Open, Non-Monogamous, Poly or Designer Relationships
What the NY Times Article Missed and What Therapists Need to Learn
Posted May 15, 2017
One of the differences in my practice today versus ten years ago, is the openness with which couples are entering therapy to discuss their desire to open up their monogamous relationships. They may also contact my Center for Love and Sex in NYC to discuss their well-established open relationship to work on better communication skills, get advice around parenting, or to discuss a renegotiation.
The recent article in the New York Times Magazine section, Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? featured profiles of a few couples that ventured into non-monogamous structures. The author was helpful in revealing that opening up or living within non-monogamous agreements are really for people who are interested in talking about their feelings whether they be about insecurity, pride, jealousy or erotic excitement by proxy among other issues raised in these relationships. But some other significant points were missed, in my opinion.
The article didn’t present the full spectrum of diversity in the non-monogamous communities including those that come from various ethnicities, cultures and sexual practices. Although they included a small description of the African American couple Kevin and Antoinette Patterson, and the gay couple Logan Ford and Robert Reynolds, the lack of more detailed description made their story feel less important. More description and discussion was spent on the white heterosexual couples, thereby presenting a more privileged view of non-monogamy and polyamory. While the author cited important historical sources like the first book about Open Marriage by Nena and George O’Neill from the 1970’s and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton, the article neglected to cite Opening Up by Tristan Taormino or Designer Relationships by Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels, significant educational contributions in the handed down by people immersed in these communities. Johnson and Michaels pointed out that the couples portrayed in the article were those who chose “nonmonogamy as a solution for marital problems as opposed to something that people enthusiastically choose”.
One of the emotions the writer didn’t name explicitly in her article was that of compersion, defined as the experience of being happy for your partner’s happiness including when they have had sex with a partner other than yourself. This feeling is hard for committed monogamists to understand and certainly many therapists would have difficulty trusting that this emotion is authentic since we have all been brought up in a world where jealousy seems the norm. It’s not that non-monogamous individuals never feel jealousy, they just work on it in a deeply committed way while also feeling compersion. So when a client of mine is expressing joy that his wife is experiencing a new kind of arousal with her boyfriend, most traditional therapists might look for some sort of pathology as to why this husband isn’t exclusively feeling jealous of his wife’s partner.
While the Times story included a therapist who told one of the couples they were likely heading for divorce, it didn’t articulate how this reflection showed the monogamous-centric attitude the therapist seemed to hold. The omission in the article of how the therapeutic community views non-monogamous couples may have been an oversight by the writer, but from my seat I see it as a missed opportunity to reveal a professional blind spot in most general therapists’ toolkits. Why would a therapist assume that divorce was the only option? Why not help the partners work past the power struggle they were in and towards a compromise that included the husband’s stated desire to open up early on in the relationship and the wife’s newly discovered erotic interest with someone else? I am of course not implying a therapist should convince a couple to take something on they are not interested in, that would be unprofessional but rather not considering the question about opening up as a choice in certain situations and whether the couple had ever discussed it at all could be an omission based on the monogamous norm.
Given that many couples therapists and sex therapists see many couples in crisis when an affair or infidelity has been discovered, it is curious that these same therapists have trouble treating a consensually non-monogamous couple with a different lens. Many therapists believe that those practicing a non-monogamous relationship structure are somehow damaged in their attachment styles, or this structure is just a convenient way for partners to cheat with permission. And while there are those in the CNM (Consensual Non-Monogamous) community that might break rules set up by their primary partner and lover, why would they be seen differently than supposed monogamous couples where one partner was unfaithful? Are they held to a different ethical standard by couples’ therapists?
Another point I was relieved to see in Kevin Patterson's recent blog after his being interviewed for the article is that the fact that the woman Elizabeth who was featured in the article was seeing a married man who wasn’t “out” with his wife about seeing another woman. So that in fact, he was cheating on his wife with a woman who was being open with her husband. I agree with Patterson on the fact that this arrangement is actually unethical non-monogamy since not all parties involved have chosen this arrangement and not something that many communities accept given the lack of transparency for all involved.
Infidelity has been a presenting issue for which I have seen intentional non-monogamous couples in my practice, whether it is due to a partner seeing a lover more times than was originally agreed upon, engaging in a sexual behavior that hadn’t been approved or beginning a new relationship without discussing it beforehand with the primary partner. And while I treat the infractions with the advice that the couple might pull back from outside relationships for a while to re-boot their trust and agreements, I also am aware that at some point they would be open to practicing polyamory or non-monogamy again given their lifestyle. Another therapist might think of this as a negative outcome for this couple, but I think the therapeutic process should be tailored for each couple’s stated goal and expressed lifestyle.
Many couples have come to my practice after seeing a general couples’ therapist who told them that they were heading for a divorce or who tried to convince them their lifestyle itself was the source of their conflict. The couple ended the treatment having felt like their presenting issue was not addressed and that the therapist was not informed. In research about attitudes towards monogamy and CNM, a recent study found that subjects were more likely to think that individuals in the monogamous relationship were superior to those in the CNM relationship. The researchers were studying a potential halo effect that has far reaching consequences in our society in general, but for the purpose of this topic I’m focusing on the consequence of viewing one type of couple healthier than another as a significant therapeutic problem.
If therapists are supposed to help clients in their romantic relationships, they need to be able to see past society’s and their own discipline’s history of negative views of non-monogamy. It would be critical for them to learn that recent research shows that non-consensual partners in partnerships/marriages (those individuals cheating, or having affairs) are significantly less likely to use protective sexual behaviors with both their lovers and partners (leaving them both open to STIs) and less likely to participate in frequent STI testing than consensually non-monogamous individuals.
When I presented at an AASECT (American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists) several years ago on the Clinical Implications when Working with Non-Monogamous Couples, the response was so overwhelming the organizers had to move us into the largest ballroom to accommodate the audience.
If all therapist become more knowledgeable about CNM, Polyamory and Designer Relationships, their understanding of how an individual’s exploration in other relationships while maintaining an open secure, trusting primary bond can be a quest to explore aspects of one’s own personality which they then bring back to their primary relationship. A heterosexual couple who discusses openly the husband’s desire to bring his wife to a sex party while she feels shy or inclined to meet a 3rd party online are navigating not only the behavior but the deeper intra-personal and erotic meaning it may have for each of them, thus allowing each of them to witness and know one another more intimately than a person who secretly has an affair who is perhaps never discovered.
Many times when we see couples after the discovery of an affair, therapists assume the therapeutic work is only to re-establish trust but I would add that to go deeper to explore the meaning and timing of the affair, aspects of the affair both interpersonal (that is, was it in reaction to something their partner was or wasn’t doing?), and/or intra-personal (was it an internal voyage that the person navigated in order to grow, alter or settle how they felt about themselves?) are questions that allow a couple to grow in ways that they could never have imagined when the affair was first discovered.
My colleague Esther Perel, whose upcoming book The State of Affairs explores these issues, with the understanding that both partners, if working with therapists who are able to hold them through the emotional rollercoaster of recovery will learn about the private domains of their partners as much as the private domains they had avoided within themselves. It is this type of continual self and partner discovery that open, communicative monogamous and CNM partners can gain when they share their deep longings and fantasies in a non-judgmental context whether they're at home or with a CNM-informed therapist who is willing to meet them where they are.
Taormino, T. (2008) Opening Up San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press
Michaels, M. & Johnson, P. (2015) Designer Relationships San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press