A therapist sent me this excellent question the other day:
My greatest challenge is working with the couples where one partner has gone underground to explore poly (in the form of an emotional and/or physical affair) and in the aftermath wants their wounded partner to be “open minded” about poly. The wounds cut so deep that it is usually terribly difficult for the betrayed partner to stay grounded and curious. Also, the poly-curious partner might have strong feelings about staying connected to the “other” person, as all this is being worked out… I’m curious how you approach these situations? I’m aware there is no “one size fits all” response due to relationship dynamics and individual levels of differentiation of each partner, but I’d love to hear how you think about this dilemma!
I could write books about this complicated topic, but here’s a shorter answer.
Polyamory is not the same as infidelity, in that poly is based on the foundational understanding of consent, which requires knowledge sufficient to choose. Infidelity, of course, involves secrecy and deception. That said, people who explore polyamorous relationships get to that place via diverse and sometimes messy routes. When infidelity turns out to be an early step toward opening the relationship, it creates a very challenging situation which will require both partners to take an honest look at their desires and goals as individuals and partners. This kind of work is also an opportunity for a therapist to really test their poly-related cultural competence.
When I see a couple where there is infidelity, in the back of my mind I wonder whether the partners are aware poly is an option. That’s because, every now and then, the person who had the affair turns out not to be interested in monogamy, but one or both partners may not have known that non-monogamy is an option. Deception is our culturally normative way to have more than one partner simultaneously, but we all know how damaging it can be. Why not bring up the possibility that one could have multiple partners WITHOUT lies and deception?
Of course, exploring open relationship options isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. I still think it’s worth mentioning. Perhaps because of my background as a midwife, I’m an informed-consent kind of a gal. I think people should know what options are out there, particularly when there is something available that most people know very little or nothing about–especially when some of what people “know” is based on myth or bias. I love debunking those myths and opening up a dialogue about what each partner wants and what might be possible for them. In my experience, clients have no difficulty at all saying that’s not something they’re interested in. In that case, we just move on. Surprisingly often, I hear that the couple has in fact thought about it and discussed it and has some questions, whether or not they are interested in trying out poly or not.
If the partners are interested in discussing polyamory, I think that, as a therapist, it is important to be able to engage in the conversation, debunk myths, and provide resources to support that exploration. You can do this while also acknowledging that healing will need to take place around the previous infidelity in order to build the kind of trust needed to have a successful open relationship. Just like having children, polyamory is not an effective way to mend a broken relationship. The transition into poly tends to be very stressful, and a strong connection is extremely helpful. With this frame in place, the discussion of how the couple would like to handle the presence of the affair partner in their lives can take place in a more productive manner.
This is the first part of a two-part series about infidelity and poly. The second part addresses this question: is it necessary to push a separation from the affair partner?