Polyamory Is Going Mainstream (2nd update)

This 2nd update of “Polyamory Is Going Mainstream” is brought to you on a break from my project, letting you know I am alive (other than my Twitter feed.)

It looks like I am doing two year updates of my blog post of 7/1/13. With an update of 5/27/15, and now this. It’s quite coincidental to me, except that since my post almost four years ago, I have thought continuously about this subject. So, I’m motivated to follow this active relational/social shift, at least in the U.S.

Polyamory

“Married & Dating” (Showtime Networks)

A Paradigm Shift

Can a shift like this – from monogamous (in values; beliefs, including spirituality) to multi-relational – be connected to other social, historical, cultural developments? We don’t know whether multi-relational practices tend to drive social trends, or the opposite. The talk of monogamy’s “breakdown” is a bit of retailed panic; multi-relational life can include parenting a couple’s progeny.

Possible Privilege

We don’t know much about poly peoples’ diversity, though informal studies show a more affluent, white and younger demographic. It may reflect some degree of privilege to be able to relate, openly or not, outside of social norms.

Defining Self In Relationship

I work with clients who are trying to define themselves clearly in the fluid shifts between one paradigm and another, relationally speaking. Personal integrity is of course the one common foundation for both desire and commitment.

marriageFew Grew Up This Way

But in the new relationship paradigm, one that few people grew up with, a very personal integrity can come in a “qualified second” to indulging (or plunging) into the new world of wanting. Or mastering today’s new social skill, one with a considerable but often overlooked ethical canon. It’s been remodeled actively over the last two decades, and of course is subject to every possible variation. Many partners I see consider the shift after they have birthed and raised their preferred number of children.

Polyamory Mastery Is Hard

There is a significant number of people in multi-relational partnerships where the partners have had some experience with it, and have in fact developed ways of maintaining desire and clear enough commitments across them all. And yet even these folks would not lay claim to mastery of these skills. To open up desire in one’s life is indeed to open oneself to greater variability, and some pressures, including those related to spending so much time just relating closely.

Separating Commitment From Desire

The separation of commitment from desire, mainly for desire’s sake, is welcome. It can free desire up somewhat, if life’s other commitments can be carved away enough. It’s exhilarating, and then the larger number of moving parts start to bring change. More of life is devoted to relationship. That alone challenges most people’s levels of personal development.

Desire Least Understood

Desire is the least understood part of relationships, and the most frequent reason for breakups of all kinds. In monogamy, people usually stop wanting each other, and then stop choosing each other. In multiple relationship households desire can easily flicker too, though for different reasons, often about how difficult it is to maintain commitments that get built onto relationships made mainly from desire. Longer term, it’s more likely about how to maintain a robust individuality; clear but open boundaries, durable relationships, bringing and keeping people in your life.

An ethical framework for managing desire is becoming less and less controversial, and more frequently the basis for therapy and counseling.

Some Thoughts On Agreements

My relationship and couples clients know that I usually explore how they “agree”.  As a description of therapy, ‘finding agreements’ may sound rudimentary or simplistic. It may be confused with mediation and negotiation.  One party might think that finding agreement means somebody’s got to sell themselves out. I believe the truth is very different.

Helping two (or more) people reach agreement more thoughtfully or frequently – or struggle painfully through gridlocks – lies at the heart of relationship & couples therapy.

Agreements Matter

Agreements are the basic structural units of a relationship. They apply to all of the main areas of relational life:

  • Sex
  • Money
  • Domestic Management
  • In-Laws/Significant Others
  • Parenting (if applicable)

The Agreement Process

The agreement process (and its skill development) is a big part of the personal transformation that committed relationships bring about. Relationships shape people from  “single” to a “relational”, who “play well” with significant others. This tough process of maturity always involves frustration along with indulgence. Personal development is all about push-pull. And how people experienced frustration, indulgence, collaboration, competition – the clash between “me” and “we” –  in their family-of-origin is an important influence.

In my office, agreement is fundamentally about process. Outcomes are for you to determine ‘at home’. For example,  I am not primarily interested (even though you should be) in which sexual positions you use or what you spend money on. Rather, it’s all about the skills and personal development that help you achieve a mutual understanding more often.

It’s Mutual

Not all agreements are necessarily mutual. But they are better for striving to be so. Yet “mutual” takes extra work. It’s a way of organizing the power held by two single people to choose what they want for themselves, and how well they will treat their significant other. Achieving mutuality means knowing:

  • what a partner wants, and 
  • how much a partner wants it

When people can really establish those two understandings, It makes the agreement more solid.  Each also learns much more about the other, and their values.

Mutuality Softens Disappointment

On the other hand, mutuality also helps when one person sticks with what they want for themselves.In a mutual process the other’s disappointment may be softened.

Seeking “Me” or “We”

Commitment creates an unavoidable tension between “me” and “we”. People indulge each other to be a “we”, and they frustrate each other so that neither loses their “me.” This back and forth process, frustrating as it may be, is what presses people to develop. A mixture of “yes” and “no” is how people mature.

A first question is whether or not partners will acknowledge that tension. A second is whether they are each truly seeking consensus, something collaborative. Or are they seeking individuality? With which spirit does each person enter the process?

Typically, the partner who seeks consensus is in a weaker negotiating position, even though “morally” they feel stronger. Partners who can’t see the “me” and “we” preferences will experience high levels of pain and vulnerability. 

Gridlock Or Agreement

A two partner relationship is a system elegantly designed for gridlock (multiple/poly partner gridlocks usually build on a two-person impasse; and third or fourth parties rarely serve as tie-breakers). Two people have the simple ability to block each others preferences, and to accommodate them.

We could say that agreement is the opposite of gridlock. In agreement, the most vital parts of each person’s preferences fit together.  Gridlock might seem unproductive, but the kind of therapy I do treats it as utterly normal. It produces growth because it accurately points to where it needs to occur.

Broken Agreements, Trust and Morality

If I ask the question, “Why do you think it’s so hard for you to reach an agreement on…?”, the answer is usually about broken agreements in the past. I’ve written a bit on making agreements – what about breaking them?

Healing Trust

A fundamental part of the agreement process is the skill that’s needed when an agreement is breached, intentionally or not. If there there is a long history of violating agreements, that turns the other “big gear” of relationship – trust.

Trust And Risk

In some relationships, breaches of trust lead to perceptions that life together is unacceptably risky. Promises of all kinds generally decrease in value, and the moral universe is upended. In other relationships, there’s greater latitude for broken agreements, even when low integrity behavior is responsible. In those relationships, breaches are taken as signs that the old agreement(s) have somehow lost viability and meaning, and new ones must be created.

Absence of past agreement

A problem can be  based on the absence of any clear prior agreement. This holds really valuable information for people.  It shows, not always clearly, how they govern themselves and distribute power when they don’t think mutually. That often motivates partners to start a conscious agreement process on the spot.

Power

I’ll quote one outside source, in a wrap-up that expresses the relationships between power and agreement:

“Power dynamics cannot be eliminated from relationships. What we [therapists] can do is help couples be more aware of their power dynamics, their respective needs, the importance of making and keeping agreements, and give them pictures of healthy power–with examples and by our own modeling.” (“Power, Anger, Trust & Communication”; presentation by Marty Klein, Ph.D.) “Reprinted from Sexual Intelligence™ Marty Klein, Ph.D. (www.SexualIntelligence.org).”

Seattle Relationship & Couples Therapy: Marriage Friendly

Do Couples Therapists Support Marriage?marriage

Couples therapy is facing questions as to whether it is “pro marriage” or “marriage friendly.” Couples seeking treatment are evidently anxious that therapists might misunderstand what the partners want in marriages that look badly damaged & discouraging. There may be two partners who are in fact determined to stay married.

 

A True Advocate

marriage friendlyWouldn’t such clients want a therapist who passionately advocates for marriage itself, and committed enough to publicly say so? The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists seeks “…therapists who see themselves as supporting couples’ original commitment to their marriage unless there is a compelling reason not to.”

What’s the Couples Therapy Agreement?

marriage problemTherapists and clients could easily differ over what is a “compelling reason not to.” But really, this should be about the psychotherapy treatment contract. If two people come into my office and say they have the same therapeutic goal, then provided there’s no threat to health or safety, that’s the goal I begin to support. I cannot imagine being so jaded or discouraged about marriage that I would renege on this basic understanding with my clients.

Crucible Of Personal Development

My own “marriage friendliness” is based on the belief that personal development and growth occurs very profoundly when the decision to focus love, attach deeply and differentiate with integrity – with one or more ‘others’. Sometimes monogamy is several different relationships with the same person.

Beliefs About Marriage

I believe in marriage as the primary engine of personal growth. Monogamy sets up powerful dynamics for personal growth; Polyamory sets them up too and adds more complexity. It requires great thoughtfulness in order to succeed. Both require high integrity and self-calming during self-disclosure. Because I am primarily interested in people developing and growing, I have a personal stake in supporting marriages of either kind, and the people within them.

What Kind Of Marriage?

With any new client, I ask whether both partners are choosing to stay together. Although they might answer “Yes!”, they may also understand the terms of marriage very differently. The real question is not so much whether, but how the couple wants to be married.  And that’s the work of therapy.

A Famous Therapist’s Position

Interestingly, one of the most articulate theorists about couples with different agendas and levels of marital commitment is Bill Doherty, Ph.D. He’s a spokesperson for the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. He has created the term “mixed agenda” couples (with great respect and understanding). The therapy approach that reveals these differences is called “Discernment Therapy” (as in, discerning different partner goals and purposes.)

I agree with the Registry when they advise couples therapists to concentrate their post-graduate professional training. They are concerned that lots of therapy fails because too many therapists lack that training. For that reason, I post my updated training summary here.