Finding love and intimacy is a big part of most people’s lives. Relationships are often the source of our most fulfilling moments, and, at times, our most stressful moments as well. It likely isn’t a surprise that romantic relationships are one of the most common topics addressed in therapy. While the majority of people prefer monogamous relationships, an increasing number of people are in or considering consensually non-monogamous relationships, where all adults involved consent to having more than one sexual and/or romantic partner. Despite the growing interest, it is still nearly impossible to search for a therapist that is educated about consensually non-monogamous relationships.
Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is a rising issue in the field of Psychology. This past year, Division 44 of the American Psychological Association established a Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force. As Co-chairs of the inaugural APA committee dedicated to this issue, improving access to mental health services is one of the our top priorities.
One of the barriers to accessing mental health that people engaging in CNM face is finding a therapist who can support support them. While an increasing number of therapists are receiving training on CNM, most have not, increasing the importance of creating overt channels for CNM clients to find a CNM-affirming therapist. A conversation with anyone in or exploring a CNM relationship who has sought out a therapist will reveal how frustrating this process is, because, currently most people have to rely on informal networks to find a CNM-affirming therapist. I receive or observe requests nearly daily from friends, acquaintances, and/or individuals on listservs who are trying to find a CNM-affirming therapist. Clearly this is an issue, and now we have research that highlights the importance of being able to find a CNM-therapist.
Below, I list six reasons therapist locator websites should include consensual non-monogamy as a search term.
1. CNM is a Large and Growing Population
More than one in five people in the United States have engaged in a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship at some point in their life and approximately 4-5% of people in the US are currently in a CNM relationship, which is roughly the size of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community combined. Interest in polyamory and open relationships (two types of CNM) have also been increasing rapidly, especially over the past 10 years.
2. CNM is Highly Stigmatized
Despite the prevalence of CNM, people who challenge the monogamous status quo are looked down upon. Recent surveys point to how CNM is judged negatively in a number of ways, such as being perceived as being more risky, immoral, less trusting, less meaningful, and less satisfying compared to monogamy. People in CNM relationships are even judged more harshly on arbitrary characteristics such as how likely they are to walk their dog or pay their taxes on time. Notably, this stigma has been found to be untrue, as research looking into this has found CNM relationships are just as satisfying as monogamous relationships and an equally viable alternative to monogamy.
3. CNM Stigma Likely Causes Additional Mental Health Burdens
People who are part of sexual minorities are disproportionately exposed to rejection, discrimination, and victimization compared to heterosexual individuals. As a consequence, these individuals tend to experience more mental health burdens and as a result, utilize mental health services more frequently than heterosexual individuals. The process in which stigma and discrimination create a hostile environment that leads to increased mental health problems is known as minority stress. It is likely that pervasive CNM stigma may be causing additional mental health burdens, but we need more research in this area to know for sure.
4. Most Therapists Do Not Receive Training on CNM
Mental health providers are uniquely positioned to either help relieve or compound the impact of stigma experienced by their CNM clients. Ideally, therapists would be trained on how to effectively recognize and counteract CNM-stigma. However, it is currently rare for therapists to receive explicit training on CNM, leaving therapists susceptible to causing harm to their clients by creating or reinforcing stigma through implicit or overtly biased practices. People in CNM relationships seeking mental health services are therefore tasked with finding culturally competent care in environments that, in many cases, are not prepared to support them.
5. LGBTQ-affirming Therapists May Not be Educated About (or Supportive of) CNM
Some may argue that adding consensual non-monogamy as a search term is not needed because most sites already include search terms related to LGBTQ. Relationship structure and sexual orientation, however, are separate concepts. A therapist may hold affirming attitudes toward same sex attractions and non-affirming beliefs about consensual non-monogamy due to their values, or simply because they they have not been trained on CNM issues. Keep in mind that therapists are currently much more likely to receive training working with LGBTQ clients than they are CNM clients. There may be some overlap in experiences between the LGBTQ and CNM communities (e.g., experiencing discrimination, adoption/custody/parental participation issues, coming out concerns), the experiences of these communities are vastly different and therapists are encouraged to strive to understand unique contextual manifestations distinguishing sexual minority communities. Therapists and individuals in the queer community are not immune to negative societal stigma and are subject to holding prejudiced attitudes, even toward other communities with shared experiences. Stigma toward bisexuality, for example, has been documented among therapists and people who identify as gay or lesbian. So, while being supportive of LGBTQ issues may also be an indicator of being affirming toward CNM, this cannot be presumed.
6. Searching for a CNM-affirming Therapist is Linked to Better Therapy Outcomes
A couple of colleagues and I recently published the largest study to date on people engaged in CNM who sought therapy. One of the key takeaways was that nearly half of our participants looked specifically for a therapist who was CNM-affirming, with those who did experiencing better therapy outcomes than those who did not look for a CNM-affirming therapist. Our results highlight how many who are engaged in CNM are trying to find therapists who are educated and affirming toward CNM and that this is associated with positive therapy outcomes. The fact that therapist locator sites currently do not include consensual non-monogamy as a search term is problematic because it creates a barrier for CNM therapy clients attempting to access the mental health care providers that are most likely to be helpful. Failing to include consensual non-monogamy reinforces the erasure of this identity and creates additional barriers for this already stigmatized population to access culturally competent care. Therapist locator sites serve as gatekeepers and have an opportunity to help a stigmatized population (that is large and growing) gain access to the mental healthcare they need and deserve.
How You Can Help
These six points culumate to the notion that including CNM as a search term is a win-win. Adding consensual non-monogamy as a search term would make it easier for CNM clients to find CNM-affirming therapists, which is a clear win for both prospective clients and the therapists who want to support them. Including CNM on therapist locator websites would also increase traffic to these sites by bring additional CNM clients and therapists on board. Everybody wins!
In light of the growing demand for accessing CNM-affirming therapists, the APA Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force has created a formal campaign, headed by myself, Dr. Deanna Richards, and Bree Zimmerman, to raise awareness of this issue. We have started to reach out to organizations such (such as Psychology Today and APA Psychology Locator) about adding consensual non-monogamy to their website.
We could use your support by taking any or all of these steps:
Sign our petition. On the petition, you can indicate your support for adding consensual non-monogamy to therapist locator sights. You can also express your support for a number of other CNM-related issues and sign up for our APA Division 44 CNM Task Force mailing list, which is how we’ll keep you posted on our progress.
Connect us with your contacts at therapist locator websites or insurance companies. Establishing these connections helps us to know who we should be talking to at these organizations. If you have a contact that may be helpful, please email us at Div44CNMTaskForce@gmail.com.
Post this article. We appreciate your support in sharing this article on social media or any other relevant groups you’re a part of to help spread the word about this campaign.
It’s hard enough being judged for being different. It makes matters worse when you can’t trust that the therapist you seek will be informed and supportive of your stigmatized identity. We owe it to this population to educate therapists about CNM and take clear steps to remove barriers to accessing culturally competent care. Please join us in taking up this cause.
Heath Schechinger, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Co-chair of the American Psychological Association Division 44 Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force. He also has a private practice specializing in providing support to the gender, sexual, and relationship minorities.