Is it really so bad to have your cake and eat it too? I never understood this expression. What is the point of having your cake if you can’t enjoy it? The expression speaks to our culture of austerity and provincialism, where character building and morality is associated with refraining and abstention. On one hand we are a culture of tremendous gluttony and indulgence but with a puritanical underpinning that tells us “you can look but don’t touch.” No wonder so many people and confused about what they want.
Although there are no official statistics about the number of people entering into alternative relationships, anecdotally it appears as though there is increasing interest and cultural awareness of polyamorous relationships (see TLC’s Sister Wives or HBO’s Big Love). Polyamorous which means “many loves,” can take a number of different forms but typically includes a person having more than one significant emotional and/or sexual connection. The theory behind polyamory is that we are capable of loving connections with more than one person at a time and that we cannot expect one partner to meet all of our need either emotionally or sexually. We have an infinite capacity for love and a connection with one person does not necessarily diminish that with another. Some polyamorous people have primary partners as well as other people with whom they date or have sex with. Other folks opt for non-hierarchial arrangements where relationships are not placed in order of importance.
Increasingly in my clinical practice I see more people opting out of the traditional structure of monogamous partnership or marriage. Although gay men have been said to own the market on open relationships, I am seeing people all across the gender and sexual orientation spectrum that are choosing polyamory or open marriage/partnership as viable alternatives. They identify as variably as cis-gendered men and women, trans, gender queer, straight, gay, bisexual, queer and heteroflexible and range in age. And some young queer people in New York City even cite a pressure within the community currently to be non-monogamous.
So when an individual or couple comes into my office and describes their relationships and what they want for themselves, my job is to help them figure out, “How can we make this work?” As I’ve moved through exploration of relationship possibilities, and challenges people encounter in creating the lives they want, I have been thinking about why one person (or a couple, triad, and so on..) can make poly relationships work and why others can’t.
When I tell people about my work, they are usually fascinated by the possibility of living differently. Often their eyes light up at the potential of not having to repress their needs or desires for something different sexually or emotionally. They typically say, “Is that possible? Can it really work? Don’t people get jealous and insecure?” and inevitably, “How do I go about getting my wife/husband/ boyfriend/girlfriend/ partner/date/sweetheart to get on board with this idea?”
Let me just say this upfront: non-monogamy takes a lot of emotional work. When you sign up to be in a relationship with more than one person or are in a relationship with someone who is in a relationship with other people as well, I can guarantee it’s going to take up a lot of time and energy. And like monogamous relationships, poly relationships can range from tremendously gratifying to devastating.
So in a very over simplified form of what I’ve learned, here are
5 THINGS THAT MAKE POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS WORK:
1. All people involved have to really want it. Entering into a polyamorous relationship is no light undertaking. All partners have to be invested in the process and the experience. With regards to primary relationships, when both people are committed to the idea that the maintenance and care of multiple relationships is desirable, the primary relationship has a much better chance of thriving. When one person agrees because of reasons like a) she worries her significant other will leave her if she doesn’t , b) she is trying to make the other person happy or c) she thinks the partner will eventually change and become monogamous, it typically results in resentment and hurt. Now that said, some couples go through a trial period, where they are essentially “trying on” polyamory with an agreement that they will decide if it’s the right construct for their relationship. Conversely, sometimes partners may enter into a poly relationship willingly only to discover that one of them would prefer to be monogamous. Being in a poly relationship requires ongoing conversation and acknowledgement that feelings are fluid and changeable.
2. Accept that difficult feelings will come up. Individuals succeed in poly relationships when they accept that dealing with feelings like jealousy, insecurity, fear, hurt and anger may be part of the process. How the person or couple deals with these feelings is more significant than their presence alone. When jealousy or hurt feelings come up, it may be helpful just to feel them and know that they will pass. It may also be helpful to ask for reassurance from your partner and to make sure that the relationship between the two of you is being nurtured and tended to adequately. New relationships can be very exciting so it’s a time to be particularly cognizant that the older relationship still needs special attention and looking after.
3. Communicate beyond your wildest imagination. I could write a whole book on this point alone. If you’re a poor communicator, I urge you now to retreat to monogamy. It will still be difficult, but not as difficult as being poly. If you don’t like to process A LOT, don’t go down this road. When you are navigating multiple relationships well, you are talking all the time. You have to negotiate everything. The bible of how-to-do poly relationships, The Ethical Slut, as well as Tristin Taormino’s new book Opening Up, have great questions couples can use as conversation starters to envision and negotiate the kind of relationship they want to have. For example, Sally may say to her girlfriend Rebecca, “Well I want you to be my primary partner but I want to have sex with men as well.” It sounds relatively simple at face-value (or maybe not) but what does that mean really? For example: What does it mean to each of them to be “primary?” What value do they place on emotional fidelity and commitment to the relationship in the long-term? What kind of sex can they have with other people? Maybe oral sex is fine but penetrative sex isn’t. Where and when will it take place? At sex parties, only out-of-town, in their apartment? How will they navigate safer sex? Does Sally want to sleep with strangers, people with whom she has minimal attachment, friends, ex-partners, etc. Each detail requires a negotiation and agreement by both partners. When couples adopt a “let’s wait and see how it goes” approach, it usually goes badly. I tell clients, “you really have to spell out everything. The tiniest little thing that you think your partner should know, he doesn’t. You have to tell him.” (This is often true in monogamous couples as well. We think we know what our partner is thinking, feeling, needing or that he should know what we think, feel, need just by virtue of having been together, but attempting to mind-read leads being misunderstood and misread).
You also have to be willing to share feelings, hear those of your partner and be honest to the point of willingness to say things that may be difficult for your partner to hear. The difference between open relationships and cheating is that you take betrayal off the table. All your partners know what you are up to and there is no lying or deceit. Most couples who wind up in therapy because of infidelity due not so much because their significant other had sex with someone else, but because of the betrayal and lying that usually come with it. So it may be difficult to say to your spouse, “I met someone new I’d like to go on a date with” or ask him, “how would you feel about my having sex with Sarah?” but for the relationship to sustain, honest communication has to be a priority.
4. Come from a family that made you feel loved and secure. In my experience, I’ve seen that poly relationships tend to be more difficult for people who have deep fears of abandonment. In Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out, he gives a good description of different ways in which we attach to our parents depending on how attuned they were to us (think of attunement as being “tuned in” to a baby or child’s needs). When a children grows up feeling safe, secure, loved and valued, typically they internalize a sense of safety, calm and self-worth. This fundamentally critical experience can help a person navigate poly relationships: a partner’s connection with someone may not elicit old fears about being left or discarded.
In households where abuse, violence, neglect, alcoholism, the loss of a parent through divorce or death or other kinds of disorders (like a parent’s major depression) children are less likely to receive the parental attunement they so badly need to internalize the same sense of safety or self-worth. As children, we literally need our parent’s physical and emotional presence for survival. When we don’t get it, our “fight/flight” response gets activated because literally our survival is being threatened. I’ve observed in a number of clients that when an adult partner is investing time and energy in a new relationship, it may ignite old trauma and fears of being left. That trauma can feel completely overwhelming and engulfing, requiring a person to address the early trauma and come to discern that her feelings are rooted in these early experiences. Certainly coming from a background with abuse or trauma does not make being in a poly relationship impossible, it just may be a bit more challenging to cope with intense feelings of panic and fear of abandonment if they arise.
5. Get support from people who can affirm your relationship choices. Coming out as polyamorous is quite similar to coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual. There are people who will understand and support your relationship(s) and people who won’t. Poly people often deal with judgements, being called immoral, fearing discrimination by employers or family and friends. Consequently, they may strategically choose to remain closeted in some aspects of their life.
Just like coming out as gay, lesbian or bisexual, poly people need to seek out others both in and out of the poly community who support and understand their choices. Dan Savage wrote an excellent article last November in New York Times Magazine about the need for more honest discussion around infidelity and monogamy in marriages. He makes such a good point when he discusses how monogamy is only one aspect of marital satisfaction, but yet it’s the one that we often judge others by. He suggests we reframe fidelity to understand that it is so much more than sexual exclusivity. Marital satisfaction can be about a sense of bonding to another person, joy, honesty, a long-term commitment to be there for that person and one’s children. It can be a commitment to care for one another and experience life together. Each couple needs to define fidelity for themselves (assuming that’s something they value in the first place). I have seen plenty of monogamous couples who lacked fidelity, where one or both of the partners always had a foot out the door. And I have seen primary partners who are polyamorous that are tremendously committed to a life together and share of sense of knowledge that whatever happens – whatever circumstances arise – whatever feelings come up – they will walk through it together.