Our relationships contribute greatly to how we build our own concept of self. In therapy, interpersonal dynamics and interactions are often discussed. Analyzing and navigating their impact on us, mending from their wounds, and basking in the tender moments which make us feel witnessed.
Despite the importance relationships have on our lives- our growth and development- they are often times viewed through the mono-normative lens (despite that 5% of Americans relate to each other outside of this model ). Room for difference can be met with resistance, even in the therapy room. This can stifle progress, hurt the therapeutic relationship, and cause unease and distress to the client who has braved a potentially new territory that is seeking support. In fact, based on a 2018 study, 38% of 249 American couples were dissatisfied with their therapy experience due to the therapist working through a mono-normative lens . Clients felt the therapists were ill informed, judgemental, pathologizing, and made biased remarks that pressured clients to conform to societal standards.
What can be done? While registered psychotherapists (RPs) are encouraged to continuously check biases and blind spots as well as engage in ongoing learning of the various relational styles and cultures, potential clients may also wish to seek out RPs who are competent in supporting and affirming those within modern relationship dynamics like ethical non-monogamy (ENM). These therapists, either through lived experience, training, or both are well versed in the spectrum of relationship dynamics and validate these experiences while providing welcoming spaces to explore and navigate hard points without pathologizing. They recognize the societal influences that cause harm to client’s lives rather than viewing clients as abnormal, needing to conform to societal standards to relieve distress.
As someone who both practices ENM and goes to therapy themselves, finding a therapist that “gets it” had been a challenge. It was difficult to fully express my own relational and personal struggles and receive relevant feedback. On top of this, I, at times, was left feeling a sense of shame.
As an ENM-affirming therapist, I often remind my clients that they are experts of their own life and encourage them to collaborate with me to create goals and conditions that best suit their lives.
I support my ENM clients by:
Navigating spaces where we are made to feel as though fitting in is the only option, the therapeutic space can provide solace and opportunity to challenge normative thinking and decide for ourselves which paths are right for us. Discussing intersecting identities and how they interact in various contexts can help reduce stigma and create meaningful adjustments in client’s lives.
Learning about what ENM means to them
Without social scripts around navigating modern and unique dynamics, clients are faced with constructing agreements, roles, and rituals with each partnership. These are based on shared and collaborated values, beliefs, and ethics. As each partnership is experienced differently, it is imperative to determine and understand what the ENM style, relational roles and expectations mean to the client. Understanding what terms generally mean helps stay on the same page however, approaching clients with curiosity and a non assuming stance can provide room for nuance and insight.
Helping develop an understanding of attachment
Jessica Fern, author of Polysecure, highlighted that ENM clients often get labelled with the assumption that their attachment style is insecure . She continues to argue that these folks, like anyone else, can experience and develop into any attachment style - especially a secure one . An emphasis is placed on creating strong emotional (rather than hierarchical) experiences of bonding . Clients learning how their relational histories impact them and how this can be developed in the present moment and partnership(s) can be a powerful insight to explore within the therapeutic space.
Helping navigate and gain tools to manage tough emotions
Let’s face it, any relationship is hard work to maintain. In ENM especially, folks are faced with a range of complex and at times conflicting emotions. Helping clients gain effective tools towards distress tolerance and emotional regulation can help them bring them closer to their goals and living out their best hopes. DBT, ACT, and EFT are a few modalities that can support in unpacking trauma or hardships in client relational work.
If you are experiencing hard points while exploring ENM, finding an affirming therapist can make a difference in feeling heard in your struggles and in finding options best suited to your needs. If you have any questions about whether this approach to psychotherapy is a good fit for you, feel free to book a free 15-minute consultation.
You don’t have to journey alone.
1. Fairbrother, N., Hart, T. A., & Fairbrother, M. (2019). Open relationship prevalence, characteristics, and correlates in a nationally representative sample of Canadian adults. The Journal of Sex Research.
2. Schechinger, H. A., Sakaluk, J. K., & Moors, A. C. (2018). Harmful and helpful therapy practices with consensually non-monogamous clients: Toward an inclusive framework. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86(11), 879.
3. Fern, J. (2020). Polysecure: Attachment, trauma and consensual nonmonogamy. Thorntree Press LLC.