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What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory

The Lifestyles and Mental Health Concerns of Polyamorous Individuals

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Updated January 16, 2006

What these relationships have in common is a rejection of the expectation that one partner can meet all of the other's relationship needs - emotional, social, sexual, economic, and intellectual (Peabody, 1982, p. 428). Polyamory is seen as enhancing both personal and interpersonal growth, as closer associations with people who have among them a wide variety of personality traits and personal strengths are formed. [h3Benefits of Polyamory

There are many benefits that polyamorous people reap from this lifestyle. Many find joy in having close relationships on both sexual and emotional planes with multiple partners and/or lovers. The couple that decides to open their relationship to include others is often highly secure in the strength of their partnership bond, and welcoming of the opportunities for personal growth that come from close associations with new and diverse people. Polyamorous families in which the partners all live together derive all the benefits of household cooperation, which include more people to share chores, watch the children, and pay the rent. The cost of living per person decreases when there are a greater number of people who pool their incomes and energies and share resources among them.

Ramey (1975) notes the following positive elements to polyamory: increased personal freedom; greater depth to social relationships; the potential for sexual exploration in a non-judgmental setting; a strengthening of spousal bonds; a sense of being desired; a feeling of belongingness; added companionship; increased self-awareness; intellectual variety; and the chance for new aspects of personality to emerge through relating to more people.

To this list I would add two additional elements. First, polyamorous individuals tend to gain a lot of practice at communicating their needs and negotiating arrangements that are satisfactory to all. The ability to process what is happening between the members of a group is one which the psychology profession can well appreciate. Second, the polyamorous community is a sex-positive one, which means that the beauty and happiness of a variety of forms of sexual sharing between consenting adults are affirmed. There is considerable acceptance for bisexuality, transgenderism, and other alternative lifestyles among the polyamorous community.

Despite the polyamorous community's perception of this lifestyle as one from which many benefits may be derived, this view is often contested by others. People who are in polyamorous relationships face social disapproval and legal discrimination similar to that experienced by members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community (Peabody, 1982).

Recently a legal case was heard in which a young child was removed from a polyamorous household after her grandparents petitioned for custody, on the grounds that the home environment was immoral according to the Bible. No evidence of child abuse or neglect was found, and mental health professionals found that the child was well-adjusted; but the child's family still had to fight a court battle in order to have her returned; and even then, the child was only returned on the grounds that one of the three parents move out (Cloud, 1999).

Demographic data on polyamory

While openly polyamorous relationships are relatively rare (Rubin, 1982), there are indications that private polyamorous arrangements within relationships are actually quite common. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983, cited in Rubin & Adams, 1986) noted that of 3,574 married couples in their sample, 15-28% had an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances. The percentages are higher among cohabitating couples (28%), lesbian couples (29%) and gay male couples (65%) (p. 312).

Therapists' views of polyamory

Clearly, such a widespread phenomenon is an important one for mental health professionals to understand. There is a perception within the polyamorous community, however, that therapists are not well-informed about their lifestyles and needs. This limits the extent to which polyamorous individuals feel that they have access to quality mental health services (Roman, Charles & Karasu, 1978). Some polyamorous individuals report a reluctance to seek therapy due to fear of bias. Others find it necessary to use expensive therapy sessions to educate their therapists about what polyamory is, and to convince them that a polyamorous lifestyle in itself is no more pathological than, say, a gay lifestyle. Textbooks about normal family functioning do not include references to polyamorous lifestyles, and this contributes further to ignorance about polyamory on the part of mainstream therapists.

Hymer and Rubin (1982) conducted a study in which therapists were asked to imagine the psychological profile of a typical polyamorous person.

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