Every week, I sit with a dozen diverse couples, each in a unique expression of intimate partnership. Every couple chooses a slightly different container, a different set of boundaries, expectations, and commitments. Every individual enters romantic relationships with a unique set of ideas and values based on their family systems, cultural norms, spiritual traditions, and past experiences. In many relationships, these remain unspoken, leading to disappointments, misunderstandings, and betrayals. The best gift partners can offer each other is to begin saying some of these out loud, so that there is opportunity to meet each other more often than disappointing each other and to create conscious and intentional commitments.
I think of monogamy and polyamory* as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, some couples focus most of their energy on their partnership, primarily socialize as a couple, and come home from work most nights to process and share the inspirations and disappointments of the day with their partner. They are each other’s primary and sometimes only person to depend on for emotional needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some partners choose to cultivate several intimate relationships without prioritizing one, or maybe they connect with multiple partners without any set expectations or commitments. There is a vast spectrum between these two polarities, and there is no cookie-cutter version of monogamy or polyamory—though there are manuals and how-to guides written. Modern couples each choose a container that is a balance and compromise of each person’s needs and desires. Often, two members of a couple have slightly, or radically, different desires related to intimacy and autonomy, and they need to find the balance that accommodates their differences.
As a couples therapist, I don’t believe that any one container is right for everyone.
We are diverse, and our needs change across the lifespan. I believe it is valuable for partners to sit together and consciously choose the container and boundaries that are best for them. My experience as a therapist is that polyamorous folks entering a new relationship tend to put energy into creating agreements that are mutually beneficial and accommodating of differences. It is not uncommon for polyamorous couples to arrive in my therapy office within the first few months of a new relationship seeking to create a healthy foundation. I believe that all couples can benefit from this level of explicit and authentic communication, because even monogamy does not mean the same thing to each person.
These are a few foundations of conscious commitment that I believe many couples can benefit from cultivating, whatever container they choose:
Commitment: The decisions around commitment agreements are different in every couple. Some choose not to have intimate friendships where there is any potential of attraction, even setting boundaries on close coworker relationships. Some do not want their partner to look at, flirt with, or dance with others. Some feel that these actions (dancing, flirting or staring) are harmless and can bring a quality of playfulness or passion to the relationship, all while maintaining sexual monogamy. Some couples create open agreements around physical intimacy with others, but maintain a primary emotional bond with each other. Some create space to share deep love and emotional intimacy with more than one person, maintaining multiple relationships at a time that may include some degree of commitment.
Polyamorous couples tend to recognize the need to have clear discussions about the boundaries of their relationship and agreements about how to share intimacy with others. Monogamous couples tend to begin these conversations after some kind of rupture or hurt feelings emerge. There can be feelings of betrayal when a partner even with the best of intentions crosses an unspoken line.
In cross-cultural couples, there are frequently differences about the norms and rules of flirting, and it helps to acknowledge that we enter relationships with values based on our own families and communities, and these values are not objectively right or wrong. It is easy for partners who grew up with different cultural norms to behave in ways that inadvertently hurt each other. For example, I grew up in a European immigrant family, where some amount of dancing, flirting, and physical affection happened at celebrations with other people’s spouses; these cultural norms of my own family are different than the norms of some American families.
Friendship and Community: Polyamorous individuals who have a primary partner rarely expect that person to meet all their emotional needs. They tend to continue to prioritize their individual passions, hobbies, friendships, intellectual and spiritual pursuits. In human history, romantic relationships occurred within extended families, communities, and tribes; in other words, we did not live in isolation from other people. Partners raising children often had the support of a web of extended family, something that is increasingly rare in the Bay Area.
Passionate relationships are nurtured by individuals who are themselves nurtured in diverse ways internally and externally. I often encourage clients who are in primary relationships to continue to engage in the friendships and passions that inspired them when they met their partner. I also encourage folks who are in open relationships without a primary partner to cultivate other sources of consistent emotional reliability and support.
Sexuality: Polyamorous folks often learn communication skills about sexuality and consent. In the Bay Area, it is not uncommon for a couple beginning to explore open relationship to attend a workshop on consent, boundaries, and communication about sex. When entering a new sexual connection, they will ask questions about what the other person is interested in, what they may not like, and what they want to try. Their goal is to see what the areas of overlap and mutuality are. They don’t expect a potential partner to have all the same fantasies or preferences that they do, but instead, they look for what the shared desires are. They don’t expect to know how to please their partner without talking about it. People entering monogamous relationships, who are heterosexual, sometimes believe that sex means the same thing to everyone and have a fantasy that, when they fall in love with someone, they will naturally be sexually compatible. As a couples therapist, it is not uncommon to meet long term couples who have never spoken about their sexual desires and preferences and live with a certain amount of unsatisfied longings. I believe it is healthy to enter a new relationship or revive
an ongoing one by having open and vulnerable conversations about sexual desires, fantasies, and preferences. I also believe it is healthy to understand that it is rare for two people to have perfectly compatible sex drives, fantasies, and boundaries. Open communication sets the stage for the greatest possible satisfaction.
Personal Growth: In general, people who are in the dating process put energy into being the best version of themselves possible, whether by going to therapy, yoga, the gym, art classes, or solo travels. Nobody wants to go on a first date and say that they watch television all night and run errands all weekend. Unfortunately, many couples in long term relationships fall into this trap. Particularly in the Bay Area, many of the people I meet work far more than 40 or 50 hours a week and have long commutes. We also often share smaller homes in the Bay Area, which makes personal growth activities like meditation or art difficult. While it is natural, when falling in love, to want to spend whatever free time we have with our partner, our ability to prioritize both individual and shared personal growth activities supports the long-term sustainability of our bond.
Ongoing Changes and Checking in:
I want to end by sharing that our needs and desires in relationships change throughout the life span, and they evolve according to the particular chemistry and dynamic with each partner. Couples in long term relationships will also change over the years in what practices, agreements, and containers serve them in that moment; these partners can benefit from regularly revisiting this and adapting their agreements as they grow and change. Partners in any sort of new relationship can benefit from checking in deeply with their own hearts and minds to discover their needs and boundaries; then, it is best to communicate this to each other.
*It is important to note that for the purposes of this article, I am describing folks who are practicing polyamory ethically and with consent. I am aware that predatory and harmful individuals exist who use the word polyamory to excuse harmful behaviors.