Expanding the Boundaries: Polyamory and Non-traditional Family Forms

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Last weekend, I attended the 35th Annual Meeting of AFTA (American Family Therapy Academy), in

aftaChicago.  The conference, entitled “Coupling Today: Love, Parenting, Community,” included many excellent presentations and opportunities to learn from colleagues. I was pleased and surprised to find the topic of non-monogamy well-represented in the Saturday plenary, Monogamy & Nonmonogamy: Commitments, Variations & Violations, given by Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, Janis Abrams and Michael LaSala as well as several presenters’ panels.

This was the first time that I had attended an AFTA meeting and I also had the opportunity to be a part of a panel, Expanding the Boundaries: Polyamory & Non-traditional Family Forms, and to present based on the phenomenological research study on polyamory that I completed in 2011.  Diana Adams, an attorney from New York, and Shannon Sennott of Amherst, also on the panel, spoke to legal issues of non-traditional families and family therapy in alternative family structures, respectively. For me, the goal of Saturday’s presentation was to educate the clinicians present about these unique issues and to spark thoughtful reflection and interchange about therapists’ attitudes, questions and concerns when working with polyamorous clients.  A lively, engaging, and I believe, informative conversation took place.

Below is a summary of my 2011 research entitled Finding a Path of Heart: Exploring the Psychological, Relational and Social Issues of Polyamorists.  (You can also download a PDF of the booklet entitled Polyamory: Basic Information for Therapists.)

The AFTA presentation and my last 7 years of clinical work are, in part, based on the findings of my study and an open support group for people exploring polyamory that I have lead for 4 years.  I hope it will be helpful to clinicians who would like more detail or were not able to be at the AFTA presentation. The purpose of the study, which included interviews with 12 adults who identified as polyamorous, was to ascertain the unique issues and themes that polyamorous families or individuals bring to therapy.

The primary findings of my study clustered around the following topics and issues:

Marginalization and Social Obstacles:

  • 9 of 12 polyamorists experienced marginalization
  • Subjects reported rights and privileges were minimized or disavowed
  • Living in a mainstream culture that values monogamy
  • Unconscious internalizations of social discrimination and marginalization
  • Experiences of marginalization within the relationship, extended family and the world

Challenges of Disclosure, Identity and Community:

  • 11 of 12 subjects indicated challenges related to disclosure of their poly identity/lifestyle
  • When, to whom, what to say?
  • Fears of rejection, judgments, discrimination, isolation, attack
  • Coming out seen as an ongoing process
  • Needing to educate others about polyamory and the diversity within it
  • Hard-wired vs. ideal vs. situational
  • Need for support and community

Challenges around Agreements, Negotiations and Contracts:

  • Roles, relationship models and conventions are in the process of being defined
  • What is the transition or working-thru process like when new relationships are added to existing relationships?
  • Defining, maintaining and protecting boundaries in poly relationships
  • Sharing money, time, attention, sex, etc…
  • Distinctions between primary and secondary relationships? (effects of labeling)

Jealousy:

  • 10 of 12 subjects raised issues related to jealousy
  • Rank (i.e. primary & secondary partners), power, equity, marginalization, hurt and betrayal
  • Potential for increased self-awareness of individual needs

Therapy Challenges:

  • 6 participants reported negative therapy experiences
  • 6 reported positive therapy experiences (with poly friendly therapists)
  • 3 subjects had no therapy experiences
  • 3 primary reasons cited for negative therapy experiences:
    • Biases of therapist toward monogamy
    • Pathologizing polyamory
    • Therapists’ assumptions and lack of knowledge about polyamory

Clinical Considerations:

  • Suggested need for therapist openness, an attitude of heart-ful acceptance, curiosity, exploration and compassion
  • Recognize that polyamorous clients experience judgment, stigmatization, and pathologizing by society, family, therapists
  • Therapists need to examine their own beliefs and biases about polyamory.
  •  Willingness to refer to other poly friendly therapists if appropriate.
  • Therapists need to educate themselves and be aware of resources for polyamorists in the community
  • Awareness of external influences impacting poly clients and their relationship dynamics

What clients may seek from therapy:

  • Help deciding if polyamory is right for them
  • Help deciding what form of polyamory is best for them
  • Help negotiating agreements and boundaries with partners
  • Help distinguishing personal issues from relationship issues
  • Help locating resources and communities in their area
  • Help with the coming out process
  • Help dealing with discrimination and prejudices
  • Help managing difficult relationship issues which may include children

If you’d like to read the paper in its entirety, please go here where you can find Finding a Path of Heart: Exploring the Psychological, Relational and Social Issues of Polyamorists.

You can also download a PDF of the booklet entitled Polyamory: Basic Information for Therapists.

I am happy to continue the conversation if there are questions, comments, ideas, thoughts…

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