What Psychology Professionals Need to Know About Polyamory
One of the most common challenges people face when seeking psychotherapy or other mental health/emotional support is the concern that a therapist will judge them or shame them for their sexual fantasies, desires, and expression. Unfortunately, this often keeps people from finding a therapist or it keeps them from opening up and being honest about what’s going on. Both of those are major barriers.
For a few years, I co-taught a class on sexuality for people studying to become therapists (my co-teacher was a therapist, so she dealt with the clinical issues while I handled the sexuality issues) and one of the things that we always talked about was the fact that many clients are hesitant to bring up sexuality concerns. Unfortunately, many therapists (as well as doctors) are also hesitant to ask the questions. Instead, they often report that they’re open to talking about these topics, but they wait for the client to take the first step. It’s kind of like going to a dance, when nobody wants to be the first one out on the dance floor.
The problem with that, of course, is that part of the therapist’s job is to create a safe space so that the client can open up. One way they can do that is by asking relevant questions, which signals that they know about the topic. And although it happens all too often, it shouldn’t be the client’s job to educate or train the therapist- that’s what books, the internet, other therapists, and places like Good Vibrations are for. (BTW, if you’re a therapist who has questions about sex, email us here. We’re happy to help.)
When it comes to polyamory, swinging, non-monogamy and other forms of open relationships, most of the information on the topic is written for people interested in them, rather than for helping professionals. So I’m really glad to have discovered that the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has an amazing brochure called What Psychology Professionals Need to Know About Polyamory. It’s full of useful information about open relationships. For example:
Therapists often report that once they are able to deal with and accept a given lifestyle, they find that client couples in nontraditional relationships tend to present issues that differ little from those brought by couples in more traditional relationships. Issues such as inadequate communication, differing degrees of commitment, conflicting expectations, and the search for a balance between autonomy and intimacy are common in both.
Unfortunately, many therapists assume that polyamory is the result of deeper problems and try to “fix” it by steering clients towards relationship structures that they deem “normal.” This is especially true when poly folks have relationship challenges. As the brochure points out:
When polyamorous relationships end, it is often assumed by outsiders that the relationship structure was to blame, when in fact any number of other factors might have been behind the breakup. Few people would think to ask whether a breakup of a monogamous couple was due to the couple’s choice of monogamy as a lifestyle.
All of this has the potential to create barriers to successful therapy, including:
- The client may be guarded; full disclosure is avoided and the effectiveness of therapy is compromised.
- The client misses out on the opportunity to freely examine not just polyamory but monogamy as a conscious choice (vs. cultural edict).
- The therapist’s faulty attributions of personal or dyadic dysfunction to the structure of polyamory itself may misdirect her or his attention; serious issues may remain unexplored.
- Therapists may be unable to distinguish healthy, genuinely consensual polyamorous practices from subtly coercive practices.
- Therapists may be unable to provide useful tools to help clients navigate the complexities of polyamorous relationships.
Fortunately, there are also ways specific to polyamory in which therapists can be a big help and the brochure describes them in some detail. This comes right from the table of contents:
- Helping Partners Decide What Form of Polyamory is Best for Them
- Helping Partners Negotiate the Agreements and Boundaries of Their Relationship
- Helping Polyamorous Individuals to Approach the Coming-Out Process
- Helping Partners Negotiate Relationship Parameters
- Helping Polyamorous Individuals Develop Exit Strategies When Necessary
- Helping Polyamorous Individuals to Locate Polyamorous Communities in Their Region, and Pointing Them to Resources Such as Articles, Books and Websites on Polyamory
Of course, there are also lots of suggested books and other resources, so therapists can find the info they need to learn about polyamory and support their clients.
If you’re a therapist and you’re interested in being more welcoming to polyamorous clients, check out the brochure. For that matter, if you’re polyamorous or you’re curious about polyamory, feel free to pass the link along to your therapist. Even if they already are comfortable with the subject, it’s always good for them to know what the research shows. And if you’re looking for a poly-friendly professional, go here. Of course, if you want to read more about the topic, we’ve got some great books: The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and Open.