If you would have told me when I was in graduate school that I was going to wind up working with polyamorous relationships as a specialty, I would have laughed in disbelief. I didn’t know much about polyamory back then, or even until the last year or two. They don’t exactly teach you in graduate school how to work with polyamory. I learned how to work with these clients in two ways: the first was trial by fire. They showed up on my couch and needed help. I don’t turn anyone away simply because their relationship structure differs from the societally programmed structure to which I was taught to apply my graduate school knowledge. For the most part, the same rules, tools, and theories apply. When they don’t, that’s when the second way of learning comes in: I let my clients teach me. They gave me books to read, websites to peruse, articles to research, etc. They were more than willing to answer my questions. They appreciated having a therapist who was not judgmental about their lifestyle, willing to admit that she didn’t know much about it, but eager to learn and ask questions in order to better help them.
Polyamory is defined as the “non-possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously” (Franklin Veaux). For those of us who have only ever really been exposed to monogamy, this can sound foreign, complicated and exotic. And it is certainly not for the faint of heart. Polyamory is based in the idea of compersion, which is defined as “the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another” (Franklin Veaux). As a couples’ counselor, I see it like this: in order to achieve true compersion, you have to be capable of a level of emotional maturity that many human beings have never achieved. I wouldn’t call that a fault; I would call it a preference. Franklin Veaux, co-author of “More than Two” and a well-known polyamory expert says that “Polyamory doesn’t mean an inability to commit. We are often taught to view commitment through the lens of sexual exclusivity, but a more nuanced view of commitment to building lasting relationships that meet the needs of the people involved. If those needs don’t include monogamy, then commitment doesn’t have to be tied to exclusivity.” In order to do this, one has to let go of possessiveness, ownership, and for the most part jealousy. There can be no double standards, honesty is key, and transparency is a must. Some experts would say rules and boundaries are absolutely necessary, others would say not at all. I say each relationship is different, and you have to decide what’s right for you and your partner, often through trial and error. Seeking counseling to help you navigate that path is never a bad idea; I’ve helped several couples who decided to give polyamory a try and needed help figuring out what that looked like for them, and it’s never the same for any two couples. There is no shame in exploring something new, as long as it is mutually consensual and it enhances your relationship.