Strategies To Support Non-Monogamous, Polyamorous Patients
"It is important to understand that all relationships are self-defined and on a spectrum of health."
One in five single Americans are or have been in a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship. The growing number of non-monogamous people in the United States suggests that therapists and social workers need to be ready to address alternative relationship styles like polyamory, open marriages, swinging, and casual hookups in their practices. While non-monogamy may seem like an unwieldy topic to broach, in most cases, practitioners won't need to change much about their approach to counseling in serving this community.
Do I need a certificate to do this?
Non-monogamy can have rules and meanings as varied as the clients who practice it, just as traditional relationships are all complex and unique. This is good news for therapists, says Yana Tallon-Hicks, MA, a relationship therapist and sex educator. “As therapists… we already know that each couple has their own ways of defining intimacy, trust, commitment, and even what a relationship is. Chances are, if you got all of your couples together for a dinner party and asked them to define sex, commitment, or what marriage means to them, you'd get some wildly different responses and quite the heated dinner conversation!”
It can be helpful for practitioners to have some basic understanding of the different flavors of non-monogamy, but it is more important to understand “that all relationships are self-defined and on a spectrum of health,” Tallon-Hicks continues. “[This understanding] gives us the freedom of knowing that even if we don't have a lot of experience with non-monogamous clients, we already know how to meet clients where they are and let them lead us through their own definitions and meanings of what makes their relationships tick.”
Non-monogamy....That's like, cheating, right?
While personal understanding of non-monogamy varies greatly, it can be useful to have some basic working vocabulary on the topic.
- Polyamory: the custom or practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned
- Swinging: the custom or practice in which singles and partners in a committed relationship engage in sexual activities with others as a recreational or social activity with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned. While swingers can and do form romantic attachments outside of their primary relationship, the delineation between polyamory and swinging is used most often to note the dominance of a dyadic relationship in which other relationships are more casual, and frequently more focused on sexual encounters and friendship than romantic attachment.
- Polygamy: a form of marriage consisting of more than two partners. The most common subsets are polygyny, characterized by a husband having 2 or more wives, in which the wives are each sexually exclusive with the male partner and polyandry, in which a woman has 2 or more husbands. These relationship styles are frequently associated with religious practices or geographically and culturally specific traditions. These practices are not common in the United States, and practitioners will see very little overlap with other non-monogamous communities.
- Cheating/non-consensual non-monogamy: The distinguishing factor of all of the above varieties of non-monogamy and cheating is consent. Lack of transparency in action and communication between partners characterizes cheating as a distinct practice from CNM.
Most of our misconceptions in counseling around non-monogamy simply come from giving it too much weight in evaluating a situation. Because monogamy is normative, it can be easy to assume being non-monogamous is the root of any issue a client brings to the table. Some issues, like jealousy, can be more prevalent in non-monogamy, but it is important to remember that monogamous relationships have their share of baggage in these areas, too.
The most important point is that we do not want to put our clients in the position of defending their style of relationship. The majority of people in non-monogamous relationships came to this structure conscientiously, and for many it feels integral to their identity. Simply advising a client to “stop sleeping around” will come off as dismissive and often miss the deeper problems in the situation.