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How does couple’s counseling for non-monogamous folks work?

Jun 17, 2024

How does couple’s counseling for non-monogamous folks work?

So this is actually a very interesting question.

When people talk about marriage therapy, couple’s therapy, it assumes this dyadic relationship, dyadic meaning two, and so those of us who do work with people who are polyamorous, who are non-monogamous, a lot of times what we have to do is take the theories and the ideas that we learn in working with what are assumed to be monogamous relationships and figure out how to apply them to larger systems of relationship.

So, a lot of us end up drawing from systems theories.

So, systems theory is a theory within the field of psychology and counseling that looks at how each system that we are a part of has its own balance in attempts to maintain and how boundaries function in that system or enmeshment functions in that system and how those things flow between different connections and relationships.

When you’re working with a couple, a lot of times you’re not just working with a couple, even if you’re working with folks who are monogamous.

So if I’m working with a monogamously married couple, they may also have stuff that relates to one of their kids that we have to work on or stuff that relates to their parents or stuff that relates to their friendships or the reality is that none of us are isolated.

We are all interconnected in a multitude of different systems at all times.

So, you’re involved in your own individual system, your own internal system.

You’re involved in that relationship with that person.

You’re involved in your friendship systems, your family of origin systems, any chosen family systems or systems that you’ve joined due to your relationships.

You’re a part of work systems.

You’re a part of larger societal systems where all of these interplay and determine kind of who we feel like we should be, how we feel like we should show up, what the expectations are for us, what the expectations are for our partners and all of those different things can influence how we’re showing up within a relationship.

When you’re working with non-monogamous folks, a lot of times it’s just about – like as a therapist, it’s just about knowing how to ask questions about the relationships that are not a part of that dyad and make sure that the work you’re doing with the couple isn’t being done with the assumption that their particular dyadic connection matters more than any other connection in their life.

To be frank, I think this will be helpful even – again for folks who work with monogamous couples, because when we assume that someone’s romantic or marital or sexual partner is their most important relationship, we often lose track of a lot of other relationships that are important to them and we can end up reinforcing ways that our society creates these very isolated nuclear family units where people have very few opportunities to get support or kinship or connection from people other than that small nuclear family unit.

So again, a lot of it is just asking questions about other people, asking questions about which relationships are important, asking questions about how they balance their time, how they balance their energy, how they think about what commitment means and how they figure out which commitments they’re living up to with each other, which ones they want to make with other people.

How they balance their need for alone time and for space.

There’s a big – people talk these days a lot about attachment theory and one of the ways that I loved learning about attachment theory in terms of framing it is that when you have a pairing between people where one has a more anxious attachment style and one has a more avoidant attachment style, part of what can be happening in that relationship is that each person is disowning a piece of themselves that wants the thing that the other partner then becomes responsible for.

So, all of us have a balance of needs for closeness and distance, for a time together and time apart.

We all have both of those needs within us and when we are more anxiously attached or showing up with a more anxious attachment style, we are taking responsibility for all of the closeness and connection needs and disowning or denying our distance needs or our space needs.

On the other side when we are more avoidantly attached or showing up in a more avoidant way, we are taking responsibility for all of the distance and separateness needs and denying our own needs for connection and closeness, right?

So a lot of couple’s counseling for non-monogamous folks looks as well at like how our attachment styles are showing up in this relationship.

Do people have attachment wounds that we need to work through?

Are we creating systems in which each person within a partnership is holding like one set of needs or one set of desires when actually both partners have both?

How can we help redistribute that?

Overall, I don’t know that couple’s counseling for non-monogamous folks is all that different than doing couple’s counseling for monogamous folks.

Sometimes people who are doing couple’s counseling within polyamorous relationships will want to bring in other partners, either for a session here and there or for all of their sessions or for all their sessions for a period and then not after that.

So sometimes it’s about figuring out how to flow with that.

But again, that’s similar to like family therapy.

Whenever we’re doing family therapy, you’re going to have some members of the family who are more involved, some who are less involved.

There may be times where you have more or less of them.

It’s not all that unique and I think the biggest thing I would say is that I think a lot of folks feel like everything has to be completely different when you’re talking about people who are non-monogamous or working with people who are non-monogamous and it’s not different, right?

The way we do relationships is the way we do relationships.

The way that we show up in connection is the way we show up in connection, whether that’s a relationship with a coworker, a relationship with a family member.

You know, relating is relating and so if you understand how systems work, if you understand how connections work, if you understand how boundaries and communication work, working with non-monogamous folks in couple’s therapy or throuple’s therapy or whatever is the same stuff.

You just might have a different number of people involved or different kinds of people involved.

It's not all that unique and again sometimes people do want to come in and work on just that singular connection, even if they have a bunch of other connections.

Sometimes they want like an extra tune-up for that connection.

Sometimes that’s one of the ways that they just like keep their relationship going.

Sometimes those are conflicts that’s primarily showing up in one of their connections but not in others, right?

So I think it’s not that different.

It’s really not and that being said, it is important that if you are someone who’s non-monogamous, who’s seeking out relationship therapy, if you are not being seen by somebody who is themselves non-monogamous or very versed in non-monogamy, it can go poorly very quickly.

A lot of people will not let their therapist know that they are non-monogamous or they will talk about it or talk around it and get negative reactions from the therapist, which then damages that relationship and damages their ability to trust that therapist.

So, I think if you’re a therapist asking this question, the biggest thing is figure out how to meet things with curiosity.

Figure out how to educate yourself and if you’re someone seeking therapy, look at like who are the people who are competent in working with folks who are non-monogamous.

Who are the people who understand how these worlds work?

Who are the people whose thoughts and approaches to things seem to align with my own?

When I do research on therapy outcomes, what they find over and over and over again is that the number one predictor of success in therapy is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client.

So, if you feel like someone is not a good fit for you, even if they’re like a super well-renowned therapist, even if they’re like the person everybody else loves, what matters the most is your ability to have a relationship with that therapist.

If it’s not working for you, it’s not working for you.

I recommend folks talk to or audition multiple therapists to make sure that they find someone who’s a good fit for them because the same way that you’re never going to be friends with every person you meet, no therapist is the right fit for everybody.

So give yourself time and space to find someone who’s a good fit.

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