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Polyamory and Open Relationships

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Trigger Warning and Cautions
~ The following presentation involves frank discussions of kink and sexuality.
~ While not graphic, some of the content might be triggering for some people.
~ This series is meant to provide an overview to help clinicians to understand kink, BDSM and Poly, but is by no means all inclusive. It is designed to increase awareness of common issues and help clinicians identify areas where they may need further training.
~ Explore the difference between polyamory and open relationships
~ Learn some of the reasons people may choose polyamory
~ Explore the prevalence of polyamory
~ Explore some of the many polyamorous relationship structures

Polyamory vs. Open Relationships

~ “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people,”
~ In polyamory, the whole point is to fall in love with multiple people, and there’s not necessarily any relationship hierarchy
~ Open relationships typically start with one partner or both partners wanting to be able to seek outside sexual relationships and satisfaction, while still having sex with and sharing an emotional connection with their partner

Why Be Poly
~ Differences in sexual orientation
~ Differences in sexual desire
~ Ability to allow relationships to form organically, whatever those may be
~ More love/companionship
~ Physical and emotional closeness with different people who meet different needs
~ Greater depth of social relationships
~ Power dynamics (BDSM)
~ Creation of Chosen Family
~ Sexual excitement and/or fulfillment
~ Distance – when partners live in separate parts of the world for part or all of the time

Why Be Poly
~ Additional financial stability
~ Logistics (multiple people to provide childcare, household chores, various skills, etc.)
~ They are unable to have sex with their primary partner
~ They fell in love with someone else but want to remain in their current relationship
~ Capacity to meet more of one’s emotional, intellectual and sexual needs through accepting that one person cannot provide all
~ Release from the expectation that one must meet all of a primary partner’s needs
~ Desire to remain in long term relationship for the benefits and/or child-rearing
~ Fun/Novelty/Excitement/Escape

~ 4-5% of American relationships fall into some category of CNM
~ YouGov survey: 17% persons between 18-44yrs had participated in some sort of sexual activity with their partner’s consent, and
~ 50% people interviewed said that their ideal relationship would have some form of CNM flexibility
~ There are more CNM relationships within the LGBTQ community as compared to heterosexual community
~ BalzariniRN, Campbell L, Kohut T, Holmes BM, Lehmiller JJ, Harman JJ, et al. (2017) Perceptionsof primary and secondary relationships in polyamory. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177841. pone.0177841
Types of Poly Relationships
~ Polyamory relationship style that allows people to openly conduct multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously
~ Polyaffective relationships are emotionally intimate, non-sexual connections among people connected by a polyamorous relationship
~ Individual with multiple primaries V
~ Triad 3 people in an equally committed relationship
~ Primary plus: primary relationship partners each explore other relationships
~ Polygamy/Grou Marriage–a form of marriage consisting of more than two persons
Types of Poly Relationships
~ Monogamish–a couple is primarily monogamous, but allows varying degrees of intimate contact with others. Rules structuring these external contacts vary by couple: Some allow only one-night stands or only specific kinds of activity (i.e., kissing and groping are OK, but no intercourse), and others have time limitations (e.g., no more than a week)
~ Swinging –Committed couples consensually exchanging partners specifically for sexual purposes
~ Relationship Anarchy seeks to eliminate specific distinctions between or hierarchical valuations of friendships versus love-based relationships, so that love-based relationships are no more valuable than platonic friendships.
~ Polyamorous individuals (N=1,093) completed online measures of need fulfillment, relationship satisfaction, and commitment for two concurrent romantic relationships. Participants reported high levels of need fulfillment and satisfaction in both relationships.
~ Findings suggest that polyamorous relationships are relatively independent of one another.
~ J Sex Res. 2014;51(3):329-39. Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships.
~ General trends in the research reviewed suggest that consensual nonmonogamists have similar psychological well-being and relationship quality as monogamists.
~ Consensual Nonmonogamy: Psychological Well-Being and Relationship Quality Correlates. J Sex Res. 2015;52(9):961-82.

~ There were no significant differences between ratings of monogamous and primary partners in participants' overall relationship satisfaction.
~ However, monogamous participants reported less satisfaction with the amount of communication and openness they had with their partner compared to CNM participants' reports of their primary partner, but not secondary partner.
~ By comparison, CNM participants reported higher overall relationship satisfaction with primary compared to secondary partners and considered their primary partner to be more desirable as a long-term mate than their secondary partner.
~ Monogamy versus Consensual Non-Monogamy: Alternative Approaches to Pursuing a Strategically Pluralistic Mating Strategy. Arch Sex Behav. 2017 Feb;46(2):407-417.

Practice Issues
~ Training disparity deference to monogamous relationships as being normal (termed “mononormativity”)
~ Polyamory is legal, does not necessarily involve marriage, and can be structured in many different ways
~ Frank and DeLamater (2009) pointed out that researchers and the public often equate extramarital intimacy or sex with infidelity, yet these constructs are not the same.
~ Helping professionals who assume that monogamy is the only healthy relationship may unintentionally cause serious harm to clients
~ Increase stigma and shame
~ Reduce openness to discussing actual problems

Practice Issues
~ The clinician cannot assume that an individual presenting as a patient maintains a monogamy-valued view of his or her intimate relationship.
~ Patients may experience conflict between the cultural monogamous ideal and their actual sexual behaviors.
~ This conflict may be critical in understanding a patient's sexual concerns and presenting issues and in treatment planning.
~ Monogamy and Nonmonogamy: Evolutionary Considerations and Treatment Challenges. Sex Med Rev. 2016 Oct;4(4):343-352.
Common Therapeutic Issues
~ Inadequate communication among all partners
~ Feelings of guilt about the lifestyle and its effect on others
~ Feelings of possessiveness and jealousy
~ Discrepancy between intellectual and emotional liberation (it sounds great in theory)
~ Disapproval from significant others
~ Disapproval from religion
~ Strain from keeping “the secret”
~ Lack of an external support group
~ Legal ramifications (1999 child removed by grandparents)

Common Therapeutic Issues cont…
~ Holidays, “plus ones,” etc.
~ Minimization of the importance of “other” relationships
~ Hierarchical Poly (primary/secondary)
~ Dating a couple
~ New relationship energy
~ Dealing with breakups
~ Power dynamics
~ Child rearing
Common Therapeutic Issues cont…
~ Judgements do not only affect the adults in polyamorous relationships, but it seeps into their children.
~ Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli of Deakin University in Australia, has done extensive research looking into the well-being of children in poly families, and says the main issue is what’s referred to as “the deficit model”. This simply means outsiders believe that children are affected by their parents’ lifestyle in a negative way”
~ “The children see the whole gamut of living in a family, but externally, [many] think polyamory is all about orgies, and that’s really hard for the kids.”
When the Poly Conversation Happens
~ The “poly conversation” may force the participants to explore needs that are not being met and emotional secrets
~ Matters often taken for granted in monogamy typically require specific processing in poly relationships; for example:
~ Time and Resources: How much should be expended on whom? Who decides, and by what process?
~ Sex: what type of sex is acceptable, with whom and under what circumstances? (i.e., male or female, casual, party, BDSM play w/ or w/o genital contact, penetration, etc.)
~ Safer sex: medical issues, contraception
~ Disclosure: How much sexual/emotional disclosure about other partners is desired; how much is too much? Under what circumstances does disclosure take place, and at what stage of the relationship?

When the Poly Conversation Happens
~ Matters often taken for granted in monogamy typically require specific processing in poly relationships cont…
~ Relating to a lover’s other partners: To what extent? Will it be required that existing partners meet them before sex occurs?
~ Belongings and personal space considerations: e.g., “No, your lover can’t wear my bathrobe,” or, “Yes, it’s ok if you and he make love in our bed.”
~ Integrating new partners with family and friends: if, when and how?
~ Parity: Attaining relative equivalence in extra-dyadic relationships.
~ Veto Power: Who has the right to say “no” to a partner’s choice of another? Must at least some rationale be offered?

Polyamory Myths
~ Myth 1: Polyamory is mostly about having a lot of sex.
~ Many polyamorous relationships are an extended support network where some, but not all, of the connections involve a sexual component, but all of the connections have a deep love and respect for one another.
~ Some people get into polyamory because they’re interested in a romantic relationship without sex. There are a lot of people in the polyamorous community who identify as [asexual] but don’t want to force their partners to be celibate.
Polyamory Myths
~ Myth 2: It’s for people who don’t want to commit
~ Traditional society dictates that we should direct most of our attention, affection, and love toward one significant other so we are not spread too thin.
~ Yet nobody bats an eye when people have multiple children
~ People in a poly relationship may not live together or be married, but the essence of the relationship is being there for the other person
Polyamory Myths
~ Myth 3: Polyamory can never really work because humans are jealous by nature.
~ While there is jealousy, poly people learn to respond to feelings of envy with openness and curiosity, rather than shame.
~ Jealousy usually results from poor communication—not talking about fears or concerns especially as they may relate to prior abandonment or trauma issues
~ Additionally, because another person is involved, there is a “sexual bureaucracy” characterized by protocols and agreements

Poly Mistakes
~ Don’t make assumptions about your partners or your relationship (expectations, rules etc.)
~ Consider the intended and unintended consequences of your actions.
~ Don’t try to manage the feelings of your partner or yourself. (i.e. You can have sex, but not feelings)
~ Don’t expect relationships among all parties to be the same
~ Don’t start a new relationship if the existing one is having problems
~ Be careful when getting involved with a person new to the lifestyle until they figure out what poly-arrangements feel right for them
~ Don’t insist that a poly-relationship act as a unified unit—doing everything together.
~ Communicate openly and directly. Don’t rely on relayed information
~ There are a variety of reasons people engage in poly-relationships
~ According to Psychology Today, approximately 4% or 9.8 million adults are engaging in some form of polyamorous relationships
~ As many as 83% of societies around the world allow polygamy
~ A polyamorous structure has unique challenges and benefits
~ Polyamorous relationships are not always about sex. They are about dedication and commitment to being there for the other person
Resources in Your Classroom
~ What Professionals Should Know about Polyamory by Geri Weitzman, PhD.
~ Resources from
~ Polyamory 101, a 15-page PDF that includes a dictionary of polyamory-related terms and other resources for polyamorous relationships.
~ Practical Jealousy Management
~ Making Relationships Suck, a handy PDF guide about how to make sure your relationships will fail miserably (Note: Not for the satire-impaired.)
~ What Is Polyamory? An academic primer on polyamory
~ Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory

Resources in Your Classroom
~ Anapol, D. (1992). Love without limits: The quest for sustainable intimate relationships.
~ Anapol, D. (2003). The future of the family and the fate of our children. Retrieved from
~ Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield. Anderlini-D’Onofrio, S. (2009). Gaia and the new politics of love: Notes from a poly planet. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
~ Arden, K. (1996). Dwelling in the house of tomorrow: Children, young people and their bisexual parents. In S. Rose & C. Stevens (Eds.), Bisexual horizons: Politic, histories, lives(pp. 244–257). London, UK: Lawrence & Wishart.
~ Barker, M., & Langdridge, D. (2010). Understanding non-monogamies. London, UK: Routledge.