The Perspective You Need to Work Effectively With Poly Clients

There’s one fact you must know in order to work effectively with poly clients.

This is it: poly can and does work. That is, poly relationships can be just as healthy, happy, and fulfilling as monogamous ones. 

Monogamous relationships are the norm in our culture. In the media, our families, and in our communities, we see plenty of happy, healthy, successful monogamous relationships. We also see our fair share of unhappy, dysfunctional ones. 

As a result, we don’t attribute a monogamous relationship’s success or failure to the fact of it being a monogamous relationship. When we see a floundering monogamous couple, we don’t think “monogamy just doesn’t work.” We attribute the situation, instead, to the people involved and to the circumstances surrounding the relationship. 

Yet when a relationship therapist sees a floundering poly relationship—which is pretty likely, given that people only go to relationship therapists when their relationships are in trouble—they may conclude that the problem is poly itself. 

That’s the result of not having any counter-examples. Most of us don’t have access to models of successful poly relationships to check our assumptions against—partly because poly is much less common than monogamy and partly because the stigma surrounding poly keeps people in happy, successful poly relationships from speaking openly about their experience. Check out my post Why Many Poly People Don’t Come Out for more on that. 

Take it from me: poly can and does work. I’ve seen it in my therapy room, and I’ve seen it in the wild. In fact, in 2014 I conducted a survey of people in poly relationships. I asked them about the duration of their relationships. I found that the average length of relationship was around eight years, and that, for primary relationships, the largest group had relationships that had lasted twelve years or longer. That shows me that poly isn’t an inherently unstable relationship structure, contrary to popular belief. It can be quite durable. 

If you approach working with poly relationships with the perspective that they’re inherently flawed, that they can’t last, or that they’re essentially the same as infidelity, you won’t be effective. You might make mistakes, or your clients might sense your inexperience with poly and look for another therapist. More importantly, you will miss opportunities to be challenging in ways that can help people create the lasting connections they desire. 

Honest yet compassionate communication, sincere respect and admiration for one another, emotional safety and security, room for growth: the qualities that make a good relationship are not limited to monogamous partnerships. Focus on helping your clients nurture these qualities, and watch them create a stable, poly connection.

Why Desire Discrepancy Is So Tough

In all my work training therapists to talk about sex issues, there’s one thing I hear over and over:

“I’ve tried everything I can to work with this desire discrepancy, but it’s just so complicated and tangled up that I don’t feel like I’m making any progress.”

“I feel pretty comfortable talking about sex, but sometimes couples with desire discrepancy are just so complicated.”

“I see so many couples with desire discrepancies, and yet I still don’t feel like I know where to begin.”

Desire discrepancy is THE most likely sex issue for couples therapists to see, and most find it incredibly challenging to work with. As I see it, there are two major reasons for this:

  1. It’s so common. Desire discrepancy comes up all the time in therapy, simply because a lot of couples deal with it. In fact, I consider differences in desire to be completely expectable. There’s no one normal or correct level of desire, and there’s a tremendous amount of variation between people in terms of how often they like to have sex, and for how long, in what ways, and so on. At the same time, we have a cultural ideal of love as “two souls melding seamlessly into one”–setting up a situation where normal, expectable sexual differences can cause distress, especially since sex is such an emotionally charged topic. It’s easy to see how the normal variation between partners can quickly become a source of shame and pain, if partners don’t have the perspective that their differences are something to be expected and even embraced.
  2. It’s so complex. So many factors can contribute to desire discrepancy: physiology, emotion, connection, patterns of sexual behavior, trauma, religious beliefs, values, sexual templates…I could go on and on. Working really effectively with desire discrepancy requires having an understanding of many factors and how they relate to one another.

Desire discrepancies can be intimidating, but learning to work with them is so worthwhile. Because they’re so common, you have an opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of a lot of people–and to set yourself apart as a therapist. Also, if you can learn how to tackle desire discrepancies, you’ll end up with a really robust skill set for working with sex issues in general.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about how I work with desire discrepancy, because I know so many therapists struggle with it. If you want to start building those skills, keeping checking back!

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

What can you do to help a couple shift from an adversarial stance to a collaborative alliance?

Couples often come to therapy with at least one big difference or disagreement, and an expectation that I will “fix” it. They hope that I will verify that their partner is wrong and they are right–problem solved!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that this is not my agenda at all. Not even close.

In this and the next blog post, I’ll let you know more about my perspective, and how I work with impasses. Much of this material is drawn from the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. The rest comes from my experience with consensus process as a Quaker.

Once I let my clients know that I won’t be acting as arbiter regarding their disagreements, they assume I will be guiding them through some sort of process to arrive at a compromise. I think many couple therapists do just that. However, I do not believe in or strive for compromise.

To me, compromise can be described as “lose/lose”, as it implies that everyone will give up something of value to them in order to “meet in the middle”. I think a middle ground that requires everyone to give up something of value sounds like quite a dull place to live in, particularly when we’re discussing lifelong commitment.

I much prefer a process of creating space for a miracle.

Gridlock is not a space for a miracle to occur. Neither is polarization. However, that is how most of us learned to disagree. We learned to lock in to “I’m right and you’re wrong.” If we have to come to an agreement, and I have to give up something, so do you. Obviously one will win, and one will lose, and I’m determined to be the one who wins.

Instead, I help my clients step into another space entirely. (This strategy comes from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, and fits my belief system perfectly.) What kind of a person do you want to be in your committed relationship? Kind? Loving? Compassionate? Reliable? Strong? Whatever it is, my next question is, when you are a compassionate (or insert another value here) partner, how do you behave? What do you do? How do you know you’re being compassionate? What does it look like? And the next question: how far from that are you now, in your current relationship? Another question: how would it benefit you directly (not your partner but you) if you were able to act from your compassionate self more often?

Every person in a relationship ends up shooting themselves in the foot with their own behaviors now and again. Until this is looked at very directly and some motivation to change is identified, that conversation about the dishes (or sex, or kids, or whatever) is not going to shift. Even if it does, it will take many months of one-step-forward-two-steps-back therapy, and that’s frustrating and discouraging for all involved.

More importantly, the magic can’t happen until the adversarial stance is changed to something more collaborative. The abovementioned sequence is designed to switch adversarial thinking (characterized by hyper-focus on the other and the oppositional forces) to self-focus. This is so important because it leads to empowerment; a realization that there is something here that I have the power to change and it will make a difference.

Next week I’ll tell you about another strategy I have for shifting the adversarial stance and working with internal impasses.