Supporting clients around polyamory and non-monogamy – the basics
Polyamory is the practice of having more than one romantic or sexual partner – it’s based on the consent of all parties and is not the same as cheating. Here are three essential steps for counsellors working with or considering working with polyamorous or non-monogamous clients. This article is written for counsellors who have little awareness or experience of polyamory and non-monogamy, but polyamorous clients might find it useful too.
1) Don’t make assumptions
Firstly and most importantly; it’s not okay to assume a clients relationship issues are due to them being in a poly relationship. Many people live in successful and healthy polyamorous relationships.
There are a lot of stereotypes around polyamory which really need to be avoided – the more common ones are that people in poly relationships are promiscuous or not able to control their sexuality; that they are immature or unable to manage a stable relationship, they are spreaders of HIV or other STI’s, or that they have commitment or intimacy issues.
Poly clients with other minority identities may be additionally marginalised and it’s important to put trust in their experience of prejudices or stereotypes we may be unfamiliar with. For example there may be an assumption that disabled people are only poly as they can’t get a “normal” relationship, or it may be assumed that all bisexual people are poly as they “need to be in a relationship with a man and a woman at the same time.”
There can be an assumption that all poly people are white and middle class - poly people come from all backgrounds but some, particularly people of colour, working class people and disabled people may be less visible or find it more difficult to be out or to access poly communities.
2) Be informed
People in poly relationships may face a number of additional barriers. They may experience rejection from people in their life because of their relationship style. They may not feel they can be safely “out” at work or with particular friends or family members, which can be a barrier to living a full and open life and also mean the carrying the fear of being “outed”. They may encounter prejudice when looking for accommodation, or when showing affection in public places. They may be judged for “cheating” on their partners. They may find their relationships are not legally recognised which can have far reaching legal and social consequences – particularly if they are parents. In addition, children with parents in poly relationships may face prejudice from peers or from teachers.
It’s really necessary to be informed about the prejudice and discrimination associated with polyamory. If we feel we need more knowledge about this area this is our responsibility and it’s important not to expect clients to educate us on their time – they may already spend a lot of time and energy explaining their relationship to others.
This article is really just an introduction but there are plenty of books, websites and videos available. Be aware that mainstream media representations of polyamory may be written for shock value or contain political bias and so may not be accurate. Resources created by poly people themselves can be more reliable through being based on lived experience, but of course poly people don’t always agree on things!
This is a good place to start further research: https://www.morethantwo.com.
3) Be aware of your limitations
There is a general lack of awareness around polyamory, and poly clients may have experienced negative reactions from previous counsellors or other professionals. This can lead to clients being particularly vulnerable to negative or uninformed responses from counsellors.
Clients are going to be aware if their counsellor finds their relationship difficult to accept. If there is any chance of this being an issue then supervision or personal counselling will be essential; it may be that the most ethical thing to do is to refer a client on.
Letting clients know our limitations without this coming across as rejection can be tricky to balance. Being open about limitations as well as merits as a counsellor means clients can make an informed choice about who they want as a counsellor – experience working with polyamory may not be a priority issue and you may still have plenty to offer them.