Common Therapy Topics and Challenges Seen with Polyamory Families

Open Relationship Therapist

Working with polyamory families requires the therapist or coach to have the ability to be a good negotiator. When working with couples that are looking into opening their marriage, our first session is the same whether they are exploring polyamory or swinging. Additionally, it is not uncommon for couples that are exploring either flavor of open marriage, to jump from one flavor to the next. I always perform The Gottman Method Assessment since the most important part of the swinging dynamic is the health of the relationship. Ensuring the core health of the foundation relationship is essential for healthy swinging experiences.

Once I complete my assessment, prior to addressing any swinging activities, I will help the couple button up any relationship issues that need resolution and coach them on what to look for within themselves when moving forward with the process. Once we have established the health of a relationship, then we can move forward with the discussion of swinging activities. I use Gottman identified relationship milestones to use as check points for my clients:

  • They are good friends and have lovemapping skills. They understand and know each other well.
  • They have positive regard for one another.
  • Open healthy communication.
  • There is trust and commitment.
  • They are open to each other’s influence.
  • They can manage conflict in a healthy way.
  • They are able to have difficult conversations in a healthy manner.
  • They have shared meaning.
  • They turn towards bids more often than not.
  • Both parties are open and enthusiastic about opening the relationship.


The initial appointment is the same as previously mentioned under swinging. Assess and resolve any individual and couple issues prior to discussing the opening of the relationship.

Relationship Agreement Negotiation Exploratory Questions

Goals of an open marriage

  • What are my goals to explore this area?
  • What am I looking for?
  • How does an open marriage support my values?
  • What do I see as possible challenges for our open marriage?
  • What do I see as benefits for our open marriage?
  • What fears do I have surrounding the concept of opening our marriage?

Vision of the open relationship

  • What model of an open relationship am I looking for?
  • What degree of personal freedom do I desire?
  • What degree of personal freedom am I comfortable for me to consent to my partner(s)? What behaviors or experiences are important for me to keep exclusive to my primary partner?
  • What behaviors or experiences are important for my primary partner to keep exclusive to me?
  • How can my partner and I show support to one another for our secondary partners? How can we best support one another if our secondary relationships create tension in the relationship?
  • What forms of intimacy am I comfortable sharing outside of my primary relationship? What forms of intimacy am I comfortable with my partner sharing outside of our relationship?

Forms of Intimacy

Safer sex agreements

  • What sexual barriers do I feel are important to use?
  • How much sexual history am I comfortable giving and receiving from a potential partner?
  • How much sexual history should be shared with my primary partner?
  • How much of my primary partner’s sexual history are they comfortable with me sharing?
  • What are my feelings and boundaries about fluid bonding?
  • How often do we want to be tested for STD exposure?

Input boundaries

  • How much input am I comfortable having in my primary partner’s other relationships?
  • How much input am I comfortable with my primary partner having in my outside relationships?
  • How comfortable am I with my primary partner having a degree of input on how I spend my time, scheduling dates and such?
  • How comfortable am I with having a degree of input on how my primary partner spends their time for scheduling dates and such?

Information disclosure

  • When is the right time to inform my primary partner about potential, emerging, or actualized relationships?
  • When is the right time for my primary partner to inform me about potential, emerging, or actualized relationships?
  • What and how much information am I comfortable sharing with my partners about one another?
  • What and how much information am I comfortable learning about my partners’ partners? How much information am I comfortable sharing about sex and dates between my partners?
  • How much information am I comfortable learning about sex and dates between my partners?
  • What and how much information am I comfortable sharing with my primary partner regarding issues, joy, and challenges of the outside relationship?
  • What and how much information am I comfortable learning about my primary partner ‘s issues, joy, and challenges of the outside relationship?
  • How much information am I comfortable sharing to my secondary partners about my primary relationship?
  • How much information am I comfortable sharing with outside relationships about my primary partner?


  • What are some ways I can bring up changes I would like to make in our boundaries?
  • What are some ways my partners can bring up changes they would like to make in our boundaries?
  • How can I request that the agreement be reopened to discuss possible revisions?


  • What techniques can we use for conflict resolution directly involving issues with secondary relationships?
  • How do we want to handle conflict between metamours?

Therapist Nicki Talks About How to Talk To Children About Polyamory

Fluid Bonding

One of the common factors that we see when working with polyamorous families is the concept of fluid bonding. “Fluid bonding” is the transfer of bodily fluids between partners and occurs when safer sex barriers, such as condoms or dental damns, are not used during various activities. For many who are polyamorous, fluid bonding signifies a deep commitment, which may be equivalent to marriage. This is a common negotiation topic especially for those who are new to open relationships and may cause some feelings of insecurity.

Time Management

A common struggle among polyamorous families is time management. This is especially a topic of contention when there are children and often when there are new unilateral partners. Time management struggles can create conflicts involving sex, intimacy, finances, and parenting. Dr. Mim Chapman (2010, p. 5) said it best when she noted in her book, What Does Polyamory Look Like?, “Poly folks are too busy communicating to have sex”. This reinforces that sexuality is not the primary focus of the practice of polyamory.

Schedules are extremely important, especially when first opening a relationship. When I refer to scheduling, I am not simply referring to dates; I am referring to sex and childcare. When counseling individuals who suffer from chronic illness, there is a disability metaphor referred to as the “Spoon Theory,” that I have adopted for my open relationship clients. In the Spoon Theory, a spoon is a tangible degree of measure for the amount of energy one has in a day. Each day, a person starts with a limited number of spoons and they need to plan out their activities based upon the number of spoons that they have. In an open relationship, emotional energy can also be limited. When a poly person has so many relationships that they are beginning to have emotional fatigue, they are considered to be polysaturated. By establishing a schedule from day one, this helps prevent polysaturation and helps to set realistic expectations about emotional spoons.

Different Ideas of Polyamory

Referring back to the discussion on language and the meaning of words based upon one’s schema, the definition of polyamory varies for different people and the poly dream family also may look different. In working with poly families, it is important in the very beginning for everyone to openly discuss and be on the same page with one another regarding the boundaries and desires of the relationships. Otherwise, the couple will be setting themselves up for conflict and miscommunication.


Triangulation, the manipulative tool of going to a third party about a complaint in order to align them with you, is one of the biggest issues I see outside of time management. One partner will vent to another thus creating an adversarial dynamic between other partners or metamours. This gets particularly sticky when partners start to speak for one another. When working with this situation, I set very firm boundaries with my clients about what is appropriate to share and what is not. Once a polycule masters their time management and have developed a routine and good communication, this improves greatly and their boundaries on venting can be relaxed, however, this takes time and trust building.

Therapist Nicki Discusses Triangulation

Introduction of New Members

As a polyamory family tree grows, the topic of introducing new partners can become more complicated. It is important to establish a protocol for introducing new members to the polycule prior to even considering this concept. This prepares the other partners for the possibility and establishes a clear expectation of what adding new partners would involve. This practice will prevent hurt feelings and unnecessary conflict.


One of the common issues I see in poly therapy is the grief involved with losing an axillary partner. There is a popular myth that when you have more than one partner, then the grief should be minimal. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth and completely minimizes and dishonors the connection and entire relationship that the individual had with their partner. Anytime someone comes in with this attitude, I immediately ask how they would feel if one of their parents or children died or was lost. Just because you have more than one, does not imply that the spare replaces the pain. Clinically we know that having another baby after losing one, never takes the pain away, it merely is a distraction and it is important to honor the loss and to grieve it appropriately.

There tends to be a pathological circle, especially in inexperienced poly people, where the injured party feels guilty about hurting and does not feel safe to grieve with their partner. This leads the partner to feel helpless and frustrated because they hate that their relationship is put on hold as they grieve but alternatively, they are hurting for their partner. Also, if the metamour had or has a close relationship with the lost partner, they themselves will grieve as well. Neither of their grief is any less important or any more painful than the other. Grief and despair are like gasses which can completely envelope you in moments. I find that doing couples grief work is essential in these situations. Giving both parties permission to feel what they are feeling is the first step. Whatever methods as a therapist, you use for the grieving process, continue to do so with your poly people.

Broken Boundaries and The Love Bank Robber

Trust is very delicate and it is especially delicate in the beginning of the journey of non- monogamy. Just like with swinging couples, there is a very good chance that someone somewhere will break a boundary in a poly dynamic. It is important to follow the same guidelines of examination, appreciation, repair, and adjustment as necessary.

Should there be a partner that continues to break boundaries regularly, then there clearly is a pathology that must be examined. Should you have a partner that continues to disrespect boundaries, I refer to them as the love bank robber. No matter how much love is in that love bank, continued betrayal can wipe your account clean out. It is for the integrity of your other relationships, that the partners’ feelings of betrayal are validated and interventions made a priority.

Strategic Polyamory Family Planning

During the months of January and February, I perform numerous strategic polyamory family meetings with my clients. This is where I set up a 2-3-hour session and sit down with an entire polycule and discuss goals for the year, long term dreams, and what challenges they feel might be important to address in their agreements.

The first strategic meeting with a polyamory family is usually more administrative. Prior to the initial meeting, I administer the Online Learning Styles Inventory and Predictive Index, two assessments that I use in order to help me help them identify what type of roles and activities work best for them and more clearly. I will spend some time explaining the purpose and results of these assessments. Based upon the results, I will use visual aids, reflective listening, and provide either or both big picture and minute details for our planning process. Some therapists find the use of these tools cost prohibitive, but I have found that they make the process smoother and, in the end, it catalyzes improved communication between your patients on a very subconscious level. I find that once the first year initial meeting has been completed, the following years are much easier and faster. In fact, I have poly families that are able to just email me their yearly plan for updates and recommendations.

The second session, is for the development of the first long term goals and for yearly monthly goals. This is a wonderful team building exercise for the family and I have found that it helps metamours connect in a more intimate way. I generally set them up with a monthly accountability goal with one person in charge of tracking it. Many times, these meetings are simply for calendar development or role distribution. In short, this poly strategic planning meeting is very popular among my clients for its multiple benefits.

The Game Changer in Polyamory Families

Occasionally I will see polycules who come in because one of the members will have gotten swept away in new relationship energy, and will decide that they are either no longer poly, or have stopped loving their other partner and decide that they need to leave the previous relationship. In my clinical experience, I have yet to see this go well and of the 24 clients I have had who experienced this, every one of them has reported regret. As we know, oxytocin is the hormone of bad decision making, and I warn my new poly clients about this phenomenon and request that no major life changing decisions are made during the NRE period.

Healthcare in Polyamory Families

The primary concern for the healthcare provider is safety and sexually transmitted diseases. STD screening is something that swingers generally seek either annually or when there has been a possible exposure. I cannot tell you how many of my clients come in frustrated that when they requested a complete STD panel, and are frustrated to find out that their physician did not order an HSV 1 and 2 panel. Traditional standard of care does not require that this is ordered unless there is a breakout, though research has shown that people can be a carrier of the virus and never have an outbreak. It is important for an individual to know if they are one of these individuals. As a rule, it is important as a medical provider to keep this in mind when working with clients with multiple sexual relationships

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