You’ve heard of polyamory, right? But, do you really understand what a polyamorous relationship looks like? This week Joe chats with Stephanie Sullivan, a polyamory-affirmative therapist to talk all things polyamory. Is it just cheating? Why do some people confuse it with affairs or infidelity? Even while our society has made incredible strides in the legalization of same-sex marriage, the idea that a relationship could include more than two people has remained a taboo—even when one in five Americans claim that they have been in a relationship with more than one person. Hear Joe and Stephanie dispel the polyamory myths. Does it work?” And “How do people make it work?”
Joe Kort: Hi and welcome to Smart Sex, Smart Love. I’m Dr. Joe Kort. Our listeners have no doubt heard of non-monogamy and while there are many different forms of it, polyamory, the practice of having more than one romantic or sexual partner at the same time is definitely gaining the most visibility in popular culture. It was the fourth most frequented searched relationship term on Google in 2017 but even if we’re aware that polyamory is a thing, plenty of us don’t understand how it actually works.
Today, my guest is Stephanie M. Sullivan and she’s a marriage and family therapist at A Compass Within personal consulting in Rochester, Michigan. She earned her master’s degree in child development and family studies with a specialization in marriage and family therapy from Purdue university Northwest. Stefanie is an LGBTQ affirmative, polyamory affirmative and kink friendly therapist who specializes in working with people navigating polyamorous relationships and other forms of consensual non-monogamy. Stephanie is also an author and presenter for The Affirmative Coach at affirmativecoach.com and focuses on educating both the general public and other mental health professionals about polyamory. Welcome Stephanie.
Stephanie: Thanks Joe.
Joe Kort: So why don’t we start with just a whole the concept of what is polyamory?
Stephanie: Well, polyamory is the practice of having more than one romantic or sexual partners. When it’s defined, polyamory actually means many loves or more than one love. So that’s kind of the idea behind polyamory.
Joe Kort: Okay. And then can you tell me, I forgot to ask, I had somebody on here recently, David singer, the LA King shrink is his name and we talked a little bit about polyamory and he said something about polycules but we never got to it. Can you tell us what a polycule is?
Stephanie: Yeah, so a polycule is all of the people that are involved in one relationship. So if I’m dating Joe and Joe is dating Brad and Brad is dating Margaret, then all of those people together are the polycule. It’s kind of like the molecule of polyamorous people together.
Joe Kort: So is it like a commitment of all those people that we are in this bubble kind of thing?
Stephanie: Not necessarily, no. It’s just all of the attachments with all of the people. They don’t all have to be dating one another, but it’s how everyone is attached and how everyone relates to one another. I might not have even met Margaret, but she’s still part of my polycule, because of the extension of my partner and his partner.
Joe Kort: Oh, I see. All right, you don’t necessarily all know each other, but she’s connected… Whomever’s connected to the people involved with each other.
Joe Kort: So it can be pretty big.
Stephanie: It can be, yeah.
Joe Kort: Yeah. Okay. All right. And then you know, a lot of people think, is polyamory just for people who want to have a lot of sex? What do you say to that?
Stephanie: That’s something I get a lot and it can be for people who want to have a lot of sex, but that’s not necessarily all it is. It can be for people who are asexual and who don’t have sex at all, who just want multiple romantic partners as well.
Joe Kort: Right. Because sometimes it can just be romantic and not sexual at all. Right?
Stephanie: Yeah. Correct.
Joe Kort: And then can you define a nesting partner versus a sexual partner, and they can be separate, you know what I’m saying?
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. So a nesting partner would probably be someone who is involved and you’re sharing maybe a living space, sharing finances, that would be a nesting partner. Someone else who would just be not a nesting partner would be someone who doesn’t necessarily live with you, but they might be just as important, but they might not be. It depends on the person.
Joe Kort: And it may or may not be sexual with either one.
Joe Kort: So it’s that, I’m in relationship with you, how is this different than from friendship? These are just friends of mine?
Stephanie: That’s a great question. I think that polyamory can be… it can take a lot of different forms, and some people can have very close intimate connections with their friends and consider it just a friendship and a polyamorous person might consider it a polyamorous partner. It’s really about how you define it because how do you define the difference between a close friendship and a platonic relationship or a romantic relationship? Once you take sex out of it, how do you know the difference between those two things? It really depends on the person and how they’re defining that relationship.
Joe Kort: Which is really the way things are going now, right? I tell all my therapists that I work with, you have to ask your client, what does it mean to them? How do they define it for themselves, right?
Stephanie: Right, exactly.
Joe Kort: I like that a lot. A lot of people confuse polyamory with polygamy. Would you mind talking about that, and tell us what polygamy is?
Stephanie: Yeah, so polygamy would be the practice of having more than one wife, one more than one spouse, and there’s that difference because polyamory is an active choice. It doesn’t have a religious base, which polygamy often does. And polyamory is much more… yeah, not religious based. More of an act of choice of consenting between everyone within the relationship and making those decisions together.
Joe Kort: Okay, that makes sense. And then remember you came to one of my other talks and something we were talking about, what is it when… so polygamy means a man with many wives. Right? But then what is it when a woman has many husbands?
Joe Kort: Is that what it was?
Stephanie: I believe so.
Joe Kort: Okay. Sorry, I’m putting you on the spot, but we looked it up and I didn’t remember it.
Stephanie: Yeah, I can’t remember now either. We did look it up though.
Joe Kort: So what I want people to hear is that Stephanie has been coming to a lot of my, we do meetup groups and monthly things and so… that’s not how I met, is that how I met you? It is how I met you.
Stephanie: Yeah, definitely.
Joe Kort: Yeah. So then she adds a lot to the discussion too. So I thought, and she knows so much about polyamory and other things I thought, let’s have her on. All right. So then how does polyamory differ from swinging and can you define swinging so listeners know what that is?
Stephanie: Yeah, so swinging would be, oftentimes it’s a couple looking for another couple to swing with, you know, switch partners or maybe a couple looking for one person to have sex with both of them. The couple is primary in a swinging relationship. That couple comes first, generally. In polyamory, it’s not necessarily about one couple coming before the rest. There can be, there’s a dynamic of polyamory and hierarchical polyamory where there is a primary couple and their relationship comes above any other partners. But polyamory does have a lot more ways of of talking about that and looking at that and defining the relationships. Swinging is often times a lot more sexual, where you’re just having sex with different partners. Whereas polyamory is again, maybe more focused on that romantic aspect.
Joe Kort: Right. And then Ken Haslam is a poly sex therapist and he has that line I told you about. With swinging, you get sex. With polyamory, you get breakfast. Do you agree with that?
Stephanie: Yeah, I would say so. Not always. Sometimes people who are polyamorous can just have a one night stand and move on with their day. But yeah, I would say that that’s mostly accurate.
Joe Kort: I like what you’re saying, that we want to make sure not to make rigid definition because even people in the swinging community can make relationships with one another, right? And friendships.
Joe Kort: And someone could say, “Well isn’t that polyamory?” But they’re going to say, “No, it’s swinging. We’re partner swapping.”.
Stephanie: Yeah. Or or they might move in from swinging to polyamory. Those things can move into one another as well. And polyamorous people can also swing.
Joe Kort: Oh, all right, wait, let me wrap around that. So some people can be swingers and move into poly and some people can be poly and move into swinging.
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Or do both. So they might have multiple partners and one of their partners and them might want to go to a swingers’ club and just swap partners for the night as well.
Joe Kort: Okay, so there’s lots of choices.
Joe Kort: Sometimes too many choices maybe. Do people get overwhelmed? Do they come to you being overwhelmed about it or no?
Stephanie: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s about navigating their different agreements that they have with one another. Sometimes it’s people just wanting to explore the idea of polyamory. Sometimes it’s them wanting to explore any form of consensual non-monogamy. They come to me about all sorts of things. Definitely.
Joe Kort: And then in the swinging community, it used to be very homophobic, I remember. And even bi-phobic for men, but now that’s changing, right?
Stephanie: It’s starting to, I would say there’s still a lot of that bi-phobia. Especially for men, and homophobia for men especially.
Joe Kort: Because bi women are welcome, and encouraged even, but bi men are seen… Are they seen as predatory? Is that what the phobia is?
Stephanie: I’m not entirely sure. I don’t know where that entirely comes from. I know that there’s a lot of bi-phobia in general, just about bisexual people. You know there’s different stereotypes like, well a bisexual man is actually gay and a bisexual woman is just experimenting. Right?
Joe Kort: Exactly, exactly. I always say that for bisexual men, when a man has one non-heterosexual thought, he’s stigmatized. When a woman has one non-heterosexual thought, she’s fetishized.
Joe Kort: All right, so what would you say to people that say, “Well these are people who just want license to cheat?”
Stephanie: I would say that some people do use polyamory as a license to cheat, but that’s not actually polyamory. One of the defining things of polyamory is that it has to be consensual between all partners. Actively, enthusiastically consensual. If it’s not, if someone feels that they are being coerced into polyamory, it’s not true polyamory. So I think that that’s really important to notice and to recognize. If you’re thinking about exploring polyamory is to feel like, are you being coerced into it? Do you feel like you have to be polyamorous to keep that partner? Or do you really want that for yourself? And to do some of that self acknowledgement and self reflection.
Joe Kort: What would you say are some of the more common issues that people come in around polyamory in your office?
Stephanie: Some people want to explore the idea of polyamory. A lot of people come in with questions about how to manage jealousy. A lot of people come in with just how their relationship is changing. Maybe a new partner was added recently and that always changes the dynamics of a relationship. You know, whether it’s a monogamous couple who has a baby, or a polyamorous triad who adds another partner.
Joe Kort: And then so the whole idea of jealousy. Can you speak to that? Because people always say, “Well, one partner is hard enough and so adding more would just add too much jealousy and I couldn’t take it.” What do you say to that?
Stephanie: I say that jealousy is something that people come to me about a lot and it’s a big reason why people say they couldn’t be polyamorous, but it’s something that we deal with in our day to day lives all the time. And I’m not really sure why it’s different for romantic relationships.
You know, I had a friend a couple of years ago who got an all expenses paid cruise, 10 day cruise through Europe. Her best friend was getting married in Rome, so everything was paid for by the bride’s family and I was a little jealous, but that didn’t take away from me wanting my friends to go on that cruise. I was still happy for her. And so we deal with jealousy all the time and our day to day lives. If a friend gets promoted and maybe I really wish I could get promoted. It’s something that we constantly have, but for some reason we see it in romantic relationships as something we can’t deal with, that we just start putting rules on our partners. Like, Oh, I’m jealous of that friend so you can no longer hang out with that friend. And I’m not entirely sure why we place those rules. I would have never told my friend that she couldn’t go on that cruise.
Joe Kort: That’s a great analogy actually. I was thinking about something when you said that, with jealousy. Oh that a lot of people in monogamous relationships say, well, it’s already… Like they act like there’s no jealousy going on in their relationship and that there’s more jealousy going on in polyamory relationships. And I always answer, and you can respond to this too, is people in polyamorous anticipate the jealousy and have healthy discussions around the jealousy. Where monogamous relationships often don’t. Would you agree?
Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. I see more monogamous people in my personal experience being unable to deal with that jealousy in a healthy way. And polyamorous people do have to do that self-reflection and figure out what is that jealousy? Where is it coming from? Am I feeling like I have a fear of missing out? Am I feeling, is that my own insecurities coming out? Whereas a lot of people who are monogamous just say,”I’m just jealous and you need to help me with this.” But polyamorous people are forced to analyze that and figure out where is that jealousy really coming from and how can I move past that? How can my partner help me move past that?
Joe Kort: And which I think monogamous relationship should also do.
Joe Kort: Right? Anticipate it, have these discussions, and it’s a constant discussion. It’s not like we had it one time and it’s over.
Stephanie: Right. Absolutely.
Joe Kort: Can you define here, we have hierarchical polyamory and nonhierarchical polyamory.
Stephanie: Yeah, so hierarchical polyamory is what I just mentioned with a primary partnership. That primary partner might be a nesting partner. They may not be, but they see that as the primary, most important relationship in that polycule. So in a nonhierarchical polyamorous relationship will see all of their partners as equal, equally as important. A good example is if I’m hierarchical and I get a job offer in California, I’m going to talk to my primary partner about that decision and then I’m going to tell my other partners how that decision went and what I’m doing. Whereas in a nonhierarchical polyamorous relationship, I might talk to all of my partners about that, figure out how to navigate that. And am I going to be long distance with some people or are we going to break up or am I not going to take that job? I’ll take everyone into consideration, maybe, if I’m not in hierarchical, whereas I might not if I’m hierarchical.
Joe Kort: So people really have to know their place in this situation to know where they stand.
Stephanie: What do you mean?
Joe Kort: Well, so like if they know that they’re not the primary partner and really be willing to recognize that if something like that does happen, I’m not going to be the one to be asked. Even, I might have some input, but I’m not the primary one.
Stephanie: Right. And so I think that’s also really important for people to acknowledge, what do they want from this relationship? Monogamous people all the time have that relationship talk, and polyamorous people have to have that too. Are we looking for just a friends with benefits situation? Am I going to be okay if you end up suddenly having to move to California or is that not really what I’m okay with?
Joe Kort: What are the age ranges that you end up seeing in your office?
Stephanie: Right now I would say I have anyone from 20 to late 40s, early 50s, in polyamorous relationships.
Joe Kort: So it’s not only the millennials and the younger that are doing this.
Joe Kort: Right? One thing I noticed, I don’t know why, and I don’t know if it’s true all over the country, but in gay male couples, they don’t call it polyamory. They either call it open relationships or if they bring in a third they call it a thrupple. Have you ever heard of that?
Stephanie: I have. I’m not a huge fan of the term thrupple, but it is in common usage. I think it carries a lot more stigma to it and it’s also, I’m not sure if… I don’t know if why taking the word couple is so commonly used? I tend to use the word triad or V depending on what the dynamics of that relationship are. But yeah, it’s… An open relationship I would say is the umbrella term, a lot of the time.
Joe Kort: Okay. Did you say a triad or V? Yes. What’s V?
Stephanie: A V is where there is one person who’s dating two other people and those two other people are not dating each other. The one person who’s dating both of them would be the hinge partner in that situation. And so if you picture of V, each point of the V is one person.
Joe Kort: So each person is in relationship with the bottom of the V?
Joe Kort: Right? But not with each other.
Stephanie: Yeah. They’re not connected with each other. They might be, they’re metamours. They might know each other, they might be friends, but they’re not in a relationship with one another.
Joe Kort: Okay. I’m probably going to have to listen to this over again so I can understand this part. Because it’s a lot to think about for people, right?
Stephanie: Yeah. And there’s a lot of terminology as well.
Joe Kort: Yeah. Now, everybody asks me when I talk about this is what about the children? And you and I talked about that and I hope that you would talk about, what about the children?
Stephanie: The children are fine. To put it bluntly, one researcher, Elisabeth Sheff, she wrote a great book on polyamorous families with children. And polyamorous people are just like you and me. And there’s a lot of stigma about people thinking that it’s a kink or that they’re having sex in front of the children and that’s just absolutely not true. There’s one quote in her book that I absolutely love, in which the kid was being interviewed, it was a teenager, about their polyamorous relationship. And the teenager said, “Well, I have a lot more people to ask for money from.” And I think that’s great. You know, polyamorous children end up having just the same outcomes as people in monogamy. Yeah.
Joe Kort: Have you worked with some of these people that had been children of or have children?
Stephanie: I work with people who have children.
Joe Kort: Okay. Because I’ve had clients or even therapists coming through my training say that they were raised in a polyamory household and maybe it was two couples together and then they didn’t get along anymore. So they divorced, but then they had custody of both. So they went back and forth and they didn’t lose them as parent figures. They kept them in… There was a relational attachment that continued.
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of like that phrase, it takes a village and it’s just a different form of a village, right? To raise the children.
Joe Kort: I don’t know that I have this all fully formed out. Maybe you do, but a lot of people will say, “Well, kids are too young and shouldn’t have access, knowing that their parents are having sex like that and in these different configurations.” But I think to myself, now I want to hear your thoughts, but I think first of all, kids know their parents are having sex. They don’t like it. It’s a ew factor and they want to get away from it. But they know. I always feel like people who get upset about this with poly are monoganormative. Right? So that’s what their issue is, is that the kid knows there’s something going on that’s not monogamous. What do you think?
Stephanie: Yeah, I agree that mononormativity definitely comes in. I think the children don’t think about their parents having sex. Just like with a monogamous couple, the children don’t really consider it. They think, “Oh, I just have more people around me, more people to pick me up from school.” Whatever it is, more of a support system. It’s not something that kids are necessarily focused on because they’re not going to think of the monogamous parents as having sex. So they’re not gonna think of their polyamorous parents as having sex.
Joe Kort: Right. And they don’t want to anyways.
Joe Kort: And they ask age appropriate questions, and you give them age appropriate answers as you go on. I remember my sister’s kids knew I’m gay and that I had a husband and they started asking me as they got older, “Do you have sex? What kind of sex? What’s going on in there?” And I’ve just basically said, “None of that’s your business. All you have to know is that Mike’s your uncle, I love him with the same kind of relationship that your mother and father have.”.
Stephanie: Yup, absolutely.
Joe Kort: Well we have a better relationship than their mother and father had. What else would you want to add to this conversation that I haven’t asked so far?
Stephanie: I’m not sure. I mean I think the polyamorous community… A lot of questions I get as well about the polyamorous community is how people manage time. And I think that time is a little bit different and people consider the fact that you can’t give all of your time to one person, that means that you can’t be as committed to that one person. And I’m not sure how people are defining commitment, but I think that that’s an important thing just to acknowledge because it’s not necessarily about having to give all of your time to one person. That’s more about the quality of time that you’re getting with that one person. And it also takes a lot of the pressure off of an individual to be that all of that thing. You know, if I have a partner who loves baseball and I hate baseball, that partner can go with their other partner to that baseball game and I’ll just have a bubble bath by myself at home or whatever, you know?
Joe Kort: Right. So it takes the stress off and give some more options.
Joe Kort: Right. Because we can’t be everything to our partners. We’re taught that we should be and we can be, but it’s not true.
Stephanie: Exactly. Exactly.
Joe Kort: Polyamory offers alternatives to that.
Joe Kort: So what about a couple where they are monogamous, but now over time they’ve decided, I want to be poly. How should they negotiate that and how this should that discussion go?
Stephanie: I would say bringing it up would be the first step and reading a book. There’s lots of good books out there about polyamory. More than Two, The Ethical Slut. The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory is one of my favorites. Definitely reading a book, getting some information about it. I think a lot of people try to jump into a polyamorous relationship and aren’t prepared for it. Starting out saying, “I’m going to go out for the night. I’m not going out on a date, but I’m not telling you where I’m going and we’re not going to be in contact.” That’s a great way to start because a lot of people try to go out on a date and then their partner is at home having a panic attack. Trying to get some of that differentiation for each of them is really important. Reducing some of that codependency that monogamous couples tend to have.
Joe Kort: Right. And then maybe reminding themselves that we can open and close this as need be with each other, so that it’s a fluid exchange. Right?
Stephanie: Yeah. And going slowly. Opening and closing oftentimes can be a little bit problematic because it leads to a lot of maybe distrust of the process. Maybe once would be okay, but is going really, really slowly, is really important. I think that would be more beneficial than opening and closing your relationship time and time again.
Joe Kort: That makes sense. Now a lot of people also say, and sometimes I do see this where they say they’re opening the relationship because it’s on its way out, so they’re trying… Like trying to have a baby is going to make the relationship better. What did you say to that?
Stephanie: That rarely works. I won’t say it never works, but I think that your relationship has to be in a stable place in order to open up.
Joe Kort: Yeah, I love it. I have this couple that I’m working with right now and I love them and I love what they said. They said, “We are in an open relationship and we’re having lots of problems since we opened it, but it’s not because we opened it, it’s because as we opened it, it illuminated and highlighted the already existing problems we have.” And I thought that was really astute and really discerning for her and her husband to be able to say something like that.
Stephanie: Absolutely. And I think when people try to close up a relationship because they’re having problems, they’re not acknowledging the fact that this is just another transition in their lives. Just like when a monogamous couple has a baby. That’s a transitional phase. You’re going to have problems, you’re going to have issues come up. And the same as when you’re opening up into a polyamorous relationship.
Joe Kort: I was checked once in a presentation cause I said when I worked with open relationships, if there was one that strayed or broke the contract or whatever, I would make them close the relationship and then have it go back open after we worked it through. And someone said that’s not fair to the partner who didn’t cheat and stayed true to the contract. So what you’re saying aligns with that.
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not fair to just close up and leave those other partners hanging. Right. Well thank you so much. How can people reach you after this podcast? You can find me in a couple different ways. You can find me on affirmativecouch.com you can find me at acompasswithin.com. Facebook.com/SMSullivanMFT. Yeah.
Joe Kort: It’s been a pleasure having you on and I hope we can do it again and I hope you come to more of my meetup groups and add to the conversations we’ve been having.
Stephanie: Thanks so much, Joe. It was a pleasure being on.
Joe Kort: Thanks Stephanie.