Relationship therapy involves supporting partners who are struggling to find a way to reach compromise. Each person will have their own thoughts and feelings, and we hope that through the therapy, we can explore the background of these, what they mean to each person, and find a way for each to adjust just enough that a middle point can be reached.
One of the challenges is finding a way for each partner to see their adjustments as a win rather than a loss. When clients first arrive, their language is often mired in the lexicon of winning and losing, right and wrong. This leaves little room for movement, so early work might entail adapting this language to a more inclusive, shared one that allows for movement in their position. Helping clients process these feelings is essential to allowing each to express themselves and have agency in the relationship. Power can be slippery and manifests in many ways. Feeling like something has happened without your consent can be disempowering.
What does consent mean in this context? I regularly work with partners who have different ideas about monogamy and consensual non-monogamy (CNM), and it’s a zero-sum position. You are either monogamous or you aren’t. You can’t be ‘monogamous-ish’ (although you can negotiate how to be non-monogamous with high degrees of nuance). But, for it to work, all partners need to consent and this needs to be freely given and fully informed. It can’t be given reluctantly, or partially, or without everyone (as far as is possible) having all the information they need to understand what’s being offered and asked for. Meg-John Barker has a free resource that talks through these points in detail.1 Using these ideas, I work with clients to explore what informed consent means for each of them.
If one client is only agreeing to open the relationship to save it, or ‘keep’ their partner, this isn’t full and free consent. It’s consent with qualifications, consequences, power. Part of the work then is to explore consent in detail and help each see that consent with conditions is not a healthy way to manage the relationship. The old resentments will still be there, as power is being wielded, and one person’s feelings are given less value than the other’s.
When I’m working with a couple where one wants to be open and the other doesn’t, I try to stay aware of the need to hear both parties and give value to the feelings and thoughts each brings. This can be challenging, as often I’m presented with the case in terms of, ‘How do we help the monogamous partner be non-monogamous?’, as if I can work with them to help them become totally happy with CNM.
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As I’m in a poly relationship, and practise sex-positivity, it can be challenging to manage my countertransferences. It would be easy to feel like I’m siding with the open partner and selling the benefits of CNM. I see this a lot in queer partnerships, where being open is sometimes seen to be the ‘correct’ way to be queer, and monogamy is cis-heteronormative and to be shunned.
When this presents in the room, it’s even more important to hold the ideas that sexual identity and expression are complex and unique to the individual. For some people, being polyamorous is what they do. For some, it is who they are. They will use the word to define themselves in the same way they may use ‘gay’, ‘queer’ or ‘bi’ to describe their sexuality. As such, it should be respected and validated. Equally, monogamous people must be allowed to have that identity and for it to be valid
So, the idea of working to help the monogamous partner become non-monogamous feels icky to me – as though I would be moving into the space of conversion therapy. And this is not OK. All the counselling and psychotherapy bodies, the NHS and others, are signed up to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy,2 which states it is unethical to attempt to bring about change of sexual orientation or gender identity. Whether non-monogamy is a ‘sexual orientation’ is open to interpretation. But it’s close enough for me to ensure I’m not trying to override anyone’s consent and make them change their position on CNM.
What I will do is work with clients to explore where their beliefs about monogamy are rooted, and if they do want to consider whether they have internalised the social norms they were brought up with. This was my experience. Exploring internalised social norms is important in all my work as a systemic therapist and can lead clients to explore new ways of thinking and being in relationships. But, equally, work needs to be done with the open partner to ensure they understand being open isn’t the ‘right’ way to be, and that we can’t make their partner be open, any more than we can make them be monogamous.
And, sadly, this sometimes means partners can’t stay in the relationship. Sometimes, there’s no compromise position, and given that ‘reluctant consent’ isn’t consent, the work needs to focus on how to end the relationship in the least harmful way.
1 Barker M-J. Rewriting the rules. [Online.] https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/consent-work/ (accessed 19 July 2021).
2 BACP et al. Memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK: version 2. [Online.] https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/11738/mou2-reva-0421.pdf (accessed 19 July 2021)