Clinton Power, Grad.Dip.Psych.Couns., Gestalt therapist
PACT Level II
When a new couple present to your practice and reveal they are in a polyamorous relationship, you may find the concept of loving multiple people strange, risky, or even fundamentally fraught with problems. The good news is that PACT principles that apply to monogamous couples can be successfully applied to non-monogamous or polyamorous couples.
Non-monogamous couples have sex with other people but are not interested in pursuing dates, romance, or a relationship with their sexual partners. This is often described as an open relationship. In contrast, polyamorous couples hold the premise that one partner cannot meet all their needs and they want to explore having sex or a relationship with someone else. These couples don’t limit themselves to just one person when it comes to affection, romance, flirting, sex, connection, and love. Different configurations can be used for polyamorous relationships, but the most common has a primary relationship, with other relationships that are secondary, or not as important.
When Jill and Stephen showed up in my consulting room, they had been married for 10 years and opened their marriage at the 5-year mark, after reading about the polyamorous lifestyle. They wanted to introduce more novelty and excitement into their relationship. All went smoothly until a year ago, when Stephen started developing very intense feelings for Sonia, a new secondary partner. Jill noticed the love he felt for Sonia was deeper and more intense than what she had seen him show with his other secondary partners. She started to worry that Stephen was going to leave her for Sonia.
As we explored the configuration of their relationship, I realized Stephen and Jill were breaking many of the PACT principles of secure-functioning relationships including:
Put your primary relationship first before all other relationships. Stephen and Jill reported many examples where both partners had put their secondary relationships before their primary relationship. This had caused hurt, bitterness, and resentment that hadn’t been fully discussed or resolved. In our work together, Stephen and Jill started to prioritize each other, which had an immediate soothing effect on their nervous systems and an improvement in their overall relationship.
Have clear relationship boundaries that support the health of the primary relationship. Jill and Stephen never created a joint rules of engagement for their primary and secondary relationships. This meant they weren’t clear about what was okay and what was not okay when it came to seeing other people, causing regular conflict and hurt. In our work together, they created a joint polyamory agreement that laid out what they were each willing to tolerate and not tolerate in their polyamorous relationship.
Go to your primary partner first with important news or life events. Problems were created because Stephen was sharing important news and life events with Sonia first, and sometimes forgetting to tell Jill altogether. This made Jill think she was no longer the most important person in Stephen’s life and fueled her worry that Sonia was more important than her. Once Stephen stopped doing this, Jill started to feel more valued in their relationship.
Manage thirds to protect the primacy of the main relationship. It emerged that Sonia had been undermining the relationship between Jill and Stephen. Even though Stephen knew this, he hadn’t set a firm boundary with Sonia to protect his relationship with Jill, because he was scared of losing Sonia. Stephen started to set firmer boundaries with Sonia to stop this happening. Sonia stopped the undermining behavior and was able to adapt to the new boundaries set by Stephen.
Never threaten the security of the relationship. Over time, Jill felt more threatened by the relationship between Stephen and Sonia. Her response to feeling insecure was to threaten to end their marriage, which led to Stephen feeling distressed and fearful he would lose Jill. Threatening the end of the relationship was the wrong solution and made both feel more insecure. They both committed to not to threaten the end of the relationship, which helped each feel more secure and stable in their primary relationship.
Resolve conflict by finding solutions that work for both partners. This couple could not find solutions to their issues that worked for both of them. Regarding attachment styles, Stephen was an island and Jill was a wave. As soon as Jill was wave-like, Stephen started to retreat and avoid, leaving Jill feeling more isolated. Over time, Stephen developed his tolerance to her wave-like behavior and learned the value of moving in and soothing her, even when he felt like running away. Jill understood that Stephen’s island-like behaviors weren’t personal, and she learned more effective approaches to resolving issues with him that didn’t overwhelm him.
In conclusion, in my experience, polyamorous relationships can work. However, they may be tricky to navigate, and couples need to ensure they’re applying the PACT principles of secure functioning to their primary relationship. As a therapist, it’s essential you put any biases or judgments you have about polyamorous relationships aside when working with these couples. Initial questions you can ask couples include:
- Are you okay with your partner developing romantic relationships with others or do you only want sexual interactions with others?
- Can you have regular sexual partners or do you prefer one-off encounters/hook-ups that are not to be repeated?
- What’s your policy on sharing your sexual experiences: complete transparency, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or do tell if you’re asked?
- What sexual activities are okay and not okay (e.g., oral sex, kissing, and mutual masturbation are okay, but vaginal or anal intercourse is not).
- What’s your plan for managing safer sex with each other and your other partners?
I encourage you to maintain a stance of curiosity at all times so you can understand the kind of relationship the polyamorous couple want to create. If you apply the secure-functioning principles of PACT, working with these couples can be extremely rewarding as you help them restore healthy functioning and find love in the way they want.