It’s a common myth that when monogamous couples have issues, they go to therapy to get help to resolve them. What more frequently happens is monogamous couples attend therapy at the end of their relationships, when counseling is least likely to be successful and things are at their most chaotic. People in open relationships and, in fact, monogamous couples as well, have the opportunity to attend partner counseling far earlier in the relationship process. Therapy may be good practice for designing any relationship because you and the therapist are able to discuss how often you meet, the cost, and what the terms are. Psychologists, marriage and family therapists, as well as other types of counselors, can be of assistance in various ways.
Please note that there is no guarantee that therapy will be helpful. Psychologists in particular are ethically mandated to take steps to avoid foreseeable harm and maintain a state-governed level of training, but there is no foregone conclusion that counseling will be effective.
The following are ways that a professional therapist may help you with your open relationship:
1. Validation. You might consider attending one-to-three therapy sessions simply to make the relationship real to both primary partners, if it is your first consenually nonmonogamous relationship. It can be difficult to discuss parameters initially, acknowledge that there are similarities between monogamy and open relationships, and even consider that there may be a coming out process or options you have not considered. The key is to find a therapist who is aware of issues surrounding open relationships; one way to identify a good therapist is if s/he does not assume monogamy is your lifestyle choice.
2. Planning/Removing Emotions from Arguments. To an extent all arguments involve emotions. However, a therapist can help you prevent each other from hurting one another’s feelings, breaking up, and saying things that you truly don’t mean by focusing you on the problem rather than on getting out your feelings by targeting each other.
Some issues challenging to open relationships include:
- Agreement violations: People in open relationships take a great deal of time to iron out rules, boundaries, and time schedules. These are serious agreements that might be down to high-valence, last-second decisions which require a great deal of self-control. For example, sometimes rules or boundaries with different partners revolve around specific sexual acts, and when people are very aroused it can require a new set of skills or focus to maintain what we have negotiated. When an agreement is violated it can either hurt the party who violates it (by causing a sense of failure or anxiety, e.g.), or it can significantly damage the relationship if the other partner finds out. A therapist may be able to train you in advance how to discuss your experiences when things go wrong or may help you review what was not useful about the agreement in the first place.
- Shifting the nature of the relationship: Although unexpected, the nature of your relationship with your partner may change (i.e. from primary to nonprimary). In a traditional monogamous relationship with two people, there are only two options: we are together or we are separate. In an open relationship, it is possible that for example, trios change, and two people who were primary partners become nonprimary, and a former primary partner becoming tertiary. This may feel like a breakup, and while it will require time for all parties to heal and adjust, it will also necessitate a formal renegotiation of the agreement between all three or more partners. This is where keeping your language from being hostile and maintaining the idea of being truly open can keep people in your life. A therapist can help with all of the aforementioned; healing and expressing emotions, returning to a state of homeostasis and stoking all partners’ creativity in remaking the relationship.
- Having children/explaining to children: Whether it is relatives or having one’s own children, explaining the nature of an open relationship may be difficult. Children like to be like other children. They like to be like what they read about in their books, see on television and in movies as well as in artwork, or hear in music, and no one enjoys hurting them. Working with a therapist can help you and your partners gauge what you want to discuss share with them, learn how to explain what is safe for them to talk about with others based on age, community, and other factors, and understand how to process your feelings about any disparities between what you wish you could tell them and what you can comfortably. A successful conversation between you and your children about the nature of your relationship will help you pass on your values.