Monday, June 4, 2012

Therapists for the Polyamorous

It was good to see, back in the middle of May, an article at from Stacey Burling that details how the American Psychiatric Association is adapting to the reality of polyamory.
A panel of experts at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Philadelphia last week said that open relationships between more than two people can work, but it requires a lot of talk about rules, boundaries, and time spent with various lovers.

William Slaughter, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who has been treating polyamorous patients for about five years, said they need to have very good communication skills and be especially good at “mentalizing” or understanding others’ emotional reactions. He and Richard Sprott, a psychologist at California State University East Bay, and Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who recently left Georgia State University, talked about what to expect from polyamorous patients. Such patients often complain that they have to spend too much time educating their therapists, Slaughter said.
Therapists should definitely not ignore this segment of the population. Some need to specialize in polyamory.

Sheff and Sprott believe polyamory is increasing. Sprott said younger generations are less insistent on monogamy than their parents. He cited research that found that 29 percent of lesbian couples, 29 percent of cohabiting straight couples, and 47 percent of gay couples are not monogamous. Among married couples, 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women cheat at some point in the marriage. He said there is no way to know how common polyamory is.
I try to not say one relationship type is better than other, because ever person is different. But I do think honesty is better than cheating. Honest nonmonogamy, including polyamory, is better than promising monogamy when one is unwilling or incapable of monogamy, and thus cheats.
Sheff, who has been studying polyamory for 15 years, said traffic on websites for the poly community and the number of poly groups have been increasing.
Of course it has. As more people realize it is a viable option, more people will discover that polyamory is more for the than monogamy. I'm sure there will always be a large segment of the population identifying as monogamous, as well.

She and Sprott said the poly community tends to be white and well educated. About half say they are bisexual and 30 to 40 percent are into BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism), Sprott said. He said both the men and women tend to have unusually high testosterone levels and be extroverted and high in what psychologists call sensation-seeking.
Sheff has studied children in polyamorous families. In her small sample, the “kids tend to be in great shape.” These families often aren’t obvious to the mono world. They look like a couple whose good friends come over a lot or people who are good friends with their exes. Most are discreet about sex, so the kids aren’t confronted by it and neither are their friends.

Sheff said the children say they like having extra adults in their lives. There’s always someone to drive them somewhere or help with homework. “A number of them expressed pity for children who only have two parents,” she said.
In many ways, today's generations have focused on getting children to socialize with each other, and in many ways, that is good. When most people lived on farms and children worked for their families instead of going to school, children were more isolated from each other. But I think we can run into a problem when children do not get enough socialization with adults, specifically guardians, aunts, uncles, and family friends. We might not live close to our families (and our families are smaller,) so there are fewer aunts and uncles around. Kids go from daycare to preschool to all-day kindergarten to schools and after-schools programs, summertime camps and day camps, sports and other activities, and youth-segregated events. Especially for a child who only lives with one parent, there is a lack of connect to the adult world, in which those children will be living full-force in a few years. In a polyamorous home where there are, say, three parents, some of that issue is solved. A child also can see that not every adult of one gender is the same. If there are two fathers in the home, the child sees differences between those two fathers.
The important point for therapists, she said, is that polyamorous families are “not definitionally pathological.” While they don’t follow conventional morals, they do establish clear ethical codes that emphasize honesty and treating others well.
If anything, poly people may be able to teach monogamists a thing of two.
When Sheff said she thought laws should recognize parental rights for multiple people in such arrangements, one audience member pronounced that idea “not politically viable.”
It has never been more politically viable than it is now. Defeatism is self-fulfilling. We can move forward to relationship rights for all. We need to get the word out, we need to get our politicians to do the sensible thing.
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