Open relationships mean ongoing negotiations
As a therapist who often works with non-traditional lifestyles, I get a lot of calls from distressed clients struggling to navigate new relationship structures. The most common of these calls is from someone who thought they were in a monogamous relationship until their long term partner suddenly changed the game, unilaterally declaring the relationship open, their orientation polyamorous or something similar. To be clear, (which sudden game changers aren’t) polyamory is experienced by many people as a legitimate orientation and lifestyle...when it is practiced ethically, by mutual consent and ongoing negotiation. Real open or polyamorous relationships can exist only with trust, openness and ongoing negotiation.
I work with many clients in open relationships because not enough therapists are familiar enough to work competently with this relationship structure. Such clients come to me with a variety of issues, often unrelated polyamory, simply because they know I won’t judge them.
Since both monogamy and polyamory are orientations (meaning the person didn’t choose to be that way), no monogamous or polyamorous individual should be criticized, shamed, belittled or coerced to change something they experience as innate. As therapist I think it’s important to make distinctions between a true orientation and sudden, unilateral or what could be called faux-polyamory, because of the harm it does, to unwitting participants and the concept of polyamory itself.
What follows is a typical scenario I see in my practice. A client comes in alone, trying to learn "how to become polyamorous” because their partner suddenly informed them of a wish to live that way. The client is a relationship they value, invested in and thought was stable. Now after learning otherwise, they:
- don’t know what to think, do, or or feel
- need a way to handle strong emotions they didn’t expect to be feeling
- are hurt, confused, especially if their partner was rational and persuasive about why they should accept this new arrangement
- want to find a way to hang on to the relationship
- don't want to be stigmatized, seen as uncool, controlling, inflexible or otherwise out-of-touch
- don’t want to feel stupid
- don’t want to be judged
- don’t know where to find reliable information
- read the book “Sex at Dawn" at their partner’s urging and are to open, if nervous, to see if can work.
Remember I said it can. Let’s start with how it fails though. Someone who sincerely invests their energy in a monogamous relationship by definition forgoes other relationships that could offer them other advantages. Entering into monogamy is an act of faith. It assumes neither person will break the agreement. There’s a tacit expectation that each person recognizes and accepts the opportunities gained and lost. When one person in such an agreement changes the game without warning, it’s a betrayal to this basic understanding and all that went with it: a lack of regard for their partner’s lost opportunities. In addition to the emotional toll taken, these lost opportunities might include housing (should someone now need to find a new place to live) finances (loss of shared resources), reproduction (when a woman loses precious time finding an appropriate partner to have children with), companionship (losing the time, attention and affection of a partner) and status (losing their position as primary partner). Most people wouldn’t accept such a loss without negotiation. The game changer appears to win by changing the rules mid-game. In most other contexts that’s recognized as cheating, and the person who breaks the rules doesn’t get to score.
Shy should the winner take all when when they didn’t earn it? And why should there be such confusion, so many books, movies and internet site devoted to infidelity? Certainly It has become an common event, one that is no longer hidden, but talked, worried and obsessed over with great energy. For some the forbidden is thrilling and sexy. I know that there are a variety of relationship arrangements that can be compelling, sexy, and all the more energizing for the hard work, relentless honesty, competence, skill and self-knowledge they require of people.
Ethical non-mongamy involves confronting ongoing change, issues of fairness, shifting relationship dynamics, and a solid relationship with yourself. These are all skills one needs in any relationship, friendship or family. Whether you choose to leave a relationship that’s no longer working, or navigate a rapidly changing one, you will still retain your most important relationship, the one you have with yourself. Sometimes working with a therapist who gets all that can really help.
In future posts I will write about people who made the right decisions for themselves, how they managed to practice ethical non-monogamy in ways that were right for them.