In many areas of the world, romantic relationships tend to be organized as monogamous, heterosexual cisgender dyads - two partners, one man and one woman, both unavailable for romantic or sexual experience outside the relationship. The development of this reality has been driven by economic, political, and religious forces. Like any rule, however, this one is not without its exceptions. As our name indicates, at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective we work with clients who do not fit within the constraints of heterosexuality or the gender binary - we support and celebrate all sexual orientations and gender identities.
We also work with clients who represent another type of exception to this rule: participation in consensually non-monogamous relationships, an umbrella category that covers polyamory, open relationships, swing relationships, and many other romantic and sexual relationship configurations. For the purposes of this blogpost, lets refer to these various relationship configurations as “different relationship structures.” In this sense, each relationship has a different structure - polyamory, monogamy, swinging, open - a sort of framework on which many other features of the relationship rest. The structure creates expectations and boundaries around how the partners in the relationship engage with each other and with other people - in other words, what is appropriate and what is not.
The purpose of establishing this concept is to address a clinical concern that - in our experience - many clients in consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships express. In some cases, this concern is a consequence of lived experiences and previous therapy attempts; in other cases, it is a fear about the possibility of having those same experiences that discourages couples in CNM relationships from seeking therapy altogether. The concern is that the structure of the relationship will be questioned, blamed, pathologized, undermined in a way that shifts focus away from relationship dynamics within the existing structure that are presenting challenges. Instead of exploring what is working and what isn’t within the structure, this clinical misstep scapegoats the structure itself, finding it responsible for any difficulties that exist.
The point here is not that clients never come in to discuss and work on the structure of their relationships - they certainly do! They might want support navigating how to open a relationship, to close it, or adjust particular expectations that comprise their specific structure. (And indeed, in these cases, the clinician ideally helps the clients have these conversations without coming down on one side or another, without lobbying for a particular answer or approach.) Instead, the point is that clinicians must be able to differentiate when clients are interested in working on the structure of their relationship and when they are interested in addressing challenging dynamics within that structure. In the latter case, if a therapist calls the structure into question (or blames or undermines it), they risk alienating - or worse, harming - clients who already face prejudice, judgement, and hostility outside of sessions for the ways they organize their sexual and romantic relationships.
Alternatively, by showing an understanding of and respect for the structure, whatever form it may take, therapists affirm the validity of any consensual romantic and sexual relationship configuration. Romantic and sexual relationships encompass so much more than monogamous, heterosexual cisgender dyads - at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective, we validate and celebrate the diversity of different relationship structures while helping our clients strengthen the dynamics of these relationships in ways that make them feel more connected, cared for, and fulfilled.