Photo by Olivia Chang
By Juliana Kichkin
“Oh my god it’s so different to what we thought and we’re not coping!” Anne Hunter, relationship counselor muses over couples that approach her having had their first non-monogamous sexual encounter.
This is the reality of Anne who is mostly approached by former monogamous couples in a state of chaos…
A 30-something year old woman sits tentatively across a 30-something year old man on an impossibly white couch. The man appears distressed and tenses his jaw as a woman dressed in business attire poised with a notebook in hand sits adjacent from both of them.
“So, having decided to go open and have your first sexual experience outside of your marriage, what prompted you both to come and see me now?”
The man flushes. The woman pales. The relationship counselor smiles knowingly…
This is what many Australian relationship experts are heralding as the future of couples therapy. Increasingly there is greater awareness and support for people who seek alternatives to traditional relationship structures.
“These days you can google non-monogamy and it’s amazing what comes up in part because people are having conversations online,” says Anne, an open relationship counselor of over twenty years.
Having founded a polyamorous community in Melbourne called PolyVic in 2004 by both Anne and her long-time partner Pete, they aim to push awareness and discussion of relationships outside of traditional monogamy.
Anne and Pete met in the late 1980s while both at Uni and married to different partners. As both their marriages ended in divorce and their feelings for each other grew, they embarked on a love relationship and have sustained a long-term non-monogamous commitment since 1993 at a time when counseling support was next to none.
“So many poly people have gone to a counsellor and had their polyamory pathologised and being further damaged by that process so we’re working on it. That’s from zero… I’ve got 19 therapists in Melbourne,” Anne says.
The term polyamory, a form of non-monogamy, coined by Morning Glory Zell in the late 1980s is the practice of having more than one sexual, intimate relationship with the consent of all partners involved.
The need to recognise alternative marriage structures is not a new or novel idea considering one in three marriages end in divorce according to Sexual Health Australia.
However, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics compared to 2012 in 2013 there was a decrease of divorce rates by 4.6%, which Lee Kofman, author on open relationships says could account for an increasing trend in alternative marriages.
“If there was a bit more permission in marriage…if you need something from someone involving sex I think many more marriages would have survived,” Lee says suggesting that alternative relationships could sustain long-term commitments, which could be the reality of today’s decrease in divorce.
Nina Melksham, an open relationship counselor, also notes that falling into monogamy by default isn’t necessarily the path to a healthy, long-term commitment.
“It is fairly common for people to be in a monogamous relationship…simply because it is the only relationship structure that they have ever been presented with. If this is the case for both people within the relationship, and they are actually more inclined towards non-monogamy, then there is a fair chance that the relationship will improve if they decide to become non-monogamous,” Nina says.
“We’ve come out of a strict binary understanding of things and we’re recognising that that does not incorporate everybody’s experience,” agrees Anne of modern relationships.
Even with the mainstream media picking up interest in multiple relationships as Anne was recently featured on Channel 10’s The Project with her long-term partner Pete, exact numbers of people engaging in multiple relationships remains unknown.
“We don’t know the numbers of people involved or engaging in…non-monogamy because we cannot yet get a question about non-monogamy on the census,” Anne says.
The Australian Census and the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not yet recognise multiple relationships or the practice of non-monogamy in its relationship findings data.
Dr Niko Antalffy, a lecturer from Macquarie University specialising in social science agrees exact figures on non-monogamy are hard to come by, but this does not account for monogamy as an obscure practice, rather something that is prevalent but understudied.
“It’s fair to say that a lot of people experiment with non-monogamy and a big percentage of these experiment with ethical consensual non-monogamy but polyamory is only a subset of these,” Niko says.
Not only is non-monogamy not formally studied as a cultural phenomenon in Australia, its practice is misunderstood by studies undertaken internationally, further creating a sense of obscurity and misunderstanding.
The distinction between unethical and ethical non-monogamy is not recognised as seen in studies of infidelity conducted in the US.
“There have been quite large studies done in the US, self-reporting studies on non-monogamy often that will include unethical non-monogamy like cheating…they don’t differentiate between unethical and ethical non-monogamy,” says Anne.
However the question remains, is non-monogamy as a prevalent trend an ethical alternative to monogamous relationships that could work for all?
According to Anne, polyamorous practice defines ethical non-monogamy as open communication about sexual practices with all partners to decrease feelings of jealousy.
“Jealousy is a major issue in polyamory… Sometimes people feel really guilty and they feel bad about themselves because they feel that if they’re choosing to be poly then they shouldn’t get jealous. And that’s just a false assumption,” Anne says.
One of the mantras of polyamory is that it is an individual’s role to meet their own relationship needs and not rely on a partner to fulfill them. This in theory encourages a shift in feelings of ownership of any one particular partner.
“There is an expectation in monogamous society that it is my job to meet my partner’s needs. One of the paradigms that I re-frame quite a lot is that it’s actually my job to meet my needs and no one else’s,” Anne says.
However as Lee Kofman, author of ‘The Dangerous Bride’ writes experimenting with open relationships can sometimes end in complete disaster and at times cannot be managed in the long term.
Lee cites two failed relationships as she embarked on a journey to explore non-monogamy and is now currently in the seventh year of a monogamous relationship.
“The man I fell in love with whom I am married to now is not interested in non-monogamy. And he’s not built for this. You know it’s a thing, you’re either built for this or you’re not. And non-monogamy can’t work well if one partner does not desire it,” Lee says.
Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer at University of Melbourne cautions that both monogamy and polyamory are separate orientations not meant for everyone.
“Polyamory might be an acknowledgement that not everybody is built for monogamy and it might be a good outlet for those people but I doubt it would have any impact whatsoever on people who aim for monogamy but fail,” Lauren says.
“Non-monogamy is not for everyone. And it’s not better than monogamy either. It’s just an option,” agrees Anne.
Managing schedules can also prove to be a burden for people involved in multiple relationships, which can prove the end of the road for some and the opportunity to deepen communication skills for others.
“You find at the poly Vic discussion groups one of the issues that established poly people have is time management. All hail google calendar for managing their time together!” Anne says.
Part of the perks of being involved in a community that recognises relationship diversity is that Anne can observe different relationship structures and see what works and what doesn’t. Not all ends in failure.
Citing a known poly-quad family that lives in her area, Anne notes how they all function and manage their time carefully and have built a house specially to accommodate all partners and their children.
“There is a marriage counselor who is polyamorous and the woman she calls her husband is monogamous to her but is quite happy for her to be poly. The husband also has a same sex partner who lives with them. They do quite a lot together as a whole household,” she says.
Nina also notes that time management skills in these types of relationships encourages greater communication between partners.
“Because of the need to consciously negotiate every aspect of your relationship you tend to see an improvement in communication skills. People are often surprised at how their support network expands – suddenly, when they need someone to watch the children and their partner is sick, they have a cuddle buddy, another partner, or a metamour (a partner of a partner) who are all happy to step in and lend a hand,” says Nina.
Nina says that this encourages people to view others in a more complex and nuanced way, not necessarily achieved in a monogamous relationship.
“That other person is no longer just “my wife” or “my boyfriend,” they are an independent person with complex thoughts, feelings and needs. Because you are no longer relying on them to fulfil all of your needs [it] becomes easier to accept people just as they are,” she says.
But Nina remains dubious of those seeking alternative relationship structures to solve an unhappy monogamous relationship.
“Simply adding another relationship doesn’t magically improve your relationship skills. So if you are already experiencing drama and hurt feelings in your existing relationship, adding another without making any other changes will just lead to more drama and more hurt feelings,” she says.
The question remains in an age where having an affair is almost inevitable, isn’t it simply more honest to embrace this fact? And this raises more questions than answers.
Within the digital age it is almost too easy to have an affair with anyone. Someone is seemingly always available in the online sphere. The dating website for people in committed relationships, Ashley Madison established in 2001, boasts over 36 million anonymous users worldwide. The website heralds the online visitor with the tagline, ‘Life is short. Have an affair.’
Lee suggests that perhaps young people are recognising that non-monogamy is simply becoming more of a given in relationships today.
“At the moment when you get married usually the couple will be faithful to each other sexually rather than emotionally. But particularly among the 20somethings they’re starting to relax and I think they are starting to value emotional fidelity more than sexual fidelity,” Lee says.
This could perhaps represent a shift away from meeting relationship needs as couple-centric and instead replace that with an individual assessing their own relationship needs and desires.
Anne says that alternative relationship structures stand to open a discussion to create deeper self-awareness about an individual’s relationship goals.
“You can learn the negotiation skills and the self-awareness skills and the self-communication skills so that you can work out what works for you… If it works for you and the people that you are connected to that’s great,” she says.
Either non-monogamy or monogamy can work successfully if each partner in a couple knows what they need, agrees Lee.
“So if you want it to work you really have to understand your own needs,” Lee says.
The trend in open relationships does not dispel structures of monogamy, rather it opens an honest discussion for partners of couples and singles to work out their own needs and broaden options.
“Marriage is not a set concept that you are supposed to follow. The most acceptable marriages, they waver from time [to time]. So we may change our concept [of marriage] too, who knows?” Lee reflects.