'I Help Polyamorous Couples With Relationship Problems'

I remember my first experience working with a couple who came to me with a desire to open up their relationship. In 2016, a couple in their 50s who had been together for 10 years were facing some health issues that impeded their ability to experience sexual pleasure together.

During this honest discussion of their needs with me, their therapist, they were able to articulate their frustrations and explore options that did not threaten the integrity of their intimate connection. In the end they chose to open their monogamous relationship up into a consensual polyamorous arrangement; they agreed to maintain their intimate connection as the primary couple, while allowing secondary relations with others.

Of course, we discussed the parameters of their agreement. This included meeting each other's partners and engaging in activities, including dinner dates and outings, with the partners included. They also established what, if any, were the non-negotiables of their agreement. For them it was "always come home at night." In other words, no overnight trips were allowed. It was a healthy conversation with a mature couple who were secure in their love and attachment to one another. They have been successfully polyamorous, or "open" for about six years now.

Another couple in their 30s I worked with wanted to explore polyamory and dedicated time to learning as much as they could on the subject. As with any new venture, it is important to educate yourself on the matter first. Two books I highly recommend are Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Tiaormino, and The Ethical S**t, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

This couple chose to not meet each other's partners, and agreed to be able to travel with these partners out of town and for overnight trips. Their non-negotiable was "safety above all." They agreed to maintain protected sexual experiences with their other partners at all times and always be open in conversation about their other partners.

Those couples tend to represent the types of agreements non-monogamous couples make. Yet polyamorous relationships can take many different forms. What I believe to be most important is that all partners involved maintain a like-minded philosophy of respect, consent, honesty, communication, commitment, integrity, and love.

Sounds pretty straightforward and easy, right? Wrong. In my experience as a therapist the benefits of being in a polyamorous relationship also come with challenges and issues that could negatively affect the relationship.

Of course, most successful polyamorous relationships don't end up in a session with me. If they are in my office, the chances are that something went wrong. In one case, the partner in the primary relationship began to have jealous feelings related to how much time the other partners were spending together. This became a discussion with the entire relationship and included all partners. We talked about managing jealous emotions, and discussed re-negotiating the terms of their agreement based on establishing a set schedule and routine. You'd be surprised at how comforting a consistent and promised routine and schedule can be.

You might ask, do partners in poly relationships experience jealousy? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. The term "compersion" is commonly used in the context of understanding polyamorous relationships. It describes the feeling of joy or pleasure derived from your partners' feelings of joy or pleasure. In other words, it is the idea that "I experience pleasure and joy in knowing my partner finds pleasure and joy in another." The term is sometimes described as the opposite of jealousy.

Polyamory, Polyamorous, Polyamorous relationship
Stock image. Getty/iStock

However, in a more recent case in my practice, one partner in a polyamorous relationship is struggling with intense feelings of jealousy after learning about the presence of a partner outside the main relationship. While she had agreed to the non-monogamous terms of the primary relationship, she did not realize how jealous she would actually feel when she became aware of another partner. She had compartmentalized her relationship well, until she actually gained visual knowledge of the other: she saw their photograph.

This client is currently torn and broken hearted. So, we are working on the repair of the primary relationship. This will include ongoing discussions and affirmations of their love, connection and commitment to honesty as they move forward. This couple demonstrate resilience in our sessions, however, it seems they may soon be closing their relationship and returning to exclusivity and monogamy.

It's important to be aware that polyamorous relationships can be just as challenging as any relationship. Having worked with polyamorous couples for many years, I have learned some valuable tools to navigate a more open relationship.

1. Know yourself

Not everyone is built for polyamory. Some of my clients are not, and it does not mean they are limited in any way. Polyamory does not appeal to everyone's ideals or values and I never judge my clients and their choices. I always suggest that if polyamory does not work, my clients should not force it. It is always best to enter into relationships with like-minded folks, so be aware if your needs are differing from your partners'.

2. Educate yourself

There is so much material to help us all learn and understand what it takes to successfully thrive in a polyamorous relationship. I encourage my clients, and anyone else interested in polyamory, to read, be curious and educate themselves.

3. Be Patient

A big lesson I have learned through my work is that this idea of comperson is typically developed over time. Despite choosing to be polyamorous, couples may still have to negotiate and manage feelings of jealousy. Compersion can be seen as a state of being, but I believe it is more of a process.

4. Never forget consent is key

You can hurt people along the way if you're engaging in a poly lifestyle without the informed consent of your partners. Keep it real. Keep it 100 percent honest. I have seen through my work with many couples, both monogamous and non-monogamous, that the cut is just too deep when you are not truthful.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

I always suggest that my clients discuss, agree upon, and stick to the terms of their relationship arrangement. If there are modifications to be made, all members of the relationship should be making these changes together. As with so many aspects of our lives, communication really is essential.

There is no doubt that polyamorous relationships can challenging. There are more people to consider and more opportunities for confusion and miscommunication. But, as we begin to consider modern, alternative approaches to the "one size fits all" monogamous relationships, polyamory can be satisfying and rewarding for all partners involved.

Gwen Butler LCSW, CST is an AASECT certified sex therapist specializing in sexual health and pleasure. She offers individual and couples counseling and workshops at her private practice in Long Island, New York. Her book Indulge: 25 Indulgences to Unlock your Sensual Self is available here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.