Thinking About Polyamory? Is Consensual Nonmonogamy Healthy for Your Relationship?
Here is a blog post I wrote for the PACT Institute Website:
By Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT Level 3 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
More and more couples who come into my office for therapy are interested in polyamory or consensual nonmonogamy. Some have been practicing it for years and believe it to be part of their values and their self-expression. Others believe it will bring sexual excitement and enhanced intimacy to their primary relationship. Regardless of where you are in your relationship, the decision to introduce other people into your committed relationship carries significant risk and challenge and should be done with a great deal of thought and care.
As a PACT therapist, my process is in helping couples build a secure-functioning relationship, and I have helped both monogamous and nonmonogamous couples build strength and health in their connection. However, it is only through a secure-functioning relationship where I have seen polyamory work well for the couple and each individual.
Why Is Polyamory Tempting?
For any of you in a long-term relationship, you are familiar with the reality that over time, romance and passion wane without a great deal of care. The idea of introducing new romantic or sexual connections to a predictable and boring romantic life sounds exciting. It releases the fun chemicals into our system that helped the two of you fall in love, and we get to feel butterflies in our stomach again. Understandably, couples struggling to have romance in their relationship might contemplate the idea of dating other people.
Most of you are also aware that the conflict inherent in a long-term relationship does NOT release the fun chemicals into our system and, in fact, releases the opposite. Those disagreements with our partner, filled with misunderstandings and hurt feelings, leave many of us sick to our stomach or unable to sleep. Here, too, it is tempting to contemplate the ease a new and casual relationship could introduce to our lives.
Polyamory is also tempting when we get busy with all the mundane realities of adult life. We focus our energy on our jobs, our kids, our households. We feel more like roommates than lovers and connected partners. The idea of a mysterious stranger to learn about in the midst of all the work of our lives seems like a perfect antidote.
But It Gets Tricky…
All of these understandable reasons bring with them critical risks to introducing new partners into your committed partnership. One of the reasons that maintaining desire in a long-term relationship is so difficult is the conflict inherent in sharing a life.
Add in our naturally comparative brains and looking between the drudgery and work of our committed partnership to the connection with a romantic stranger uncomplicated by domesticity and it is an easy leap to spending our energy with the new relationship.
Making that leap without proper care and attention brings danger and threat to the security of our primary relationship. In all committed relationships, the two members should focus their energy on each other. Anyone and anything outside of the couple is considered a “third” and needs to be managed well by the partners. Without this, the third can come between the two causing imbalance and threat in the security of the relationship, leaving one or both feeling less important than that outside influence.
When the third is something mundane like work or hobbies, it can cause simple upset. When it is an attractive, romantic, or sexual partner who is allowed access to the most intimate functions of a romantic partnership, polyamory creates the possibility for an entirely different level of threat. Without proper focus and process, this threat can destabilize everything about the relationship and cause irreparable harm. It is therefore critical to understand the risks to introducing poly to your committed relationship.
A Cautionary Tale
Martha and Jay are one such couple. Married 5 years, this young couple came to me because they were in so much conflict after moving to Washington, leaving both of their families in North Dakota. Martha was excited to live in a big city and explore her sexuality within and outside of their marriage. Jay was not as sure. He wanted to support Martha. They did not connect the volatile fights they were having to the possibility of polyamory. They just wanted to keep talking to each other “without it always turning into a fight.”
While they agreed in sessions that they needed to stabilize their connection before opening the relationship and were committed to practicing putting each other first, they quickly discarded this plan and began dating others. Things went from bad to worse. The next time I saw them, they were in crisis with Martha threatening to leave.
Martha and Jay are a fictional couple, made up of several I have seen with this outcome.
A Lifeless Sex Life
To minimize this risk, the first step in clarifying whether polyamory is a viable choice is to do a thorough and honest assessment of the health of your relationship and all the reasons you are tempted by polyamory. Attend first to the struggles within your partnership.
If you have communication issues without that threatening third, make sure you focus on how to take care of each other in conflicts prior to introducing anything more difficult. If your partner feels neglected by you with your work schedule, take care to prioritize each other. Build routines for connection before your energy and attention is challenged further.
If your sex life is feeling lifeless, explore ways to increase meaning and passion before turning to others. Focusing on the health of the relationship first – ahead of all other influences – is the key to any secure-functioning relationship, especially when contemplating consensual nonmonogamy.
Looking more closely together at the reasons you are interested in polyamory will also clarify the needs your relationship has and the work to be done, preceding an alternate journey that may run a higher risk of adding more problems than the one you intended to relieve. What steps can you take to address the current challenges within your relationship?
Work to heal your relationship: If you are seeking newness in your sexual connection because the romance and spark has waned, polyamory carries the risk of harming your sexual connection to your partner. If you find more satisfaction with others, that reduces the desire to correct issues between the two of you.
Instead, focus your energy on understanding what you can do and how to do it. Help your partner feel important and loved solidly within the relationship so any outside influences carry less threat.
Be honest: If you are seeking an outside partner to meet an emotional or sexual need that your partnership has not yet met, you risk giving up the possibility of developing that connection within your partnership.
In PACT therapy, you learn the only thing necessary to meet the majority of your partner’s needs is honesty – an honesty to learning and a genuine desire to meeting those needs.
Being upfront and clear about your desires and repairing the challenges you are facing sexually before introducing new partners is critical to building and maintaining intimacy in your primary relationship.
Of course, we should not expect our partner to meet all our needs. However, without an honest dialogue about these needs and a committed interest in meeting them, you may push your partner further away. Moving to polyamory to meet your couple needs creates more emotional distance and resignation to deficiencies in the primary relationship.
Seek professional counseling: Finally, I highly recommend seeking out the support of a couple therapist. Monogamous relationships are hard enough, as we know, and adding in other people only intensifies the challenges.