By Genevieve Fahey,
Marriage and Family Therapist
September 21, 2022
How I do (and don’t) Help People Coming Out as Polyamorous
I specialize in relationship therapy that is poly affirming. I work with couples that are in or want to be in mono/poly dynamics or that are dealing with the discovery that one partner wants an ethical non-monogamous dynamic in a relationship that has been monogamous up to this point.
So, I end up with a lot of emails that go something like this,
“my partner and I have been together X amount of time, and now they want to open the relationship but I don’t want to. They have started dating someone else, and are trying to get me to also date or have sex with the person/convince me to invite the person into our family/are bringing the person around even though I’m not ready for that yet. I am feeling really jealous and insecure. I want to be accepting, but I can’t seem to get on board. My partner is telling me this is what they need to be happy/that they are poly/they can’t live monogamously anymore, and they really want me to just be supportive, but I’m having a hard time, and we keep arguing about it. Can you help me accept this and help us make this work?”
I’m happy these people reached out. I don’t want to discourage anyone from looking for outside support. I will talk to this person and offer appropriate referrals. But, these are not the type of couples I take on for mono/poly therapy. Maybe you recognize the red-flags in this relationship from the brief email, but let’s address them point by point.
Major Red Flags
~Firstly, relationships require consent to work~
Especially mono/poly or any kind of non-monogamous relationships. This person has stated explicitly that they do not consent to a non-monogamous relationship, and that if they were to, they would need more time and dialogue. But, their partner has ignored them and continued to pursue other partners. This is cheating. It certainly is in the open, but it is still cheating. You can absolutely coerce your partner to look the other way while you have other relationships. But, that is not consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or polyamory. It’s cheating, and it could also be emotional abuse. When abuse of any kind is present in a relationship, couple’s therapy is contra-indicated. Individual therapy is recommended until neither party in the relationship is using power and control to get their way.
If you are being coerced into opening your relationship please seek individual therapy and encourage your partner to do the same. Your partner is not behaving in an ethical or fair way, and that is unlikely to change once you get into couple’s therapy. It may actually exacerbate the problem.
~Trust is a Must, Otherwise We Risk Harm~
It takes a lot of conversation, trust and negotiation to open a previously monogamous relationship. It is important to do this step intentionally. I don’t assert that there is a “right” way to do this step, but there is a “wrong” way.
If I accept this couple as a client it is not the work of building a mono/poly relationship or of opening up consensually. It could transform into that work eventually. But, first we have to do the work of repairing harm. Harm is when we cause emotional, psychological or physical damage to another person. Hurt feelings don’t always equal harm. So, we aren’t going to conflate those two things here. My partner going on a date with a new romantic interest and having a really great time might cause jealousy or feelings of inferiority in me. It might hurt my feelings, but my partner did not harm me. They have not violated any of our agreements, been critical or contemptuous towards me, they have not physically hurt me in any way, they have not threatened me, my belongings, my loved ones, or our relationship, they have not gaslighted me, nor have they been coercive of me.
Now that we’ve defined what harm is, we can see that in this email example the partner the email is written about has been harmful. Let’s call them Emery. Emery has violated the relationship agreements, been coercive and has gaslighted their partner. Let’s call Emery’s partner River.
The first step to repairing this harm is having the harmed partner be compassionately heard by the partner who has done the harm.
So, we need to know if this step is safe to take. Does Emery even believe that they have caused harm? Do they believe they have work to do at all? If the answers here are, “no” then we stop before we even begin. We cannot force someone to do therapeutic work. It is internal, personal and self fueled. When someone does not believe their behavior is problematic you’d be better off in individual therapy to process the grief of this dynamic shift and to learn to set boundaries with someone who is gaslighting/coercing you.
If there is any physical abuse then couple’s therapy is contra-indicated. Individual therapy for both partners is recommended to begin. The same goes for emotional abuse. Emotional abuse causes as much psychological damage as physical abuse, and similarly serves to have power and control over a partner.
If you want to evaluate the frequency of abusive behavior in your relationship you can look up, “The Abusive Behavior Inventory” online.
~Patience is Key~
Let’s say that Emery is willing to genuinely listen to River, is open to feedback from the therapist and then is open to reflecting on their behavior. Perhaps Emery is just really excited about opening up and has no idea how to do so. It’s not uncommon for people to use a battering ram to open a relationship when they have the key in hand. I imagine the reasons for this are rooted in messages from toxic monogamy culture, specifically the idea that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” The truth is that your partner may find a lot of benefits for themselves in CNM, but you have to give them time to explore the idea. We must realize that by the time we approach our partner about opening up we’ve had a lot of time to think about it, have probably had conversations with our trusted circle and done research. This is probably the first time your partner has contemplated CNM as a reality for them. It is normal for them to respond with shock. We need to let them have their reaction.
Coming out to your partner as poly/CNM or wanting to open up the relationship is the first of many conversations. Patience is required. Pushing ahead is not the way to go.
Okay, so with the benefit of the doubt that Emery is well intentioned and open to feedback my next question is are they willing to pause when it comes to pursuing new relationships and sexual partners? I know it is very difficult when you have been closeted for a long time, you finally find your identity, the bravery to share it and you just want to live your truth. It sounds like River understands this perspective to some degree as well. But, in the context of an established relationship you must move forward with patient intention if you want to stay in the established relationship.
This is not to say that any new relationships Emery has already established need to be abolished or put on pause. Those are full human beings with rights to relationship autonomy that are now involved in the dynamic. How to move forward in that situation is complex, and not something I will address here.
For our purposes, the question is can Emery pause the pursuit of more partners while Emery and River negotiate new relationship agreements? River needs to know what to reasonably expect now, deserves an opportunity to consent to what happens in their relationship and to be an active participant. They don’t get to tell Emery what they can or cannot do, but they do get to speak their own limitations.
Emery may be pleasantly surprised at River’s receptiveness. Emery may find that some of their pushing forward was based on beliefs that they aren’t allowed to ask for what they really want. Both partners can find more safety and intimacy in this process. But, if Emery can’t pause on starting new relationships and take the time to re-negotiate relationship agreements with River, then simply put, why?
~Sometimes the Way to Heal is to Separate~
If Emery needs to blaze ahead with the opening up process then they may not be able to give River what they need. So, it is unfortunately appropriate to evaluate if this relationship can continue. We grow and change and sometimes that means our relationship dynamics need to change too. If you need to leave the relationship you are in to discover yourself that is alright. It does not make you a bad person. Back to harm versus hurt feelings. It will hurt our partner’s feelings if we break up with them, but we can do so in a way that is not harmful. If you know that you do not want to continue the established relationship, please have that discussion as soon as possible to avoid harm. Be direct and compassionate. Do not string your partner along.
In the email example, Emery is telling River that they need to open up the relationship to be happy. If River does not want to open this relationship then River has a right to decline that proposition. River needs to understand that saying, “No.” is not oppressing Emery. If Emery claims that it is then they both need a reminder that they are separate people and can want separate things. True that this incompatibility may end the relationship. But, this is where choice and autonomy enter (again). Emery wants an open relationship, River does not, and they both want to stay together. So, how do they move forward? There are many ethical paths forward. But, forcing River into an open relationship is not one of them. Neither is telling Emery that talking about their non-monogamous orientation is too triggering and sweeping it under the rug.
Having a partner come out as polyamorous is a stressor for most monogamous relationships. Deciding to open up the relationship in any form is a huge life transition. You may not stay coupled. This is one of the hard truths I have to talk to my clients about in the beginning of treatment. You’re usually in couple’s therapy because you want to stay together, but you must know that a possible outcome is realizing you are better off dissolving the relationship. It’s much easier to break up with a relationship therapist there to support your decoupling, but it’s still heart-breaking.
~Jealousy is Normal and Healthy~
River’s emotional reaction (jealousy and insecurity) is a healthy reaction in the case they described in the email example. Jealousy arises when our system is worried that our relationship may be threatened. Jealousy is normal. The goal is not to get rid of jealousy. The goals of therapy within Polyamory and CNM are to make friends with jealousy and to find security in your relationship(s). Polyamorous and CNM therapy support the jealous person in working with their jealousy to show their nervous system that their relationship is not being threatened by the presence of other partner(s). That is after we have established consent. That is after we have established trust and when both partners have safety to communicate their jealousy. If the response to “I feel jealous when…” is, “sounds like a ‘you’ problem, go tell your therapist about it,” then we don’t have safety to communicate jealousy.
Jealousy will be a part of opening up, so it’s important that both partners feel secure sharing. A supportive reaction to jealousy being shared sounds like, “oh babe, I’m really glad you shared how you feel with me. Jealousy is a tough one to feel (offers a hug or other known-to-be-helpful comfort to their partner). What do you need from me?” Yes, the partner can go on to direct their jealous partner to the therapist, but not as a way to avoid whatever their partner’s jealousy brings up in them. Instead, it’s a way to remind them that there is more space for their emotions, that what the partner cannot help with is still allowed and to set a boundary when limitations in one’s own ability to offer support are reached.
~The Best Path Forward Depends on Many Factors~
Now let’s address River’s request that I help them accept and make the situation they find themselves in work. As it has been described, that might require River to change their relationship orientation, their needs or abandon themselves. Neither I nor any therapist or person can help you change who you are. And, I wouldn’t try to help you do that. I could not ethically help a client pursue a goal that included abandoning themselves. I would support River in exploring and processing their emotional reaction to Emery’s disclosure. I would help River explore if they are interested in opening up, and what that would
ideally look like for them. I can help them with communication skills and setting boundaries. I would help River identify what barriers to setting those boundaries were in the first place. I can help them identify the patterns in their relationship and what parts of those patterns they want to shift. But, making the relationship work is not something I have any control over. And, neither I nor River have control over Emery’s actions. I can help them understand and accept that. I can hold space for those emotions, but I can’t promise a specific outcome.
I hope this article helps those who read my article on mono/poly relationships to further decipher what the next step for your relationship might be and how therapy could help you with that next step.
If you’re interested in Genevieve’s blog posts, you can find more by checking out:
About The Author
Genevieve Fahey is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Midtown, Sacramento. She identifies as Queer herself, and is dedicated to providing informed therapeutic services to the under-served LGBTQQI and Poly communities. She loves working with people who are carving their own way in this world. She has 8 years of clinical experience with couples and individuals. She doesn’t work alone though. Her co-therapist is a lovable therapy-dog named Halo.
She is currently offering therapy through telehealth and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her for inspirational, uplifting quotes on Instagram @tellyourtherapist.