Counseling Mixed Polyamorous/Monogamous Relationships
November 9, 2002
(A slightly modified version of the original paper to protect privacy)
I am interested in marriage and relationship counseling, especially of polyamorous relationships (polyamory means many loves, and is used for people who are open to honest, loving, generally sexual relationships with more than one person). Given that this is not the norm in our society, there are many couples in a relationship where one partner wishes to be polyamorous in practice, while the other partner wants both of them to be monogamous. How can they handle this? How can a therapist work with the people who are in such a relationship? This is an issue that I expect to have to deal with in my practice.
To find out what people who are dealing with this situation think, I subscribed to two email lists. One is intended primarily for the monogamous partners, and the other for the polyamorous partners in a mixed relationship, though some of the same people post to both lists on occasion. I thought I could get a wider range of views this way than interviewing 3-5 people. I've read over 700 messages while preparing for this paper. In this paper, I'll describe what I've learned through the list.
A Note on Terminology
Within the lists, mono is frequently used as an abbreviation for monogamy or monogamous, and poly is used as an abbreviation for polyamory or polyamorous. I'll use these abbreviations in this paper.
Polyamory is generally distinguished from swinging, though some people are involved in both. In polyamory, the focus is on loving relationships, whereas in swinging the focus is on sex, and often relationships or emotional involvement are discouraged.
The terms primary and secondary are used to describe different levels of involvement, but their use is not consistent. Some people use primary to mean marriage or a live-in relationship, with joint finances, child care, etc. Note that a primary relationship can include more than two people, for example a triad that lives together and shares expenses. Others use it to mean their "most important" relationship, in which case it may not be reciprocal (one person may consider the other primary, but not vice versa).
New Relationship Energy (commonly referred to as NRE) is the excitement that one feels when getting to know someone new. It's the juice that helps a new relationship get off the ground.
The Email Lists
PolyMono@yahoogroups.com is the group that is intended to support the monogamous partners. I have looked at the emails from it going back to late June. Cpnpolymono@yahoogroups.com is the group that is intended for the polyamorous partners. I have looked at it starting at the beginning of September.
Participants in the lists tell their stories, offer each other sympathy and advice, tell how they addresed a problem someone else brought up, and have occasional philosophical discussions. They share links to web sites, recommend books, and discuss the pros and cons of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," veto power, and many other things.
My knowledge of the participants of these online forums is limited to what they choose to reveal about themselves. There are over 70 people who posted to the lists during the time I've been reading them. In mixed gender relationships, both men and women are dealing with each side of the issue - it's definitely not just the men who are pushing for polyamory. There are a number of women who are either in lesbian or bisexual relationships (in the bi relationships they may have either a man or a woman as their primary partner), but I have not seen postings from men writing about relationships with other men (though it's not always possible to tell someone's gender). The identified ages range from early twenties to mid fifties. There are at least two counselors who participate.
Relationship situations faced
There are a wide variety of relationship situations addressed in these forums. The participants include
- People in previously monogamous relationships where one partner wishes to have other lovers or has started to have other lovers
- People who started a primary relationship with someone knowing the s/he was polyamorous, and are struggling to see if they can handle that situation
- People who started a relationship with someone already in a primary relationship
- Someone who was part of a lesbian couple who added a third to their relationship during the course of the 4 months
- Someone who is herself poly, but has a great deal of difficulty with the fact that the couple she's involved with are swingers
- A self-identified "junior wife" who is struggling with her partner's desire to have additional lovers
- People who never had a monogamous commitment, and perhaps started with a non-monogamous relationship, but have been de facto monogamous for years, and are now struggling with wanting a poly relationship when their partner does not
- Mono partners who feel pressured by their poly partner to have other relationships
Discussions/Areas of disagreement
Not surprisingly, there are quite a few areas where the participants have opposing view points. I'll discuss a number of these issues.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). For some people, a policy of DADT seems to be necessary. This way the issue of what the poly partner is doing is not in the face of the mono partner, and therefore seems less stressful. Others who have tried it find it doesn't work for them. Either it lulls them into a false sense of security because they think their partner is being monogamous, or they find that knowing what is really going on helps them get used to the idea. Getting to know their partner's other partners can sometimes be reassuring, because they are simply other people. For many people, honesty is absolutely required, and DADT is by definition not a part of polyamory. However, the poly partner may adjust the level of detail described according to the desire of the mono partner to listen to it.
Does polyamory increase or decrease the likelihood of your partner leaving? For some people, practicing polyamory is like gambling. The more people you get involved with, the more likely you are to find someone you would rather be with, and therefore you dump your original partner. It's just a numbers game. Other people take the opposite view. If you're faced with an either/or situation, you're more likely to drop the old partner in the excitement of getting to know someone new and interesting. Polyamory allows you to experience the joys of NRE (New Relationship Energy) while also maintaining your original relationship, while monogamy leads to serial monogamy. As one person said, being poly doesn't increase the likelihood that another lover will replace you, but being mono means it is more likely to happen without your awareness. Another person commented that a high quality relationship is the best protection for either a poly or a mono relationship.
Are polyamory and monogamy inherent or trained? Some people see poly and mono as a natural continuum, with people spread out along it according to inherent desire. According to this view, some people are naturally monogamous, others naturally polyamorous, with many somewhere in the middle and able to adapt to either. Others consider monogamy to be the result of social conditioning.
Is polyamory more evolved? Many monos are struggling with the idea that being polyamorous is a more evolved lifestyle, and are fairly defensive about this, because their partners present it in that light. However, other people point out that monogamy and polyamory are simply different relationship models, and each one works better for some people. Some people point out that for polyamory to work well, the participants need to have a high level of self-awareness, honesty, self-love and security. Being in a poly relationship requires a willingness to change and grow. However, this does not imply that these traits are not or can not be present in a monogamous relationship. There was some distrust of the motives of someone who uses this type of argument to persuade his or her partner to adopt polyamory; it was considered a form of pressure which is not helpful.
Who is trying to get whom to change? (or who has to do most of the work?) Mono posters tend to feel that they are being asked to make most of the changes. After all, they were trained in a different model of relationship, and have to change their expectations. They are being asked to accept behavior that they don't like. Poly posters on the other hand express the sense that they are being asked to restrict their behavior, while they aren't asking their partners to do anything, and therefore the burden of effort is on them.
Do additional relationships add to or detract from a primary relationship? The mono partner may think that additional relationships only detract from the primary relationship. The other relationships take time, attention and energy away from the primary one. They are also the "cause" of much jealousy, anxiety, pain and frustration. However, some mono partners also recognize that there is a benefit in the communication they've engaged in and in the happiness of their partner. Sometimes there's additional sexual juice at home when the poly partner gets involved in another relationship. Some people see the time and energy drain as similar to hobbies and other activities, and point out that monogamy does not necessarily lead to an attentive spouse.
Is polyamory simply an excuse to have lots of sex partners, an excuse for self-indulgence? As some people describe their "poly" partner, it would appear that the answer is yes for them. My impression in reading these lists is that these partners are also much less patient and accepting of their mono partner, and less willing to deal with the fears and concerns that come up. Many people on the lists would not consider polyamory to be the issue here; if all the person wants is sex and not loving relationships, then it's not polyamory. For them, a loving intimate relationship is what matters, and sex is just one way to express the intimacy.
Is veto power a good idea? There is considerable discussion about agreements within the lists. For many, probably most, people on the lists, having an agreement about what behavior is acceptable is extremely important. It allows people to find an arrangement that works (at least to some extent) for all parties concerned. Someone breaking an agreement is a red flag. People also point out the pitfalls of agreeing to rules reluctantly: if the poly partner is reluctant, the rules are more likely to be broken; if the mono partner is reluctant, then s/he may not be getting the safety that the rules are designed to provide. One agreement that primary partners sometimes make is that either can have veto power over the other's choice of a new lover. For some people, this is essential. They want to protect themselves from another lover who they think is likely to damage the primary relationship. Others feel that this type of control is itself likely to damage the relationship, and that each person has to make his/her own decisions about the people they want to be involved with.
Insights and Observations
There were many insights posted on the list, and many important comments made. Sometimes these were expressed as personal experience, and sometimes as advice.
Not surprisingly, a major issue is jealousy. This takes the form of anger, withdrawal, tears, and much pain. People who post to these lists ask how to deal with their jealousy, they blame their partners for making them feel this way, and they find ways to lessen the pain that they feel.
An observation that was made several times is that the people posting to the lists are mostly the ones who are having a problem. Those who have resolved their pain are happily living their lives rather than posting messages. Therefore it's not surprising if, in reading the list, you get the idea that pain is all there is if you try to make a poly/mono relationship work.
Most of the participants (except for some who wrote saying, "This is too painful, I've broken up. Bye.") are conscious of a tradeoff. Is the relationship satisfying enough for them to continue to deal with their pain? There were repeated comments to the effect that one should get out if it gets to be too painful, that we're responsible for our own choices, and if we choose to remain in this type of relationship we have to let go of the idea that we have the moral high ground. One person notes that the key to sanity for her was changing her expectations of the relationship. Someone suggested, "Focus on what you have, not what you're giving up." The relationship needs to give more pleasure than pain, or it's not worth continuing. One person even talked about the cost/benefit ratio.
Many monos are puzzled at the desire for more than one partner. They feel the need for an intimate, sexual partner, but once that need is satisfied by one person, they either feel no sexual attraction for anyone else, or no desire to follow up on an attraction. They are having to come to terms with the fact that their partners feel differently. Others imagine that under the right circumstances they might also be interested in another lover. One such scenario is where they share a third person with their partner.
One suggestion to help poly/mono relationships work better is to find out what each person needs to feel loved, and make an effort to provide that. The needs and desires of both people in a primary relationship need to be met, and a conscious effort on the part of the poly partner to help his/her partner feel loved and appreciated goes a long ways towards making the relationship worthwhile and successful. It's a considerable help to the mono partner when s/he has confidence that anyone who threatens the primary relationship will be dropped.
One woman had a breakthrough when she noticed that monogamous people don't blame monogamy when their relationship fails, they blame the person. By implication, it's not polyamory per se that breaks up a relationship, but the people involved.
People had difficulty trying to figure out how to explain their relationships to family and friends. Someone compared this to the situation faced by GLBT people, especially in the days when same sex relationships were either unheard of or totally unaccepted. Since polyamorous relationships don't get social support, they have extra pressure and are more difficult to maintain.
One theme that comes up repeatedly is the suggestion that the move towards being poly only go as fast as the slowest person is ready for. This means allowing the mono partner plenty of time to work through his/her feelings, and working together to find agreements that work for both partners. However, sometimes the mono partner is unwilling to talk about it or cooperate. In this case the poly partner is faced with the choice of pushing the issue, dropping the idea of polyamory for the sake of the relationship, or deciding that a breakup may be necessary.
Some monos recognize that intellectually they can handle poly, but emotionally they still have a very hard time.
A common dilemma for the mono partner is what to do when their partner is with someone else. The general advice is to keep busy, especially with fun activities. Find something to do that you enjoy but your partner doesn't. In other words, distract yourself.
Some people emphasize the need to create your own happiness. In particular, don't let anyone else decide your worth. If the relationship falls apart, it does not mean that anyone is bad, malicious or undeserving.
There was some admiration expressed for people who agree to be monogamous for the sake of their partner.
Many people talk about being helped by counseling with a counselor who understands poly/mono issues. They work on their own issues in counseling, and also learn to communicate better with their partners.
Above all, the emphasis is on talk, talk, talk.
I have long thought that dealing with the conflict between one person who wants to be polyamorous and a partner who wants them both to be monogamous is analogous to other either/or situations, such as one partner who wants to have children and the other who doesn't, or one person who wants to live in the country and the other who wants to live in the city. I now see that it's more complicated emotionally than that. The expectation of monogamy (or at least of the pretense of monogamy) is very strong in our society. Trying to change this expectation can be very painful for someone who doesn't see any advantage to the change.
I think the points to bear in mind when counseling a poly/mono couple are as follows:
- Communication is key. Both partners need to learn how to communicate their feelings rather than their judgements, to listen empathically, to let their partner know what they heard and correct it if necessary, to be patient with feelings that have to be expressed many times.
- They need to explore ways to help each other feel loved and special.
- They may need help in negotiating agreements that work for both of them.
- The counselor needs to show acceptance of both polyamory and monogamy, and not be an advocate for either.
- The counselor needs to respect the views of both people.
- If one person feels intimidated, the counselor needs to help that person express his/her feelings.
- The counselor needs to encourage both people to explore their feelings and look at the roots of their feelings. What are the underlying needs? Is there a way they haven't thought of to meet those needs?
- The counselor needs to encourage self-responsibility, helping them to focus on what each of them can do to improve the situation rather than what the other person can do.
- The counselor needs to help them decide whether the relationship is worth the effort by giving them the room to explore the pros and cons of continuing the relationship.
- The counselor needs to encourage an attitude of mutual respect, even if they decide to split up.
- There may be other issues that need to be addressed that are masked by the poly/mono dispute.
In summary, there can be a great deal of tension between a couple who have different views on the desirability of monogamy. Communication is key to helping them decide whether they want to stay in relationship, and if so, how they will deal with this issue. The role of the counselor is to help them learn to communicate effectively, and address their own issues and desires to determine what they want to do.
© 2002 by Elaine Cook