When a kink or polyamory lifestyle becomes problematic

Have you found yourself in a kink or polyamory lifestyle and are wondering whether or not your behaviour has become problematic? Perhaps the most important question you could ask yourself is whether you might be escaping difficult feelings by engaging in high-intensity sexual behaviour.


Addictive behaviour tends to be activated when seeking to escape difficult feelings and what feels like intolerable emotions. We are generally emotionally well-regulated when we can process our positive and negative feelings, transform any emotional discomfort we experience and not activate addictive behaviours in response to stress.

When sexual behaviour feels like it is becoming increasingly out of control, it can have the effect of numbing any negative emotions and difficult mental states. This can have the effect of storing up problems as mood-changing behaviour becomes the 'go-to' solution to fix any dull times. When you feel low, worried, afraid, angry or lonely, the temptation is to think that only that behaviour will be the answer.

You may feel almost dependent on the buzz you derive from your sexual behaviour and might struggle to feel satisfied with any alternative.

You might not currently be in that lifestyle but could be speculating that these life choice options might represent a new opportunity to positively express your sexuality.

Sometimes there is a common misconception that a kink lifestyle is the same as a polyamory lifestyle. These misconceptions can result from ignorance, shame and stigma. The reality is that there are polyamorous individuals who are relatively vanilla in the expression of their sexuality, just like there are kinky individuals that remain monogamous in their relationships. There are also kinky individuals who engage with multiple partners as part of their relationship life choices.

Safe kink environments do exist so that you can better express your sexuality. The important aspect of staying safe in any alternative sexual community, though, is to know your own boundaries and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to enforce them. Therefore, it can be beneficial to compile your list of red flags and deal-breakers for all your relationships, in general, and also specifically for how you might operate with others who you encounter in a sex community.

Addressing these questions and building your own personal resources can help to protect against some of the psychological pitfalls that can occur from this lifestyle. 

What are the psychological pitfalls?

The risks associated with this lifestyle are that you may be vulnerable to re-enacting attachment wounds from childhood. Fears of abandonment and experiencing loneliness might be displaced by having an alternative set of relationships.

Trust is huge in the kink and polyamory communities and rejection can be a sore wound from childhood for some. This can mean a tendency to mistrust can quickly transform into envy and other negative feelings. Someone with an attachment wound can feel unworthy of what was promised and of what others have.

There is also potential for complying with someone else’s wants, desires, or fantasies, rather than really wanting it for yourself. For example, a friend or partner might be encouraging you to go to kink parties with them and you may not have fully considered the consequences of these lifestyle choices. Potentially compromising your own value system and blurring your own boundaries can damage your sense of personal esteem as well as your mental and emotional well-being.

There might also be risks of associated with existing so-called co-morbidities, such as addictions, or feelings of anxiety and depression, which could be exacerbated by these lifestyle choices. Might you be seeking to cover up past emotional wounding and emotional trauma by engaging in high-intensity sexual activity?

Trauma can be defined in different ways by different people. One useful definition is from Melissa Bradley-Ball when she states that, "Trauma is a complex matrix of grief caused by the wounding of identity, core beliefs, sense of safety and world view usually including a sense of betrayal by systems of people." 

You could also ask yourself whether or not you are solid enough in your current relationship (or relationships) or whether you are comfortable with your single status. Engaging in an alternative sexual lifestyle might not necessarily solve any of your problem areas and could actually make your relationship, or single status, worse rather than better.

Seeking help

People who embrace an alternative sexual lifestyle often encounter prejudice amongst wider society towards their behaviour. That prejudice can even be mirrored in counselling and psychotherapy circles when people seek help and support. It is not uncommon that they meet a so-called ‘sex negative therapist’ who might not be comfortable hearing such content or who might seek to quickly pathologise such lifestyle choices. It is always best to chat initially with someone on the phone before arranging a session to gauge if they are someone you might feel awkward with.

Counselling sessions can help you to review your motives for engaging in this lifestyle, devise your own list of red flags and deal-breakers and perhaps also address how better to process any difficult feelings and emotional states that bring you down.

Safety should not just be seen in the context of your physical space but medical as well as psychological well-being, too. Being better prepared can help guard against the emergence of problem behaviour. Problematic sexual behaviour usually occurs, perhaps like any chemical or behavioural addiction, when there are increasing levels of riskier behaviours and also when there are more negative consequences occurring in other aspects of your life.

A subculture of the kink scene can hold more risky events. Chemsex parties, for instance, (or 'party and play' or 'chill out' events) can involve a party-goer staying awake for much longer periods, and such environments might encourage people to do new things sexually without much planning or thought. As well as staying physically safe, such events could have significant impacts on your health including diet, sleep, immune system and mood management.

The kink and polyamory social scene need not necessarily involve drug parties, of course. However, these environments can, by their very nature, risk exacerbating any underlying co-morbidities such as addictions, social anxiety and lingering depression if your boundaries are not well defined and enforced.

Counselling sessions can help you to become more aware of your needs and your drives, so that you may be better able to overcome your personal discomforts in a way that reduces compulsion and increases choice in your wider life. Devising your own personal resourcing and developing your personal qualities will help you to be better able to make the lifestyle choices that are right for you. This can be what it means to have a positive self-care regime when past emotional wounds are healed and where you have a solid social support structure so that you can enjoy your life more fully.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.

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