When I did a search for stock images to go along with this post about alternative relationship styles, after a few failed attempts of using search terms like “non-monogamy,” “polyamory,” “open relationship,” “partnership,” and “connection,” I simply searched “love.” What came back was a saccharine flood of images of (mostly white, heterosexual) couples holding hands, sometimes displaying their wedding rings, or kissing, sometimes with the backdrop of a sunset or a beach—or both!
Oh, and these charming images of storks and penguins purportedly in love:
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what an interesting snapshot of how we tend to think of and represent “love.” Well, turns out…not everyone defines their search for love and intimate connection quite so narrowly. (I settled on the generic and hopefully inoffensive image of a heart drawn on wood.)
When a person enters therapy, they are already vulnerable and raw. They want to know that they will be accepted for who they are, that they will not have to explain or justify how they live.
For anyone practicing or interested in practicing non-monogamy, this can add an extra layer of difficulty to finding a good fit for a therapist, especially if the main issue bringing that person to therapy has to do with relationships.
We are (hopefully) entering a paradigm in which people feel empowered to define their relationships and love styles in new and unconventional ways, not based on tradition or societal bias, but on what works for them at various points in their lives and relationships.
We are learning that there are a variety of biological and cultural forces that inform our needs in relationships and it is important to acknowledge that those needs change over time. While there exists the classic stereotype that men are more likely to be promiscuous and engage in infidelity, research is suggesting that women have a high need for novelty and are just as likely as men to search outside their marriages for connection and fulfillment.
Ester Perel, esteemed author and psychotherapist, has written and spoken extensively on infidelity and desire in relationships. She often discusses the nuances and importance of finding an appropriate balance of security and novelty in long-term relationships, a feat many find more accessible in communicative non-monogamous relationships. (See one of her TED Talks here.)
Many individuals and couples are acknowledging these truths and choosing to forge relationships that take infidelity, in the traditional sense, off the table by allowing partners to ethically and consensually explore romantic and/or sexual experiences with others. There is a wide range of what these relationships or setups looks like. Boundaries and expectations can be unique to each person or couple.
for various reasons, the common model of long-term monogamous partnerships does not work for everyone. And being honest about this reality should not be shameful, but liberating.
There are many avenues to ethical consensual non-monogamous relationship formats, but few models or prominent shame-free examples for how to craft these relationships. In a society that can barely talk openly about sex, challenging the institution of monogamy is a tall order.
Functional and fulfilling non-monogamous relationships can also take time, effort, pain, extensive self-reflection, trial and error, and a deep well of emotional resilience and vulnerability to arrive at (but hey, the same can be said of monogamous relationships). But because so few models and resources exist for how to navigate these waters*, it can be all the more isolating and challenging—and therefore all the more reason that having the support of an knowledgeable and understanding therapist is crucial.
And when looking for a therapist, the last thing anyone contemplating or engaged in non-traditional relationships should have to deal with is doubt about whether their potential therapist is supportive, or worse yet, will make them feel ashamed of something that should not be shameful at all--who they are and what they want.
More tips for finding a therapist:
Don’t be shy about asking friends, partners, or others in your circle for recommendations (just be aware that many therapists will not see the partner of a current client for individual therapy).
Psychology Today is a great search tool. There is currently no criteria indicator for non-monogamy, however searching for a therapist who works with gay, lesbian, and bisexual clientele (currently the only options under “sexuality”) is a decent place to start to narrow down to those more likely to be open-minded and educated in this arena.
ask lots of question
Take full advantage of a consultation with a potential therapist to ask questions and get a feel for their experience and attitudes towards working with people in non-traditional relationships. Be clear about your concerns as well. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, keep looking.
try these directories