Therapists are blaming polyamory for patients’ problems. These researchers want to change that.

two man and three women holding hands on a table implying a polyamory relationship or love triangle.
Photo: Shutterstock

Although neither concept is new, consensual non-monogamy and polyamory are getting a lot of attention these days. Through increased coverage in the press and on our screens, relationships beyond those of monogamous couples are suddenly being examined and scrutinized like never before. 

However, misunderstandings about these relationship structures remain common. Studies have shown that stigma about consensual non-monogamy still widely persists. And apart from a few cities, there are strikingly few legal protections for people in non-monogamous relationships.

Even mental health professionals seem to carry the stigma. Research has found that  a lack of adequate information and training means too often, they focus on instilling shame and reinforcing harmful messages to patients who practice consensual non-monogamy or polyamory.

According to one study of 249 individuals in various forms of consensually non-monogamous relationships, therapists suggested, among other things, that their relationships were the direct cause of mental health issues and parroted misogynistic tropes such as “women can’t do non-monogamy.” Some even blocked individuals from accessing care by saying they “wouldn’t fit in” with a therapy group. 

One-fifth of participants said their therapists had little or no active knowledge of consensual non-monogamy and that they had to spend a lot of time trying to educate them. 

When we consider that homosexuality wasn’t completely removed from the DSM (the official manual that psychologists use to diagnose mental health conditions) until 2013, it’s not all that surprising that understanding of consensual non-monogamy is trailing behind. But given that about 4% of Americans are currently in some form of consensually non-monogamous relationship (which is roughly the same percentage that identify as LGBTQ+), this is certainly cause for concern. And because research also shows that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to engage in consensually non-monogamous relationships, this is an issue disproportionately affecting the community.

The authors of the study regarding people’s experiences of therapy are now actively working to change the way the psychological community views consensual non-monogamy. 

Dr. Heath Schechinger is co-founder of the Modern Family Institute, a member of the affiliate faculty at the Kinsey Institute, and is a leading expert on consensual non-monogamy. He and his team are currently working to present evidence to the American Psychological Association (APA) to finally have consensual non-monogamy and polyamory properly recognized. At the moment, the APA doesn’t take any stance at all on polyamory or consensual non-monogamy. They have no official line about these relationships. And the silence of this is loud, signifying a lack of recognition of these relationships as valid. 

Dr. Schechinger is also advocating for better guidance for mental health professionals to avoid misinformation and stigma based on mononormative cultural standards. Dr. Schechinger told LGBTQ Nation that multiple peer-reviewed studies show that consensual non-monogamy does not lead to decreases in mental well-being. His work aims to encourage mental health practitioners to base their practices on “nonbiased, empirically informed clinical practices.” In other words, on real research, not prejudice.

His team has already made significant progress. 

In 2017, Dr. Schechinger and his colleagues, Dr. Amy Moors and Dr. Michelle Vaughan, proposed to Division 44 of the APA the creation of a new task force dedicated to consensual non-monogamy. It was unanimously accepted and has since grown into what Dr. Schechinger described as “an interdisciplinary team of more than 80 researchers, mental and medical health professionals, legal scholars, educators, and graduate students.” 

Dr. Schechinger and Dr. Moor are now the founding co-chairs of the APA Division 44 Committee on Consensual Non-Monogamy. It’s the first of its kind.

“The main things that we are proposing are essentially following the same footsteps of what was asked [in the past] in terms of taking steps to offer support and awareness for the LGBTQ community,” Dr. Schechinger said. “We’re asking for additional funding for research and data collection. We’re asking for additional focus and research or resources towards education and training programs, and we’re also asking for empirically informed clinical guidelines. We’re asking the APA to support non-discrimination policies protecting the consensual non-monogamy community.”

In the U.K. the outlook is different and arguably better. Therapist training often involves training on relationship diversity, which includes learning about including polyamory and consensual non-monogamy, and allows therapists to support patients in these relationships in a non-judgemental way. Dr. Schechinger points out that in the U.S., there are currently only provisions for training around gender and sexuality — nothing about relationship diversity. 

“The really significant mistake that therapists made is that they would blame the client’s problems on consensual non-monogamy,” he explained. “This bias would lead them to encourage the client to end a relationship or make statements that indicated that there was something wrong with them or that relationship structure was causing the problems. But the data suggests that consensually non-monogamous relationships last just as long and are just as satisfied as monogamous relationships.” 

It’s the stigma, not the relationship structure itself, that causes negative outcomes for a person’s well-being, said Dr. Schechinger. “Over three-quarters of people in consensually non-monogamous relationships indicate that they are experiencing or have experienced some form of stigma or discrimination on the basis of the relationship structure in a myriad of different ways. There are clear associations that this negative experience relates to poorer relationship outcomes, also with mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression.”

Even though there are US therapists who do have a good understanding of consensual non-monogamy they may not be easy for potential clients to find until it is officially acknowledged or recognised. There’s no tick box they can select on prominent directory sites, such as Psychology Today, to advertise their knowledge of diverse relationships. This is another thing Dr. Schechinger and his team are working to change.

Recognition by the APA and the psychological community broadly would be a vital first step in encouraging therapists to shift their thinking on consensual non-monogamy and approach it in a way that is based on real data and evidence. This won’t solve every issue faced by the consensually non-monogamous community, but it would be a huge step in the right direction for people looking to access mental health treatment without fear of shame or prejudice.

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