To effectively support and provide mental health treatment for polyamorous individuals, it is essential for clinicians to be knowledgeable about the unique dynamics, experiences, and needs associated with polyamory. An unbiased and open-minded approach to polyamory allows clinicians to create a safe and nonjudgmental therapeutic space for their polyamorous clients, fostering trust and facilitating effective treatment outcomes. Through embracing a nonjudgmental stance, acknowledging the unique dynamics of polyamorous relationships, and adapting interventions to address specific needs, mental health clinicians can play a pivotal role in supporting the mental well-being and relationship fulfillment of polyamorous individuals.
What is Polyamory?
Polyamory, also known as ethical non-monogamy, is a relationship structure where individuals have consensual romantic and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously. Polyamorous relationships can take many forms, such as triads (three people), quads (four people), or even larger groupings (polycules). While polyamory is still the minority in comparison to the monogamous relationship model, it is gaining visibility and interest across the globe. Recent polls in the US show that approximately 11% of individuals either identify as polyamorous or have been a part of a polyamorous relationship at some point in their lives.
Polyamory is not the same as cheating or having an affair; polyamorous relationships are based on honesty, transparency, and consent. All partners involved are aware of and agree to the arrangement. Polyamorous individuals prioritize communication, negotiation, and boundaries to ensure that all parties involved feel respected, heard, and valued. These relationships are better supported by providers who are knowledgeable about relationship diversity, how to nurture these types of relationships, and how to communicate about unique challenges that arise within the polyamorous community.
Positives of Polyamory
One aspect about this type of relationship model that is appreciated by its members is the ability to form deep, meaningful connections with multiple people. Polyamorous individuals often have different types of relationships with distinct partners. For example, one partner may provide emotional support, while another may provide intellectual stimulation or physical pleasure. Polyamorous individuals can explore different aspects of themselves and their desires through these relationships while maintaining mutual respect and consent among everyone involved.
Polyamory also places emphasis on personal growth and self-awareness. Polyamorous relationships require individuals to be introspective and reflective of their wants, needs, and emotions. By engaging in communication and negotiation with multiple partners, individuals can develop greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Polyamory can also challenge cultural norms around possessiveness and jealousy, which can lead to personal growth and expanded perspectives.
There are economic benefits of multi-partner relationships and/or households as well. Pooling money for a nice vacation for three or more people makes it more affordable for everyone. Similarly, multiple adults in a cohabiting relationship means more financial support for housing and utilities. Shared responsibility can also extend to the care of children within long-term committed polyamorous relationships. In such setups, the child in question benefits from the presence of multiple caring and devoted parental figures. The involvement of multiple parents not only fosters an abundance of love but also distributes the responsibilities and burdens associated with parenthood, alleviating the stress and numerous challenges that come with raising a child.
Challenges of Polyamory
Polyamory has the potential to be a fulfilling and rewarding way of relating to others, but it is not without its challenges. Communication is critical in polyamorous relationships, as it can be quite challenging to manage multiple relationships simultaneously. Jealousy and insecurity can arise, requiring individuals to work through their emotions in a healthy and productive manner. Thankfully, resources are available for people wanting to be in a polyamorous relationship who struggle with undesired jealousy or anxiety. A popular resource for polyamorous couples is The Jealousy Workbook by Kathy Labriola. Polyamorous individuals can also benefit from working with a therapist who is knowledgeable and understanding of non-monogamous relationships. Common areas addressed in polyamorous relationship counseling include: communication skills, working through jealousy and insecurity, exploring and setting boundaries, and supporting individual growth and well-being.
There are considerable external challenges to polyamorous relationships, largely from social stigma, as individuals often have to “come out” to friends and family about having or wanting multiple partners, risking judgment and prejudice. Polyamorous individuals also face the risk of push-back or discrimination in job settings. Our society is structured around hetero-monogamy, so polycules are faced with challenges that two-person partnerships are not. For example, who do we pick to be covered by our company’s health insurance? Who is authorized to visit us in the hospital if we get into an accident? Who attends the parent-teacher meetings? These are just a handful of unique challenges polyamorous relationships face that are simply not a problem for monogamous couples.
It is important to understand common terms used in the polyamorous community, such as primary partner, secondary partner, nesting partner, metamour, and various relationship dynamics like triads and quads. Having this understanding contributes to effective communication and engagement with polyamorous individuals.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of common terms used when discussing polyamory:
Polyamory: A relationship structure where individuals have consensual romantic and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously. Also referred to as ethical non-monogamy.
Primary partner: A partner who holds a primary role in a polyamorous person’s life. This can include shared living arrangements, finances, and emotional support.
Secondary partner: A partner who is not a primary partner but is still involved in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with one or both of the primary partners.
Nesting partner: A partner(s) with whom a home is shared.
Metamour: The partner of one’s partner. For example, if Alice and Bob are both in a relationship with Charlie, Alice and Bob are metamours.
Hinge: Someone who is dating two people who are not dating each other. Charlie would be considered the hinge since they are dating both Alice and Bob, but Alice and Bob are not dating each other.
Compersion: The feeling of joy or happiness that one experiences when their partner experiences pleasure or happiness with another partner.
Triad: A polyamorous relationship involving three people. Also referred to as a “throuple.”
Quad: A polyamorous relationship involving four people.
Kitchen table polyamory: A polyamorous relationship dynamic where all partners are “comfortable sitting together at a kitchen table” and having open communication and discussion.
Parallel polyamory: A style of polyamorous relationship in which each individual relationship exists largely independent of either partner’s additional romantic or sexual relationships, and in which there is not an intentional focus on entwining the relationship network.
Garden party polyamory: The middle ground between kitchen table and parallel polyamory; sometimes used to describe the polycule with a bit of everything, and sometimes used for folks who see each other at large events a few times a year.
Solo polyamory: A form of polyamory where individuals prioritize their own autonomy and independence over being part of a couple or primary relationship.
Polycule: The interconnected network of people involved in a polyamorous relationship. It can include primary and secondary partners, metamours, and other connected individuals.
Closed polycule/polyfidelitous relationship: Two terms for groups of people who have decided not to see people outside of their existing relationship networks. Polyfidelitous is sometimes shortened to “polyfi.”
Supporting Polyamorous Clients
In a society where monogamy is often the norm, it is crucial for mental health clinicians to educate themselves about polyamory and offer inclusive and affirming support to polyamorous individuals. By doing so, clinicians can contribute to the well-being, personal growth, and relationship fulfillment of polyamorous individuals, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and understanding society.