Case study 6 – A polyamorous couple who came undone mid-life
Until their children became teenagers, Adrian and Dominique had many other lovers without exactly sharing the extent of it but agreeing on their freedom to do so, discretely and away from home. Dominique called a halt to the polyamory but Adrian wanted to go on. They sought my help and I learned that they lacked the skills and the intimate knowledge of each other’s needs in order to discuss the unspoken rules, which had governed their relationship for decades. I provided emotion focussed couple therapy, which facilitated honest talk between them probably for the first time, and this led to a real conclusion to the polyamory.
Adrian and Dominique were a compatible couple. They never spoke about it but both knew what the other was up to in their secret lives. Theirs was a consensual non-monogamy.
It’s hard to say how it started, it would be a bit like separating squabbling children and trying to find out who hit whom back first. Perhaps it began when Dom’s parents were asked to remove the pre-teen from a series of schools for her ‘inappropriate interest’ in physical relationships. For Adrian, when aged around 10, had taken to following older girls home from school and sometimes into their bedrooms.
There’s was a spontaneous flowering of precocious sexual interest without prior conditions. They managed to explore it despite parental and community concerns, simply by building a secret life.
‘It was great training in deception?’ I asked.
They both agreed.
They were canny, rebellious, promiscuous teenagers who ate life with a passion. The sort of kids you couldn’t help but warm to, marvel at and be troubled by all at the same time.
In their twenties they surprised everyone – each settling into a serious relationship. Both had been living with that someone else for a number of years when they began the affair that turned into this marriage, their children and a mortgage.
After marriage they maintained their secret lives without discussion or overt conflict and with a few well tried, unspoken rules: never at home; never in the family/friendship circle; never at work; never to know the other’s secrets, and always in balance with each other.
This was their unspoken, moral contract. It was understood as binding.
As a psychologist I thought for a while their version of history was a whitewash. Who comes to see a shrink with a happy childhood? I’ve come to expect precocious sexual interest associated with unhappiness or abuse. But I discovered it was not so in this case.
Now, mid-life with teenage children of their own, Dominique was tiring of the complications of extramarital affairs but Adrian wanted to keep going.
The imbalance was intolerable to them both and threatened to betray that rule of their unspoken moral contract – to always be in balance with each other’s affairs.
They had little practice in dealing with incompatibility or conflict in an overt, intimate and transparent way.
They first had to learn to speak the unspoken rules, which was confounded by the rule not to know each other’s secrets. Almost as if there was a rule at another level – do not discuss the rules.
This how we began the therapy in Brisbane. Unpacking history and later, rewriting the rules. Adrian came to accept the change because it involved a lesser loss, and he was tiring of the complications.
The key to successful polyamorous relationships are rules, but they need to be discussed, explored openly and mutually agreed without duress.
An open marriage without rules and regular reviews of rules is a one-sided recipe for anguish and betrayal.