Are Mental Health Professionals Biased Against Open Relationships? 

open relationship

My first experience working with couples in open relationships occurred about twenty years ago. At that time, I’d never heard the term polyamory, and my own unexamined biases of what it meant to be in an open marriage or relationship were clichéd and narrow-minded.

Since then, I’ve worked with well over a hundred couples who practice consensual non-monogamy, couples who “play sexually” with other couples or singles (swingers), as well as couples who place a high value on forming long-term, loving relationships with more than one partner at a time (polyamorists).
 
These couples have been considerably diverse across many facets of life: sexual orientation, politically, economically, ethnically, educationally, occupationally, racially and religiously. Their ages ranged from late teens to early seventies. Some had newly opened their relationship when they came to see me, while many had been in an open marriage/relationship for a considerable length of time.

And the issues that brought them into counseling were no different than their monogamous counterparts — struggles to adapt to stressful life situations, feeling like they were stuck in a rut, repeated conflict over a particular issue (such as spending habits with household money, frequency of lovemaking), the distress caused by not feeling heard and understood by their partner(s), and the like.

In other words, couples practicing ethical non-monogamy dealt with the same issues as monogamous couples.

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It’s always surprising to experience certain biases (in this case I’m speaking of the reactions of my professional peers in particular) when discussing a therapy case of a couple who is in an open marriage/relationship. There are three biases I’ve typically encountered:

The first bias is driven by some type of moral judgement (by definition, the open relationship clashes with one’s values of “how a relationship should be”);

The second bias stems from ignorance about open relationships and ethical non-monogamy (for example, the lifestyle is equated with a lack of love or “sanctioned cheating”);

Lastly (and the central focus of this article) are the biases that arise from definitions of normalcy versus pathology, health versus illness. Imbedded in this bias is the belief that the decision to enter into non-monogamy is driven by underlying emotional issues that somehow put these individuals at risk for entering the “dangerous” waters of non-monogamy.

Sometimes these biases are overt (“That’s a disaster in the making…”); but often, the prejudices are hidden, buried in the types of questions asked about the couple—questions that don’t arise when a couple in a traditional marriage/relationship is discussed.

5 Mental Health Biases Toward Open Relationships

1) The Narcissistically Entitled

During a seminar on couples counseling, the presenter stated that open relationships are a logical extension of a culture that breeds a grandiose sense of entitlement.

From this biased perspective, the belief that “I should have what I want when I want it” would drive someone to abandon the constraints of monogamy for the unencumbered gratifications of an open relationship.

2) Hedonism Is Their Drug of Choice

This bias assumes the following: The excitement and emotional boost of an open relationship is addicting and in essence, non-monogamists are medicating themselves through sex and/or the highs that come with new relationship energy.

If they weren’t distracted by the continual buzz of multiple relationships, these individuals would soon discover that they’re depressed or struggling with a lack of meaning in their lives. Non-monogamy, so the bias concludes, is their ill-fated antidote to their internal struggles.

3) Fear of Intimacy

There’s no argument that intimacy is difficult work that can make the most secure of us antsy at times. And there are many ways in which we may avoid the emotional vulnerability (and uneasiness) that emotional closeness requires.

This particular bias automatically assumes that someone practicing non-monogamy is diluting the inherent challenges of one-to-one intimacy by casting a wider relational net. As long as a fear of intimacy (or an avoidant relational style) is at work behind the veil of consciousness, multiple relationships will be prioritized.

4) The Re-enactment of Past Traumas

This bias assumes that some individuals in open relationships are dealing with the residue of unresolved, painful childhood experiences; in essence, these unconscious forces are hijacking their better judgement. A more specific re-enactment scenario involves the acting out of past sexual traumas that haven’t been adequately healed.

The compulsion to repeat the past is not what’s in question here (because we all seek to repeat the past to some degree); what is dubious (and biased and judgmental) is the automatic assumption that re-enactment is at work for those who believe that monogamy isn’t right for them.

5) The Disordered Personality

Certain personality disorders (such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorder) involve symptoms of impulsivity, acting-out behavior, and the tendency to idealize and/or devalue others. A fear of abandonment, poor self-esteem, and regressive tendencies make intimate relationships challenging for those who struggle with these personality disorders.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that the “world of swinging is littered with borderlines.” Such pejorative conjectures are not only shortsighted, but untrue: I know of no research reporting such claims. Central to this prejudice is that a conscious decision free from emotional turmoil could not lead someone to choose consensual non-monogamy over monogamy.

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If you are in an open relationship, these common biases are not presented in order to depress you.

First of all, it’s important to note that every mental health professional is not biased against lifestyles they have not personally lived (or may not fully understand). There are many open-minded, fair counselors who work with couples in open relationships.

This article is offered not only to hopefully broaden the perspectives of those who may not know much about ethical non-monogamy, but also for couples that have happily and consensually opened up to “beyond two.” If you make the decision to seek couples counseling at some point, it will be important for you to interview your potential counselor.

You might ask if s/he has had any experience in working with couples in open marriages/relationships. If not, that doesn’t mean you have to eliminate that counselor—you might then ask what his/her thoughts are on consensual non-monogamy to get an idea of whether they are holding rigid, prejudicial biases.

If you spend much time online, you may have noticed that increasingly people in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships have been trying to justify their lifestyles. There have also been increasing numbers of relationship experts sharing their views about open versus monogamous relationships. Finding a mammal with relational patterns similar to monogamy or non-monogamy is often touted as proof of the superiority of one position over the other.

“We’re wired for monogamy,” one argument goes, “and here is the proof!” (The implication here is that non-monogamy is unnatural and the result of a broken marriage/relationship; however, if you look for non-monogamy in nature, that’s just as easy to find, as in a recent study of a particular species of bird that scientists had thought was monogamous…new research shows that the females mate with several males). And then the opposing view might say something like: “The high rate of infidelity in monogamous relationships shows that monogamy is an outdated social construct.”

But ultimately, is that the best use of our energy? All relationships take work and therefore take energy, and expending a great deal of that precious energy on trying to convince outsiders of something is likely to feel wasted in the long run. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay informed and open and add your voice to the conversation if you feel moved to—it means that you can make the decision not to be consumed by the controversy when what’s really important is that you live your life according to your standards.

One client captured the debate and gave me permission to share it here:

“Considering the biases that have existed toward those in open relationships, many of us feel the need to prove ourselves. And our message is simple and clear: Monogamy may work for you, but it doesn’t for us. I never judge anyone in a traditional relationship (that would be awfully presumptuous of me, and beside the point, too), and I’m only asking for the same respect. Just like you, we seek love, connection, and fulfillment. How we achieve this is different from you. It is not the right way or the wrong way, it’s just one way. It’s time to stop judging us for it.”

Wishing you and your relationship all the best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Artur84 at Freedigitalphotos.net)