I Thought I was a Poly Competent Therapist. Turns Out I’m Not. How about You?

Jeff Guenther, MS, LPC on May 12, 2019 in Say More About That

Last week, I wrote about competency and whether a therapist could adequately treat a client with a completely different cultural background. One of the cultural differences I highlighted was a therapist who has been in monogamous relationships treating a client who is in a polyamorous relationship. Out of all the differences I named (including race, sexual orientation and body size), whether or not the therapist had experienced a non-monogamous relationship seemed pretty low on the priority list. I figured that even though I had only experienced monogamous relationships, I could still competently treat someone who was in a poly relationship. Then, over the weekend, I went to a poly competent training and found out that I have some deep personal biases that have been drummed into my psyche my entire life. I want to share some of the personal biases I uncovered here so that other therapists can reflect on them and find out if they have similar blocks.

Before I dive into my bias, I want to give a quick plug to Heidi Savell, LCSW. She teaches the poly competent training and does an amazing job. If you’re in the Portland area, you can sign up for her training here. You can also listen to Heidi and me have a conversation about my personal bias, plus so much more, on this week’s episode of Say More About That. It’s a must listen for all therapists.

Personal bias I need to confront

First of all, I have zero moral or ethical issues with poly and non-monogamous relationships. I think they’re great. I don’t pathologize people who are in open relationships and I am completely non-judgmental. At least that’s what I consciously think. But in Heidi’s training, she had all the therapists dig a little deeper to see if any messages we received or experiences we had in the past were lurking in our subconscious that could effect how we perform counseling with poly folks. I was able to uncover the following things that could cause me to see poly relationships as abnormal, wrong, unhealthy or problematic:

  • As a child I watched Disney movies and they always featured monogamous relationships. I figured that was the only option when I was young. That created a bias of what a “normal” relationship looked like.
  • All my family members are in monogamous relationships. Which means monogamy was my only relationship model.
  • All the TV shows I grew up watching featured monogamous relationships. None were open or poly.
  • If a TV show or movie did feature multiple people in a relationship it was always labeled as cheating. Which transmitted an implied message that it was scandalous, dramatic and toxic to add another person to a relationship.
  • I believed in finding one perfect soul mate when I got married. Not multiple ones.
  • Poly and non-monogamous relationships were never discussed in grad school when I was studying counseling. Not once did open relationships come up in any couples counseling or family systems class.
  • I have always referred to couples counseling as “couples counseling” which should instead be called relationship counseling since there can be more than two people in a relationship.
  • A part of me has always thought that if you were in a poly relationship and you were experiencing a lot of jealousy or insecurity, then you should probably just get out of the poly relationship and find a monogamous one. But I would never tell someone in a monogamous relationship to stop dating people because they were feeling too insecure.
  • If my younger brother came to a family get together with multiple partners and told everyone he was in a poly relationship, I would instantly think he was just trying to rile everyone up. There would be a part of me that thinks he’s just going through a phase and he’ll grow out of it. When he’s more mature he’ll “settle down” in a monogamous relationship.
  • I have never even thought about asking my clients during an intake if they are in a poly relationship.
  • When it comes to talking to children about poly relationships, a part of me thinks they are too young to hear about those options.
  • I have never brought up the idea to any of my monogamous clients that they might want to think about what it’d be like being in a poly relationship. Although I have told poly folks to think about what it’d be like to be in a monogamous relationship.
  • I have never considered how unsafe it could be for poly folks to come out to their families or employers about their relationship status. There could be a lot of backlash that could cause a lot of harm.

The list could go on and on. And every day I think about it and I discover more ways that my upbringing, culture, society and education has subtly, and not-so-subtly, brainwashed me to see monogamy as normal and non-monogamy as abnormal. And since I’ll be living in a world that continues to think this way, I will continue to be bombarded with these messages. Which means I need to consciously spot them and be aware of how they influence my counseling and how I connect with and truly see my clients.

Clients can find a therapist on TherapyDen that has specialized experience in poly and non-monogamous relationships. If you’re a therapist that is competent in treating poly people, then I urge you to sign up for a profile. If you’re a therapist that is already signed up with TherapyDen and has selected poly and non-monogamy as specialized experience, then I really want you to think about how your own personal bias can effect your counseling so that you don’t inadvertently do harm to poly folks that find themselves in your office. Therapists that treat poly folks but are not aware of their bias might end up being a little unhelpful or, on the other side of the spectrum, could cause real harm by shaming clients into thinking there is something really wrong and abnormal about them.

Jeff Guenther is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Portland, OR.

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