Power Complicates Non-Monogamy, Too

A genuine challenge in relationships is balancing the distribution of energy and resources, a task complicated further in non-monogamous relationships. Couples must make collective decisions about who to spend time with, what to spend money on, and how to weigh those choices against the alternatives. This can be particularly difficult in relationships with more than 2 partners, especially when one partner holds a historically disadvantaged identity.

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Clinician and educator, Aida Manduley, MSW, explains, “In building healthy non-monogamous relationships it’s crucial to address power dynamics, especially along lines where there’s historical oppression. This is particularly important when people live at the intersections of various identities and circumstances that are devalued, under-resourced, and marginalized and their partners hold more forms of capital.”

Most therapists have seen situations in which one partner is stuck in an unhealthy relationship due to a lack of power and resources, rather than emotions. A client may face a lack of steady employment, disability, discrimination, fear of being “outed,” and other factors that limit their economic and social choices. Non-monogamous relationships can magnify and triangulate these imbalances.

For instance, “If one partner in the primary relationship (let’s say Sam) is supporting the other one (Al) financially, Al may feel less able to speak up about …things that they do not want Sam to do [in the relationship]. Al may feel that they already are ‘taking too much’ or be afraid of losing the support,” explained Dr. Jo Eckler, a psychologist in private practice in the Austin, Texas, area.

Eckler emphasizes that this response can occur consciously or unconsciously across a variety of power differentials: citizenship status, race, physical ability, and more. “A healthy poly-relationship depends on the ability to freely take and give consent. Unacknowledged power differentials undermine that ability.” 

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You can begin a conversation about non-monogamy and relationship needs by asking open-ended questions that apply to all of your clients. Ask your clients what their relationship agreements look like. How much time do you try to spend together? Which behaviors qualify as cheating? Where do you hope this relationship leads?

From there, you can delve deeper to find out what is or isn’t working in their relationship. What’s hard about non-monogamy? What works well? Do you have needs that aren’t being met? What is the base of that conflict?

Non-monogamy is a growing phenomenon, which means therapists and counselors need to get comfortable having these conversations with their clients. For better or for worse, non-monogamous relationships have the same triumphs and pitfalls as their monogamous counterparts. By adjusting our language and our assumptions a little, it’s not hard for our counseling frameworks to include relationships of all sizes and stripes.

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Haupert ML, Gesselman AN, Moors AC, Fisher HE, Garcia JR. Prevalence of experiences with c onsensual nonmonogamous relationships: findings from two national samples of single Americans [published online April 20, 2016]. J Sex Marital Ther. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2016.1178675.