Success with Polyamory and Infidelity
Ben and Claire came in to therapy with me to work on the common couples issues of not being sexually faithful and jealousy. They were unusual in the manner that they are working on these issues and what they need from a therapist because Ben and Claire identify as Polyamorous - as does a growing segment of the US population.
Polyamory is a lifestyle in which a person may have more than one romantic relationship, with consent and enthusiasm expressed for this choice by each of the people concerned. Polyamory is distinguished from cheating by the presence of honest communication between partners and lovers about the existence of each of these relationships in their lives. Polyamory also encourages partners to plan rules and guidelines in advance that help each person feel safe and more in control of their relational experience. It is a different structure than cheating, swinging (when people swap partners for sex) or an “open relationship” (where folks are allowed to freely date and or have sex with others but no specific guidelines or values are specified.)
Though I know we are ostensibly talking about “infidelity” here, I have to ask, what does fidelity really mean? It is variously defined as: “Faithfulness to obligations, duties, or observances.” , Dictionary.com 2012 or “1. Faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” (merriam-webster.com)I believe that by these definitions folks that are polyamorous are faithful even if they love or have sex with others.
Like many folks that identify as polyamorous Ben and Claire had talked with two therapists previously that “just did not get it.” They ended up feeling that they were spending their time and money educating their therapist. They described misperceptions regarding polyamory and the people that identify as polyamorous similar to those I hear from even seasoned professionals.
They were told “your jealousy and problems staying within the ground rules you set yourself are proof polyamory is not working for you.” If we take this view then does that mean any couple we see that is monogamous but having problems should immediately become polyamorous because the relational structure is to blame? Obviously that is ludicrous but apparently many people feel comfortable with the opposite assumption.
A therapist helping those that choose a polyamorous structure has a responsibility to educate themselves on this structure and to weed out their own fears and prejudices that living in an overwhelmingly monogamous society has given us. The majority of therapists I have trained have a knee jerk “That is just wrong!” reaction to polyamory without doing the research to differentiate it from cheating or really examining what monogamy has engendered in our society.
I believe that looking at some of the ongoing problems with our monogamous structure can help; a 40 - 50 % divorce rate, an admitted cheating rate for all married people of 41%, a rate of 76% of people saying they would cheat if they were certain no one would ever know, more and more children and families devastated by the broken homes created by divorce and cheating. Do we not owe it to our clients and ourselves to at least explore alternative ways of making family?
Ben and Claire think so. They report that they felt that since they were marrying in their early 20’s they were not certain they would only be able to be attracted to each other for the next 50 to 60 years. Both children of divorce they hoped for something better for their children - more continuity in their family, more honest communication, and the ability to define for themselves what works for them and their family.
Polyamory does not preclude infidelity in it’s above definitions nor jealousy - and such was the case with Ben and Claire. Polyamory however encourages each partner to use the experience for self knowledge and self growth as opposed to pointing fingers at their partner or growing depressed at their lacks.
In this case, Ben immediately felt his own lack in assertion was the problem when he became jealous of Claire’s partner Sean. This became a major area of work for Ben that allowed him to learn more skills while at the same time deepening his understanding of Claire’s needs making them closer.
Whether or not you and your partner would ever consider a polyamorous structure, I believe there are several values of polyamory that I helped Claire and Ben with that can help you too. Values such as “Compersion” a term coined to describe the value of really appreciating and being happy for our loved ones happiness - even if it is not an experience we can share with them. Or the value of everyone involved having an ongoing “Conscious Courtship” a dedication in relationship to ensuring that commitment and emotional bonding are developed and based on values and goal alignment as well as initial and ongoing attraction - and that this stays preeminent in the relationship.
After coming back to these values and learning new skills to shore up their choices, as well as adjusting their guidelines and agreements Ban and Claire have chosen to stay together - and stay polyamorous.
Tracy Deagan LPC-S, LCSW-S
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