Coaching for polyamorous and ethically non-monogamous people

Before we start with exploring how coaching can help those in polyamorous and other kinds of ethically non-monogamous relationships, we need to get clear on what is meant by these terms. First off, polyamory is the name given to the practice of having multiple loving, committed relationships at the same time where everyone consents to this relationship structure. There are various different ways these relationships can be structured depending on the needs and preferences of those involved, but that is a matter for a different article. Polyamory is one of the forms of ethical non-monogamy.


What is ethical non-monogamy?

Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is basically an umbrella term to cover all types of non-monogamous relationships where all of the parties consent to being involved. It includes things like open relationships and swinging as well as polyamory. ENM is not a way to condone cheating on a partner, and yes, people do still cheat in ENM relationships - to the dismay of those who value the ethical approach and the key position that consent has in ENM.

With the basic terminology defined and cleared up, this article will explore how coaching can help those who are wanting to explore polyamory or some other kind of ENM, as well as those who are already engaging in one of these relationship structures.

The same kinds of issues impact these relationships as they do monogamous ones - the way they show up in these different relationships can differ, though. So we’re going to be looking at how coaching can provide support in addressing things such as jealousy, boundary issues, having a poor view of yourself and not knowing how to effectively manage emotions (whether they’re your own or your partner’s). 

Processing jealousy

Contrary to what seems to be a popular belief, jealousy does crop up in polyamorous and other ENM relationships too. It can be felt when seeing a partner with someone else, simply knowing that they are with someone else or hearing that they went to your favourite restaurant. It might be felt one day but not the next or with one specific person but not another.

Jealousy is one of those really destabilising experiences that can throw a person for six when it does crop up. In our society, there’s no consensus on whether jealousy is an indicator of a healthy relationship or not and I generally believe that it is rather neutral. To be clear, regardless of whether you see it as healthy, unhealthy or neutral, there are ways of approaching it that can benefit a relationship and there are ways that can breed resentment and harm a relationship. 

Personally, I enjoy working with jealousy because successfully doing so can have a profound impact no matter what the relationship structure and in a relatively short space of time. Working with it does require my client to be willing to look at the jealousy and also to look behind it.

From what I’ve seen, it makes an appearance when someone is feeling insecure and scared for some reason. That fear could come from an old wound due to broken trust in the past within that specific relationship (i.e. “I’m scared of being hurt like that again by you”) or it could be something less obvious like a fear of not being enough or of being replaced, for example. Whatever the insecurity, whatever the fear, identifying them means we can actually look to see what it is that my client needs in order to feel OK again.

This is hardly ever as simple as their partner never doing the thing that triggered the insecurity and fear. It is also specific to the client and what helps them. For example, I know one person who, when their fear of being replaced gets triggered, just needs some quality time with their partner at the next available point in time. A person’s needs after experiencing something like jealousy can be different based on the specific underlying insecurities and fears. 

Identifying what they need in order to feel OK again is not the end of it though, because they often have to communicate this with their partner. Unfortunately, we aren’t all equipped to have these vulnerable, honest conversations where both people are heard. 

Examining, establishing and enforcing boundaries

If someone struggles to have honest conversations with their partners, a coach can support them in building up this skill set, too. Introducing concepts like non-violent communication and mindful listening to people who are practising some form of ENM can be very helpful.

These communication skills can really shine if someone is learning how to establish and enforce healthy boundaries. To be fair, requesting quality time at the next available opportunity is an example of a healthy boundary. It is a clear statement of what they need in a straightforward, honest manner and other people then have the option of how to respond to it.

Problems arise, however, because we don’t all grow up knowing what a personal boundary is, how to tell if we have healthy or unhealthy boundaries or even how to be assertive in stating and enforcing our boundaries. 

This is why some people will:

  • prioritise other people’s feelings above their own, to their own detriment
  • not speak up when something isn’t OK
  • assume responsibility for the happiness of those around them
  • expect other people to make them feel happy
  • try to shape themselves into what they think other people want
  • dismiss their own needs
  • try to “fix” other people
  • try to control what other people do, where they go and who they see

The above is not a complete list but it gives you an idea of what unhealthy boundaries can look like in polyamorous and ENM relationships. When someone who recognises themselves in lists like the one above comes to me wanting to improve things, they often know they need to change but don’t know how to. Sometimes even just thinking about setting a new boundary and challenging the status quo can feel daunting and overwhelming.

That’s where a coach can provide support and guidance. The client is the one who needs to be identifying the desired boundaries, sometimes with support in doing so, and the coach can help them learn, practise and use tools like non-violent communication in the setting and enforcing their new boundaries. When approaching something like this from a polyamorous and wider ENM perspective, it can be important to acknowledge that different partners may react differently and to support the client in feeling able to handle that.

Addressing negative beliefs

It’s not uncommon for people who are struggling with relationships to hold some negative beliefs about their own character, worth or capabilities. Whether they believe one example of wrong-doing from their past defines them as a person, don’t believe they are good enough (also see young enough, pretty enough, smart enough, etc) or indeed hold any other kind of self-critical belief, the impact on their life is likely to be significant, enduring, and far-reaching.

Partners, family and friends may try their best to bolster their view of themselves but, more often than not, neither the person who holds negative self-beliefs nor the people trying to give them a boost feel heard and seen. The end result is everyone feels frustrated. 

When people don’t view themselves positively, it can cause them to:

  • dismiss compliments
  • question partners as to why they’re even in the relationship
  • experience feelings of depression and anxiety
  • rely on external validation even though it doesn’t last
  • constantly engage in comparisons between themself and other people
  • their partner(s) are involved with
  • display clingy behaviours
  • use things like sex, food, alcohol, drugs, games etc as forms of escapism
  • be very sensitive to rejection and criticism

Working with a coach can be a great way to address how someone views themself, and improve their outlook on life and their relationships. This is typically deeper than repeating positive affirmations and the law of attraction type thinking will reach so some care needs to be taken when choosing who to work with. 

Managing emotions

Lots of people find it challenging to manage their own emotions. I used to know someone who struggled with this so much that, after his favourite football team lost a match, he was like a bear with a bad head for the rest of the day. His family would have to avoid him or bear the brunt of his unregulated emotional state.

When someone has trouble managing their emotions in a polyamorous/ENM relationship, the impact is not contained to just one relationship. Much like the man whose family avoided him after his football team had lost, the polyamorous or ENM person who struggles to regulate their emotions will also find their partners feel the effects and respond accordingly.

Signs that someone is finding it difficult to manage their emotions include:

  • being irritable and quick to anger
  • feeling very anxious, having anxiety or panic attacks regularly
  • moving from one distraction to another
  • being impulsive
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling depressed
  • having no energy
  • being emotionally numb
  • being disconnected
  • withdrawing from people

When someone struggles with this kind of thing, they can’t just change that on their own. A coach or other professional is going to be needed to help them learn how to improve their emotion regulation. I like to think of this process as starting the client getting to know themselves better and getting some understanding of why they are experiencing these things. Once they understand what is going on, with the support of a coach, they can start learning how to actually manage their emotions. 

When someone is in a polyamorous or other kind of ENM relationship, their ability to handle other people’s emotions is in greater demand than in monogamous relationships. This is simply because they have more important people in their life and all people experience emotions.

Sometimes people can struggle to cope with the emotional experiences of other people. An example of this is feeling overwhelmed and helpless when a partner is experiencing high levels of anxiety. Another example is getting irritable and frustrated with a partner who frequently withdraws and doesn’t do things they need to because they don’t have the energy. In both of these, we know that a compassionate, understanding approach is likely the best. Yet, that isn’t always available to people and working with a coach can help.

I tend to ask about how their relationship is with their own emotions first. This can be a good place to start with some people because part of the reason they’re limited in how they respond to others is that they are limited in how they respond to that emotional experience within themselves as well. There are other ways to approach this, depending on the client.

Polyamorous and ethically non-monogamous people can benefit from coaching in various different ways such as:

  • processing jealousy
  • examining, establishing and enforcing boundaries
  • improving communication
  • addressing negative beliefs they hold about themselves
  • improving how they manage their own as well as other people’s emotions

These all require an appropriately skilled coach and, ideally, a coach who is informed about ENM relationship structures. This kind of work can help the client become a healthier and happier person who is better able to engage in healthy relationships. 

If you saw yourself in any of this, contact me today to discuss how I can help you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Carole Carter, Coaching Psychologist, BSc (Hons), MRes, GMBPsS
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

Carole is a Maidenhead based coaching psychologist who uses she/they pronouns and works with people in a bespoke, personalised manner so they can improve their mental health. Particular areas of interest include emotions and coping strategies including self harm. Carole is an open member of the LGBTQ and polyamorous communities.

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