Can You Handle Clients Who Practice Consensual Non-monogamy?
In high school, my best friend’s father, a big Hollywood writer, had been called in to fix a script adaptation of a book entitled The Harrod Experiment. Of course, there were copies of the book lying around her house, and we read it, giggling and blushing at the descriptions of the sexual acts.
It was the 70s, it was Los Angeles, and I grew up knowing about swinging and open marriage. I also hung out and lived for a time in West Hollywood. I was familiar with gay culture and open sexual experimentation. So, when I started practicing sex therapy, I wasn’t surprised when some of my first clients were swingers.
Swinging, they said, was a hobby or interest just like bowling. It was merely a way for them to meet other people who enjoyed sex but got a little bored - just as you would if you ate the same meal every day.
But still, I wasn’t quite prepared for polyamory. I remember one of my students asked if we would talk about it, and it blindsided me. When she described it - people connected to one another enjoying multiple emotional connections, sometimes sexual, sometimes not - I wasn’t thrown, but at the time, people who practiced polyamory hadn’t yet made it into my office.
It wasn’t three months later that a couple came into my office wanting help opening up their relationship. After finding out why - he had come out as bisexual and she didn’t want to stunt his emotional and sexual growth - we began to work on boundaries and rules.
What did they feel comfortable with? For example, was it okay to bring other partners to their home for sex, and under what circumstances?
If they developed feelings for someone else, how would they approach this? Were there any topics off the table for discussion with other partners, e.g., an in-law’s money problems or alcoholism?
Early this year, The Therapist - a magazine for CAMFT members - published my story, “Don’t Fall Off the Couch”, about consensual non-monogamy (CNM). The title comes from a session I will never forget.
The couple reported to me that, though they liked their last therapist and felt they had received help with communication, they could not bring themselves to tell her that they had been into swinging because “We were afraid she would fall off the couch.” They felt a great deal of relief that I could help them work through issues associated with their sexual activities without feeling judged. You can read the article here.
I know that there are those who have more expertise than I do, and many therapists practice CNM, but I do not - in fact, my husband and I have been in a monogamous relationship for 39 years because it works for us.
My aim in writing the article was to help every therapist at least understand CNM enough that when people who practice it come into their office, they can listen with empathy, and if they weren’t knowledgeable enough to help, refer them in a way that felt respectful.
Want to learn more about alternative sexuality? We just added a course on the LearnSexTherapy.com website that gives you a broad introduction to the topic.
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