Considering Polyamorous Clients’ Needs
and Evaluating Clinicians’ Attitudes Toward Polyamorous Clients
Rebecca A. Emberger
A Paper Presented in Partial Fulfillment
Of the Requirements of HS5006 – Survey of Research Methodology
Polyamory represents a growing phenomenon, with increasing numbers of people engaging in multi-partner relationships and seeking relationship counseling. This research focused on evaluating what counselors need to understand about polyamorous individuals and families, as well as some of the counselor attitudes and behaviors that serve as barriers to this population receiving quality care. This paper also discusses how therapists are perceived by polyamorous people, and evaluates the validity of the fears of negative bias. Finally, several related topics are identified as areas in need of further research.
Evaluating What Counselors Need to Know
When Counseling Polyamorous Clients
This study explored what mental health professionals need to be aware of concerning polyamory and the challenges and issues their polyamorous clients may face. Also explored were the feelings and fears poly people have toward clinicians, and how clinicians’ internalized polyphobia (similar to homophobia) and monogamism (similar to heterosexism) can affect their work with polyamorous people. Since this population is steadily increasing, and becoming more embedded in mainstream awareness (and thus encouraging others to “come out” as poly), more polyamorous people will be needing relationship counseling, specifically focused on the problems associated with their particular lifestyle. Relationship and mental health counselors will need to become familiar with the issues and will have to discover the most effective ways of working with these individuals and families. The literature review was guided by the main statement of the problem: How can counselors work effectively with their polyamorous clients on issues directly related to their polyamorous lifestyle? This question was broken into several sub-problems, articulated as follows:
Sub-problem One: What do we know about working with poly clients? What are their special concerns, directly related to their being poly?
Sub-problem Two: How do therapists’ attitudes and behaviors affect the counseling experience?
Sub-problem Three: How are therapists perceived by poly people & how does that affect mental health service delivery?
Brief Description of Polyamory & Why This Research is Important
Polyamory is a relationship structure that allows for multiple partners and has been called a form of responsible non-monogamy. Polyamory is an umbrella term that encompasses many individualized styles of multi-partner relating, but is distinct from cheating, serial monogamy, swinging, and polygamy. Cheating is done in ostensibly monogamous relationships, when one spouse engages sexually with someone other than his or her spouse, without the spouse’s knowledge or consent (Robbins, 2005). Walston (2001) related that honesty between and among all partners is what distinguishes polyamory from cheating. Serial monogamy is the practice of maintaining fidelity within a monogamous relationship, and then maintaining fidelity within a second monogamous relationship, after the first dissolves (Robbins, 2005). Swinging is when a couple agrees to find sexual partners outside their dyadic relationship, but the emphasis is on recreational sex, and emotional intimacy outside the dyad is discouraged (McCollough & Hall, 2003). Davidson (2002) described polyamory as “a relationship oriented approach to non-monogamy rather than a casual-sex oriented approach” (¶ 4), such as that seen in swinging.
Polygamy is a religious and/or cultural practice of allowing more than one spouse, but it is most often practiced as polygyny, where one man has multiple wives, and there is a cultural imperative associated with this practice, as opposed to it being a consensual choice among equals. Polyamory, on the other hand, is a choice to allow simultaneous sexual and loving relationships between multiple adults, with everyone’s knowledge and consent. Polyamory is often considered a relationship orientation, regardless of current behavioral evidence. An individual may consider him or herself to be polyamorous by nature, even if he or she is currently in a monogamous relationship or no relationship at all (Walston, 2001). Polyamory can take many forms of relationship configurations, based on the desires, needs, and agreements of all the members involved. The three most likely configurations to be seen in therapy include primary-plus arrangements (in which a couple is primarily committed to one another, but allow for additional, “secondary” relationships), monogamous couples interested in pursuing non-monogamy for the first time, and poly singles (in which an individual is not involved in a committed relationship of any kind, but is dating several people at once with full disclosure) (Davidson, 2002).
Relationship orientation is separate and different from sexual orientation, in that relationship orientation specifies the number of individuals one is comfortable being in relationship with, while sexual orientation refers to the sexual attraction one has for a particular gender (or multiple genders). Polyamorous people may fall anywhere on the sexual orientation spectrum, from homosexual, to bisexual, to heterosexual (Robbins, 2005).
Studies of polyamory are becoming more important today because of a growing number of people who are choosing this lifestyle and choosing to be open about it. McCollough and Hall (2003) related how polyamory has started to get increasing amounts of media attention, being the focus of such shows as Ally McBeal, Montel Williams, John Walsh, Geraldo, and HBO’s Real Sex. The Internet has contributed to the spread of the concept and has allowed more polyamorists to connect, to communicate, to mobilize, and to gather together (Walston, 2001b). Email lists and other discussion groups have proliferated and several annual conferences are now held on the topic. It is difficult to estimate the number of people practicing polyamory, though, because not everyone who practices or prefers this type of relationship structure uses the term, and some who identify as polyamorous are not willing to proclaim their identity due to fears of stigmatization and legal consequences. Weitzman (2006) reported on the demographic data she found:
Page (2004) found that 33% of her bisexual sample of 217 participants were involved in a polyamorous relationship, and 54% considered this type of relationship ideal. West (1996) reported that 20% of her lesbian respondents were polyamorous, while Blumstein and Schwarz (1983) found that 28% of the lesbian couples in their sample were. Blumstein and Schwartz found that 65% of the gay male couples in their study were polyamorous and that 15-28% of their heterosexual couples had “an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances” (p. 312). (Weitzman, 2006, p. 2)
The “Poly in the Media” blog (2006) aggregated several demographic statistics from various sources, including Weitzman’s above. The last figure cited in Weitzman’s article, regarding 15-28% of heterosexual couples who allow some non-monogamy, imply that as many as 18 to 35 million Americans may be involved in some form of non-monogamous lifestyle. However, since polyamory is a specific subset, there’s no way to tell how many of those millions fall into this category. Another interesting figure is that of the number of people in the national database of the Loving More magazine, which according to Robyn Trask, editor and director of that magazine (as cited by “Poly in the Media”, 2006), is over 13,000.
Walston (2001) conducted a qualitative study to evaluate some demographic hypotheses regarding polyamorous people, based on assertions in previous research. They sought to support the following hypotheses: that polyamorists tend to be (1) highly educated; (2) in their thirties; (3) non-religious, or involved with a non-traditional spirituality, like paganism; and (4) bisexual in greater percentages than the mainstream (Walston, 2001). Because this survey was conducted over the Internet via email lists and message boards, underrepresented are those who identify as poly, but don’t have Internet access, or who are not involved in the online poly community. The control group used to compare Walston’s results to the mainstream was essentially the U.S. Census Data from 1997. Participants were not screened prior to inclusion. The survey was posted on several internet email lists and message boards, and passed along to other identified polyamorists by people on those lists.
It was difficult to categorize this study as either quantitative or qualitative. There were some clear hypotheses presented, but the nature of these hypotheses did not seek to explain or predict anything, as a quantitative study tends to do (Leedy & Ellis Ormrod, 2007). Conversely, qualitative research attempts to better understand a complex phenomenon, and while this study contributes to the understanding of polyamory, it falls short by not including thick enough description. This particular study is more of a fact-finding expedition than an actual research project.
This study was definitely more of an investigation, as nothing experimental was present in the methodology or design. The qualitative nature of the design was aimed at generating statistical data to support the simple demographic questions posed. No apparent credibility is established in the article about the study: no mention of extensive time in the field, negative case analysis, feedback from others, or respondent validation. The description was also not very thick (Leedy & Ellis Ormrod, 2007). However, if we consider this study from a quantitative perspective, there is also no evidence of internal or external validity, as there were no cause-effect relationships inferred, and the results are not very generalizable to other contexts.
Sub-Problem One: Knowledge About & Special Concerns of Polyamorous Clients
Social & Psychological Functioning
Weitzman (1999) conducted a literature review to examine the psychological and relationship stability of individuals in studies of polyamorous and other open marriage types. She found that in the studies by Knapp (1976), Peabody (1982), Rubin (1982), and Rubin and Adams (1986), polyamorous individuals did not differ significantly from the general population norms in the areas of maturity, promiscuity, neuroticism, pathology, sexual inadequacies, marital adjustment, or marital satisfaction. Many individuals whose polyamorous relationships dissolved reported that the dissolutions were due to reasons other than the polyamorous natures of those relationships (Rubin & Adams, 1986, as cited in Weitzman, 1999). Overall, there is no evidence that supports the idea that polyamory is maladaptive or that individuals who engage in polyamorous relationships are unhealthy or dysfunctional.
Rodemaker (2006) asserted that “what is considered healthy in a traditional family system is also considered healthy in a non-monogamous network” (p. 14), and that often, the presenting problem of a polyamorous individual or relationship is more likely a result of living in a monogamous culture, than stemming directly from the nature of the polyamorous orientation itself.
Specific Concerns of Polyamorous People
While clinicians need to be cautious about equating pathology with polyamorous behavior and recognize that poly people often present with issues not related to their polyamorous lifestyle, it is also important to realize that poly people have concerns that do originate in their identity or lifestyle.
Development of polyamorous identity.
Polyamorous people often describe themselves as being poly, as opposed to doing poly (Ritchie & Barker, 2006), suggesting that it’s more appropriate to view polyamory as an identity related to one’s orientation, rather than one’s behavior. Many still self-identify as poly, even if they are not currently in a poly relationship or in any relationship at all. Polyamory, as an aspect of one’s self-identity, has the potential to contribute to one’s growth, as it shifts one’s paradigm from the conventional perspective of what is supposed to be (Barker, 2005). Polyamorists have the opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of multiple intimates, which can lead to a deepening of self-awareness and the possibility of deeper growth concerning the different aspects of their personality (Barker, 2005).
Barker (2005) conducted a qualitative study to examine how polyamorous people construct their identities in a monogamous culture, and how their polyamorous traits affect their overall sense of self. She conducted the study by eliciting participants from polyamory-oriented online newsgroups and chat communities, and she administered an open-ended e-interview to the 30 respondents. Barker’s method was qualitative in nature and fit her purpose of understanding the complexities involved in developing a polyamorous identity, by focusing on polyamorous people and their own perceptions of this process (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005). She analyzed the data using a social constructionist discourse analytic approach. The study potentially has external validity: she makes the case that through understanding how poly people develop their identities and write their sexual stories, we may be able to offer other people some alternatives to understanding themselves. She says that, “[Polyamory] seems to be an extension of the general [societal] move towards love relationships being based on equality in terms of choice, desire, trust, and compatibility rather than on tradition or arrangement” (Barker, 2005, p. 78). The internal validity of this study rests in its thick description, in which detailed explanations of the connections and themes Barker discerned are offered along with direct quotes from participants (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005).
Many polyamorists, prior to embracing a polyamorous identity, had been involved in monogamous relationships (Robbins, 2005). In Robbins’ study, she reported that many of her participants described being “happier with themselves after beginning to openly identify as polyamorous” (p. 83). However, many polyamorous people struggle with the weight of secrecy associated with not feeling free to be open about their lifestyle. And some also suffer from internalized prejudice against non-monogamy, from being raised in a culture that demonizes anything other than straight monogamy (Keener, 2004).
Coming out to self, friends, coworkers, and family.
A natural extension of the discussion on identity is that of coming out, a process by which an individual comes to terms with an aspect of him or herself that is at odds with the mainstream, and then shares this discovery with other significant persons in his or her life. In fact, coming out is considered a major milestone in the development of one’s polyamorous identity. Coming out to oneself can be a joyous experience, but is often accompanied by shame associated with being different from the mainstream (Weitzman, 2006). Therapists can help normalize the client’s orientation, and can provide resources for connecting with others. When coming out to others, it’s important to realize that monogamist prejudice can lead to a rejection of the polyamorous person once this aspect becomes known, and can result in a loss of friends, discomfort, judgmental behavior, among other things (Keener, 2004). When a newly self-identified polyamorous person shares this preference with a current partner, anger, disappointment, misunderstanding, and blame can be the result. Therapists can help the couple process this revelation and discuss what this means and how it will affect the existing relationship (Weitzman, 2006). “Poly conversations force the exploration of needs that are not being met and emotional secrets that have been kept” (Davidson, 2002, p. 3)
Shifting relationship paradigms.
Once an individual or a couple decide to pursue a polyamorous lifestyle, they must adjust to the shifting relationship paradigms that accompany a polyamorous worldview. This includes challenging and changing the core beliefs of monogamy: the scarcity model of love, the inevitability of jealousy, and the feelings of personal failure often associated with infidelity (McCollough & Hall, 2003). People new to polyamory must also assess the variety of new relationship structures that are now a possibility (Robbins, 2005), and must engage in negotiations with their partner(s) about aspects of relationship that do not require much discussion in conventional relationships, due to the assumptions inherent in monogamy (Davidson, 2002). These discussions include the topics of boundaries, negotiating agreements, time and resources, sex, safer sex, disclosure, personal space, etc. (Davidson, 2002; Weitzman, 1999; Weitzman, 2006).
Jealousy and compersion.
Some people assume that if one is involved in polyamorous relationships that jealousy must not be an issue in that lifestyle, but most poly people acknowledge the existence of jealousy, though they often choose to deal with it differently than those in monogamous relationships (Davidson, 2002; Keener, 2004). Jealousy is often seen as a “teacher” (Keener, 2004) leading individuals who experience it to engage in introspection. This often leads to a discovery that jealousy actually represents a varied set of emotions that need to be identified and that “jealousy can be managed through re-negotiation with partners, desensitization, self-awareness” (Davidson, 2002). Many spontaneously or learn to experience the opposite of jealousy, dubbed “compersion”, in which people find joy in witnessing their lovers’ happiness with another lover. It is also interesting to note that some polyamorous people never feel jealousy, and that this sometimes perversely leads to feelings of shame, because the current cultural values stress jealousy as a natural reaction; thus those who don’t feel jealousy are not natural (Keener, 2004).
Lack of legal protection.
Because polyamory is not a legally recognized relationship form, there are many concerns to polyamorists regarding the lack of legal protection that others take for granted. The top of the list concerns child custody concerns – there have been actual cases of parents losing custody specifically because of their polyamorous lifestyle (Black, 2006; Emens, 2004). Even though research has shown that nontraditional family configurations are not inherently harmful to the children living in them, poly parents still fear the hostility of others will result in custody battles they feel they’re unlikely to win (Black, 2006). Emens (2004) reported that in many states, people engaging in extramarital relations face criminal charges, and that no states recognize multiple partner marriages. Further, since there are no laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of relationship orientation, polyamorous people experience a real and valid fear of losing their jobs if their relationship choices are discovered by employers, and they currently have no legal recourse to fight this discriminatory behavior (Emens, 2004). Zoning laws also often prohibit multiple families from residing under a single roof, and since the presence of more than two adults legally comprises more than one family, poly families can face zoning violations (Emens, 2004). Finally, again because there is no legal recognition of partners beyond those in heterosexual traditional two-party marriages, other partners have no rights to inheritance, child custody, property, etc. (Black, 2006).
Effects of discrimination and stigmatization.
Because polyamory is not well understood by the mainstream society, it is often conflated with polygamy, which is deeply aversive due to its perceived gender inequality and coercive practices (including child brides). The current culture in the United States is also deeply attached to the idea of heterosexual monogamy being the only ethical/moral relationship option available and so there is a good deal of bias against anything that goes against that norm. People engaging in polyamorous practices often practice covertly and with great stress “due to the cultural pressure, social stigmas, or fear of legal ramifications” (Black, 2006, p. 1). In addition to the social pressures to conform to monogamy, the current legal code also discourages alternative relationship possibilities, through “namely criminal adultery laws, bigamy laws, marriage laws, custody cases, workplace discrimination, and zoning laws” (Emens, 2004, p. 284).
Sub-Problem Two: How do Therapists’ Attitudes & Behaviors
Affect the Counseling Experience?
Effects of Therapist Attitudes and Behaviors Toward Poly People
It is important when counseling polyamorous clients, that the counselor include relationship styles under the types of multicultural considerations to keep in mind. Many clinicians have mistakenly attributed the source of a couple’s problems to their polyamorous lifestyle, leaving the actual problematic issues unexplored and untreated (Davidson, 2002). Counselors must strive to accept this relationship style as a valid and valuable option for some people, because if they are negatively biased against this lifestyle, that bias will become apparent and can be quite detrimental to the therapeutic process. It is also important for a clinician to understand polyamory so that he or she can detect the difference between genuine consensuality and subtle coercion (Davidson, 2002). “Monogamy is often upheld as a relationship standard by the therapy field and polyamory is often pathologized” (Weitzman, 2006, p. 3). Several studies examined by Weitzman (2006) found that many therapists hold negative opinions and ascribe to negative stereotypes about polyamorous people. Some believed that individuals who engage in non-monogamy must suffer from personality disorders or neuroticism, while others stated that polyamorous people must fear commitment, or that their marriages must not be fulfilling. Some actually were more inclined to pathologize polyamorous people than monogamous people engaging in extramarital affairs.
Davidson (2002) described some of the effects of therapist bias in therapeutic settings: clients may be guarded and unwilling to disclose important information; clients’ presenting issues may not get the attention they deserve, due to the therapist becoming distracted by their unconventional relationship style; therapists misattributing causes of presenting problems, assuming the non-monogamy is to blame; therapists unable to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy non-monogamy practices; therapist ignorant of resources that can assist client and unable to provide useful tools for navigating the complexities of poly relationships.
The qualitative research project conducted by Keener (2004) addressed the problem of inadequate material in the professional literature explaining and exploring non-monogamy and polyamorous relationship styles, thus leading to biased treatment by clinicians of clients who present with these relationship types. The purpose of this phenomenological research was to canvas the “polyamorous community” by way of an in-depth questionnaire and interview process to generate a profile of who these people are to, and what they need from, therapists who may be counseling them (Keener, 2004).
The particular question that guided this research was: “What are the experiences and meanings of polyamory for polyamorous persons?” (Keener, 2004, p. 31). He sought to improve multicultural awareness particular to this population, resulting in a better-informed mental health profession and better quality care offered to these clients.
Effects of Therapist Attitudes and Behaviors Toward Other Sexual Minorities
Very little research has been done specifically on therapist bias toward bisexual clients, either, so Mohr, Weiner, Chopp, and Wong (2009) endeavored to discover whether the bisexual orientation of clients affected therapists’ perceptions of and reactions to those clients. Participants were recruited from state psychological associations and were selected using randomized sampling techniques. The final sample represented a wide diversity in terms of geographic location, gender, and age. Respondents were fairly homogenous in terms of sexual orientation, race, and professional discipline. The participants were then randomly assigned to one of three conditions, based on the perceived sexual orientation of a fictional client: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. The researchers did not have much control over the participants’ experience of the study, as they completed the survey anonymously and on their own. The instructions clearly laid out how they were expected to complete the survey, and included a mild deception to disguise the true purpose of the study, to control for response bias. The researchers chose to administer several survey measures, some to obtain data, some to control for various variables, and a couple to ensure internal validity.
This quantitative study definitely qualifies as an experiment: one variable was measured (effect of bisexuality on therapists’ attitudes), while several other variables were controlled for in various ways, and the results of the experimental group were compared to two control groups (effect of heterosexuality, and effect of homosexuality on therapists’ attitudes) (Leedy & Ellis Ormrod, 2007). The purpose of the study was to explain and predict the effect of clients’ sexual orientation on therapist attitudes and the data generated was largely numerical. The researchers went to great lengths to control the internal validity of the measures they used, and this study was actually an attempt to control for variables that hadn’t been well controlled in a previous study. However, as the authors reported, “the gains in control and internal validity…are counterbalanced by losses in external validity” (Mohr, Weiner, Chopp, & Wong, 2009, p.173).
Anderson and Holliday (2007) conducted a mixed-method study to evaluate how heterosexism affects the social services received by lesbians and their families. They stated that “internalized homophobia can render the therapist unable to effectively work with this issue in clients’ lives” (p. 83). They also discussed how therapists used to assume that all of a homosexual client’s presenting problems could be traced to the client’s sexual orientation, but they also noted that this assumption is less prevalent today. What they found in their own analysis was that many therapists believe that they are effective with lesbian clients, but at least half of those surveyed knew of one or more incidents of professional bias against lesbian clients by other professionals. Concurrently, many of the lesbian consumers of social services included in the survey reported that their therapists were effective at working with them, but this could be attributed to the fact that these clients had spent considerable time and energy seeking out lesbian-friendly professionals before engaging in service. Several client respondents, however, described feeling unsafe to disclose their orientation and that many professionals neglected to inquire about it, or provided an environment or intake forms that were lesbian-friendly.
Sub-Problem Three – How are therapists perceived by poly people
and how does that affect mental health service delivery?
Knapp (1975) conducted a quantitative study to assess whether counselors were likely to be negatively biased toward clients in sexually-open marriages. She embarked on this project after an earlier study showed that those involved in sexually-open marriages that could use counseling were afraid to approach counselors for fear of negative bias. These individuals feared that counselors would condemn them as being immoral or destructive, due to their sexual and relationship choices (Knapp, 1975). In the 1975 study, Knapp collected surveys from 190 clinical members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. What she found was that most counselors felt personal disapproval for all forms of extramarital sex, but many professed to be professionally supportive of sexually open marriages and secret affairs (see Table 1). Not as many were professionally supportive of recreational swinging. However, many of these clinicians also believed that people involved in extramarital sexual relations were likely suffering from neuroses and/or personality disorders. Since up to a quarter of therapists surveyed stated that they would actively try to influence clients involved in extra-dyadic sex to cease that behavior, it would seem that this fear expressed by sexually open couples has some basis in reality, and is not simply an irrational fear. (Knapp, 1975).
A comparison of counselors’ attitudes toward clients’ non-monogamous marriage styles.
Personally Approving %
Professionally Supportive %
Sexually Open Marriage
Note: The data in Table 1 are from “Some non-monogamous marriage styles and related attitudes and practices of marriage counselors” by J. J. Knapp, 1975, The Family Coordinator, October, p. 509.
The small size of the sample and the fact that the respondents volunteered for the study limit its external validity. The hypothesis does appear to be confirmed, but more study is needed. In terms of internal validity, the researchers were able to draw correlations between therapists’ personal and professional values and their statements about their intention to change any clients that presented as polyamorous (Knapp, 1975).
More recently, Weitzman (1999) reported that many polyamorous people still have reservations about seeking counseling from conventional clinicians, due to fears of negative bias. “There is a perception within the polyamorous community…that therapists are not well-informed about their lifestyles and needs. This limits the extent to which polyamorous individuals feel that they have access to quality mental health services” (Weitzman, 1999, p. 3). Weitzman reports on several studies which support the assertion that counselors are not prepared to work with polyamorous clients, and that their negative bias toward this group of people negatively impacts the counseling experience. In a later literature review, Weitzman (2006) commented that previous studies have shown that more than a third of polyamorous people who have participated in therapy have withheld their relationship orientation from their therapist, and of those who did reveal it, 10% experienced a negative response from the therapist. Further, those therapists who didn’t reject it were still largely ignorant of it, and so the clients had to spend some of their paid therapy time educating the professionals about this lifestyle.
There now exists a list for poly-friendly professionals to list their services, so that polyamorous people have a place to go to find clinicians who are already knowledgeable, supportive, and accepting of their lifestyles. Unfortunately, the list is fairly short, the professionals listed tend to be located in large metropolitan areas, and most don’t accept insurance, so that the majority of polyamorous individuals still don’t have access to poly-friendly counselors (Weitzman, 2006).
Directions for Future Research
The direction for future research about how to work effectively with polyamorous clients and families is wide open. The literature is lacking in many areas, such as what theoretical approaches or therapeutic models work best with this population; logistical concerns; and multicultural and multiple minority concerns. It would be interesting, too, to conduct outcome studies of the effectiveness and levels of satisfaction experienced by polyamorous clients who have received treatment from self-identified poly-friendly counselors. There is also a need to examine the experiences of children raised in polyamorous households.
Polyamorous people face stigmatization, stereotypes, negative bias, and marginalization in both the mainstream society and in the offices of counseling professionals. This is due both to the current societal monogamist values and the polyphobia that condemns relationships consisting of anything more than two individuals; as well as the lack of training and exposure about polyamory in graduate programs and post-graduate work. Many poly people are not receiving quality mental health care or relationship counseling because of valid fears regarding professional bias and condemnation of their lifestyle choices. More counselors and counseling students need to be educated about this population and their therapeutic needs, and counselors and students need to be challenged to overcome their negative bias toward members of this population.
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