Working with polyamorous and non-monogamous clients

Alessio Rizzo

Alessio Rizzo

UKCP psychotherapist Alessio Rizzo is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist specialised in sexual and gender diversity. He is also a psychotherapy trainer and writes about mental health on his website.

There are challenges psychotherapists and counsellors face when working with people in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships (either individually or as couples) that I wish I had known from my training to prepare me for these clients.

I trained as a Gestalt psychotherapist, and I have always worked with sexual and gender minorities. Having worked with several clients who describe themselves as non-monogamous, I have learnt what these clients have found useful, and what they haven’t, about psychotherapy. Having also taught psychotherapy trainees, I hope to cover in this article some important aspects to consider when working with these clients.


Reflecting on our assumptions

First, let us look at what we mean by polyamory and non-monogamy. These are words that encompass a variety of relationships in which there could be two or more partners involved romantically and/or sexually with each other, and among whom there is consent regarding romantic and/or sexual encounters with other people.

You have probably heard of 'unconscious biases'. I invite you to check, for a moment, what your reactions are to the definition I have provided. Mine does not claim to be the perfect definition, but I believe it is a good starting point to allow you to search further into this subject, or to observe what thoughts and gut feelings you have as you read my words.

The biggest piece of positive feedback I received when working with people who identify as polyamorous is that their preference for polyamorous relationships was not considered a problem by their therapist. In other words, they felt understood and supported when I treated polyamory as a form of relationship that is as 'normal' as a monogamous one. Upon reflection, I did not have to 'do' anything special or 'treat' polyamory in a specific way. So, this is my message to trainees, trainers and colleagues: it is our attitude that speaks louder than any intervention or words we might use.

I believe that what I am describing is true when working with any form of diversity and minority. Clients who belong to minorities do not always disclose certain aspects of their diversity. Instead, they might drop comments referring to having more than one partner in their life in the middle of conversations not related to their relational life. It is in these moments that it is important that the therapist does not make comments that can be misinterpreted by the client.


The complexities of relationship dynamics

Here is an example that might illuminate how easy it can be to 'miss' a client, who, for example, has two partners – one long term and a new one – and who tells the therapist that they are having difficulties with the new partner. The therapist knows that the client is struggling with their long-term partner too and they say, in good will, 'If you have problems with one partner, wouldn’t it be easier to have only one?' While this intervention might seem perfectly reasonable, the client could hear it as the therapist labelling polyamory as problematic… and I know clients reporting that they have left therapy because of these kinds of interventions.

If you are someone who identifies as monogamous, and who might have never navigated or had any contact with the world of non-monogamy, my concluding message is to be aware of the fact that mainstream ideas of 'jealousy' and 'cheating' might apply differently to polyamorous client. My suggestion is to be open and notice biases of any kind and consider that well-intentioned comments might not have the desired impact.

All non-monogamous relationships are different. The best way forward is to ask about the boundaries that the partners have agreed amongst themselves and if the person involved in the relationship is happy with those boundaries or not. Leaving biases behind and exploring these boundaries in a non-judgemental setting might be what a client needs more than anything else.

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