December 7, 2018

The Extra Factor: Practicing Polyamory

Is variety in a relationship the spice of life, or a groove-killer? LA-based therapist Carder Stout, PhD, weighs the pros and cons of the polyamorous movement.
courtesy The Associated Press

As a psychologist, I see so many couples on the brink of Armageddon. Close to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and much of the time it is not amicable. The polyamorous movement is spurred by the desire to find an alternative to the traditional institution of marriage that, in the eyes of many, appears to be outdated and fragmented.

People are ready to think outside of the box and create a system that is more congruent with their own beliefs. We have a right to behave in a way that is consistent with our own values, as long as it is not harmful to others. Polyamory is often about keeping the family together while exploring other intimate relationships concurrently. It’s about unification as opposed to destruction, intimacy instead of isolation, expansion rather than stagnation.

Polyamory attracts the open-minded and unconventional. People who explore its domains have varied origins, cultures, upbringings and opinions, but many are actually products of more traditional family systems. Overall, polyamory is an environment for people seeking an experience in new and uncharted territory. Every experience is unique to the couple who creates it. The guidelines, boundaries and parameters are always open for discussion, so it’s up to each couple to make it their own.

The sexual freedom that comes with polyamory can be extremely liberating. There are many people who believe that it is next to impossible to stay faithful to one partner throughout an entire marriage. Human beings have strong sexual impulses and urges that in many cases are repressed. This often leads to unhealthy tendencies that compel people to be secretive and dishonest. I have treated several sex addicts in my practice who carry around the burden of their deception, and as a result suffer from depression and low self-esteem. Polyamory provides the welcome opportunity for all individuals to be open about their curiosities, and can offer a safe container for their fantasies and those of their partner.

Feelings of jealousy and a sense of betrayal are not uncommon if a new relationship grows into a deep and meaningful partnership. There are often cases in which a person is fine with their spouse’s new partner at first, but develops mistrust over time. If a person feels that the safety of their primary relationship is threatened, they may ask that their spouse end it with a certain partner. Of course, this can also cause discord and resentment. But jealousy and heartbreak happen in monogamy as well—usually as the result of lying, infidelity and lack of stimulation.

Partners in a polyamorous situation should agree that their marriage and family always come first (unless they forge a new arrangement that invites others into an expanding community where all partners are considered equal). Over the course of a marriage, people change and their needs can transform into something entirely unforeseen at the altar.

Honesty is the key: What I have found in my psychology practice is that people tend to explore these types of dalliances anyway when they are married, but it is usually done under the radar. Affairs are commonplace, and in many marriages not surprising—partners become attracted to others and cannot control their urges. In some cases, people are simply not built for monogamy, but this should not preclude them from having meaningful relationships with others.

Usually the entrance into the polyamorous world is a social experiment, and sometimes it works perfectly. There are some couples that stay married happily forever, bringing multiple partners into a hybrid family system. This requires a tremendous amount of acceptance, empathy, and deep sense of security with one’s primary partner.

Others, though, try polyamory for a while and decide it does not work for them. If jealousy arises, or a couple finds the new arrangements too complicated, then they tend to revert back to a more traditional understanding of marriage. There’s always a risk that the experiment can strain a marriage to the point of its dissolution.

It is crucial in all successful marriages for each partner to state their needs and desires. Unfortunately, too many marriages are filled with deception, anger and judgment. State your desires clearly, but with an attitude of compassion and understanding. Be prepared: Your partner may be caught off guard, and feel like this is more of a betrayal than an invitation. Speak from the heart and let your spouse know why you feel it would be good for the marriage.

If you are cheating on your partner, it has more to do with you than anything else. Cheating is obviously bad for any relationship because it undermines any kind of intimate connection that you may have with your partner. Ultimately, it will lead to feelings of guilt and shame that are devastating to the psyche. Negative feelings about ourselves are often projected onto our spouse, taking the form of anger, criticism and unchecked aggression. Truthfully, we are mad at ourselves, because infidelity is not congruent with our sense of morality. If you are consistently out of alignment with your belief system, a number of small traumas will arise in the unconscious. Soon you will be filled with these psychological inconsistencies, and begin to feel depressed and anxious.

Simple solution—don’t cheat. If you want to explore other partners and your spouse is against the idea completely, then you may not have found your soulmate. It is important that you fully understand what it is you are searching for. Don’t let go of a good thing just because you want more stimulation. Once you take the leap, it is hard to go back.

If your partner is bringing polyamory to the table, ask about the reasons why they feel that this could strengthen the relationship. If you partner assures you that they love you dearly but this new freedom is requisite to the success of the marriage, then take polyamory into consideration. This would be a good time to put yourselves in couples therapy, as sometimes a good mediator may help with this type of conversation.

It may be that you are just not comfortable with the idea of adding another partner to the mix. This does not make you narrow-minded or a prude, so try not to judge yourself.  If some sort of mutual understanding cannot be struck, then the idea of an open marriage may be a deal-breaker unless your spouse will reconsider.

The conversation might spark a realization that perhaps you need to spice up the relationship by trying other things that will bring a newness and excitement into the marriage. Test the boundaries that you are comfortable with, and you might be able to find a solution and stay together.

I’m fortunate to learn from all of my patients on a daily basis. I approach my work as a psychologist with an attitude of acceptance and nonjudgment, and am fascinated by the courage of my patients regularly. My patients who are polyamorous have taught me so much about kindness, empathy and commitment.

Carder Stout, PhD, is a Los Angeles-based depth psychologist and therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.