Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

July 21, 2010

Psychotherapists' journal explores "the New Monogamy" (meaning non-monogamy)

Psychotherapy Networker

A magazine for psychotherapists is making waves with a cover story titled "The New Monogamy: Can we have our cake and eat it too?". On the cover is a wedding cake with a bride and two grooms (photo). As the Washington Post reports (July 20, 2010),

Tammy Nelson, a Connecticut couples therapist, writes that in this new model, "outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed — as long as they don't threaten the primary connection," and that therapists ought to open their minds to these new practices so they can better relate to their patients. The juiciest part of the article is where Nelson explains some of her patients' unconventional arrangements (while maintaining their anonymity, of course) such as the couple who agree they can each have sex with other people, but only while on business trips.

Inexplicably, Nelson never uses the word "polyamory." Nor does she mention to fellow shrinks that there's already a large literature on the subject (including excellent information for psychotherapists with polyamorous clients), an enormous array of articulate poly support networks online and in real life, and a 30-year accumulation of hard won poly-community wisdom (from thousands of sometimes bitter trials and errors) about what works and doesn't. Without at least mentioning these things, I don't think she can claim to be informing her readers well.

Nevertheless, the article breaks new ground in telling therapists about what's going on in more and more of their clients' lives.

I do wonder about calling non-monogamy "the New Monogamy." Are non-vegetarians "the New Vegetarians"? To be fair, she's talking about conventional marriages in which emotional monogamy may be expected, secondary partners generally remain outside the marriage itself, and secondaries are to be dumped in a crunch. The problems that this model can raise are a whole 'nother topic....

The New Monogamy

By Tammy Nelson

Whether we like it or not, today's couples feel far less encumbered by the legal, social, and moral strictures of traditional marriage and its obligations. Increasing numbers are negotiating what they mean by "fidelity" and how they wish to define monogamy in their relationship.

If there's anything fundamental to the meaning of marriage in Western society, it's monogamy.... People no longer marry for economic, dynastic, or procreative reasons, as they did for millennia; they can't be compelled to marry by law, religion, or custom; they don't need to marry to have sex or cohabit or even produce and raise children. But throughout all of this staggering change, the requirement and expectation of monogamy as the emotional glue that keeps the whole structure of marriage from collapsing under its own weight has remained constant.

...As a culture committed, in theory, to monogamy, our actions tell a different story. It isn't just that, as therapists, we need to understand that infidelity happens — we all know that already. What some of us may not realize is how often it happens. Research varies, but according to some surveys, such as those reported by Joan Atwood and Limor Schwartz in the 2002 Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 55 percent of married women and 65 percent of married men report being unfaithful at some point in their marriage. Up to one-half of married women have at least one lover after they're married and before the age of 40.

...According to noted anthropologist and researcher Helen Fisher, extramarital affairs have always happened at this high rate, but only now are we getting a more accurate, statistically informed, picture of what's going on. Fisher also reports that what you might call this "state of affairs" holds true across at least five other cultures worldwide that she's studied.

Within our profession, virtually all couples therapists... have believed since the field's earliest days that no troubled marriage can recover as long as there's a "third party" hovering in the wings....

One major impediment to the view that an affair indicates that something is profoundly wrong in the marriage, however, is that 35 to 55 percent of people having affairs report they were happy in their marriage at the time of their infidelity. They also report good sex and rewarding family lives. So how can we continue viewing affairs as symptoms of dysfunctional marriages when apparently so many of them seem to happen to otherwise "normal," even happy couples?

...If the stories we hear from couples coming into our offices these days are any indication, we're in for a sea change. Whether we like it or not, many couples are far less encumbered with the legal, moral, and social strictures and expectations around marriage that held sway for our parents or even for us, if we were married 20 to 30 or more years ago.... Today's couples are far likelier to think about negotiating ahead of time what they mean by "fidelity" and how they define and live monogamy in their own relationship.

...Most couples practicing what I call the "new monogamy" still want a committed monogamous marriage, with the same long-term loving attachment, affection, mutual trust, and security that traditional monogamy has always promised — if not always delivered. It's just that their notions about what constitutes emotional and sexual "commitment," "fidelity," and "monogamy" itself are more expansive and varied than what we've long considered the norm.

...Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed — as long as they don't threaten the primary connection....

The key to these arrangements, and what makes them meaningful within the framework of emotional commitment, is that there can be no secrecy between partners about the arrangements. The fidelity resides in the fact that these couples work out openly and together what will be and will not be allowed in their relationships with Party C, and maybe Parties D, E, and F. To couples engaged in the new monogamy, it isn't the outside sexual relationships themselves, but the attendant secrets, lies, denial, silences, and hidden rendezvous that make them so destructive to the marriage. Rightly or wrongly, today, many couples consider that honesty and openness cleanse affairs, rendering them essentially harmless.

...New monogamists try to eliminate the gap that so often exists between explicit and implicit rules in the "old monogamy." From the viewpoint of the new monogamy, the trick is to establish and continually revisit rules to provide clear guidelines for maintaining a monogamous relationship — while keeping them loose enough to encourage growth and exploration for both partners. Some couples keep renegotiating their rules about monogamy, either directly or more subtly, as they age and pass through different developmental stages of their marriage....

...In my experience, when rules are clear beforehand, complaints of jealousy or feelings of betrayal are rare....

...In the culture of the new monogamy, couples are negotiating their fidelity in many ways that most therapists haven't explored or even considered much. When a couple tells me there's been an affair, I can't assume I know what they mean. I need to assess what exactly monogamy means to them or what constitutes a breach of fidelity to them. What are the terms of their explicit and implicit monogamy agreement?

...Although I've always thought of myself as pretty open and reasonably "hip," I've been fired by more than one couple for being perceived as too traditional. There have been times when couples have come into my office and it's been hard for me to keep my jaw from dropping open as I listened to their stories. Sometimes I ask couples to recount how they manage their relationships, not so much out of voyeuristic curiosity about the details of their sex lives as out of a fascination with how they balance the multiple levels of commitment with their various partners.... For instance, they'll explain that on those nights that they have outside partners, they'll agree that one will stay home with the kids, while the other meets the lover. Or they'll take turns having that lover at home for the night. Or sometimes they each have a lover at home on the same night, waking up in the morning to all have breakfast together.... They come to therapy not to get permission to do what they're doing, but to get their communication clear. The relationships that are working smoothly don't come into my office and I can only assume that they have found a way to balance the transparency and communication necessary to keep it all straight....

Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Center for Healing. She's the author of Getting the Sex You Want and What's Eating You?

Read the whole long article (July-August 2010 issue). Here it is in one text file. The article has also been reprinted on AlterNet (July 8, 2010), on the Progressive Radio Network site (July 9), and elsewhere. Here's the author's Facebook page.

In an online debate about whether non-monogamy has any business being called "New Monogamy," the author wrote,

Actually the new monogamy is really a way for people to conceptualize that fidelity now comes in many different packages.... Whether it is explicit and talked about and negotiated -- as in poly relationships around love and emotion, or whether it is about sex and swinging and play, or open marriage....

The new monogamy is a concept I coined which will be in my new book coming up (look for it in about a year) which basically challenges couples and therapists to look at relationships from not only a new cultural perspective to examine not only monogamy but the idea that we can have many different attachments in our lifetime....

I am trying to get the clinical world to end the pathology that is projected onto non-monogamy, since it comes in many, many different forms. That includes polyamory, but also open marriage, swinging, AND frankly -- even affairs and infidelity.

I encourage couples to make their monogamy agreements more explicit and to have that dialogue openly and often, particularly at different times throughout the lifetime of their relationship. If we can get therapists to help with that conversation, then monogamy becomes a more fluid and transparent concept instead of a one-time decision that can lead to a breach of personal integrity and sometimes an impossible standard to live up to -- or for some, a lifetime of disappointment.

See Deborah Anapol's response to the article.


The same issue of Psychotherapy Networker also has two related articles:

Foreign Affairs
By Michele Scheinkman

A popular bit of French folk wisdom says, "It's not good to speak all truths." People in many countries around the world would agree, and regard with horror the way the American therapists approach the question of infidelity.

After the Storm
By Esther Perel

As therapists, we have an unquenchable desire to find happy endings for troubled clients, especially those weathering the crisis of infidelity. But what happens months or years later to those couples once our work with them has concluded?


Also on this topic: alt-relationship researcher David Ley recently published an article on his Psychology Today blog, Why are therapists down on alternative sex? Therapist's biases prevent alternative relationships from getting help.


Update, August 6: Kamela Dolinova today posted the best takedown I've seen of sugar-coating of non-monogamy as "New Monogamy." Excerpt:

...In this world where a scandal erupts daily about some politician, preacher or other prominent figure having an affair, where 50% of marriages end in divorce... where the concept of marriage is so much more of a rarely attained ideal than a reality... why must we fight so hard to protect the idea? The striving for the ideal of marriage and monogamy is making so many people miserable, and yet they will fight tooth and nail to insist that it is the Only One True Way, no matter how you have to suffer. And then they have the nerve to take the concepts and ideas of polyamory, concepts that many of us have been beta-testing for years and finding our hearts and happiness in, and try to fold them into their definitions of monogamy.

It's not unlike the gay marriage debate itself, in which many people who are against "gay marriage" are fine with the concept of "civil unions." They just don't want their precious word adulterated. But so long as they can control the definition, it's okay to include infidelity and even emotional affairs into the umbrella of "monogamy."

Not only does this strike me as intellectual laziness, but it also smacks horribly of heterosexual privilege.... It irks me to see the straight mainstream — whether family therapists or writers of titillating memoirs — soaking up the concepts of polyamory and open marriage into their well-established, privileged models of relationship.

Read the whole post (in her Boston Open Relationships Examiner blog).


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, go ahead and call it "The New Monogamy" if that'll help get it into people's heads that you CAN have a devoted, everlasting marriage that brings in other intimates.

July 22, 2010 11:36 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am conflicted about the author's refusal (and it was a conscious refusal, I have no doubts) to use "polyamory". On one hand I think it is a cop out to avoid conflict; on the other, I can imagine that the author wanted to introduce these concepts to an audience who would immediately turn off/tune out as soon as the word polyamory came up.

Some of what she discussed also falls under the "swinging" label, but she never mentions that word either. Maybe this is the kind of discussion necessary needed to move these concepts into the mainstream, but I worry about the avoidance of these words for fear of (even worse) negative value judgments being heaped upon them. *sigh*

July 22, 2010 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Angi said...

I read the article on AlterNet not too long ago, and I was really put off by the avoidance of the term "polyamory." It seemed to me that the writer was speaking of/to people who still want to have the appearance of a monogamous marriage/relationship while relegating their other relationships to a "what goes on behind closed doors" status, rather than embracing polyamory as a lifestyle they identify with. I find that really problematic, not only in the ways it has potential to be harmful to the extramarital partners in these situations, but also because it does nothing to advance awareness/acceptance of polyamory.

July 22, 2010 5:45 PM  
Blogger Kamela said...

It reminds me a little of the gay marriage debate: as soon as you start using the word "marriage," mainstream folks who have some investment in that word start screaming and jumping up and down about what that word means, and how important it is. Most reasonable people, though, tend to think civil unions are okay. Same rights: just don't take "our" word.

It makes a perverse kind of sense that the reverse is true, here: let's take the word "monogamy" and expand the definition, rather than try and introduce new terms (polyamory) or use ones that have pejorative connotations (swinging). After all, in this case, we're trying to find a new viewpoint on what people are already doing (infidelity) and finding a way to make it jibe with people's concept of monogamy. In the gay marriage case, we're trying to convince people that people living in a way they may think of as Wrong and Foreign are doing the same thing they are - being married - which is a lot harder to accept.

I may be able to explain this better when I've had more coffee.

July 23, 2010 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Lillith Goode said...

You see I'm put off by the first sentence alone. 'Wether we like it or not' I'm paraphrasing, but, surely in this case its not a subjective POV...? Its the entire sentence makes mebalk, too "Whether we like it or not, today's couples feel far less encumbered by the legal, social, and moral strictures of traditional marriage and its obligations."
It doesn't come out and say it but it subtly suggests that us 'new-monogamists' are a)weird and b)have some immoral, illegal or anti-social veiws/actions that we should feel obligied to follow...
Aside from my first reaction...this really makes me think of phrases like 'brown is the new-black' which would imply to me think of this as a 'trend' or 'fashion'.

At least she makes the point out open and honest communication. And that her role as a therapist is not to 'fix' this but help them communicate more effectively and manage their informed, legal, happy choices easier.

July 24, 2010 2:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Lillith Goode: When she says, "Whether we like it or not," you have to remember that she is addressing that statement to other therapists. That's the intended audience she's writing to. And most therapists aren't understanding of polyamory. They DO consider us weird--or even pathological. (I should add here that I myself am a therapist, and poly, and I am not "out" for precisely this reason). The point of this article is that therapists should be more aware and supportive of nonmonogamous relationships, and to give them an idea of how some people are making them work. Which, in my book, is good even if she doesn't call it "polyamory" as such.

July 24, 2010 3:09 AM  
Anonymous Kamela Dolinova said...

Hey, Alan,

I just wrote a long Examiner piece responding to this as well as to some other items I've been getting since adding "polyamory" to my google news alerts. This issue has been bothering me for a while, since I read your piece, and I couldn't put my finger on it until I started writing. Hope you enjoy.

August 06, 2010 3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worried about this until I realized "New Monogamy" was analogous to "New Math".

What, it isn't?

August 08, 2010 4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This whole thing would be much more palatable to me if she had coined "the New Fidelity" instead of the new monogamy. There are plenty of ways to be "faithful", especially if your promises don't include sexual exclusivity to begin with, so it doesn't change the definition of the term any, it just challenges the assumption that fidelity is restricted to a single type of promise.

If you stretch the definition of a term to include its opposite, you render it effectively meaningless. We communicate through language. What kind of assistance will this article give to therapists who will then be using the term "monogamy" to cover "marriage to one spouse", "a single romantic partner", "a single romantic/sexual partner at a time", "a primary romantic partner plus a few other sexual partners", and "lots of sexual partners"?

As far as I can tell, with all the difficulty we have in negotiating our relationships because of implicit expectations surrounding certain words, broadening one of the most important words used to label our relationships to include even its opposite style of relationship can only cause more confusion and hurt feelings over unmet expectations than before.

From Sex And The City, in a series of "interviews" about New Yorkers' views on monogamy:

"I've been involved in a monogamous relationship for over a year now. It's been wonderfully fulfilling. Of course, my definition of monogamy includes sex with prostitutes."

"My lover and I have a kind of '90s monogamy. We have sex with other people but we don't exchange fluids or phone numbers."

"Monogamy is fabulous, it gives you a deep and profound connection to another human being. And you don't have to shave your legs as much."

"Of course I'm monogamous. Why, what have you heard?"

If you re-read her article and substitute the phrase "new monogamy" with "new fidelity", there is not much I can argue about. I think it is a terribly important thing for therapists to come to grips with the "normalization" of relationships that do not fit the unrealistic One True Way ideal. But what these couples are doing is "monogamy" in the same way teetotalers are "the new alcoholics".

August 09, 2010 7:54 PM  

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