Working With Open Relationships: An Introduction

Communication is that simple concept of connection for which all couples feel is the root of their problems. I am a big proponent of the work of Dr. John Gottman, foremost relationship and communication researcher in the world, and use his tools almost exclusively in my practice because they apply themselves so well to polyamory and Kink. One of the most useful concepts that he has developed is the tangibility of the bid and turn for connection. He reports that people perform behaviors called “bids” which can be overt or very subtle which are tangible signals for a desire to connect with someone. In modern times, it can be “like” on Facebook or a text that says “hi.” In the office, it can be a brief email or an inquiry for lunch. At home it can be nudge, eye contact, or a comment about how a partner looks. In any case, it is essential that these bids are recognized and acknowledged or eventually, people stop bidding and disconnection develops. I highly recommend “The Relationship Cure” by John Gottman for any therapist who is doing couples work as it is an excellent foundation book for helping couples and families.

In Dr. John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, he notes that successful relationships make life dreams come true and are centered on shared meaning. Couples need to feel like they are on the same team and are working collaboratively towards common goals. This builds intimacy and trust in relationships. This is also true for poly families. Traditional couples come into the office struggling to get on the same page and for some to set goals, so one can only imagine how difficult it must be when a family of three or more adults needs to create plans and shared meaning. For many years I have been suggesting that my poly families have a yearly strategic planning meeting which can be as simple as planning for date nights and holiday schedules or as complex as those planning the invasion of Normandy. In my clinical practice, much of the trigger for poly conflict comes out of scheduling issues.

John Gottman”S Sound Relationship House

Utilizing The Gottman Method In Open Relationships

The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy adapts to the polycule constellation, the term used to refer to the open relationship system in a polyamorous dynamic, rather well. In my practice, I have adapted this model and rather than referring to the Sound Relationship House when working with polycule families; I refer to it as the Sound Relationship Community. All of the typical house stages for each open relationship are the same as the Sound Relationship House, but I add a community center where metamour relationships are addressed. Metamour is a term used to refer to one’s partner’s partner. In addition to the structured therapy model developed by John and Julie Gottman, I have developed additional tools that I use with polycules that are discussed below.

Life has a tendency to get in the way sometimes allowing dreams and goals to be missed or lost as a result. This is especially true in polycules because time is finite and the number of needs getting filled can become exponential. In my practice, I meet with my polycules annually for a yearly Polycule Strategic Planning meeting. In these sessions, I meet with the entire polycule and work with them as a team, which allows for a shared sense of meaning. This time is used to develop a plan for making life dreams come true and setting goals for the year as a family. These meetings are also excellent opportunities to check-in on currently agreed upon roles boundaries within the various relationships. These tools are excellent resources for ensuring the health of the polycule.

Proposed Sound Relationship Community Center Levels

  • Make Life Dreams Come True
  • Create Shared Meaning
  • Manage Conflict
  • Positive Perspective and Understanding Jealousy vs. Envy
  • Turn Towards Bids
  • Mutual Respect and Intimacy Building Love Mapping and Common Connection

In the Sound Relationship Community Center, the levels are similar to the Sound Relationship house except that there is a focus on developing metamour, a partner’s partner, intimacy and trust, avoiding triangulation, learning conflict resolutions skills, and processing fears, jealousy, and expectations. On the foundation of the community center is Love Mapping and Common Connection. Love Mapping involves a couple really getting to know one another. In the community center, this love mapping is involved with metamours getting to know one another as well. Most people in our culture are under the impression that romantic relationships are meant to be forever, but the polyamory community preaches that relationships are for “a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” In short, it is important for those who are newly venturing into polyamory and those who are actively searching for multiple lifelong relationships to be mindful of individuals not feeling like they are a disposable relationship. Fostering connections between metamours can greatly reduce this feeling of disposability by making the other relationships more tangible and real. It also may dispel any irrational jealous fantasies that the other partner may have developed from the unknown. It is important when working on metamour love mapping to help them find a common connection such as a mutual hobby, common activity, or the love of their mutual partner. The development of these common connections helps when finding shared meaning later on and helps with empathy and trust building. This tool was first used in the Gottman method for improving the friendship between romantic partners. Through trial and error, I discovered that it was also an excellent tool for metamours.

The Mutual Respect level involves the discussion of expectations and boundaries involving their shared partner, other relationships, and polycule roles. As with all healthy relationship, respect and trust between metamours is developed as each adheres to boundaries and following through with expectations. Building intimacy is also an important part of all healthy polycule development. More often than not, when I mention intimacy in a session, my clients immediately assume I am referring to sexual intimacy. In my practice, intimacy refers to connection and there are a number of ways that connection can be developed. The more forms of safe, intimate connection that can be nurtured, the more likely trust and positive perspective can be developed. The main obstacles that prevent intimate connection are poor communication, lack of prioritizing the time to foster connections, unawareness of how to build intimacy, and game playing by a partner. As with any non-Kinky couple you are working with, the interventions for these hindrances are the same.

Therapist Nicki Discusses Communicating with Metamours in Open Relationships

Types of intimacy

open realtionships
open relationships

Turning Towards Bids

The Turning Towards Bids level mirrors the Sound Relationship House in its exercises and interventions except it includes metamour relationships. If metamours are actively working on the first two levels, then positive perspective is relatively easy to manage as is working through an individual’s understanding of their jealousy and envy reactions which are part of the Positive Perspective and Jealousy vs. Envy levels. This can be a positive and bonding experience for those involved, and it is managed very similarly to the Dreams within Conflict exercises.

Conflict in polyamorous relationships is managed similarly to the Gottman Method. In my practice I teach my clients how to self soothe during flooding, I discuss The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, I teach the art of compromise and active listening. I regularly have metamours practice conflict resolution skills and repair techniques. Additionally, I spend a lot of time on the avoidance of triangulation, the concept of third party communication as a manipulation tool. In continuing with our Gottman method, we often discuss Shared Meaning and Making Life Dreams Come True in the annual strategic planning sessions. The annual Strategic Planning meetings are one of my adaptations to the Gottman methodology. In these stages, we are actively reinforcing the security of each person’s role and longevity within the relationship. Work in these parts of the Sound Relationship Community also allows for each person to have a voice and validation that their needs are important as a member of the polycule.

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