For many individuals, monogamy is the norm—one partner, one relationship at a time. But some people do prefer open relationships, or polyamory, the practice of having more than one partner, with everyone in the know and giving consent.
Polyamory can be healthy, says Stefani Goerlich, a sex and relationships therapist in private practice in metro Detroit who began her career working with domestic violence survivors and now works with people in alternative relationships. “We need to be mindful of the monogamy bias,” she says.
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DeeAnna Nagel, a licensed mental health counselor and intuitive wellness coach based in Havana, Fla., agrees. “Just because something is outside of the bell curve doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it,” she says. “It depends on the existing relationship—is it based on a foundation of truth and openness?”
And therein lies the conundrum—a strong polyamorous relationship is built on a foundation of honesty, consent and respect. Anything less than that can take a dangerous turn toward abuse, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Signs of a Healthy Poly Relationship
Goerlich explains that one of the hallmarks of a healthy poly dynamic is that partners are allowed to have negative feelings and talk through them. “It’s okay to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with this partner,’ or ‘I’m jealous and I wish you could stay home tonight.’”
She says that a lot of the poly people she works with have a standing date with their primary partner to talk about what is working and what is not. “It’s an ongoing part of the process to touch base and check in,” she says.
Warning Signs of Unhealthy Poly Relationships
When the relationship is unhealthy or abusive, there’s an imbalance of power or an element of coercion. Unhealthy or abusive behavior in the context of polyamory can include saying things like:
- You’re just a prude.
- You’re too straight-laced.
- It’s your fault we can’t have this lifestyle.
- When I met you, you were so much fun. What happened?
- Can’t you just try this?
- If you loved me, you would try this.
There’s also a risk of abuse from other partners in a poly relationship. “Just because you’re happy and healthy in your primary relationship doesn’t mean you’re not at risk of being abused from other people in the relationship,” Goerlich says. You could be at risk from abuse from your secondary partner, or from a metamour (your partner’s partner).
It’s also important to keep in mind that just because you agree to try something, that doesn’t mean you have to continue to do it.
“It is okay to change your mind once you are in the relationship. If it is not working, if you are not happy, if it is adding stress to your life, it is okay to tell your partner that you want to stop. If you notice a change in your partner and a decrease in the quality of your relationship, it is okay to stop. If your partner does not want to stop, you need to understand that you may have to exit the relationship,” says Erica Wiles, a licensed professional counselor.
Healthy Ways to Introduce the Idea of Polyamory
People who are in a healthy monogamous relationship may struggle with the idea of transitioning to an open or poly relationship when asked to do so by a partner.
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“Even if you have an open attitude, it can still be very difficult to take in that the person you love is different. It can feel like a betrayal, even when that’s not the intent,” Nagel says.
“They have to rely on that foundation of trust and intimacy, and trusting that their partner truly does love them and have their best interests in place,” she says. “If two parties are in agreement and want to go in that direction, they need to really share what limits are nonnegotiable, and they need to come to the table again, revisit, and check in with each other—that’s paramount.”
Goerlich says she encourages people who are thinking about opening their relationship to introduce the idea in a neutral, abstract way. She says, “If one partner comes home and says, ‘I want to open our relationship, what do you think?’ the partner is going to be defensive and think that something else is happening, or they are inadequate and not meeting their partner’s needs.”
Instead, “Try watching movies that portray open relationships or triads and ask, ‘What about that appeals to you or concerns you? What might work for us and what might be off-putting?’” she says. “Present it as an open-ended question, not as an immediate request. When we make a request, our partner can automatically feel a degree of threat or pressure to be something different than what they are at present.”
Couples who are considering exploring polyamory can get involved in the community, Goerlich says. “Go to meetups and events and engage in online forums—not necessarily with the intent to meet other people, but to see how it works for other people who are having happy, healthy poly relationships.”
Abusers can target anyone, regardless of relationship status. It’s important to know the signs. Read, “When Domestic Abuse Happens in Polyamorous Relationships” to learn more.
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