Are you curious about polyamory? I interviewed some of our therapists who are specialists in working with polyamorous families at the Gay Therapy Center. Here they share some of their insights for what works in polyamory.
Why Are People Drawn to Polyamory?
Polyamory is essentially about loving more than one person at a time.
“Polyamory is not about sex or the number of partners. At its core, polyamory is about a philosophy to remove the barriers in our heart in the ways we give and receive love,” says Justin Natoli, MFT, a psychotherapist at the Los Angeles Gay Therapy Center.
Justin goes on to say, “I believe humans are meant to receive love by a tribe, to be deeply connected to group support. Much of our current culture lacks that sense of connection. When we are removed from a tribe, symptoms like addiction, anxiety, or depression can increase.”
Katie Hauser, LCSW, a psychotherapist at the Brooklyn Gay Therapy Center says, “For people who identify as polyamorous it can feel like an essential part of who they are. It’s a filter through which they establish and enjoy their relationships. It’s a pull toward communal living and community.”
Nunzio Signorella, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at the Manhattan Gay Therapy Center. He observes that, “My poly clients find a range of personality types attractive and they appreciate the possibility of loving more than one person. These are clients with progressive minds and a sure sense of self.”
Polyamory can be hard. According to Justin, it’s “not because anyone is doing anything wrong. Humans are complicated.”
Katie says difficult feelings can rise. “The number one thing bound to come up are the difficult emotions of envy and jealousy,” she offers.
Justin agrees, “Many times when people feel jealousy the story they tell themselves is it shouldn’t be there, that it is a problem. However jealousy is a normal human emotion, so you are going to feel it. Rather than scrambling to avoid every drop of jealousy—which is impossible—I invite clients to lean into what the jealousy is asking of them. Maybe they need security. Or self-esteem. Or they want to feel important. These are the deeper, significant needs that jealousy points us to.”
What Works in Polyamory?
Katie believes that polyamory requires a lot of intention. “Clients need the willingness to put in the effort and to be actively focused on difficulties and snags in the road. It’s essential to know how to advocate for yourself. Directness and straightforwardness are so important.”
She adds, “Communication is the number one tool. You have to communicate, communicate some more, and then when you are done, communicate even more!”
“With multiple partners you have to think about your time in a different way. Sharing and scheduling become key issues. You’ll be dividing your time and yet it’s essential that you save some time to be alone to take care of yourself. It can be easy to feel spread thin. All this must be managed through self-care and self-awareness,” says Katie.
“In poly relationships it is important to be able to stand independently,” says Nunzio. He agrees with Katie that good communication is non-optional for successful poly relationships. “I suggest that poly families have a regular meeting for all members to discuss the issues. I even encourage you have an agenda and distribute it in advance so there are no surprises.”
“You’ll also need clean guidelines about what is permissible,” says Nunzio. “This contract will change over time. Everything evolves. So write it down. The book Opening Up by Tristan Taormino has lots of helpful tools.” Katie recommends the book More Than Two, by Franklin Veaux.
Nunzio says, “It’s also important to think about everyone’s existing social networks and how each family member will be integrated into groups that have history. If a third person is entering an existing relationship of two they may feel left out when group functions occur. The only way for the new person being introduced into the group to become a part of the social circle is to engage in conversation and create their own history within that group. They’ll need the support of the existing couple to make that easier.”
Social dynamics will change both outside and within the poly family. “As a therapist I support the family to change its structure and the unspoken rules so that it can evolve with the newcomer,” Justin explains. “That’s more helpful than expecting the newcomer to mold themselves to fit the existing relationship. In therapy I help families become comfortable in upsetting the balance, rather than maintaining a frozen system that’s not capable of growth or change.”
“Sometimes the newcomer is there as a release valve for tensions underneath the surface for the pre-existing couple,” Justin says. Is the newcomer there to turn down the intensity of the intimacy? The work is to make everything conscious and to support connection between all members.”
“Some people think that everyone in a poly group has to have the same type of relationship inside the family. That limits the possibility. There could be three primary partners or two primary partners and a secondary partner. Sometimes one of the primary partners has a secondary partner all to themselves. The possibility of configurations is infinite, and none are inherently more or less valid or healthy than the others,” he says.
Katie notes, “There is no global standard. It’s really important that all parties are consenting. Just work to ensure no one is being harmed.”
Justin reminds us that, “When we date we learn from our mistakes. I encourage people to try new things and learn from their successes and mistakes.”
Love is Love is Love
“Anything that can foster interdependence, loving engagement, and that supports people can be really beautiful,” says Katie. And Justin poetically adds, “Polyamory is revolutionary and radical in rejecting the myths that prevent us from loving each other fully as members of a human family.”