Leon is in trouble. When he and his wife, both in their mid-30s, sit across from me in my office, he looks away.
His wife, Jody, is tearful. “We had an agreement. He needs to tell me when he wants to be away,” she says to me before turning to Leon. “How long did you know that you were planning to get together with her?”
“A few days,” he admits.
“Why didn’t you give me some warning?” she asks, exasperated.
Jody has a leadership position in a major sportswear company in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys her high-powered career and interesting colleagues, although long hours and work demands have been hard on her marriage. She and Leon started couples counseling after they decided they wanted to transition to a consensually nonmonogamous relationship. But as with many couples who start on a more conventional path, the detour toward nonmonogamy was fraught. Even though they believed this was the marital form they desired—they’d had friends in successful open relationships, and they believed it would suit them—it brought up emotions they struggled to understand.
“She wants advance notice when I decide to go out,” Leon manages to say, looking at me, not Jody. “She doesn’t like being stuck without plans.” He turns to his wife: “I get it, but when I do tell you I’m making plans, you get bent out of shape, like I’m doing something wrong. So I drag my feet about letting you know, and then you get upset that I’ve told you too late. It’s hard to deal with.”
Many couples I counsel who undertake this marital arrangement struggle with these kinds of everyday transactions. Simple requests—“Can I go out Saturday night?”—are knotted with deeper conflicts and emotions. I mention to Leon and Jody that, as someone in a mixed-orientation marriage, my wife and I (her: straight; me: bisexual) have been nonmonogamous for over a dozen years. When we first started down this path, these negotiations pained us. We had few maps, no friendly guides. One therapist whom we saw for over a year kept insisting, “Open marriages never work.” Choosing this untrodden way, we made the path by walking it. And over time, these simple requests became more comfortable, even innocuous.
The Power of Mononormativity
Before you read any further, type nonmonogamous into a Google or Microsoft Word document. You’ll see a wiggly red line, as if you’ve made a mistake. (Google and Microsoft have no interest in you having multiple intimate relationships.) Any couples counselor who works with nonmonogamous people runs up against the limitations of language. Nonmonogamy—a mouthful of a word—defines something purely by what it’s not; and, of course, we have to rush to add consensual because there’s an ingrained belief that nonmonogamy by itself, unqualified, is equivalent to cheating and betrayal. (No one ever refers to it as “consensual monogamy,” and yet, given the overwhelming cultural imperatives, it’s curious that we don’t.) On the flip side, the adjectives closed and open to describe a relationship also smack of a pejorative binary. (Who would want to be in a “closed” relationship?)
The language we have is clumsy and loaded with implicit judgment. With my couples considering nonmonogamy, I initiate explicit conversations about how limitations in language reveal unexamined cultural blind spots, a surfeit of binaries that constrain how we describe the real complexities of human experience, and that this is an opportunity for imagination, creative adaptation, and self-authoring.
I also point out that largely unconscious cultural prejudices against nonmonogamous relationships—called mononormativity—can take multiple forms, including flashes of judgment, even contempt, from family and friends; clinical pathologizing and skepticism when seeking support from counselors; and the absence of visible, healthy role models. As they work to build thoughtful, respectful nonmonogamous relationships, individuals themselves struggle with internalized judgments and shame. Unlearning these powerful implicit beliefs takes time and effort.
Baked-in prejudices extend to the ways that couples therapists are trained, says Michelle Vaughn. She’s coauthor (with Theodore R. Burnes) of The Handbook of Consensual Nonmonogamy: Affirming Mental Health Practice, the one book I most wish I’d read before I started seeing couples 30 years ago. “All of us are raised in a society that assumes monogamy,” she notes. “We’re taught there’s one way to do a relationship: the right way, the respected way. In graduate programs, we’re taught that if you’re interested in multiple intimate relationships, you have an unhealthy attachment style, or trauma, or a mental health issue.” She highlights the often-heard fallacy that there’s research proving you can only form one healthy intimate adult attachment. “A complete fabrication,” she adds. “There’s no such research.”
Jessica Fern is a psychotherapist who wrote Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy, a book I often recommend to clients. “The clients I counsel have encountered a lot from therapists,” she tells me. “They were told their nonmonogamy was a symptom of disorganized attachment or bipolar disorder. Or that the reason they’re unhappy is because they’re nonmonogamous. In fact, there are lots of different relationship styles; it’s just some are valued differently in a mononormative culture. One framework isn’t bad or worse than the other.”
Like Fern, I’m careful never to prescribe one relationship form over another, choosing instead to express curiosity about the choices partners have made and how it’s working for them. But it wasn’t always this way. Early in my career as a therapist, in the 1990s, it would’ve been considered offensive, risky even, to ask couples if they identified as monogamous or nonmonogamous. I feared what it might reveal about me. Like many therapists in my generation, we were trained to help couples make monogamy work. (Books like Hot Monogamy and Constructing the Sexual Crucible come to mind.) But why shouldn’t we ask how couples have decided to define their sexual relationship? And, if they identify as monogamous, why shouldn’t we ask, “How did you come to that decision? Did it comfort you and make sense to you?” Now, at the beginning of each assessment, I want to know of my couples how freely chosen their relationship paradigm was.
Understanding the Threats and Rewards
Leon struggles with Jody’s anger on two fronts. Both raised in families characterized by physical abuse and emotional volatility, they were each other’s port in the storm. Together since high school, they’re highly attuned to each other’s moods—a less strengths-based therapist might say “enmeshed”—and hesitant about expressing anger or having conflict. Fern points out that monogamous partners who make this transition often need to work on their psychological differentiation, as the demands of a monogamous union make them vulnerable to codependency—“because they’re everything to each other.”
Leon, a Latino male, is self-conscious. He worries that his relationship with another woman—even though it occurs with his wife’s consent—aligns with negative stereotypes of machismo. His father, a boorish man, had many infidelities without remorse before divorcing his wife. Leon was allied with his mother and empathetic to her betrayal. He doesn’t want to be perceived like his father.
“I’m still working on being okay with this,” Jody explains to him. “I may get angry, but it passes. I get angrier when you set me up for a shitty weekend by not telling me what I can expect.” While Jody is intrigued by the possibilities of nonmonogamy—she’s never had any sexual partners other than Leon and is curious about bisexuality—she’s not yet seeing anyone outside the marriage. Like other clients in nonmonogamous relationships, she worries about perceptions, especially from coworkers who might see her profile on a dating app. Would they think she was cheating? Would they judge her for being “promiscuous,” and how would that affect her career? At this point in their journey, she feels stuck, like there’s an imbalance between her and Leon, which makes it harder when he has a date.
As a couples therapist, I rarely use the words jealousy and insecurity with clients, because the words imply individual pathology, a problem that needs to be worked on alone. Rather, when working with Jody and Leon, I help them parse their nervous system responses to the stresses of the new arrangement that play out relationally. In other words, I help them excavate hidden beliefs, expectations of danger, and threats to safety in the relationship. How can they work together to mitigate, neutralize, or, when possible, avoid them?
Most therapists are familiar with the idea of the limbic system: the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for detecting threats and rewards in the social environment, mobilizing our physical and emotional responses to danger, and ultimately ensuring survival. David Rock and other neuroscientists have identified five domains that organize the human threat response: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. I’ve found these domains helpful in working with couples to understand how perceptions of threat evolve in their new marital arrangement. In the background of seemingly simple transactions like “Can I go out Saturday night?” are deeper existential questions that need collective exploration:
Am I valued by the other person? Am I valued by my spouse when he goes out with someone else? What degree of certainty do I have and need about our future together? Given that no marriage is for sure, to what extent do I feel “good enough” about our future together? Or am I left with a painful sense of uncertainty? Is there room for me to be autonomous while in the relationship? Can we still feel connected and close to each other while pursuing other relationships? And have we renegotiated the marital quid pro quo in a way that feels fair?
Nonmonogamous couples need to identify, attune to, explore, neutralize, and avoid threats that fall into the five domains, and magnify the potential rewards in each domain. When Leon neglects to tell Jody his plans, she feels unimportant and neglected, as if she’s an afterthought. She’s caught off guard, without time to plan to take care of herself. His autonomy feels threatening, she feels “done unto,” and she doesn’t feel securely connected to him. While committed to “getting out there” eventually, she’s painfully conscious of how imbalanced their current situation feels.
In my experience, the five-domain model for decoding our threat response opens up deeper levels of dialogue as couples explore nonmonogamy in a cultural environment that’s hostile to that choice. It allows couples to listen to each other’s experience of being different, to have deeper levels of awareness, to be supportive in new ways, and to make collective decisions as they adapt, taking risks but also honoring their important bond.
I admire how frankly Jody and Leon share their fears and anxieties as they walk this path together. I turn to Leon and say, “It may be that on the nights when you go out with Mia, you need to address Jody’s sense of threat, even if it means saying things that are self-evident to you. Reassure her that you love her, and that you value and enjoy your relationship. Make sure that you’re carving out equal quality time (or more) to spend together with her, and remind her when you expect to return home so she doesn’t worry.”
The notion of ambivalent consent—where one partner wants to explore nonmonogamy, for novelty or personal growth, and the other follows reluctantly because they want to hold on to an important, otherwise rewarding relationship—is often part of the clinical terrain I help couples navigate. And it can get tricky.
In one long-term heterosexual couple I counseled, Meg proposed nonmonogamy after 10 years of trying to make monogamy work. She was consistent and clear with Harry: “I love our marriage. I like doing things with you (traveling, working on our home, having our dogs), but I don’t like the sexual part. Those needs have to get met with somebody else.” Raised in an evangelical Christian home but drawn to Meg’s more relaxed, free-thinking ways, Harry was deeply ambivalent about her proposal. He acknowledged his low libido, erectile challenges, and reluctance to seek help. He wanted her to get her needs met and didn’t want her to leave the marriage. For over a year, while she pursued other relationships, we explored their struggles and the dissonance he was experiencing. I didn’t always know what to do with Meg and Harry.
I mention this couple to my Portland-based colleague, Marie Cacao, who identifies as polyamorous and counsels nonmonogamous couples. “Having a conversation about nonmonogamy doesn’t mean you have to say yes to it,” she tells me. “It sounds like Harry didn’t start from a place of no. Would you say he was open and curious?”
It was clear he was open to it and loved his spouse dearly, I respond, but he always seemed pained during our sessions, sometimes wearing a deer-in-the-headlights panic on his face when Meg talked about someone she was seeing.
“I’d want to understand what comes up when he gets that terrified expression,” she tells me. “Wherever that would lead is probably something revelatory that his wife needs to know. If there’s a wall there, I’d remind him that it’s okay if he doesn’t want to break it down but that his wife can’t connect with him through a wall and probably misses him. I’d also remind him that it’s okay if the arrangement isn’t working for him. Sometimes couples in these conversations decide to split.”
After consulting with Marie, I had separate sessions with Harry and Meg to assess the seriousness of their marital commitment. Mostly I held space for them to wrestle with the challenges of reconciling their love for each other with profound discrepancies between their sexual needs. They kept coming back. To my surprise, Harry eventually started casually dating another woman in a nonmonogamous marriage. (He even made some headway with his new partner into understanding his own sexual stuckness.) Reassured over time that Meg wasn’t abandoning him, he eased into the new arrangement. He’d spent enough time with his ambivalence.
Jeff Levy is a gay psychotherapist in Chicago who works primarily with gay and bisexual male clients. “Couples who are more successful at nonmonogamy are transparent with one another,” he tells me. “They have explicit agreements that answer key questions. What does nonmonogamy mean to us? How will we handle disclosure versus nondisclosure to others? What do we want to know about each other’s activities? What do we not want to know?”
Having these conversations is the counter to a troubling phenomenon Levy often encounters in his work called backdooring, in which “couples have not been monogamous, but haven’t explicitly talked about what they’re doing.” The don’t-ask-don’t-tell model of nonmonogamy can lead to surprises that derail a primary relationship.
Once partners understand each other’s attachment sensitivities, they can develop agreements about how to navigate nonmonogamy while having adequate protection individually and for their relationship. Often these agreements evolve and become freer as comfort and ambivalence diminish. “To make a nonmonogamous relationship work takes an additional layer of trust,” Levy tells me. “When couples make it work, it can enhance the primary relationship in many ways because there’s more practice and greater comfort in talking about challenging things.”
Cacao adds, “I’m less focused than some people on formal agreements—the lines-in-the-sand discussion—and more on understanding what the other person’s fears, sensitivities, anxieties, and limits are. What are the worries I want to be sensitive to? What part of their vulnerability in this new situation deserves care and attention?”
In my office, Leon and Jody eventually worked out a system for protecting and honoring their relationship on the nights he sees Mia. By getting advance notice from Leon, Jody has time to arrange get-togethers with friends to lessen the threat of feeling left out. And before he goes out on a date with Mia, Leon routinely cleans the kitchen, empties the litter boxes (they have three cats), and walks the dog. He makes a point of reminding Jody that he’s crazy about her and grateful for her open-mindedness. In this way, he demonstrates sensitivity to her vulnerability, and they have collaboratively developed a strategy to honor their connection while he pursues something independent from her.
“He’s the perfect husband,” she tells me jokingly, “on the days he goes out with another woman.”
The Hazards of Public Disclosure
Although most of Levy’s clients are in nonmonogamous relationships, few are completely open with others about it. One of the most fraught areas for nonmonogamous couples is agreeing on their degree of “outness,” which includes telling their children, family, and friends within a cultural milieu of judgment, bias, and skepticism. How do they tell their story? How will their arrangement be perceived?
When neighbors heard through the grapevine that Meg was dating another man, a rumor started that she’d betrayed Harry and they were divorcing. Neighbors started to avoid them. When she told her OBGYN how they’d reimagined their relationship, the doctor launched into a defense of monogamy, and Meg felt judged.
Fern says, “If you can be out, great. Most people are much happier when they can be out. They’re living more authentically.” But it’s hardly simple. It depends on where you live, what you do, and with whom you affiliate. “The alternative is tracking who knows what, who you’re passing for, and who you aren’t,” says Fern. “Do your kids need to know? Does your boss? Where does it matter to you, and where doesn’t it?”
For the time being, Leon and Jody haven’t told anyone that they’re exploring consensual nonmonogamy. “It doesn’t make sense when I haven’t done much exploring yet,” Jody says. In confidence, she mentioned what she and Leon were doing to a colleague, an openly gay man she trusted, and he told her their work environment could be subversively judgmental: theoretically liberal-minded but deeply uneasy underneath. In fact, he felt he’d been denied advancement because of a boss’s discomfort with his nonmonogamous partnership.
There’s no right answer that will fit every couple. Each partnership must reckon with their own risk tolerance and their particular social environment. Cacao offers her stance as a couples counselor: “It takes patience on my end. I have to let go of what I think I know and get to know each couple on their own terms. When working with folks who want to explore consensual nonmonogamy, we must be willing to make friends with our own uncertainty.”
All the therapists I talked to about consensual nonmonogamy emphasized the importance of this clinical humility. “It’s important to be open to helping people talk about their relationships and what’s important to them, sexually and intimately,” Vaughn tells me, “being very circumspect when we draw on that ‘expert’ part of ourselves.” She shares that conversations exploring nonmonogamy require therapists to model an affirming, shame-free, sex-positive stance, an openness to many novel forms of sexuality and sexual expression, even in areas that might be outside a therapist’s comfort zone.
The Everydayness of Counseling Nonmonogamous Couples
When I first started seeing nonmonogamous couples, I thought it was going to be spicier. I’m still surprised how often we talk about controversial ways of loading the dishwasher, who forgot to take out the garbage, the never-ending struggle to balance parenting responsibilities. With my nonmonogamous couples, I find myself having the same conversations I have with their monogamous counterparts. How do you pay attention and listen to each other? Can you engage in healthy conflict? Is there room for both of you to be vulnerable? How and when do you make time to do enjoyable things together? And then there’s the other area—where there’s risk-taking, novelty, a daring lack of convention—that has to be negotiated, so that both people can feel reasonably comfortable with what they’re doing.
What about the kids? In a classic 1993 short story by Amy Bloom, a young woman, Ellen, and her sister figure out that for decades their mother had been romantically involved with both her father and another man, Bolivar, who vacationed with them, along with his daughter, throughout the sisters’ childhood. During the mother’s final illness, the sister confronts her about the arrangement:
And I asked her how she could do it, love them both, and how they could stand it. And she said, “Love is not a pie, honey. I love you and Ellen differently because you are different people, wonderful people, but not at all the same. And so who I am with each of you is different, unique to us. I don’t choose between you two. And it’s the same way with Daddy and Bolivar. People think that it can’t be that way, but it can. You just have to find the right people.”
All partnerships, whether married or not, are sites of struggle. Each couple is challenged to find their own unique balance between ritual, routine, and familiar structures (what’s safe and predictable) and growth, risk taking, and adventure (what changes and evolves over their lives, sometimes in a threatening way). All partnerships present opportunities for imagination, creative adaptation, and self-authoring. That’s the fun of marriage.
I know firsthand the powerful role marital therapists can play in helping couples navigate this unmapped terrain. Many years ago, when my spouse and I were on the brink of divorce, our marital therapist, wonderfully compassionate, noticed that, even while we couldn’t find our way in a conventionally defined marriage, we still seemed devoted to each other, still very much in love. Matter-of-factly, she counseled, “If you want to have an open relationship, you can make it work. They take strong communication and trust, but you can do it. It can even make you stronger.” We were astonished at her confidence. Optimistically, she accompanied us while we found our way. This summer, my spouse and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary with a 107-mile hike in Ireland. (We will have maps.) For the past six years of our marriage, I’ve been involved with the same wonderful guy. Sometimes you just have to find the right people.
PHOTO @ ISTOCK/KUKURIKOV
Wayne Scott, MA, LCSW, is a writer and couples therapist in Portland, Oregon. Recently his New York Times essay, “Two Open Marriages in One Small Room,” was adapted for the Modern Love podcast and read by Edoardo Ballerini. It is adapted for the Modern Love (Amsterdam) television series, available now on Amazon Prime. Visit his website at waynescottlcsw.com.