The Secrets to Making Non-Monogamy Work, According to a 'Couples Therapy' Expert

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The Secrets to Making Non-Monogamy WorkFG Trade Latin - Getty Images

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED in non-monogamy, you might be surprised to learn how not alone you are. According to a national YouGov survey from February 2023, a third of Americans describe their ideal relationship as something other than complete monogamy—and in 2022, our own survey found that 8% of American men were currently practicing some form of non-monogamy, with nearly half of them trying it for the first time during the pandemic. Non-monogamy has also become more prevalent in mainstream media, including on Showtimes popular documentary series, Couples Therapy, which just finished its third season.

Couples Therapy's expert is Dr. Orna Guralnik, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, and a faculty member of the National Institute for the Psychotherapies and at the NYU PostDoctoral Institute for Psychoanalysis. On each season of the show, Dr. Guralnik helps a handful of couples over the course of around 20 weeks—and the latest installment, non-monogamy was a recurring theme.

We spoke to Dr. Guralnik about her work as a couple's therapist, her advice for anyone interested in exploring non-monogamy, and what she hopes viewers will take away from the show.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Watch Couples Therapy Here

Men's Health: What have you learned in regard to your practice over the course of the show?

Dr. Orna Guralnik: In this work, we're always in the process of learning. It never gets old. The more people and couples I meet with, the more I learn about people's creative capacity to open up and be better at relationships. Each couple has their own variation on how they do it and people always surprise me. I 'm always in a state of surprise and if I 'm not in a state of surprise something's not going well. Then I 'm not doing my work.

I guess, in a way, I learn to unlearn. I learn that you can't come into a relationship with any pre-baked knowledge of what you think is going on or what you think is good for anyone. People are endlessly different and creative and find ways to overcome issues.

One thing that does keep affirming itself over and over is that when people learn how to appreciate each other's differences, it gets easier. People often tend to barricade themselves around their own insecurities or traumas or injuries and forget to think about how their partner is a different person. So, make that transition away from preoccupation with one's own difficulties and seeing the other person for who they are is one of the secrets.

Dr. Orna Guralnik in Couples Therapy.Courtesy of SHOWTIME

You keep a really calm exterior when you're talking with couples on the show, even when they're getting into tough stuff like infidelity. How have you learned to keep that poker face?

I don't always feel calm. When people are telling me really upsetting things, I can feel heartbroken, or when people are really mad or upset, it leaks into me too. I feel agitated or disturbed. But one of the things you develop as a therapist–and especially as a psychoanalyst over time–is you develop this kind of habit of mind of looking at what people are talking about, not just being immersed in it, but you're thinking about it, you're reflecting on it. It's what we would call an examined life. So I 'm one foot in, and in one foot thinking about the larger context or thinking about the meaning of it and that helps with not getting dis-regulated.

Non-monogamy is a major topic that appears in the show. Why do you think there's a growing interest in different relationship designs?

It's definitely a change. It's one of the factors that people think about in relationships nowadays, more often than before.

There are many many factors that combined to bring us to this point. I think a combination of both feminism and queer theory have taken apart some of the traditional ways of genderizing relationships and assuming there are certain roles that partners have to have. It's much less rigid. In addition, technologies around reproduction have made it possible for people to have kids in so many different ways now. So the old structure of the family is not a must-be. The structures are changing and are more flexible.

I also think among younger generations, people are less trusting of capitalism. They're kind of seeing end-state capitalism play out nowadays. Old structures of couplehood have a lot to do with possession. And there's a way in which people are not so trusting of that impulse to possess, so there's some of that, too.

There are other things, like how easy it is to meet people online. So it's just easier. But there's a lot of experimenting that's going on. [We have to ask ourselves] what do we want to keep from the old ways of doing things, and what do we want to reinvent?

If a couple is thinking about opening up their relationship, do you have any advice?

From my experience working with people who are ethically non-monogamous, people should know it requires a huge amount of attention paid to the relationship. It isn't something you can do impulsively and hope it's going to be okay. If you don't really get into the whole philosophy of it, then people are going to get hurt and it's going to hurt the relationship. It requires serious bandwidth.

In a funny way, people who are doing ethical non-monogamy are way more [connected] than people who don't. It requires so much attention to feelings and impact and assessing oneself, how one is feeling, [and] assessing your partner... [It's about] keeping this process of self-reflection on why are you doing what you are doing [and] parsing out selfishness versus care. It's a lot to think about, so you have to be ready for that.

How can people navigate jealousy in non-monogamous relationships?

I think people have to do a pact with themselves that when they're confronting jealousy within themselves, they have to do some real housekeeping in terms of understanding what that's about for them. What are the issues? What are they bringing with them from their past that [makes them feel] jealousy? How much are they trying to work out their own issues of self-esteem versus jealousy versus happiness? What's the price you're paying for being jealous or possessive? Who are they competing with?

There's a lot to unpack there. But you have to be willing to do a lot of internal housekeeping. And then open up with your partner and try to sort it out with them. But first, really investigate yourself.

Do you have any advice for someone whose partner is out on a date and they’re feeling jealous?

Yeah, it's often very scary for people. I think my most concrete advice would be: make room internally for a lot of feelings. Be curious about those feelings. Many things will come up. Fear, possessiveness, abandonment. There could be another side to it, like excitement, freedom, possibility. But just be open to your inner experience. And, you know, take your time to weigh the pros and cons. People lose a certain sense of security and gain joy, excitement, and different kinds of love.

Is there an activity you see couples start with most often when trying non-monogamy?

People who try to be ethically non-monogamous, they usually open up the relationship [ed. note: opening a relationship is when a couple has separate sexual partners in addition to their primary relationship]. It's usually they they still consider each other the primary relationship and other people are secondary. Some people then more [progress] into what they call relationship anarchy where there's no hierarchies, but that's only some couples or some polymores do that.

How should couples work through one person wanting to be non-monogamous and other wanting to stay monogamous?

If both people don't agree to the situation, it's not going to work, obviously. But sometimes it requires doing a lot of talking, [a lot of] patients reading some literature about what are the pluses and minuses of it, the challenges of it, and to see what function they're hoping this new arrangement would have for their relationship. So it's a lot of compensation, a lot of reading, and no pressure. It won't work if both people are not happy.

In addition to polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, you also wrote a piece recently in The New York Times about how Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has come up in sessions with patients. Are there any other poignant topics that have begun to crop up in your work?

The thing I didn't really get to write about much in that piece and it's huge in how it's affecting people lives, especially younger people, is climate and the sense of a shortened future. I think it's having a huge impact on couples. It can be as concrete as whether to have kids or not, whether or not it's ethical to have kids, where to live, how to live, the ethics of one's relationship with the environment, couples might differ on that.

What takeaways do you hope viewers have from watching the show?

Living with another person, having a deep long-term relationship with another person is hard and it requires, again, a great deal of internal housekeeping and tenderness and care for one another. Take some cues from the very courageous couples that are working with us [on the show] on how they're doing that, because they're all really, really brave.

I hear from people that watch the show [they can] start off by feeling alienated by someone on the show, but over time learn to understand them deeply and feel empathy for them. So, [I want people] to grasp that from humanity, we're all more alike than we think. And be open to people being very different, but still being relatable.

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