. The version of the contract I initially saw is popular specifically within BDSM communities; it helps clarify the roles and responsibilities of each person in a relationship. When beginning to develop contracts in a clinical or therapeutic setting, you may find overlaps between versions of sexual and intimate relationship ones. An important distinction is that a sexual contract’s goal is responsible “play,” whereas an intimate relationship version strives for an honest and shared understanding of a relationship as a whole.
For an example from pop culture, we might look at the well-known book and film trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey (James, 2012). This provided, to many, an introduction to what an intimate relationship contract can entail. However, those who already had familiarity with contracts might view Fifty Shades’ portrayal as inaccurate and watered down. For example, in the film, only certain parts of the contract were portrayed; to some, these seemed to be the most risque components, which were used to surprise the audience. And in the book version, the contract and relationship overall were more about issues of control and ultimately dominance and submission. But most will find that in reality, relationships are more complex than that.
Note that intimate relationship contracts are not legally binding; there is nothing that the courts would be able to uphold in these documents. So think of these contracts as more of a tool for understanding a partner, setting boundaries, and laying out expectations in writing. The documents give each individual the opportunity to state their desires and interests, and if an issue or argument arises later, both sides can consult the contract to remember what was agreed upon in the beginning.
It’s also important to note that contracts are limited; they are not designed for negotiating every specific point of a relationship. If, during a therapy session, the contract starts to go in that direction, it’s a good time to stop and refocus clients on the reasons for using this tool as a way to get them on the same page.
What might an intimate relationship contract look like? Some contracts contain more sections and logistical information, while others may include more details about expectations. Either way, any contract should include at least several basic sections; these are outlined below. Note that those sections are conversation starters, intended to help your clients move towards more in-depth discussions of their desires and dynamics, and they by no means constitute a complete list of topics. I hope you will be able to use this template to dig deep into your clients’ communication with each other, and to get to the bottom of their preferences.
COMPONENTS OF AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP/ SEXUAL CONTRACT
- Who is involved?
This question may seem obvious, but for couples who are consensually non-monogamous, involvement of other people can make or break the relationship. As a therapist working with couples, I have noted that when clients are connected in an intimate relationship, they sometimes assume they know each other completely, which will lead them to make decisions without consulting each other. This can contribute to confusion, jealousy, and sometimes the end of their relationship. So it’s crucial for clear communication to take place about who will be involved. Note that this of course doesn’t mean changes can’t be made. But now is a good time to discuss how modifications to the contract, like who is or is not involved, can be considered and accepted by all parties.
- What are your hygiene rituals?
This is another important conversation starter: discussing preparations for various sexual acts and for learning each other’s preferences. A person may learn that their significant other is allergic to or strongly favors certain soaps and perfumes. As a cultural norm, some people may bathe every few days, while others will shower daily. Communication about hygiene is key, and as a therapist, you can help address discomfort or shame that may emerge about discussing this topic openly.
- What are your fantasies?
Fantasies aren’t always purely sexual in nature, though this part of the conversation can certainly go in that direction. But your clients may go beyond sex on this topic: fantasies could entail thinking about extravagant dates, a day in which one partner is completely dedicated to the other’s wants and needs, a weekend without the children, etc. Remember that fantasies are thoughts or dreams, not acts in which we will necessarily engage. That is why fantasies change–while the thought of doing something can be interesting and exciting, actually following through with it might be too much for a client. This section can entail a simple conversation between two individuals if they are brave enough to venture through the topic on their own. Therapists can also provide exercises and worksheets to help clients further understand each other’s desires. I like to sometimes use a worksheet by Lisa Page (2010) that helps women in particular to explore and look at some of these desires. Some other counseling methods, like the Gottman method, EFT by Susan Johnson, and sex therapy techniques, among others, can help clinicians learn how to explore topics with couples clients.
- What are the things that you know you are okay with?
Fantasies are thoughts, so in this section, clients will consider actions. What have clients actually done that they enjoy and would like to continue? Again, it’s important for your clients to know so that they can relay this information effectively to their partner(s).
- Interests in exploration?
Another thing to remember about fantasies is that most of them are thoughts or dreams, not something the person has actually engaged in. And that is why fantasies change–because while the idea of something can be interesting and exciting, actually doing it or following through with it can be too much for some.
For components 3, 4, and 5, there is a helpful article on Autostraddle (Osworth, 2014) that describes how to talk to your partners about sex. It includes an excellent set of worksheets that I like to use with individuals and couples to help them learn about themselves in conjunction with their partners.
- Limitations/Hard Limits?
It is important to think about your hard limits, defined as those areas in which a partner is not interested and is not willing to try. Just as it is important to know about an individual’s actions–what they enjoy or are willing to do–it is important to know their boundaries: where they draw the line when it comes to their interests and exploration.
- Safe words/hand signs or gestures?
Sometimes things can get passionate and out of control in erotic situations. Safe words, signs, and gestures are ways of making sure that everyone involved stays on the same page, and that activities remain SAFE and CONSENSUAL. Consent, in this context, entails seeking permission or agreement for an act taking place, and the nuances of the definition of consent continue to evolve. It is important that, as clinicians, we encourage partners to continue to ask for permission, and to never assume that they have the right to do something with a partner because they “think” they know each other well enough.
- How often should sex happen?
A lot of couples can get stuck on the question of how often sex should happen; they might fear being completely open and vulnerable with one another in exploring this difficult topic. As a therapist, it is important for you to encourage a conversation about this. A couple may need to compromise on the frequency of sex in order to progress forward. It is essential for each member of a relationship to gain an understanding of their own sexual desire and libido, which can fluctuate and differ from those of their partners, and this will play a role in determining how often sex takes place. I find that if individuals don’t understand this in themselves, they will have a hard time understanding it in others, which is why it’s helpful to have a facilitated conversation with you as therapist present.
- Who initiates the act?
Who is dominant and who is submissive in the relationship? Does this dynamic apply? Are any of the individuals involved switches? This section can introduce a conversation about who feels most comfortable initiating contact, either in a sexual or an intimate context. By intimate, I mean affectionate, without leading to any sexual acts.
- What type of aftercare rituals are desired?
Aftercare is what an individual needs after a sexual encounter. For some it may be taking a shower, followed by cuddling while falling asleep together. Others may want to eat ice cream or have a smoke, while still others might just want to get dressed, eat something, and move on with life. Whatever the case, it’s important to know what each person seeks after an encounter so that wrong assumptions can be avoided.
Communication is the basis for working on these issues and concerns. In order to truly understand and know each other, couples need to be ready and willing to communicate and learn from each others’ wants and needs, and contracts are a vital tool to help with this process. By starting this conversation early in the relationship and continuing to have the support to discuss their desires throughout, clients may feel significantly safer about communicating openly in the future.
Learn More about working with Polyamorous Clients
Gray, J. (June 14, 2016). How to Write a Relationship Contract. Retrieved from www.jordangrayconsulting.com/relationship-contract/
James, E.L. (2012). Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage Books.
Osworth, A.E. (June 19, 2014). You Need Help: Here is a Worksheet to Help you Talk to Partners about Sex. Retrieved from www.autostraddle.com/you-need-help-here-is-a-worksheet-to-help-you-talk-to-partners-about-sex-237385/
Page, L. (2010). Sexuality and Fantasy Exploration Worksheet for Women. Retrieved from https://lisapage.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sexuality-fantasy-exploration-workbook-by-lisa-page.pdf
Managing Jealousy in a Polyamorous Relationship
Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
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!
Learn More About Working with Polyamorous Clients
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.
Finding a Polyamory-Affirmative Therapist
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
Types of Consensual Non-Monogamy
By Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
Consensual non-monogamy is a relationship style in which all individuals within the relationship agree to not being monogamous, and all individuals involved in the relationship are aware that it is not a monogamous relationship. Consensual non-monogamy makes up about 4-5% of the population in the United States (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopkin, 2015). This means that approximately thirteen million to sixteen million people are involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships. This number includes people who are in swinging relationships, polyamorous relationships, or other forms of open relationships.
Consensual non-monogamy is a vast umbrella term, encompassing many kinds of relationships. Within these kinds of relationships (such as swinging, polyamorous, and monogamish relationships), there are an infinite number of ways to navigate the relationship in an ethical manner. There is no “one right way” to be in a consensual non-monogamous relationship (other than the fact that all people involved in the relationship should be knowledgeable about the relationship structure and agree to this structure willingly). Therefore, it is important to remember that this article is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list of non-monogamy; it is merely meant to be a brief introduction to some of these topics.
Different types of consensual non-monogamy have different kinds of relationship rules. When attempting to navigate a non-monogamous relationship ethically, it is important for everyone involved in the relationship to have a mutual understanding and agree to the terms of the relationship. There are many types of consensual non-monogamous relationships, and each individual relationship will vary on their agreements, structure, and openness. Consensual non-monogamy is not cheating, and should not be confused with affairs or infidelity. However, if a relationship agreement between two people is broken, this may be a form of cheating within the relationship. Breaking an agreement can be a huge breach of trust within the consensual non-monogamous relationship, just as much as an affair would be a breach of trust in a monogamous relationship.
Swinging is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which both singles and couples in a committed relationship can explore sexual activities with others recreationally or socially. Couples that swing generally have agreements that they have an open relationship sexually, but do not have an open relationship emotionally or romantically. Swingers will often attend social events at swingers’ clubs, conventions, or swinging resorts, and may pursue sexual relationships with others while their partners are present (Matsick, Conley, Ziegler, Moors, & Rubin, 2014). They may also attend private parties for swingers, often taking place in someone’s personal residence, or may go on a date with another couple before engaging in sexual activities.
Monogamish is a term originally coined by Dan Savage. This describes couples who are committed to each other and are generally monogamous, but will allow for certain sexual exceptions to monogamy. For example, if one partner travels often for work, the couple may have an agreement that one-night stands can occur if the partners are at least 100 miles apart. Another couple may have an agreement that they are allowed to make out with friends at parties. Yet another couple may describe themselves as monogamish because they are allowed to flirt with and attempt to seduce strangers occasionally.
Polyamory is a relationship style centered on the belief that it is possible to love more than one person. The word polyamory comes from the combination of the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love.” Literally translated, polyamory means “many loves” or “more than one love” (Anapol, 2010; Klesse 2006). Polyamorous relationships often involve having more than one romantic relationship simultaneously, with full knowledge and consent of all the partners involved. Polyamory also differs from polygamy, which is a religious-based form of non-monogamy. Elisabeth Sheff (2014) estimates that there are somewhere between 1.2 to 9.8 million polyamorous people living in the United States. In the past, the terms “polyamory” or “polyamorous” would be shortened to “poly.” However, this term is beginning to fall away, as individuals who identify as Polynesian also tend to utilize the term Poly. Therefore, the polyamorous community is beginning to transition into using “polyam” or “polya” for short.
Polyamorous individuals can also be swingers, and swingers can also be polyamorous; one type of relationship style does not negate another. Relationship styles can also alter over time; perhaps a previously monogamous couple begins swinging, and then one partner realizes they have romantic feelings for someone and would like to explore polyamory. Every relationship will navigate these changes differently, and people may or may not stay together through these relationship changes.
It is important to note that a person’s relationship style is not an indication of their gender or sexual orientation. People of any gender or sexual orientation can be involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships for a multitude of reasons. Some bisexual individuals may engage in consensual non-monogamy in order to have simultaneous relationships with partners of different genders, while other authors have noted that, as heterosexual women, they favor polyamory due to their perception of inherent patriarchal beliefs behind monogamy (Moss, 2012; Jackson & Scott, 2004). Other individuals may engage in polyamory for different reasons. For example, someone on the asexual spectrum may choose to be polyamorous in order to have multiple loving relationships without the pressure of fulfilling their partners’ sexual needs. Therefore, it is important to remember that people of all gender identities and sexual orientations may engage in any form of consensual non-monogamy.
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.
Klesse, C. (2006). Polyamory and its ‘others’: Contesting the terms of non-monogamy. Sexualities, 9(5), 565-583. doi:10.1177/1363460706069986
Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348. doi:10.1080/19419899.2013.832934
Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopkin, W. J. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 222-240. doi:10.1177/0265407514529065
Moss, A. R. (2012). Alternative families, alternative lives: Married women doing bisexuality. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 8, 405-427. doi:10.1080/1550428X.2012.729946
Jackson, S. & Scott, S. (2004). The personal is still political: Heterosexuality, feminism and monogamy. Feminism & Psychology, 14(1), 151-157. doi:10.1177/0959-353504040317
Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Polyamorous Relationship Structures
By Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
Polyamory is the combination of the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love.” Combined, polyamory means “many loves” or “more than one love” (Anapol, 2010; Klesse 2006). To be more specific, polyamory is a relationship style centered on the belief that it is possible to love more than one person. Polyamorous relationships often involve having more than one romantic relationship simultaneously, with full knowledge and consent of all the partners involved. Polyamory is not cheating, and should not be confused with affairs or infidelity. It also differs from polygamy, which is a religious-based form of non-monogamy. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 1.2 to 9.8 million polyamorous people living in the United States (Sheff, 2014).
Every polyamorous relationship has different structures, as there are often more than two people involved in a romantic relationship. However, there are some basic labels to categorize the different kinds of relationships that polyamorous people form.
Vee: A vee relationship is made up of three partners and gets its name from the letter “V,” in which one person acts as the “hinge” or “pivot” partner dating two people. The other two people are not romantically or sexually involved with each other. These two people are known as “metamours” to one another (metamours are two people who are dating the same person, but are not actively dating each other). Metamours in a vee relationship may not know one another, may be vague acquaintances, or may be very good friends. In some cases, metamours may even live with one another, with or without their partner.
Triad: A triad is also made up of three partners, but is a relationship in which all three partners are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other. Triads may be formed when an existing couple opens their relationship and finds a third partner who is interested in them both, and whom they are both also interested in. They may also be formed when two metamours in a vee relationship begin to date, changing the form of the relationship from a vee to a triad. A triad may also form when three very close friends begin dating each other at the same time.
Quad: A quad is made up of four partners who are intimately connected in some way, whether romantically or sexually. A quad can be formed in a multitude of ways, such as a triad adding another partner. However, quads are often formed when two swinging couples connect and begin dating, forming the quad.
While these labels are descriptive of some of the kinds of relationships that can form, this list is by no means exhaustive. Every person’s relationship landscape will look different. Someone who is part of a vee relationship may also be part of a different, separate triad. They may also simply be dating one other person, or no one at all. The people involved in these relationship structures may be referred to as an individual’s polycule, which is a term used to discuss collectively all of the people who are in a relationship with one or more members of a polyamorous group. This term was created by combining the words “polyamory” and “molecule.”
There are also added layers to the way people in polyamorous relationships experience their relationships. A popular notion in the polyamorous community is “You can have unlimited love, but you do not have unlimited time.” Therefore, each individual has to make a choice about how they prioritize their time and emotional energy, and how to define the importance of each relationship.
Hierarchical Polyamory: Individuals who practice hierarchical polyamory place more importance on one relationship above other relationships (Easton & Hardy, 2009). The partner that this person shares finances with, lives with, or co-parents with will likely be considered the primary partner. This person may be prioritized above other relationships in regards to time commitments, vacations and holidays, going to family functions, and other important events as well. Other partners may be considered secondary or tertiary. Secondary or tertiary partners may not be taken into account when big decisions are being made, and if the individual is not “out” as polyamorous, could even be kept hidden from friends and family.
Non-Hierarchical Polyamory: In non-hierarchical polyamory, individuals within the relationship do not prioritize one relationship above all others. This does not necessarily mean that time is split equally between two or more partners, nor does it mean that all the partners live together. It does mean that every partner is considered when making big decisions. It may also mean that each partner has the ability to go on vacations with the individual. Within non-hierarchical polyamory, there is generally a belief that one partner does not hold importance over another, and each relationship is important in its own way.
Solo Polyamory (also referred to as “sopo”): A solo polyamorist is someone who does not have any desire to be considered part of a “coupled” relationship. In solo polyamory, an individual may not live with or share finances with anyone else, and does not have the desire to work toward those things. Some solo polyamorists may live with different partners throughout the year and prefer a nomadic lifestyle. They often consider their partners when making big decisions, but do not allow their partners to dictate their choices. For some people, solo polyamory is an option to pursue for a limited time, perhaps while raising their children or when an individual is focused on their career and has no desire to build a home with another person. For others, solo polyamory is a lifelong pursuit, and often consider themselves their own primary relationship (Winston, 2017). This can allow the solo polyamorist to make decisions based on what makes themselves and their relationships strong and happy. Although solo polyamorists usually do not live with their partner(s), this does not mean that they do not have one or more deeply committed and intimate relationships.
Relationship Anarchy: A person who practices relationship anarchy may differ a bit from other polyamorists, but they still often fall within the spectrum of polyamory. Relationship anarchy is a relatively new term to refer to individuals who believe that all interpersonal relationships are equally important (Winston, 2017). A relationship anarchist might have multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, but may also avoid making special distinctions between relationships that are romantic, sexual, platonic, or familial. They often avoid putting relationships into categories or having expectations in their relationships. Instead, they allow their relationships to take any form and have any level of commitment that the participants decide to have. For example, a relationship anarchist may choose to buy a house with their best friend, rather than their romantic partner of ten years.
Again, this list is not exhaustive by any means. Every individual navigating a polyamorous relationship will structure their relationships differently, and may identify with certain aspects of these polyamorous structures but not with others. This list is merely intended as an introduction to understanding how many polyamorous relationships form and develop. Any of these relationship structures can be done in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way; it is up to the participants to ensure they are practicing the different forms of polyamory ethically.
In any relationship, whether it is monogamous or a consensual non-monogamous relationship, there is the possibility that someone with get their feelings hurt, experience jealousy, and experience arguments and disagreements. Therefore, it is imperative for an individual in any relationship to consider the needs of each of their partners, their boundaries, and their expectations for the relationship. It is also important to consider your own needs, boundaries, and expectations within relationships, and to learn to communicate these things safely and considerately. Educating yourself about the polyamorous community, ethical and non-ethical relationships, and healthy communication techniques can all help you navigate happy and healthy relationships with your partners.
Learn More From Stephanie M. Sullivan
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationship, &
other adventures (2nd ed.). Berkley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
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.