Rebecca Emberger, LAMFT

Sex & Relationship Therapist
Sex, Gender, & Relationship Diversity Specialist

Counseling Polyamorous Family with Communication Problems


Exploring Application of Various Theories

to Polyamorous Family with Communication Problems

Rebecca Emberger

Capella University

June 1, 2008

Exploring Application of Various Theories

to Polyamorous Family with Communication Problems

This paper will present the case study of a polyamorous family consisting of Jack, Mary, and Anne, who are having communication problems. Three different psychotherapeutic theories (mindfulness based rational emotive behavior therapy, body mind psychotherapy, and solution focused brief therapy) will be explored in relation to working with this particular family. The case study will be explained more fully, and polyamory will also be explained, along with the unique challenges facing people who live polyamorous lifestyles and the counselors who work with them.

Mindfulness Based Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Mindfulness Training

Mindfulness is a practice inspired by Buddhist insight meditation techniques and can be described as a training of the awareness to focus on the current experience one moment at a time (Ree & Craigie, 2007). This practice increases nonreactivity to emotional stimuli, increases the capacity to act with awareness and concentration, and encourages a nonjudgmental attitude toward experience (Ree & Craigie, 2007). It can also contribute to the ability to regulate one’s emotions (Hayes & Feldman, 2004). Mindfulness can be integrated into various therapeutic approaches with great effectiveness. It has been shown to be effective in treating recurrent depression and anxiety (Ree & Craigie, 2007), social phobia (Bogels, Sijbers, & Voncken, 2006), and a range of other disorders. Hayes and Feldman (2004) describe many psychopathologies as originating in the inability to properly regulate one’s emotional state, and they show that mindfulness assists individuals in developing emotional regulation. Bogels, Sijbers, and Voncken (2006) explain how people with psychological disorders often pay selective attention to their experience, and make interpretations and assumptions based on inadequate or limited understanding of an entire experience, while mindfulness training helps people to be able to view the entire experience, lessening the interpretations based on selective attentional processes.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is based on the concept that individuals may be more likely to experience emotional distress when they experience irrational beliefs in connection to an event, which may result in a negative emotional reaction based on those irrational beliefs (Vernon, 2003). REBT works by helping people identify their irrational beliefs, helps them learn to challenge those beliefs, and then to develop more rational beliefs to take the place of the old dysfunctional ones. Ellis (as cited by Watson, 1999) believed that people “can overcome the effects of past experiences by reassessing their perceptions of the past and re-evaluating their interpretations of its influence” (p. 8). By examining an individual’s beliefs about events, the therapist can intervene to challenge those beliefs, thus opening the way for the client to shift his or her perception and deepen his or her understanding of the self and the situation at hand.

Combining REBT and Mindfulness Training

These two approaches can work very well together. “Mindfulness and cognitive therapy share a common premise – that distress and suffering result from the mind rather than directly from sensations or events” (Chadwick, Taylor, & Abba, 2005, p. 351). Mindfulness training, if taught first, can help train the client to distance himself from the emotional reactivity of his situation, and can teach him to focus on the here-and-now (Hayes & Feldman, 2004). It can also help him to see the whole situation (Bogels, Sijbers, & Voncken, 2006), and to understand how to identify his thoughts and “to disengage from self-perpetuating patterns of negative thinking” (Ree & Craigie, 2007). Mindfulness training facilitates the process of REBT, because the client has been taught to identify thoughts nonjudgmentally and to stop negative thinking patterns; REBT then steps in to teach the client how his emotions are tied to his negative thoughts or irrational beliefs. When the REBT therapist challenges the irrationality of the client’s thinking, the client can utilize his mindfulness training to assist him in meeting this challenge with nonreactivity. The mindfulness practice will also allow the client to accept the rationality of a new perspective and will assist him in recognizing, outside of the therapist’s office, when he is spiraling back down into irrationality and will equip him with the tools to avoid emotional reactivity and to apply the REBT process.

Body Mind Psychotherapy

Body Mind Psychotherapy (BMP), also known simply as Body Psychotherapy, is based on the theory that the body reveals a lot of what is going on in a person’s mind, and that working with the body, along with the cognitions and emotions, can contribute to a deeper and sometimes faster process of change within a person (Heckler & Johanson, 2008; Aposhyan, 2004). Aposhyan (2004) says that the basic premise of body psychotherapy is the understanding that “the body reflects the mind, and the mind reflects the body” (p. 12), in a continuous, bidirectional loop. The United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (2006) describes how all experiences are reflected in a person’s thoughts and feelings, as well as in how they move, breathe, and hold themselves. Many body psychotherapists believe that truer information is conveyed through the body than through words, which have been filtered through a person’s rational, and rationalizing, brain (Heckler & Johanson, 2008).

In BMP, adult behavior is often set in early childhood experiences, which are often non-verbal (Aposhyan, 2004). By working directly with the client’s body, the client and therapist have direct access to some of those early experiences. Our current society encourages people to become dissociated from their bodily experience, and to focus primarily on their cognitive perceptions and experiences. This duality, or mind-body split, results in a lack of awareness on the part of the client of how their body affects and is affected by their thought processes, behaviors, and emotions (Aposhyan, 2004).

BMP focuses on embodiment (learning to be aware of one’s bodily sensations and reactions to stimuli), present moment awareness, acceptance of reality, the realization that the energy of life is basically good, understanding the difference between conditioning and “essence” (which allows for choice in development), and the understanding that all people have the capacity to continue developing and growing throughout their life (Aposhyan, 2004). Many interventions utilized by body psychotherapists involve experiential exercises designed to facilitate awareness and understanding of the various concepts mentioned above, including mindfulness, physicalizing a psychological dynamic, and both physical and verbal defensive supports (Fisher, 2001). Rather than abstractly talking about or interpreting experiences, body psychotherapists often encourage clients to fully embody their experiences (Fisher, 2001).

Solution Focused Brief Therapy

Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is based on the idea that people have the capacity within themselves to enact change in their lives, even if they’re not consciously aware of this capacity (Gladding, 2007). SFBT counselors’ first goal is to ascertain a person’s motivation and willingness to change, and then to facilitate the client’s ability to access his or her own internal resources. SFBT is collaborative, positive, and focuses on solutions, instead of on problems, as indicated by its name. Families are not viewed as being failures when they encounter a problem; rather, some families have more difficulty adapting to normal life-cycle changes (Nichols & Schwartz, 2008). Because SFBT therapists see each family as being unique, and being capable of resolving issues and returning to what is functional for that individual family, this therapy is considered client-directed. The family sets the goals for therapy (Nichols & Schwarts, 2008).

When working with a couple, an SFBT therapist would focus more on helping the couple remember or rediscover exceptions to their problems, times when their relationship was good and positive (Patterson, Williams, Grauf-Grounds, & Chamow, 1998). Homework exercises would be assigned to reinforce these exception experiences. Well-focused goals would be arrived at which are within the clients’ frame of reference (Nichols & Schwartz, 2008). The very act of goal setting helps clients move beyond problem-saturated talk and thinking, into a more solution-focused mindset (Nichols & Schwarts, 2008). Cheung (2005) has said that “solution-focused therapists contend that you cannot change your past, but you can change your goals” which can help move a person out of a “stuck place” (p. 199). Once clear goals have been established, SFBT counselors use several interventions, including the miracle question, scaling questions, complements, clues, and skeleton keys. This is a very brief approach and focuses on empowering clients to solve their own problems, but does not focus on insight or client history (Gladding, 2007).

Case Study

The client is a polyamorous family consisting of Jack, who has been married to Mary for 20 years and in relationship with Anne for 5 years. Jack and Mary have two teenaged children. The three form a “vee” configuration, which means that Jack is romantically involved with both Mary and Anne, but Mary and Anne are not romantically involved with each other. Jack, Mary, and Anne have been living together for two years and are running into some communication problems. Specifically, Mary and Anne are having difficulty communicating directly to one another, often putting Jack in the middle.

Jack comes from a very open and loving family, who has always been supportive and accepting of him.  Mary, on the other hand, was abused by her father, not protected by her mother, and experienced constant disapproval and a lack of understanding or acceptance from her parents. Anne was raised primarily by her mother, as her parents divorced when she was very young. Her mother was open, loving, and accepting, but also strict and domineering. Anne’s father was very permissive, but not openly loving, and he also had very high standards and expressed disapproval often.

Genograms are challenging to draw for polyamorous families, as the number of people included on the genogram increases exponentially for every additional member in the relationship (Rodemaker, 2006). Additional symbols must also be incorporated to indicate the levels of intimacy and commitment between the various members. The following presents a basic genogram of the current family under discussion:

Jack and Mary have maintained an open relationship from the time they first started dating in college, and both have had a succession of secondary partners over the years, with varying degrees of intimacy and cohesion into their family. Anne has been openly polyamorous for several years, but this is her first live-in situation with a polyamorous family. While Jack and Mary share financial commitments, children, and a legal marriage, the connection between Jack and Anne is equally strong in intimacy and emotional commitment. The family is part of a polyamorous community (wherein most of their friends also practice some form of responsible non-monogamy), and so there is a pretty strong support network. The three of them express that jealousy is not an issue between them, and they don’t feel that their problems stem from their polyamorous lifestyle. Their chief complaint is that communication has become difficult and somewhat suppressed, especially between Mary and Anne.

Understanding Polyamory

Defining Polyamory

Polyamory has been defined as the practice of having multiple relationships in a form of “responsible nonmonogamy” (Black, 2007, p.1), wherein all parties abide “within an ethical, consensual, agreement-based context” (Davidson, 2002, ¶3). There is debate within the polyamorous community about when the label “polyamorous” is appropriate to use, as it is more difficult than with homosexuality to state with certainty whether or not some people are “born” polyamorous, or if it is a choice. Some, who say that polyamory is the “innate capacity” to love more than one simultaneously, claim that self-identification is enough to claim the label, while others assert that only those who are actively living in a polyamorous lifestyle can legitimately claim to be polyamorous (Todd, 2007). Regardless, a common value of those engaging in polamory is honesty in relationships. “They do not want to have affairs or cheat on a loved one and are dedicated to growing beyond jealousy and possession in relationships” (Emens, 2004, p. 303).  It is important to distinguish polyamory from other forms of non-monogamy, like swinging, because polyamory is “primarily a relationship oriented approach to non-monogamy rather than a casual-sex oriented approach” (Davidson, 2002, ¶3). 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).

Social & Legal Considerations for Polyamorous Families

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 equality 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).

Black (2006) has said that many polyamorists fear that their children will be removed from their custody if the wrong people learn of their polyamorous relationships. She goes on to relate one specific case which supports this fear as valid. Polyamorous people can also be charged with either adultery or bigamy, or both. And since there is no legal protection from discrimination based on one’s relationship style, employers who learn of an individual’s polyamorous relationship may fire that person, with no legal recourse for the individual thus affected (Black, 2006). 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).

Counselor Attitudes and Biases

It is important when counseling polyamorous clients, that the counselor include relationship styles under the types of multicultural considerations to keep in mind. Poly people often have a deep mistrust of professionals, as they expect to not be understood or accepted. 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).

Applying the Theories to the Case Study

Mindfulness Based Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

While working with Jack, Mary, and Anne, it becomes apparent that all three are operating from some assumptions, or irrational beliefs, about the others, which gets in the way of genuine, open communication between them. Jack believes that if he doesn’t moderate the communication between Mary and Anne that the women will fight and that the relationships would then break up. Mary believes that Anne cannot understand what it is to be a wife and mother, since Anne has never experienced either, and so Anne cannot be expected to understand Mary’s issues. Mary also sees Anne as immature and weak, since Anne is quite emotional (cries often as a result of conflict). Anne has a deep-seated fear of confrontation and believes that fights and arguments ultimately lead to abandonment, and so she avoids discussing things of import with Mary directly, since Mary has a temper and has exhibited disdain for Anne’s opinions in the past.

The therapist in this case used mindfulness training with this group in order to help them get a handle on their emotional swings, and to encourage them to breathe through the reactions stemming from their irrational beliefs (Buchman, Grossman, & Walach, 2001). The therapist also gave each of them mindfulness homework, which required them to pay attention to when situations arose that could be better solved through direct communication, and to consciously note what emotions and thoughts came up for each of them in these situations. Then the therapist taught them the ABC’s of REBT and explained the connection between one’s beliefs, one’s thoughts and emotional reactions, and one’s behavior (Vernon, 2003). Once each person was able to identify their own irrational beliefs driving their emotional reactions and behavior, they were helped to see how they could dispute these beliefs. The therapist engaged each of them in exercises, including role-plays (Vernon, 2003), to help them learn how to substitute more rational thoughts for their irrational beliefs. This process opened up possibilities for communication that were previously obscured by each person’s irrational fears about communicating openly with each other.

This combined approach was useful for each individual in the family to learn the boundaries of their personal responsibility for making the group relationship work. The approach was focused primarily on the individuals, and then through role-playing, the therapy attended to the needs of the group relationship. This approach is useful for helping families resolve specific issues, and prepares them to be able to resolve issues in the future without the therapist’s guidance, because now they have very clear, simple tools to apply to any situation that becomes a problem.

Body Mind Psychotherapy

From a body mind psychotherapy perspective, the therapist invited each member of the family to get in touch with his or her own bodily reactions to the presented issues. While listening to each member of the family describe his or her own perspective on the group’s problems, the therapist also watched their body language, how they held themselves and how they oriented to each of the other two members (Aposhyan, 2004). The therapist noted that when Anne spoke about her relationship to Mary, she held her arms crossed over her body in some fashion, and invited Anne to describe the physical sensations she was feeling while discussing Mary. Anne described a tightening in her abdomen and a constricting feeling in her throat. When asked about the first time in her life she could remember feeling similar sensations, Anne began to cry as she related her fear of upsetting her mother by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Anne was then able to see how she was engaging in transference with Mary, casting Mary in the role of her mother who she was always afraid of upsetting or disappointing (Brothers, 2001). Mary and Jack were able to access feelings of compassion for Anne and felt that this deeper understanding of Anne’s dynamic helped them feel patient with her hesitation about communicating openly with Mary. A similar process was engaged in with both Mary and Jack, and by the end of this process, a great deal more understanding and compassion for each other had manifested (Brothers, 2001).

The therapist then led the group through breathing exercises, explaining that they each have the power to engage their parasympathetic nervous system (or the relaxation response, as opposed to the fight or flight response) through controlling their breathing (Aposhyan, 2004). When they encounter situations that bring up some tension and nervousness, they were instructed to control their breathing first, and to check in with their bodies to figure out exactly what they were experiencing before engaging with each other from a cognitive place.

This approach focuses on the individuals first, and then integrates all the members of a group, through learning about each person’s vulnerabilities through the observation of their own and each other’s bodily responses to stimuli. This approach seems to work well with each individual in a family as well as with the family as a whole.

Solution Focused Brief Therapy

The solution focused brief therapist starts out by asking each of the family members to describe their current problem. Once a clear picture has emerged, the therapist then asks the family to move away from perseverating on the problem, and to instead start thinking about where they’d like to be. One way to help the family envision and articulate their goal is to ask them the miracle question: Imagine that during the night, while you’re all asleep, a miracle happens which solves your problems – what would you notice when you awoke the next morning that would be evidence of the problem having disappeared (Cheung, 2005)? When the therapist asks John this question, he describes how he would find both Anne and Mary talking quietly and laughing together, with no tension in the air. Mary describes how Anne would be fully involved in the family’s decision making without apologizing for her needs and without getting teary if someone disagrees with her. Anne says she would observe an ease in her communications with Mary, where she didn’t feel scared to bring up delicate, and potentially tense subjects. Anne also describes how Jack wouldn’t look nervous every time Mary and Anne got into a deep discussion.

Now that a set of interrelated and non-conflicting goals has been articulated (Nichols & Schwartz, 2008), the therapist guides the family in remembering exceptions to their current problem (Cheung, 2005). All three of them relate a couple of the same experiences in which they were able to work together as a team, with very little tension, and a lot of successful negotiating. The therapist asks what was different about those times, and the family is able to pinpoint that all were in good moods to start with, and that the issues being dealt with were not personal (i.e., planning a vacation, getting the house ready for a party), as opposed to personal issues such as scheduling alone time for each of the women with Jack, or expressing disagreement in philosophical debates. The therapist helps the family to identify that one of the things each of them can focus on is emotion regulation and taking personal responsibility for their own mood states, prior to engaging in personally-important discussions with each other. The therapist gives them homework to focus on how they can live “as if” the miracle has occurred and to note how their interactions may differ as a result of operating from this different perspective (Cheung, 2005).

This approach focuses very much on the interactional dynamic between all three of the family members. Although they are asked individually what their goals are, through answering the miracle question one at a time, since their goals are not competing, it’s easy to coalesce their various answers into one integrated goal for the family as a whole to strive toward.


Through investigating how three very different theories can be applied to a polyamorous family, it has become apparent that the presence of additional members of a relationship group need not significantly impact how the therapy can be applied. Polyamory, in and of itself, does not necessarily constitute a barrier to effective psychotherapy and many theoretical approaches can be widened to include all significant members of a family, similarly to how these approaches are applied to multi-generational families. The important thing is that the therapist not allow personal bias to interfere with effective application of his or her theoretical perspective to a polyamorous family. Education about and exposure to polyamory can assist the clinician in becoming aware of and resolving any bias held toward those who practice non-monogamy. While this paper presented a very basic definition and description of polyamory, it is beyond the scope of this document to go into further detail. However, in addition to the references cited here, several resources, provided by Dr. Weitzman, an openly bisexual and polyamorous therapist who is familiar with many of the alternative subcultures, are listed in the Appendix for those who are interested in learning more.


Polyamory Resources (Weitzman, 2006)

Psychotherapy and Polyamory

  1. What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory: The Lifestyles and Mental Health Concerns of Polyamorous Individuals By Geri D. Weitzman, Ph.D.,
  2. The Psych-Polyamory Mailing List - For poly-friendly mental health practitioners. To subscribe, send a blank email to [email protected]
  3. The Poly-Friendly Professionals Directory:
  4. PolyResearchers Mailing List – For poly-friendly mental health practitioners and researchers. To subscribe, send black email to [email protected]

Books on polyamory:

1.      Dossie Easton & Catherine A. Liszt. (1998). The ethical slut: A guide to infinite sexual possibilities. San Francisco: Greenery Press.

2.      Deborah M. Anapol (1997). Polyamory: The new love without limits: Secrets of sustainable intimate relationships. San Rafael, CA: Intinet Resource Center.

3.      Celeste West. (1996). Lesbian polyfidelity. San Francisco: Bootlegger Publishing.

4.      Marcia Munson and Judith P. Stelboum (Eds). (1999). The lesbian polyamory reader. New York: Haworth Press.

5.      Ryam Nearing (1992). Loving more: The polyfidelity primer. Boulder, CO: Loving More.

Websites on polyamory:

1. - A website of useful Poly 101 info

2. - Another website of useful Poly 101 info

3. - Polyamory terms and concepts

4. - Frequently asked questions on polyamory

5. - Poly Pitfalls

6. - Our Little Quad: Polyamory for the Practical.

7. - Coping w/ jealousy.

Polyamory mailing lists:

  1. The Loving More poly discussion lists --
  2. [email protected] - A national poly list.
  4. Usenet Newsgroup alt.polyamory (see above)
  5. Yahoo group PolyMono - for monogamous people with polyamorously inclined partners. Send a blank email to [email protected]
  6. Yahoo group CPNPolyMono - for poly folks who have monogamously inclined partners. Send a blank email to [email protected]



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Black, D. M. (2006). Beyond child bride polygamy: Polyamory, unique familial constructions, and the law. Journal of Law and Family Studies, 497.

Bogels, S. M., Sijbers, G.F.V.M., & Voncken, M. (2006, Spring). Mindfulness and task concentration training for social phobia: A pilot study. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 20(1), 33-44.

Buchman, N., Grossman, P., & Walach, H. (2001). Measuring mindfulness in insight meditation (Vipassana) and meditation-based psychotherapy: The development of the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory FMI. Journal for Meditation and Meditation Research, 1, 11-34.

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Nelson, T. S., & Kelley, L. (2001, Winter). Solution-focused couples group. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 20(4). 47-67.

Patterson, J., Williams, L., Grauf-Grounds, C., & Chamow, L. (1998). Essential skills in family therapy: From the first interview to termination. New York: The Guilford Press.

Ree, M. J., & Craigie, M. A. (2007). Outcomes following mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in heterogeneous sample of adult outpatients. Behavior Change, 24(2), 70-86.

Rodemaker, D. (2006). Non-monogamy: The dilemma of alternative family systems. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago.

Todd. (2007, December 4). Poly orientation questionnaire – Research project [Msg 818]. Message posted to

United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. (2006). A brief description of body psychotherapy. Retrieved May 4, 2008, from

Vernon, A. (2003). Rational emotive behavior therapy. In Capuzzi & Gross (Eds.), Theories of Psychotherapy (p. 237-256). Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

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Weitzman, G. D. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6 (1/2), 137-164. Retrieved June 11, 2008, from

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