You’ve been seeing the couple sitting across from you for a little more than six months. They’ve had a sexless marriage for many years, and Joyce, the wife, is at the end of her rope. Her husband, Alex, has little or no sex drive. There’s no medical reason for this; he’s just never really been interested in sex. After years of feeling neglected, Joyce recently had an affair, with Alex’s blessing. This experience convinced her that she could no longer live without sex, so when the affair ended, the marriage was in crisis. “I love Alex,” Joyce said, “but now that I know what it’s like to be desired by someone, not to mention how good sex is, I’m not willing to give it up for the rest of my life.” Divorce would’ve been the straightforward solution, except that, aside from the issue of sex, they both agree they have a loving, meaningful, and satisfying life together as coparents, best friends, and members of a large community of friends and neighbors. They want to stay together, but after six months of failed therapeutic interventions, including sensate-focus exercises and Gottman-method interventions to break perpetual-problem gridlock, they’re at the point of separating. As their therapist, what do you do?
• Help them consciously uncouple
• Refer them to an EFT therapist to help them further explore their attachment issues
• Advise a temporary separation, reasoning that with some space apart they can work on their sexual problems
• Suggest they consider polyamory and help them accept Alex’s asexuality
Joyce and Alex were my clients, and I would’ve helped them consciously uncouple if there were no alternatives, but they didn’t want to separate. Referring them to an EFT therapist would’ve implied that I thought their sexual issues were rooted in relationship problems, which I firmly did not. As a sex therapist, I know that sexual problems can exist in wonderful relationships, as well as in bad ones, and only sometimes are sexual problems related to the quality of the relationship. Suggesting a temporary separation seemed like a stalling tactic. So instead, I recommended they consider polyamory, a form of consensual nonmonogamy.
I pointed out that Alex didn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body and that Joyce seemed capable of loving more than one person at a time. Neither of them was familiar with polyamory, but they were open, psychologically curious people and promptly began to research it. Eventually, they got involved with a local polyamory group they found online. Nine years later, they’re still together and have an even larger community of friends, which include deep nonsexual friendships for Alex and an ongoing lover for Joyce.
Although there’s surprisingly little research on this topic, sexless marriages are far from rare. In fact, in 2013 psychologist Justin Lehmiller, in his blog, “Sex and Psychology,” summarized several studies and estimated that one in seven adults are in sexless marriages or relationships. Most report it as a major problem, but more than half stay in their relationships nonetheless, and approximately 40 percent have affairs or resort to cybersex.
But sexless marriages aren’t the only kind of relationships with sexual incompatibilities. In our practice at the Institute for Personal Growth (IPG) in New Jersey, we work with couples where one partner is kinky and the other isn’t, or one is bisexual and the other isn’t, and with couples who just have vastly different sexual scripts and preferences, including the need to have sex with more than one partner.
In past decades, the only alternatives to involuntary celibacy in a relationship were affairs or divorce. But increasingly, people, including therapists, are recognizing there’s another option: consensual nonmonogamy (CNM). This option can work for couples who have various sexual incompatibilities, and for couples who simply don’t believe that fidelity—faithful commitment to a partner—is the same as monogamy, people who believe that having multiple sexual and/or romantic partners at the same time enriches their lives and the quality of their dyadic relationships.
A Brief History of CNM
The idea of CNM isn’t new. Christopher Ryan and Cecildá Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn, hypothesize that primitive humans were by nature nonmonogamous, and that monogamy was instituted around the time of the agricultural revolution as a way for men to establish patrilineality and hand down material wealth to their offspring. Despite the ubiquity of monogamy in contemporary Western culture, it’s by no means universal. Throughout history, cultures around the world have supported polygamy and, to a lesser extent, polyandry, in which a woman has more than one husband.
Even the United States has a rich history of ideologically driven nonmonogamous experiments, beginning with the transcendentalism movement in the mid-19th century. The 1970s saw the development of more forms of CNM in American culture. Free-love communes proliferated among those who called themselves hippies. George and Nena O’Neill’s book Open Marriage sold 1.5 million copies when it came out (more than 35 million worldwide to date). Swinging emerged as a more conservative alternative to communal forms of sexual freedom.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy used census data to determine that more than 21 percent of single American adults have engaged in CNM at some point in their lives. Data from the 2015 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior indicate that one percent of respondents over the age of 14 are currently living in a CNM relationship—more than 2.5 million people. A 2016 YouGov survey of adults over 18 showed that 27 percent describe their current relationship as “not completely monogamous,” and 24 percent say they’d be okay with their current partner having a sexual relationship with someone else.
Marriage Counseling, Anyone?
Although it’s widely reported that younger people are particularly open to nontraditional relationships, that doesn’t seem to be the case for the field of psychotherapy, with the exception of a few notable mavericks. Among them is couples therapist Esther Perel, whose bestselling book Mating in Captivity challenges the concept that great sex only occurs within the context of secure, monogamous relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs, questions our model of affairs as victim-perpetrator scenarios caused by bad relationships. Also, in The New Monogamy, sex therapist Tammy Nelson lays out the advantages of having a more open view of nonmonagomous relationships.
But these therapists are the exception. Consider the words of Susan Johnson, developer of EFT and arguably the most influential voice in couples therapy today. In a blog post titled “Monogamy: A Myth or a Possibility,” she writes, “Some naturalists say only seven percent of mammals are socially monogamous. My response is, ‘Yes and we are one of those seven percent.’ . . . [The] most potent argument for monogamy is that we are wired for it! . . . We are bonding animals who live best in the shelter offered by another’s love. An attachment bond is persistent. Once made, it is specific to another ‘irreplaceable’ person. . . . Our most natural and longed for state is a strong, nurturing monogamous pair bond and on this bond we base our families.”
If this is the mainstream view of monogamy, it’s no wonder that people involved in nonmonogamous relationships and those who are considering opening their relationships tend to avoid couples therapists like the plague.
What Does CNM Look Like?
Mickey and Ethan were married for eight years. Two years before seeking therapy, they’d opened up the relationship, and at first their forays into extramarital sex were fun and improved their sex life with each other. Both were “bottoms”—meaning they both liked to be on the receiving end of anal sex—and with those urges satisfied outside the relationship, their sex together was conflict free and better. Then one night, Ethan didn’t come home. Mickey was enraged and insisted the two enter couples counseling. In our first session, Mickey announced, “That’s it. I’m never going through that again. I was terrified he wasn’t okay, and then furious when I found out he’d just passed out after sex. We have to close the relationship.”
At this point, the average couples therapist would’ve agreed. But Mickey and Ethan saw a therapist who was well versed in the issues of nonmonogamy. He suggested they close the relationship for a time to process what had happened. In fact, when they discussed their experiences with him, they realized that they’d never explicitly set boundaries for their outside sexual experiences—boundaries like “don’t stay overnight”—and that Ethan’s experiences had often involved excessive amounts of alcohol. Over time, Mickey regained trust, and they began exploring nonmonogamy again. They found that what worked for them was sex with a third person or sex with another couple in the room: in other words, experiences that both shared together.
No matter what type of CNM a couple practices, a critical feature is to maintain a sense of trust and security in the primary couple. Arguably, this is easiest when the extra-relationship activities are purely sexual in nature and harder when it comes to polyamory (literally, “many loves”), which is most favored by women of all sexual orientations, as well as many men.
What Does It Mean?
CNM is threatening to a lot of therapists for the same reason it’s threatening to most people: we instinctively want to believe that these unconventional relationships are flawed, that they won’t/don’t/can’t last, that they’re retreats from intimacy or signs of problems in the relationship. Nonmonogamy speaks to our deepest fears: that we’re not enough for our primary partners—that, if let out of the cage of monogamy, they’ll fly away. Although consensual nonmonogamy is coming out of the shadows, I doubt it’ll ever be the choice of the majority of people. After all, as Susan Johnson points out, most humans are wired for dyadic attachment. And for most people, the disadvantages of CNM outweigh the advantages: dealing with jealousy, worrying that your partner will leave for someone new, finding enough time for multiple partners and the energy to work out conflicts within the primary dyad, suffering through the social stigma. But for other people—particularly those who are sexually mismatched with a partner but compatible in other ways, those with high sex drives and high need for novelty and adventure, and those who actualize themselves through intimate relationships—CNM is the breath of life.
Consensual nonmonogamy isn’t just about sex and marriage: it’s about expanding our concepts of relationships so that individuals, couples, and families can set rules of engagement that fit their situations and can be adapted as their circumstances change. It challenges us to see a world that’s more flexible and understanding of individuals’ different needs and how they change over a lifetime, a world that permits many combinations and permutations of sexual and romantic relationships while still prioritizing human connection as our most basic need.
This blog is excerpted from "Consensual Nonmonogamy," by Margaret Nichols. The full version is available in the January/February 2018 issue, Not Your Grandfather's Therapy: Meeting the Needs of Today's Clients.
Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today! >>
Or, find articles just like this one in our Archives on the new, enhanced Networker mobile app! Click here for more details.
Photo © iStock
Tags: attachment | Attachment Theory | consensual nonmonogamy | couples | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples research | divorce | divorce counseling | Esther Perel | failing marriage | love | love and relationships | marriage | marriage and family | marriage counseling | monogamy | polyamory | polygamy | same-sex couples | sex | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapy | Sue Johnson | Susan Johnson