The Scoop: Psychologist, sexpert, and intimacy coach Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey talked to us about consensual non-monogamy, polyamory, and what couples and individuals need to know about the broad and diverse landscape of non-monogamous relationships. Dr. Lori Beth gave us the lowdown on some important terms and common struggles for polyamorous relationships and gave some tips for approaching non-monogamy with honesty and love. Non-monogamy can look differently in different people, and Dr. Lori Beth encourages individuals to find a fit that’s right for them.

Polyamory is one of those things that I think many people have misconceptions about. This goes for many of the relationship setups and lifestyles that are often deemed “fringe” by the mainstream. But when you start to investigate things that are characterized as fringe, you’ll find that they’re more mainstream than you may think.

One poll showed that about one-third of Americans describe their ideal relationship as something other than completely monogamous. Education is very important for couples and individuals who are interested in non-monogamy and makes the foundation for a successful and healthy experience.

Education about non-monogamy can also help dispel misconceptions about the relationship setup. Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey is a psychologist and sex expert who has spent a nearly four-decade career helping couples and individuals explore and express their authentic selves. 

Dr. Lori Beth specializes in the areas of non-monogamy and kink and is an Accredited Advanced Gender, Sex, and Relationship Diversity Therapist. She talked to us about what non-monogamy can look like, how different people navigate the setup, and gave advice for keeping communication open and honest.

“Non-monogamy can include everything from couples who go to a sex club and invite others, all the way to polyamorous people who have several lovers,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “The crucial difference when you’re looking at all forms of non-monogamy compared to polyamory is the emotional intimacy may not be present.”

The Spectrum of Non-Monogamous Possibilities

Education is an important first step in exploring non-monogamy. Couples and individuals should educate themselves on the various terms, identities, and setups that are often involved.

“First of all, I don’t use ethical non-monogamy, I use consensual,” Dr. Lori Beth said. Ethical non-monogamy, often shortened to ENM, is a popular term used to denote non-monogamous setups where all parties involved know and support each other having additional romantic and/or sexual partners.

Dr. Lori Beth said there’s a problem with using the word “ethical” to describe something consenting adults participate in. “It may seem subtle, but to me, there’s a big difference. It implies somebody’s making a decision about the ethics of how people live their lives.”

consensual non monogamy
Dr. Lori Beth explained why she prefers using the term consensual.

Non-monogamy doesn’t need to come with moral judgments in tow. “People are either consenting to it or they aren’t,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “So I moved to using consensual non-monogamy as the umbrella term.” But, as Dr. Lori Beth said, consensual non-monogamy can look differently for different people.

Couples who participate in swinging events are considered non-monogamous, as are couples who agree to open their relationships. Some couples who occasionally engage in sexual activities with other people still consider themselves monogamous.

Polyamory is a style of non-monogamy where people have more than one emotionally and physically intimate relationship during the same period of time. Someone who is polyamorous may be married to one person and have a second partner who they spend part of each month with, for example.

Polyamorous relationships include emotional intimacy, not just sexual intimacy.

“The crucial difference between all other forms of non-monogamy and polyamory is the deep emotionally intimate– love– relationship in polyamory,” Dr. Lori Beth told us. Polyamorous setups have full-on love relationships, while emotionally intimate relationships may not be present in other kinds of non-monogamy.”

Common Challenges for Polyamorous Relationships

Ask any couples counselor what the most common problem they see in clients is, and they’ll more than likely say it’s communication. Dr. Lori Beth said communication is the top issue for polyamorous people, too.

“Knowing what to communicate can be an issue,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “I see this mostly in things around jealousy, other relationships, what constitutes a relationship with someone else. I also see it in what constitutes a sexual interaction. For example, some people think sexting is absolutely a sexual interaction, while others don’t care about it.”

Before partners can discover how to communicate healthily, they must decide what should and shouldn’t be communicated. All parties involved in a polyamorous relationship must decide where the communication limits are, what information needs to be transparently communicated, and what information doesn’t.

polyamory dr. lori beth bisbey
Polyamory is a distinct dynamic within consensual non-monogamy.

“Sometimes couples don’t want to know all the actual details,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “They know their partner is having sex with someone else, but they don’t want to hear all about it. For other couples, it’s the opposite and they want to know all the details.”

Polyamorous relationships give all involved parties the room and ability to tailor the setup to their needs and desires. Through healthy communication and clear boundaries, people who desire a polyamorous relationship can find the ideal partners.

“The other common communication challenge is communicating your thoughts and feelings when you’re already upset,” Dr. Lori Beth said. You have to be able to communicate so the other person can hear you—literally and emotionally. Don’t shout; try to get your message, not emotion, across.”

Relationships are relationships, and individuals participating in polyamory will see similar relational struggles as they would in monogamous relationships. Polyamory does come with its own unique set of challenges, but it also offers opportunities for growth and intimate connection.

Secure Connections Begin With Secure Individuals

Dr. Lori Beth told us that frequent check-ins are essential for the success and longevity of polyamorous relationships.

“We are rigid about making sure there is frequent communication. We schedule things. I do a lot of work in non-monogamy, and I always tell people I don’t care how unfun or unspontaneous it seems; you have to check in regularly.”

Dr. Lori Beth said some people struggle with these crucial regular check-ins because they want to avoid the difficult conversations that can sometimes accompany them. “The reality is most people find it hard and the first things to go are the difficult conversations,” she said. Making it regular, even if it’s uncomfortable, is going to prevent problems down the road.”

Jealousy is not an unfamiliar emotion in polyamory, and Dr. Lori Beth said handling issues around jealousy starts with the individual ensuring they are confident in themselves, and clear that they want to participate in non-monogamy.

“You need to do your own work,” she said. “I know it’s not the most fun and exciting answer, but if you’ve never done your own therapy, coaching, whatever it is that you do for personal growth, non-monogamy isn’t for you.”

dr lori beth bisbey
Dr. Lori Beth specializes in helping individuals discover and embrace their sexualities.

Dr. Lori Beth said jealousy comes from insecurity in two places: the self and the relationship. “If you’re confident in yourself, and you know your relationship is secure, you’re not afraid you’re going to lose it.” Jealousy, like many other emotions, stems from fear and uncertainty. Individuals need personal emotional skills to handle these feelings maturely as they arise.

When it comes to other kinds of non-monogamy, open relationships are a dynamic that seems to be gaining traction. Couples who are interested in opening up their relationship should have several transparent and respectful conversations before pursuing other connections. It is essential for both partners to be enthusiastic about the arrangement.

“Even when people aren’t opening the relationship to appease each other, there’s usually one person who’s more interested than the other, and that’s not a problem,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “But appeasing  your partner by doing this is like setting off an atom bomb in the middle of a relationship.”

Like any healthy relationship, healthy non-monogamous relationships begin with secure individuals. “Good relationship skills are good relationship skills,” Dr. Lori Beth said. “A lot of the stuff I’ve said is the same for non-monogamous relationships, too. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are important things for anyone.”