Our goal at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center is to provide mental health service to all people including non-traditional couples

Our goal at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center is to provide mental health service to all people including non-traditional couples

Why Understanding Polyamory is So Important (Even if You’re Monogamous)

            Polyamory is nothing new, and has certainly been written about plenty. This blog will attempt to distill a few simple truths from what I have gleaned of polyamorous culture in a form mostly applicable to monogamous folks. Though more and more common here in the Bay, polyamorous relationships are still unrecognized legally, as marriage is still only between two. Even here in liberal San Francisco many of my friends with multiple partners are very selective about who they ‘come out’ to for fear of stigma and stupid questions. Many may consciously or unconsciously shun polyamorous folks because of our own strange mixture of social conditioning, personal fears or even our desire to try it.  I hope by highlighting a few of polyamory’s virtuesI can do some small part to chip away at the stigma and social sanctions people who just love lots of people sometimes face. This blog is not going to be a comprehensive guide to open relationships in any way. If you are interested in learning more about polyamory for yourself, I recommend the now canonized book, The Ethical Slut by Easton & Hardy (1997), or More than Two by Franklin Veaux (2014).  I will loosely define polyamory here as the intentional and consensual participation in relationships which may or may not consist of love, sex, physical affection and emotional attachments with more than one partner. Monogamy would be all of the above, but with one partner only. What I would like to do here is explore what everyone can learn from the very intentional and communicative relationships most people engaging in polyamory manage to pull off. I believe that whether or not one wants to move toward opening one’s relationship, people’s consciousness about their relationships can be raised by taking some notes from the poly playbook.

Disclaimer: I want to say that everything below is formed in generalizations. Generalizations are problematic, because there are always exceptions. Yet, they can be helpful to refer to general, broad trends. If you are the exceptional monogamous person who has all of the below figured out, that is great. I know there are lots of you out there living in wonderfully conscious, communicative monog relationships. I do not mean to disrespect the work you have done and are doing. I see you.

            Lesson #1. All boundaries in relationships are arbitrary and need to be defined (and redefined constantly) for each relationship. This is a big one for monogamous folks who assume that monogamy has a given and consistent set of boundaries. Actually, your partner may have very different boundaries than you do. That could get you into a lot of trouble if you assume you are on the same page. For example, is flirting ok? What does that look like? Does it include physical touch? If so, are there areas of the body that are off limits? What about emotional relationships? What about emotional relationships with ex’s, with people who have expressed interest in your partner, with people your partner has a crush on? What about physical affection with friends, cuddling, sleep-overs, kisses on the cheek, kisses on the lips? You may assume you and your partner’s monogamous relationship just means you don’t have sex with other people, only to learn later that they believe it absolutely means you will not be friends with your ex or anyone who has ever had a crush on you. If you make assumptions and set silent expectations of your partner, some very unpleasant surprises may lie ahead. People in polyamorous relationships often work really hard to get to know each other’s boundaries and to negotiate through places where the desired ‘rules’ are different. For some reason, people in partnerships for two often stumble into these differences like landmines, both parties having assumed that monogamy is monogamy and they don’t need to talk about it.

            I recommend when any relationship is getting started to talk about boundaries, talk about what would constitute a violation of your boundaries. Use hypothetical situations to draw out your partner’s feelings. Do they mind if you are friends with your ex? No. Great, but what would it be like if you had too much to drink and spent the night on their couch? Is it ok to go out with co-workers for beers after work? Yes. Awesome, but what if I do that five nights a week until 9 pm, and what if one of them has had romantic feelings for me for years and we have kissed a few times before? All of these details are likely to come out eventually. Even if they don’t, hiding them can bring shame and feelings of distance in the relationship. Talking about them up front may help you to realize where you and your lover need more communication, negotiation and even possibly a good therapist to help mediate your differences. Jealousy is almost certain to come up in conversations about the do’s and don’t’s in your relationship, which leads us to lesson two…

Lesson # 2 Working Consciously with Jealousy. Another great book for poly folks, which I recommend to all is, Polyamory and Jealousy: A More than Two Essential Guide (Veaux & Rickert, 2015). It is not as though people in polyamorous relationships simply do not feel jealousy. Many do. However, jealousy is seen as something to be worked with. In my monogamous friends, and couples I see in therapy, I notice that jealousy is either treated as some unreasonable, pure evil, or it is given enormous reign and allowed to control a partner’s behavior.  One of the things people in open relationships seem to get is that jealousy must be reckoned with, and also jealousy can be reckoned with. By inviting jealousy to speak, giving it space and then acknowledging where it might be coming from, you can do quite a lot to alleviate it. You can also get a boatload of useful information. Jealousy can act as a warning sign to let you know that you need to draw a boundary - that something really is not okay for you, or it could be an old attachment wound left on your heart by your parents or an old lover. Knowing the difference and sorting out the murky, primal places where jealousy lives can be painful, but so revealing.

If you are interested in this deep work, I definitely recommend you get therapeutic support, either individual or relational. The most likely sources of jealousy are early separations from our primary care-taker. Whether we lost them to their relationship with a newborn sibling, their love for their partner (the old Oedipal triangle), or their return to work, our primary caregiver was sometimes not there for us because they were there for someone or something else. This is why everyone feels some jealousy. If the abandonment by the primary caregiver was excessive or traumatic in some way, then the big feelings we had may echo loudly through future relationships in the form of blinding, burning jealousy. It is not possible to ignore these feelings, nor is it fair to let them rule your relationship. You may also have had a former partner who kept you in the dark while cheating, or controlled you with their jealousy and violence. Fears can linger and damage the intimacy between you and your love. Doing the work on jealousy can set you both free from so many dark, sticky emotional caves even if you are not opening your relationship. Because…

Lesson #3, We All feel Attraction, All the Time. This attraction doesn’t have to be sexual. In fact, I believe it is most common to be attracted to someone in a pure sense of just wanting to be near them, to know them and have them in your life. Yet, because sexual attraction is what we are taught to notice, we often assume an attraction is sexual just because it is powerful. I probably wouldn’t have slept with most of my friends in my 20’s if I had figured this out sooner, but oh wellJ The feeling of being excited by another person is a wonderful part of life. Yet, if we are in the cautionary tale of monogamy I am hinting at above, in which we skirt around talking about our boundaries and our jealousy, we may feel guilty about our attractions to others. We may question whether or not it means we are still in love with our partner as we used to be, or should be. We might feel guilt or shame. We might feel fine about it and tell our partner, only to encounter their jealousy, then feel shame. I have heard people in therapy express that they are certain their relationship is doomed because they or their partner found someone else attractive. This really strikes me as a tragedy. Life is long. The world is full of people. If you stay together with someone long enough, you will undoubtedly find someone else attractive. In relationships with multiple partners, these attractions are often talked about in fun, playful and sexy ways. If it feels like someone must suppress the natural impulse to be drawn to other people, it is much less fun and sexy and may in fact lead to a libido (sex drive & life force) deadening, which will impact your sex life within the relationship.

Experiencing attraction does not mean you have to act. Some of us have simply been conditioned to believe that attraction itself is infidelity. Though it might feel threatening to hear your lover express their attraction for someone else, it also frees you to be a human being with eyeballs and a sex drive too. You might also be surprised to learn that while talking about these things might feel prickly, getting to the other side of having talked about them will actually make your relationship feel more secure, not less. If things are suppressed they can start to take on that scary, elephant-in-the –room quality. If they are opened up and it proves that the elephant didn’t squash anybody, you can feel more assured than ever that your partner chooses you, consciously and freely, even in the face of other options.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. And PT blogger for The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. And PT blogger for The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center

            These are just a few of the things the brave, hard-working souls engaging in loving more than one can teach. There is so much beauty in the unique ways we build relationships. Inviting in the wisdom that others have earned can only enrich our potential for loving better. I hope that it may also help us live in a more tolerant and respectful world.

 

 

Written by Alice Phipps- Marketing Team for The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center

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