If you’re thinking about or practising non-monogamy and you need a little extra support, you’re not alone. Counselling can help you individually, or you and a partner or partners come to terms with identity, negotiate an agreement or manage the challenges of non-monogamy in a safe and supportive environment.
What is non-monogamy?
Non-monogamy is the umbrella term used to describe those who have or have the desire for relationships with more than one person. It’s sometimes referred to as ethical non-monogamy (ENM) or consensual non-monogamy (CNM) to differentiate it from cheating or affairs – the difference being that it is practised with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
In this video, psychosexual and relationship therapist Rebecca Harrison shares more on non-monogamy and the situations where therapy can support it.
There are lots of different forms of non-monogamy, and those who are non-monogamous use different terms to communicate the kind of non-monogamy they practise. Although everyone will define their relationship style differently, here are some broad definitions for a few different kinds of non-monogamy.
- Polyamory: Having, or having the desire for multiple romantic and/or sexual partners.
- Open relationships: Having, or having the desire for multiple sexual partners.
- BDSM non-monogamy: Having, or having the desire for multiple play partners in BDSM and kink.
- Triads: A relationship between three people. An open triad is where those involved have, or have the desire for additional romantic/sexual relationships. A closed triad is where they do not.
- Swinging: Typically used to describe a couple who have, or have the desire to explore sex with other people outside of their relationship.
- Hierarchical polyamory: Having, or having the desire for primary partners, secondary partners and tertiary partners. These terms are used to describe levels of attachment.
- Relationship Anarchy (RA): A way of practising polyamory where all hierarchies are rejected; partners are not considered or described as primary, secondary or tertiary.
I became aware of polyamory via someone on social media. The set-up she has with her partner seemed to work well for them, and it was refreshing to see a non-conventional relationship where both partners were supported, and seemed to flourish with each other as well as others.
Why might I need to see a counsellor?
In the UK, we have a monogamy-based culture. This means that our environment and our society expect us to be monogamous; our friends and families, and even the majority of our books, films and TV shows show us monogamous couples (usually, one man and one woman) having a closed relationship. We call this mononormativity.
Those who are non-monogamous can experience feelings of shame and confusion when having the desire for, or having multiple relationships. The majority of us have been raised to practice relationships in a specific way, with one other person. As such, those new to non-monogamy can feel like there’s no model or structure to follow, which can be overwhelming.
Some people realise that they are interested in non-monogamy whilst they are in a monogamous relationship. This can completely destabilise the relationship for both the person thinking about non-monogamy and their partner. Both people can be left feeling unsure about how to move forward.
For those already practising non-monogamy, there might be disagreements and conflict between partners which feels unmanageable, just as there is in monogamous relationships. Partners might be struggling to negotiate a change, communicate effectively or even just reach an agreement which works for everyone.
Seeing a counsellor is a great option for people who need some help coming to terms with their own, or a partner’s, non-monogamous identity. It can help those who want to explore non-monogamy, address feelings of shame or guilt, or manage a relationship with a partner or partners.
How can counselling support those in non-monogamous relationships?
When we learn to love in a monogamous way, transitioning to non-monogamy can be difficult. One of the ways we show our love and commitment in monogamous relationships is fidelity; by not forming relationships or having sex with anyone else. A counsellor can help you to identify how to show your love and commitment and receive love and commitment in a new way.
Counselling can help you and your partner or partners learn to communicate in a healthy way. This could include developing active listening tools, acknowledging listening blocks and identifying any non-verbal conversations that are underneath your verbal conversations.
Counselling can help people think about what they want and need in their relationships, whether monogamous or non-monogamous – including how to identify, understand and move away from unhealthy relationship patterns and behaviours. By working with a counsellor, people can navigate how to share and discuss a non-monogamous identity with friends or family members. A counsellor can also recommend tools and resources to help you talk to each other, and hear what the other person is saying.
Many non-monogamous (and monogamous) people struggle with jealousy. This is a completely common emotion to experience and, just like anger or sadness, we can learn to manage it and contain it in a healthy way by identifying what it is pointing to. Jealousy is often communicating insecurity or an unmet need. A counsellor will be able to help you to understand what your jealousy is telling you, and how to tolerate it.
Something that many couples that are transitioning from monogamy to non-monogamy struggle with is agreeing on what the relationship will look like. Couples might need to negotiate an agreement, and set boundaries around behaviour that they are comfortable with and uncomfortable with. A counsellor should be able to help you negotiate an agreement and understand the function of rules and boundaries.
Some people might be struggling to come to terms with the idea of non-monogamy or might be unsure whether a non-monogamous relationship is right for them. Counselling can help partners to express their worries, concerns, needs and wants, to help them decide whether to stay in a relationship or leave a relationship.
What should I look for when choosing a counsellor?
If you’re looking for a counsellor that is non-monogamy aware, you might be worried about being judged for the way that you practise or are thinking about practising relationships. You might also be worried about the counsellor not acknowledging non-monogamy, feeling uncomfortable talking about it, or even a counsellor hyper-focusing on non-monogamy.
When you’re looking for a counsellor, you should find someone who lists non-monogamy or polyamory on their Counselling Directory profile. This indicates that they’re aware of non-monogamous relationships and feel confident working with them. If they don’t mention non-monogamy in their profile, you could ask some of the following questions:
- Have you worked with non-monogamy before?
- I’m interested in/practising Relationship Anarchy, what do you understand about that term?
- Can you tell me about how you typically work with open relationships?
- Have you ever done any training or CPD around non-monogamy?
A suitable counsellor should be clear, concise and honest with their level of understanding of non-monogamy. Although they may ask what non-monogamy or what your style of relationship means to you, it shouldn’t feel like you have to educate them on what non-monogamy is and how it works.
If you have an intersecting identity you might also choose to disclose this or ask the counsellor how they feel about working with a non-monogamous person with those intersecting identities. This can help you to find a counsellor who will embrace your full self and personhood, without holding any biases.
Ready to get started?
Whether you’re just considering non-monogamy, or you’ve been practising non-monogamy for years, counselling can help. Get in touch with one of Counselling Directory’s qualified counsellors and therapists to get started.
This page was written by Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist Rebecca Harrison, Dip, RegCOSRT in December 2022.
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