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A Therapist on Polyamory and Consensual Nonmonogamy
“A lot of people who want to have multiple concurrent relationships feel slut-shamed or feel a sense of guilt about having that desire,” says Heath Schechinger, PhD, a licensed counseling psychologist at UC Berkeley. “What if our society moved toward responding to polyamory differently? What if we met it with a sense of curiosity instead of condemnation and shame?”
For many of us, that’s easier said than done. But for Schechinger, it’s exactly that curiosity that fuels his work—both in private practice, where he specializes in providing support to the consensual nonmonogamy, kink, queer, and gender-nonconforming communities, and also in his research. He hears a lot about shame, guilt, and judgment in both.
If any of those feelings come up for you just thinking about polyamory, you’re hardly alone. But Schechinger suggests sitting with your reaction and using it to learn more about yourself. In other words: Be curious.
A Q&A with Heath Schechinger, PhD
Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term: It describes any relationship in which all participants explicitly agree to have multiple concurrent sexual and/or romantic relationships. The specific agreements of CNM can vary significantly, and there are terms that help capture some of those differences, such as polygamy, swinging, open relationships, monogamish, polyamory, and relationship anarchy.
Polyamory is a practice or philosophy where someone has, or is open to having, multiple loving partners simultaneously with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It is distinct from other types of CNM in that there tends to be more openness toward emotional or romantic connections. For example, open and swinging relationships may permit outside sexual connections but tend to have restrictions on falling in love with people outside the primary relationship. In polyamory relationships, there tend to be fewer (or no) restrictions on falling in love with more than one person.
Polygamy refers to having multiple wedded spouses.
Relationship anarchy is a philosophy or practice that emphasizes autonomy, as people are considered free to engage in any relationships they choose at any time.
There are a number of other helpful terms that people use within the CNM community. A few examples include:
Compersion is often described as the opposite of jealousy. It’s when someone experiences pleasure from their partner’s joy in another relationship. It’s similar to the Buddhist concept of mudita, which is taking joy in another person’s well-being: “sympathetic joy.”
New relationship energy (NRE) is another common one. It’s the excitement that is often experienced at the beginning of a new sexual/romantic relationship.
Metamour is a person your partner is seeing with whom you do not have a direct sexual or loving relationship.
Primary, secondary, and tertiary are used to describe the degree of involvement, power, and priority in hierarchical relationships.
Triad describes a relationship between three people; a V is a structure with one person in the center, and the people on the arms typically don’t have a sexual/romantic relationship with each other. Quad is a relationship between four people.
Open or closed are used to refer to whether a poly or nonmonogamous relationship is open to meeting other partners or not. There’s also veto, which is the power to end an additional relationship or certain activities.
Polyfidelity describes a relationship involving more than two people who don’t permit additional partners without the approval of everyone involved.
While these terms help provide structure and understanding, they are by no means universally used. The nonmonogamy movement is young, and the language will evolve over time as we learn more and come up with more nuanced terms to capture experiences.
Interest in polyamory does appear to be on the rise, especially in the last ten years or so. There’s been a significant increase in media coverage, popular books, research, and internet searches on polyamory and related topics—that’s very clear.
What we’re seeing is more of a shift in our cultural norms than a change in our inherent desires. Our drive to experience both security and novelty in our relationships has not changed. It’s just a little safer to explore our options now that we have the internet and some of the stigma surrounding CNM is being called into question.
It’s all part of an arc toward tolerance and acceptance of relationship diversity that we’re witnessing. It’s likely caused by a constellation of factors—women’s liberation, the gay rights movement, and the advent of birth control, to name a few. Monogamy and marriage are concepts informed by culture, and they are constantly evolving, being negotiated and redefined. The increased interest in CNM is another iteration of that evolution.
CNM is also already more common than people might think. For example, 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is currently in a CNM relationship. Which, surprisingly, is about the same size as the entire LGBTQ community. Recent research out of the Kinsey Institute found that approximately one in five people has engaged in CNM at some point in their life. My colleague Dr. Amy Moors likes to remind me it’s about as common as owning a cat.
I’ve heard a number of people in monogamous and CNM relationships say that jealousy is the scariest part of nonmonogamy. Some mention that they are supportive of CNM or even curious about it but don’t think they could handle the jealousy. Many people feel happy and secure with monogamy, and the pros of exploring an open relationship may not be worth the anticipated costs.
People who do engage in CNM manage jealousy in a variety of ways and often tailor relationships according to the unique issues that trigger them. It’s important to create clear agreements, engage in honest communication, and approach jealousy without judgment.
I think of jealousy as being similar to anxiety—it’s something we all experience to varying degrees, and it tends to heighten when we feel unsafe, unheard, deceived, or invalidated. Jealousy is powerful in that takes only one negative experience to cultivate mistrust or establish negative associations to a person or concept. After all, our brains were wired protect and survive, not thrive. People in CNM relationships talk about their jealousy lessening over time, but this only happens when they feel secure and supported in the process. Jealousy is tied to our self-esteem, but we also have to know that our partner is going to show up for us.
Because we don’t talk about CNM openly—despite it not being very unusual—there are a lot of myths:
Myth 1: CNM relationships don’t last, or are unstable. Research suggests this is not true: CNM relationships have equitable levels of commitment, longevity, satisfaction, passion, greater levels of trust, and lower levels of jealousy compared to monogamous relationships.
Myth 2: Damaged people are attracted to consensual nonmonogamy and/or it causes people psychological harm. Research suggests psychological well-being is independent of relationship structure. That is, there’s a statistically proportionate percentage of monogamous and CNM people with relationship and psychological concerns. CNM doesn’t appear to “draw damaged people” or hurt people any more or less than monogamy does.
Myth 3: Humans are “naturally” monogamous. There’s documented adultery in every studied human society—we also know that between a quarter and half of adults report being sexually unfaithful to their monogamous partner.
Myth 4: People in CNM relationships are more likely to have or contract STIs. The research we have on this suggests that people in CNM and monogamous relationships don’t really seem to differ when it comes to their likelihood of having had an STI. Many ostensibly monogamous people do not live up to their commitment to sexual fidelity, and CNM people are more likely to use safer sex practices, such as using condoms with a partner, condoms with their extradyadic partner(s), and they talk more with their partners about the people that they’re sleeping with. They’re also more likely to be tested for STIs and are more likely to discuss their STI-testing history, which appears to counteract the increased risk of having multiple partners.
Myth 5: Men are driving the interest in CNM and women are only nonmonogamous when they’re tricked or just trying to please their man. There are a number of scholarly articles (written mostly by women-identified authors) that address how polyamory is grounded in feminism, promotes equity, and empowers women; this is one example. Feminist scholars have also articulated how traditional monogamous structures are more likely to uphold a system of gender oppression and how polyamorous women tend to indicate feeling more empowered and have more expanded family, cultural, gender, and sexual roles.
Myth 6: CNM is just an excuse to cheat. CNM is by no means trying to excuse cheating or make light of breaches of trust. People engaged in CNM agree that deception is generally harmful and should be avoided. CNM promotes having honest dialogue about nonmonogamous desires to avoid deception and create space for honesty and authentic relating.
Myth 7: Monogamy protects against jealousy. While monogamy may act as a buffer from certain experiences that provoke jealousy, it may also act as a barrier to addressing any fear or insecurity driving the jealousy. Jealousy can be experienced in any relationship, and we don’t know if monogamy necessarily protects against jealousy or if that protection is a good thing. What we do know is that jealousy levels tend to be significantly higher in monogamous relationships.
Myth 8: Children are negatively impacted. There does not appear to be evidence to suggest that children of poly parents are faring any better or worse than children of monogamous parents. Given the number of blended families, having more than one parent seems to be pretty normalized.
Dr. Moors, Dr. Jes Matsick, and I published a paper this last year where we asked 175 people in CNM relationships about the benefits of consensual nonmonogamy. We then compared their responses with a separate study of people in monogamous relationships who were asked about the benefits of monogamy. We identified six benefits shared by both groups, two benefits unique to monogamy, as well as four benefits unique to consensual nonmonogamy.
Both populations enjoy having family or community benefits, a sense of enhanced trust, enhanced sexual life, enhanced love, enhanced communication, and enhanced commitment.
But what people talked about within these shared benefits was different for CNM and monogamous people. As an example, within family or community benefits, monogamous people talked about a traditional family environment, while CNM people talked about having a larger, chosen family network. Both groups spoke of the financial benefits to the family by having more than one income and multiple people to share responsibilities.
In terms of trust, people in monogamous relationships talked about building trust by being faithful and experiencing less jealousy. People in nonmonogamous relationships talked about building trust by being able to be fully honest and open about a wider range of their internal experiences.
In terms of sexual benefits, people in monogamous relationships talked about experiencing comfort and consistency and not having to worry about STIs. Nonmonogamous people talked about the benefits of increased variety of sex and experimentation, and they felt they were having better and more frequent sex than when they were monogamous.
Love is another big category. People in monogamous relationships talked about “true love” and experiencing a sense of passion from being dedicated to one person. Nonmonogamous people spoke of being able to love multiple people, experiencing greater amounts and depth of love, as well as less pressure about choosing whom to love.
People in monogamous relationships mentioned experiencing a sense of depth and respect in their communication where people in nonmonogamous relationships talked about open and honest communication, having more opinions, and how nonmonogamy enhanced their communication skills.
In terms of commitment, monogamists talked about the emotional security, dependability, and ease that come with monogamy. With nonmonogamy, people talked about having more emotional support, enhanced security and stability from having multiple partners because they not putting all their eggs in one basket—they can depend on multiple people.
Our study points out how most benefits are shared, but there are unique aspects of monogamy and CNM. I think of it as being similar to being a dog or a cat person. Dog and cat owners may experience similar benefits and comforts from being a pet owner but are likely to tell you that there are distinct perks to different animals. They may even want to debate about why one is better than the other. I’m not convinced of the utility of this debate; some people simply prefer dogs, others prefer cats, and others prefer dogs, cats, and rats. We can apply this logic to people’s relationship choices—all relationship structures afford similar benefits to a certain extent, with unique benefits determined by a person’s specific preferences. To suggest one is universally better than the other seems futile.
Given that many people in CNM relationships face fears related to discrimination, social ostracism, and legal ramifications for their nontraditional relationships, it’s important to focus on not only the stigma but also the strengths of these relationships and resilience of this community.
For example, our consensual nonmonogamy participants spoke of having a more diversified need fulfillment. They felt they had more people to meet their needs, and there was decreased pressure on them to meet all of their partner’s or partners’ needs.
They also talked about how CNM facilitated personal development and growth for a number of reasons, such as: having greater autonomy and freedom for self-discovery, significant introspection prompted by leaving monogomy, having permission for more honest communication about attraction to others, and being able explore connections with same-sex partners.
If you’re both on board, start the process of discussing your interests and boundaries. You may want to read a book together to provide some guidance discovering what type of CNM may be a good fit. More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert and Opening Up by Tristan Taormino are two of my favorites.
Using dating apps (such as Feeld, OKCupid, or Tinder) can help you meet like-minded people. Some are concerned about anonymity and conceal their faces, only use the apps while traveling, set their destination accordingly, and/or deactivate their account(s) before returning home.
Despite your planning, you are likely to encounter unanticipated dynamics and feelings. We aren’t always that great at anticipating how much jealousy we will (or won’t) experience. Expect to be surprised by what you or your partner feel, and set aside time to nonjudgmentally process your experiences.
I’m not convinced there’s one best way. Some people test the water by asking about related topics to see how their partner responds while others approach it directly. There are a few principles, however, that come to mind.
Fully acknowledge the legitimacy of their feelings. If you entered the relationship with an implicit or explicit commitment to monogamy, your partner is going to feel some combination of surprised, angry, or deceived—who wouldn’t? Avoiding, minimizing, or rushing through this part of the process will not serve you or your partner.
Be patient and supportive. If you want to maintain the relationship, you’re going to need to take it slow to give your partner the time and support they need to metabolize their feelings. Doing so is the only way to create space for your partner to step into curiosity about the evolution of your desire.
Your partner may conflate their desire for connection with judgment. While in their anger or surprise, your partner may make accusations or judge you or CNM. Being drawn to multiple people is stigmatized and it can be a lightning rod. Try to ride the wave and do your best not to personalize any attacks. I’m not saying it’s okay, but it is common. Hold tightly to the truth that there’s nothing wrong with you holding curiosity about CNM. They may not have the language to say it, but their anger stems from their desire to be connected to you.
Do your homework. Once you engage the topic, be prepared to provide reassurance and have resources available to address your partner’s concerns. Again, reading a book or exploring online resources together may be helpful.
Find support. You can’t do this alone. Both of you need a supportive community. Hopefully you have friends or family who would be supportive, but many people do not. If that’s the case, there are a number of resources and online communities you can turn to. You may also want to seek out a therapist. Granted, finding a therapist who is educated about CNM can be difficult, but we are working on that. Poly-friendly Professionals is a great place to start. We also developed a resource that you can provide to your therapist to educate them about CNM, because you shouldn’t have to spend time in your session doing it.
If you’re clear on that, then the honest thing to do would be to find a way to share this with your partner. It’s not always cut-and-dried though. There are typically a number of reasons people want to open their relationship—experiencing dissatisfaction about some aspect of the relationship doesn’t mean the relationship needs to end or should stay closed.
In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel goes into detail about how discussing or engaging in CNM can enhance or recharge a relationship. Whatever the source of your curiosity, it is worth examining because it points to your authentic desires.
It’s similar to dating monogamously: Principles regarding trust, honesty, communication, conscientiousness, emotional maturity, commitment, love, self-awareness, and sexual chemistry all still apply. While there are more similarities than differences, there are differences.
For example, the assumption that we are or should be monogamous is challenged in CNM relationships. Attraction to others while in a relationship is normalized, and there tends to be more room to discuss this attraction. Jealousy is also seen as an emotion that can be managed or overcome by 1) taking ownership of our own jealousy, 2) exploring and addressing triggers and insecurities, 3) negotiating agreements around sex and dating, and 4) adapting agreements for individual triggers.
A common saying in the poly community is that our capacity to love may be limitless, but our time, energy, and resources are not. In light of this, conversations about emotional bandwidth and sharing calendars among partners are common. Discussion around safer sex practices and STI testing are also a typical aspect of CNM relationships.
I wish we had more research on this so we could to speak to the nuances of this question. My initial thoughts are that it likely depends on the person, their context, and their unique intersecting identities. The issues facing me as a queer, white, gender-flexible man in a large city are going to look different than those facing a lesbian person of color who lives in a small town, for example. Our stories may share similar elements of discrimination, but they are also unique and influenced by our individual cultural context. It is critical that we continue to explore these points of convergence and divergence to understand how CNM intersects with other marginalized identities and how we specifically support CNM communities with multiple marginalized identities. This area of research is very young and is one of the key initiatives of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force, which I cochair with Dr. Moors.
It’s hard, and I wish this weren’t our reality. I try to attune to whatever they’re feeling and meet them there, neither judging nor rushing the process. Sometimes we just need to be heard and witnessed in our pain.
Similar to internalized homophobia, negative societal messages about CNM can be embraced by people who are in CNM relationships. It can be difficult to remember that there’s nothing wrong with CNM or who we are when our peers judge us. I monitor this, and if I sense any judgment has been internalized, I may work with them to identify relevant contextual factors to help redirect the blame.
Data from our recent study showed that one of the most common mistakes therapists make with CNM therapy clients is attributing clients’ problems to CNM. For example, when a monogamous couple is having problems, we typically don’t assume it’s because they’re monogamous. We also don’t assume a monogamous client is depressed or anxious because they are “attempting monogamy.” Without adequate education and exposure, even well-meaning therapists seem to engage in these and other types of biased, unhelpful practices. It’s important that we name how stigma directed toward CNM may be causing the problem.
This is another question we know very little about. My speculation is that CNM activates, in a unique way, our fear of abandonment. To some it may feel like normalizing consensual nonmonogamy may put them at greater risk of having their partner ask to open their relationship. Some may simply believe having sex with more than one person is immoral. Either way, this issue can quickly activate strong reactions and we need to be thoughtful and sensitive about this in our efforts to promote compassion and inclusion of CNM.
I do think we need to start talking about why a quarter to half of monogamous relationships experience sexual infidelity. Nearly half of marriages also end in divorce and infidelity is consistently listed as one of the top reasons for separation. It seems we are all likely to benefit from creating more space and safety in relationships to discuss our desire for novelty or connection with others, regardless of whether the individuals involved decide to open their relationship. If we remove judgment around extradyadic attraction, it will be easier to be fully honest with each other. CNM is not the enemy; it is an effort to promote honesty and integrity about our authentic experience.
Too many clients who are in CNM relationships find they have to educate their therapists. We recently conducted a study about the experiences of CNM clients in therapy, where we found many people stopped going to therapy because their therapist judged them or didn’t know enough about CNM to be helpful. Our data suggests that people in CNM relationships are experiencing minority stress and are having a hard time finding therapists educated about CNM.
This past winter, Division 44 of the American Psychological Association accepted Dr. Moors’s and my proposal for a task force to address issues related to consensual nonmonogamy. We’re currently in the process of organizing more than fifty professionals from across the US and Canada who applied to join our team. You can access our resources and opt to join our mailing list by checking out our petition to support relationship diversity in mental health, medical health, and the legal profession.
Inclusive Education and Therapist Locator Campaigns are two of the CNM Task Force’s 12 initiatives. It is an issue we believe the field of psychology has an obligation to start addressing.
Heath Schechinger, PhD, is a licensed counseling psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a cochair of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force. His private practice specializes in providing support to the consensual nonmonogamy, kink, queer, and gender-nonconforming communities. His most recent article, accepted for publication in the Journal for Clinical and Consulting Psychology, is the largest study to date addressing therapy practices with consensual nonmonogamy clients.