We live in a society that equates difference with pathology. Single parent households, career women, and masturbation have all been viewed as psychologically unhealthy at various times in the not-so-distant past. Today, the majority of society still embraces conventional lifestyles involving marriage, monogamy, having children, and occupying traditional roles in society. Sexuality is defined more broadly than in the past, but is still restricted to relatively few sanctioned forms of expression.
Many people I work with do not fit into this mold. Over time, I have developed a deep understanding of the many alternative lifestyles people may choose to live. Consensual polyamorous relationships, expanded families, same-sex partnerships with or without having children, and kink/BDSM lifestyles are some of the variations I see among people in my counseling practice.
My approach to working with individuals in alternative lifestyles is to address their presenting concerns (which may be depression, parenting, relationship or self-esteem issues) without pathologizing their life style. I seek to help individuals and couples/expanded family networks determine what is and isn’t working for them within their lifestyle and how to make changes that allow them to have healthier and more satisfying relationships.
I do not support non-consensual, abusive or unethical relationships. I report child sexual abuse and do not condone adult-child sexual relationships.
Dr. Firestein writes a monthly Q & A column for the Healthline magazine which is a separate magazine inserted into the Reporter Herald on the 3rd Thursday of each month. It is called Uncommon Sense. Here are some sample questions and answers from previous columns addressing topics such as “alternative lifestyles”.
Question: Dr. Firestein, I’m married and I often get asked when we are going to start a family. How do I explain to people that I love children, but they are not for me? My husband and I agree on this issue but other people keep bugging us about it.
Answer: There is still a strong cultural expectation that every married couple will have children and usually more than one child. Couples without children are assumed to be either 1) waiting for the right time to have a child; 2) infertile; or 3) selfish. And as you mentioned it is also often presumed that you must not like children if you don’t want to have children of your own.
There are many reasons that a couple might choose not to have children. Sometimes these reasons change over time leading to a new decision and many times they do not. Some people decide not to have children because there are certain genetic problems that run in their family and they do not want to take the chance of having a child to whom they may pass on these genetic problems. Or the parents themselves may have serious health problems of their own, limiting their ability to deal with the needs of a child.
Sometimes people decide not to have a child because they don’t feel that they have the resources (financial, emotional, time, or otherwise) to give a child all that she or he truly deserves. Sometimes couples decide not to have children because one or the other of the couple feel strongly that they do not want a child. And frequently, in second marriages, children already come with the package and the parents and step-parents already have their hands full.
Choosing not to have children for whatever reason is definitely a valid choice and one that society is starting to recognize as valid. Childless couples are also “child-free” and have time to work, volunteer and nurture each other and their own health and talents. Choosing not to have children certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t love children. Many people have very fulfilling and intimate relationships with nieces, nephews and other people’s children or work with children as part of their job or profession.
Although you are always free to share your reasons not to have children with curious friends and relatives, your reasons are personal and no explanation is required. A kind smile and the response “I love children but they are not for me” is perfectly adequate.
Question: Dr. Beth, I am a married woman and my husband and I have been married for 25 years. We have an unusual dilemma and I wondered if you can help us. My husband and I have raised a family with two wonderful daughters. Both are out on their own and very successful in their careers and relationships. Now that we have the privacy, we have decided that we would like to open our marriage up to include new people in our lives both as friends and potentially as sexual partners. We are on the same page about this but aren’t sure how to go forward. Also, should we share or not share this with our current friends or our daughters? We could use some advice.
Answer: It sounds like you and your husband are both interested in developing a new direction within your marriage. Your interest in expanding your marriage to include new friends and potential lovers is not unique, but certainly uncommon and looked down upon in our culture. As you are well aware, norms for marriage and family emphasize monogamy and the nuclear family unit as the correct and only truly workable form for a marriage. However, there are definitely other healthy people who choose alternative lifestyles. Most are very, very private about doing so due to fear of judgment or of alienating friends and family members.
What you are wanting to develop is a lifestyle that requires self-knowledge, clear and continuous communication, maturity, and finding at least a few supportive friends or a supportive community with whom you can be open and honest. It is a complicated challenge. You may already have done enough research on this subject to know that there is a modest but growing list of books, workshops and support groups on how to develop successful and healthy open relationships. This lifestyle is referred to as “polyamory”, a word that refers to our capacity to love and cherish more than one person in an intimate way.
Some people have the desire and capacity to do this, but most people never question our culture’s conventional wisdom that relationships in general and sexual relationships in particular should exist only between two people. It is much more common for people to cheat on their partners, having affairs or forming secretive intimate relationships outside the marriage than to develop an honest, consensual polyamorous lifestyle. Obviously, cheating is dishonest and the partner is not given the opportunity to consent or not consent to sharing their spouse with another lover.
Polyamory is different from cheating in that it is open, honest and requires the consent of all partners. In addition, new intimate friends or partners are given a clear understanding of the primary status of the marriage and that the new friendship is not a replacement for the marriage. Therefore, the third party is also given the choice as to whether or not they wish to become involved with a person who is already in a committed partnership.
Several resources exist both regionally and nationally to support individuals who are choosing this alternative lifestyle. Loving More (www.lovemore.com) is a registered Non-Profit 501 (c) (3) organization whose mission is to “support polyamory and relationship choice.” The organization began in 1985 and has chapters around the country, including here in Northern Colorado. The organization is not a “pick-up” or casual sex organization, but does host social gatherings, support groups, and workshops and conferences on the topic. The Loving More website is a great place to begin to locate resources, support groups and information helpful to those choosing to develop polyamorous relationships.
With respect to disclosure, there is a strong likelihood of misunderstanding and judgment from friends and family members who are unfamiliar with polyamory and ethical non-monogamous relationships. Most people confuse polyamory with cheating. In general, I suggest that you and your spouse have a chance to explore and develop your lifestyle according to your own values and needs before subjecting yourselves to potential negative judgments or risking alienating your friends and family. It is valuable to first get very clear about what you are doing and also to develop a network of supportive friends, especially friends who are experienced and successful in their own poly relationships.
Eventually, and especially if you do find one or more partners with whom you want to share alot of time and develop a deeper relationship, it is likely that you will want to come out to your family and friends (selectively) and introduce them to the new special person or people in your life. As you become educated and confident, this will become easier to do, but realize that acceptance by your other loved ones is not guaranteed. It is courageous to choose a less traveled path that promises great fulfillment and joy for the two of you and that is not easily understood or accepted by others.
You may wish to utilize the services of a knowledgeable and supportive therapist or counselor to support you and guide you through the process. It is best to choose a helping professional who is willing and able to help you see what is working and not working within your chosen lifestyle rather than one who knows nothing about polyamory or who might pathologize your choice out of hand. Lists of poly aware and poly supportive therapists can be found through links on the Loving More website. I wish you success in your explorations.