I recently finished reading The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, & Other Adventures*. While polyamory (sometimes referred to as consensual or ethical non-monogamy) is not for everyone, I kept finding that authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy were full of juicy pieces of insight that could truly benefit any type of relationship- or any person, really, as their guidance also applies to those not in relationships.
Before I launch into what those insights are, you might be wondering what I mean by polyamory. Franklin Veaux has a helpful FAQ about polyamory on his blog, More Than Two. If you find yourself a little confused on what the average poly configuration looks like, that’s because there is no norm- folks who practice polyamory decide with their partners what works best for them. Therefore, The Ethical Slut is not so much a rule book on how to do polyamory the “right” way- rather, it promotes insight that is instrumental in setting one’s own rules, commonly referred to by relationship therapists as boundaries.
To be successful in polyamory, one must embark on a journey of self-examination, putting conscious effort into recognizing and expressing one’s own emotions, practicing sharing and listening with partners, and collaborating with partners on boundaries that will suit everyone’s needs. Basically, you have to become really good at relationships in order to navigate multiples of them! Here are some tidbits of relationship wisdom from Easton and Hardy:
1. Practice Emotional Honesty
Both with your partner and yourself. It’s essential in relationships to be aware of how you are feeling so that you can ask for the support you need from your partner. If you are unaware of or denying an intense emotion, common strategies to avoid feeling pain, you are missing an important opportunity to communicate a need to your partner, and you may act out unexpectedly when your partner- surprise!- doesn’t act accordingly. If examining your emotions is a challenge, journaling, meditating, and counseling can be extremely useful tools.
2. Communication is Key!
During conflict, sharing how you are feeling with your partner so that you can feel heard is the next essential step. Easton and Hardy note that is important to own your feelings, rather than blaming others for causing them. After all, feelings arise within ourselves- no one can make you feel a certain way, and owning your feelings allows your partner to comfort you, even if you don’t agree on how to solve the conflict. Easton and Hardy recommend practicing sharing how you are feeling without using the word “you” in order to avoid blaming. Sharing such vulnerable emotions can be scary, which is why it’s important as the listening partner to validate how your partner is feeling. Pause before responding and reflect back what you heard your partner say, to show them that you were really listening. If your partner is hurt, approach them with empathy and caring, regardless of if you agree with them or not. Then it is your turn to do the sharing. According to Easton and Hardy, a fight is not successful if one person loses; in a good fight, it’s a win-win outcome because everyone feels heard.
3. Get Your Needs Met
This one goes for single folks as well as people in relationships: Pay attention to how you get your sexual, emotional and social needs met. You may get each of things met from a variety of sources (lovers, friends, family, coworkers, etc), but Easton and Hardy argue that it’s important to be aware of these needs and how you meet them. If you deny that you have these needs, you will end up subconsciously trying to fulfill them in ways that ultimately won’t work for you or are possibly destructive.
4. Negotiate Agreements
Relationships are based on many unspoken agreements between partners, such as the roles each partner takes, which behaviors are acceptable, etc. Sometimes, though, your relationship will benefit from more explicit agreements- the process of negotiating acceptable boundaries and behaviors so that everyone’s needs are met. According to Easton and Hardy, you will know when it’s time to sit down and form an agreement by paying attention to your emotions, such as when you feel hurt. Rather than criticizing your partner for breaking an unspoken agreement that they didn’t know existed, use it as an opportunity to work together in order to avoid future conflict. Easton and Hardy note that it’s important that agreements need to be consensual, and that everyone involved should collaborate. Knowing one’s own feelings and being able to communicate them is vital to taking an active role in the collaboration.
*Note: I read the 2nd edition, but the 3rd edition came out this month!
Not sure if you should give couples therapy a try? Couples therapy is often only seen as a viable option when it is an alternative to breaking up – a last ditch effort to save the relationship. While therapy can certainly be a game changer for couples in crisis, I believe that it can also be helpful to view couples therapy as preventative healthcare for your relationship. Here are some instances in which couples therapy might be helpful:
You and your partner(s) are experiencing a major transition
Whether it’s moving in together, getting married, having a baby or beginning a long distance relationship, therapy can help strengthen the foundation of your relationship as well as prepare you for obstacles you may face along this new journey. For example: When you’re facing a transition that may mean spending less time together, it’s important to form boundaries around your relationship, such as scheduling a regular date night for you to reconnect after the busy work week. Or, if you are moving in together, it can be helpful to discuss how you will maintain boundaries around your own individual identity, as well. Many couples benefit from treating therapy like a “check up” at the doctor’s office- why not invest a little time and energy to ensure your relationship is in good health?
Couples therapy can also be helpful when you and your partner are experiencing a loss. Grief can feel incredibly isolating, and can take on a toll on a relationship even if you know your partner is experiencing something similar. Couples therapy can help you turn towards each other for support during this difficult time instead of each battling it on your own.
Sex is unsatisfying
Many couples report that while everything else is going well in their relationship, sex has declined over time. Or, perhaps there is a discrepancy in desire between partners, or one partner is uncomfortable with another’s sexual interests. Despite humans being sexual creatures, many of us are unfortunately never educated about how to discuss and problem solve around sex. While it may feel easier to brush aside one’s own sexual needs instead of addressing them head on, it is important for the long term health of your relationship to find ways that both partners can feel sexually satisfied. Couples therapy can be a safe space to learn how to talk about sex with your partner.
You have different expectations for the future
We all carry with us (consciously or not) expectations for relationships and families based on what we grew up with. If you and your partner grew up in different cultures or family structures, it can be helpful to have a safe space to thoughtfully discuss what values are important to each of you.
If you are interested in setting up an appointment for couples therapy, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org !