“Polyamory is a challenging lifestyle to live. We are not socialized to live this way and there are very few media models that demonstrate people actively living these lifestyles,” says Dr. Danielle Duplassie, a Burnaby registered clinical counsellor and sex therapist who works with non-traditional couples.
This weekend the University of California, Berkeley hosts the International Conference on the Future of Monogamy and Non-Monogamy, devoted to scientific and academic research on polyamory, open relationships, swinging and other forms of consensual non-monogamy. (Sample session titles include “Are Polyamory and Cheating all That Different,” “Jealousy Management,” “Issues in Polyamorous Parenting” and “Love Is Always Non-Monogamous.”)
Traditionalists view those practising polyamory with incredulity – “I give them a year,” being the common refrain. But it’s also no cakewalk for its own practitioners.
“Finding a good fit for two people is challenging. Finding a good fit with more than two people is even more challenging, even if sex isn’t involved in the dynamic for everyone,” says Duplassie. Here, the sexologist talks myths, realities and challenges in polyamorous and open relationships.
Pathologies To the outside world, non-monogamous couples often appear in denial about their own imperviousness to jealousy, and worse: “The biggest misconception is that people assume that these types of relationships are an indication of pathology. I’ve heard both academics and lay people question those in open relationships, making assumptions about their ability to make commitment and questioning their attachment style.”
Different strokes Some couples forge a primary union with outside partners serving sexual or platonic needs. Others practising non-monogamy prefer multiple relationships that are independent of one another. “Sometimes people will negotiate certain sexual roles with different partners as a way to get a variety of sexual needs met,” Duplassie says. “Maybe the primary partner will serve as the ‘home base’ for the sexual relationship, while a secondary partner is strictly for particular forms of sex play.”
Rules of the game Open communication and rule-setting are cornerstones of polyamory. Some rules are simple, such as “no sleepovers.” Others regulations seem laughable, such as “no falling in love.” But Duplassie says even here, there are some common workarounds. “For those who are consensually non-monogamous, the rule of ‘no falling in love’ is tricky to abide by. Most people are not aware of how attachment and bonding occur at a neurobiological level. Humans start falling in love when they spend increasing amounts of time with one another and touch one another. These acts release oxytocin in the brain, which is the hormone associated with bonding. By limiting time spent and limiting physical proximity, people can reduce the likelihood of falling in love. It’s not something that works all of the time. If people are not getting basic emotional needs met within their primary relationship, this puts a person at risk of falling in love.”
Third party What happens to the third party once two primary partners decide to move on? “In a triad situation where the original pair decides to move on from the person they invited into the relationship, that third person will feel hurt and rejected. This is the same pain someone feels when a partner breaks up with them in the context of a monogamous relationship. Pain is pain. Rejection is rejection.”
Time for all Beyond jealousy and rejection, non-monogamists faces some unique hurdles. “Some of the unique and concrete challenges that were identified in my doctoral research included: inadequate time in a day to devote to all partners; believing the philosophy of non-monogamous relating in theory but questioning it when one feels insecure; engaging with a partner who may not be liked or accepted by another partner and violation of the boundaries that have been established.”
Realism and desire “In many monogamous relationships, the idea of being attracted to someone else often feels threatening to a partner and conversations about outside attractions are often avoided,” Duplassie says . “Those in non-monogamous relationships have a greater understanding that one’s sexuality does not fit into a box. We can be attracted and feel emotionally connected to more than one person at a time.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski