Ben and Claire (names changed,) came into therapy with me to work on the common couples issues of not being sexually faithful and jealousy. They were unusual in the manner that they are working on these issues and what they need from a therapist because Ben and Claire identify as Polyamorous - as does a growing segment of the US population.
Polyamory is a lifestyle in which a person may have more than one romantic relationship, with consent and enthusiasm expressed for this choice by each of the people concerned. Polyamory is distinguished from cheating by the presence of honest communication between partners and lovers about the existence of each of these relationships in their lives. Polyamory also encourages partners to plan rules and guidelines in advance that help each person feel safe and more in control of their relational experience. It is a different structure than cheating, swinging (when people swap partners for sex) or an “open relationship” (where folks are allowed to freely date and or have sex with others but no specific guidelines or values are specified.)
Though I know we are ostensibly talking about “infidelity” here, I have to ask, what does fidelity really mean? It is variously defined as: “Faithfulness to obligations, duties, or observances.” , Dictionary.com 2012 or “1. Faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” (merriam-webster.com)I believe that by these definitions folks that are polyamorous are faithful even if they love or have sex with others.
Like many folks that identify as polyamorous Ben and Claire had talked with two therapists previously that “just did not get it.” They ended up feeling that they were spending their time and money educating their therapist. They described mis-perceptions regarding polyamory and the people that identify as polyamorous similar to those I hear from even seasoned professionals.
They were told “your jealousy and problems staying within the ground rules you set yourself are proof polyamory is not working for you.” If we take this view then does that mean any couple we see that is monogamous but having problems should immediately become polyamorous because the relational structure is to blame? Obviously that is ludicrous but apparently many people feel comfortable with the opposite assumption.
A therapist helping those that choose a polyamorous structure has a responsibility to educate themselves on this structure and to weed out their own fears and prejudices that living in an overwhelmingly monogamous society has given us. The majority of therapists I have trained have a knee jerk “That is just wrong!” reaction to polyamory without doing the research to differentiate it from cheating or really examining what monogamy has engendered in our society.
I believe that looking at some of the ongoing problems with our monogamous structure can help; a 40 - 50 % divorce rate, an admitted cheating rate for all married people of 41%, a rate of 76% of people saying they would cheat if they were certain no one would ever know, more and more children and families devastated by the broken homes created by divorce and cheating. Do we not owe it to our clients and ourselves to at least explore alternative ways of making family?
Ben and Claire think so. They report that they felt that since they were marrying in their early 20’s they were not certain they would only be able to be attracted to each other for the next 50 to 60 years. Both children of divorce they hoped for something better for their children - more continuity in their family, more honest communication, and the ability to define for themselves what works for them and their family.
Polyamory does not preclude infidelity in it’s above definitions nor jealousy - and such was the case with Ben and Claire. Polyamory however encourages each partner to use the experience for self knowledge and self growth as opposed to pointing fingers at their partner or growing depressed at their lacks.
In this case, Ben immediately felt his own lack in assertion was the problem when he became jealous of Claire’s partner Sean. This became a major area of work for Ben that allowed him to learn more skills while at the same time deepening his understanding of Claire’s needs making them closer.
Whether or not you and your partner would ever consider a polyamorous structure, I believe there are several values of polyamory that I helped Claire and Ben with that can help you too. Values such as “Compersion” a term coined to describe the value of really appreciating and being happy for our loved ones happiness - even if it is not an experience we can share with them. Or the value of everyone involved having an ongoing “Conscious Courtship” a dedication in relationship to ensuring that commitment and emotional bonding are developed and based on values and goal alignment as well as initial and ongoing attraction - and that this stays preeminent in the relationship.
After coming back to these values and learning new skills to shore up their choices, as well as adjusting their guidelines and agreements Ban and Claire have chosen to stay together - and stay polyamorous.
Tracy Deagan LPC-S, LCSW-S
Addendum: Polyamory and Infidelity
Common Misperceptions about Polyamory
- Polyamory means the same thing as cheating, swinging, and open relationships.
Polyamory differs from all of these due to polyamory’s emphasis on honesty, fairness and full consent by everyone involved, and communication. While these can be found in some swinging and open relationships it is not a declared value system as in polyamory.
- People choose polyamory because their relationship is in trouble.
This can be true but not why not why most people are polyamorous. Often folks feel they are born this way or they see it as a way to keep themselves and their lives fulfilling.
- Intimacy is a problem for those that choose polyamory.
Often, polyamorous people are much better at intimacy because this structure does not work if those involved do not have superior relating skills.
- Polyamorous people do not get jealous.
Totally untrue. We all get jealous. Poly folks just feel the best
response is to move closer to the situation than farther away. They
and I also believe you need to use your jealous feelings as a self
growth tool. i.e. What exactly about their relationship is making me
jealous? What aspects of myself that I am not comfortable with have
come up that might be clues to where I need to do some self esteem /
growth work? etc.
- Gay people are not Poly, especially gay men, they are just in naturally promiscuous So very not true but also not all open gay relationships (or open straight ones) are poly.
- Polyamorous people view monogamy as wrong.
This is untrue. That said, I think that Poly solutions could offer
much better continuity of relating to others than current solutions such as cheating, divorce and divided homes. etc.
- Polyamory lets you avoid conflict and communication in your primary
Definitely not true, polyamory requires one to communicate and deal with the conflict in a way monogamy does not engender just by it’s structure. I find my Poly clients to be among the folks that have the best self and other awareness and to have very strong communication skills.
- Polyamory damages children - or as one therapist with 20 years experience said to me at a workshop “if they will do this sick stuff then imagine what they will do to their children.”
It is my experience that children do well when they having loving parents that coordinate their care and are honest, caring communicators - areas polyamory encourages folks to become very good at. Polyamory does not ensure this in any particular individual any more than monogamy does however we do know that the lying and cheating and pain that ensue in many divorces is harmful to children. In my 25 years of practice I have seen far more people damaged by divorce than polyamory.
by Tracy Deagan LPC-S, LCSW-S