Most people, including myself (I will admit to this bias) generally assume that people are monogamous (dating one person at a time). There is a lot of stigma around consensual non-monogamy (an umbrella term that covers all kinds of relationships that involve multiple partners). Polyamory is a term that denotes being in loving relationships with more than one person at a time, with all partners knowing about one another, and can be a combination of genders and sexual orientation. Open relationships tend to be non-monogamous sexual relationships, often without emotional connections. Different still is polygamy, defined as one person having more than one wife (polygyny) or husband (polyandry) at the same time. Polygamous marriages are permitted by some religions but are illegal in Canada.
Admitting to polyamory is difficult and shameful for many folks but there are safe spaces for people to explore whether or not becoming poly is right for them. While attending the Playground conference a couple of years ago, I went to a Polyamory Toronto meeting that was held over lunchtime. I got to meet and learn from a bunch of diverse, knowledgeable, and articulate poly practitioners. This group hosts events in the GTA and has a lot of great information on their website if you are interested in learning more.
There are as many different ways to practice non-monogamy. Sometimes finding what works best for you and your partners takes some trial and error. The most successful relationships are those that involve a high level of transparency and communication. They also work through issues of jealousy, scheduling, and expectations head on by frequent discussions, compromising, and setting expectations. Books that offer ethical guidelines and explore the different kinds of poly relationships are available, and if you are interested in reading about this topic I would recommend: Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, More Than Two by Franklin Veaux, and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy.
It has been my experience that people who initiate counseling with me, and are also in consensual non-monogamous relationships, are interested in focusing therapy on similar life concerns to their monogamous counterparts. They are often comfortable with the poly lifestyle they have chosen, but want to meet with a therapist who will not judge them for their lifestyle or try to convince them that the root of their problem is non-monogamy.
This summer at the Guelph Sexuality conference, I attended a workshop given by Markie Twist, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Stout. In her talk on consensual non-monogamies, she invited those of us in the audience to reflect on our childhoods and asked us about our crushes. Did we like lots of people all at once, or did we obsess over one person at a time? There was a consensus, in our small room at least, that those of us who pined after one person tended to do better in monogamous relationships than those of us who had crushes on many at the same time. This seems to be true in my clinical practice as well. Is it true for you too? It may be that we are hard wired for being monogamous or poly in the same way we identify as straight, gay, bi, or asexual.
Let me conclude the article with some advice:
- Jealousy will occur and it may never disappear. It is best dealt with head on between partners.
- Never force someone to be non-monogamous. If you want to change your monogamous relationship and your monogamous partner does not, you will need to decide if you want to remain in that relationship or end it.
- Once a non-monogamous relationship has been agreed to, set explicit and specific rules around safer sex, time commitments, potential partners, sex acts, kink, and anything else you can think might be an issue. Boundaries offer a sense of safety in the relationship and will likely change over time. Be willing to renegotiate. Sometimes boundaries only become apparent when a limit has been breached.
- Be collaborative. Each person comes to the relationship with their own views and ideas. Take the time to co-create the rules that work best for all involved.
- Be kind and patient with yourself and your partners. You will inevitably run into unanticipated obstacles and scenarios. It is best to discuss issues as soon, and as clearly, as possible.
*Image credit: Vera Anderson/WireImage.com