As someone who consults with clinicians regarding polyamory/consensual non-monogamy, I frequently get asked what healthy polyamorous relationship look like. The answer is that they look surprisingly similar to monogamous healthy relationships.
But then there’s the rub.
Because when I ask people (including clinicians) what healthy relationships look like, people often aren’t sure.
Many of my patients state that they do not have any real-life models of healthy relationships. This is true for both monogamous and polamorous patients. When I expand it to include media–movies, books, whatever–they rarely do much better. Most people know that the Hollywood picture of total obsession with your person, with lots of uncertainty about will they or won’t they (which is what drives the plot), isn’t a good model. But When they think about their parents and friends, they see people who are either enmeshed with each other or people who are distant and lacking warmth, connection, and intimacy. For obvious reasons, neither relationship model appeals.
Symbiosis and New Relationship Energy
When people meet, they are two different people. They have their own likes, dislikes, and dreams. However, when two people fall in love, there is often a symbiotic process of merging boundaries. This is when you are obsessed with your new person, and pretty sure that you have managed to finally meet the person who is exactly right for you. They are exactly who you want them to be, and they worship you! What bliss!!!
When this symbiotic blurring of boundaries is temporary, it can be healthy. However, this symbiosis (which is called “new relationship energy” by many polyamorous people) can’t last. Usually it lasts anywhere from a few months to a few years. Then reality sets in.
You begin to realize that this person is not as alike as you originally thought they were. Recognizing these differences can cause people to become anxious. It can be scary to recognize that this other person wants things that are not the same as you do. It may even cause people to wonder if they were meant to be together. This is where some monogamous people break up, and start the search anew for their perfect other half. This is where a polyamorous person may decide to go out and start dating someone else to get back to that new relationship energy thrill. In case it’s not clear, I’m not recommending that you do either of these things.
What does differentiation look like?
Ellyn Bader, the co-founder of the Development Model of Couples Therapy, integrates the findings of attachment theory and differentiation.
She teaches that after symbiosis/new relationship energy begins to fade, if you don’t break up, and you don’t just go into distraction mode, you come to a the time where people can start doing the real, difficult, and vitally important work needed to create a healthy relationship.
This stage in the relationship is by far the most difficult. This is the stage in which you begin to express your own thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires, and listen to the thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires of your partner. When differentiation is occuring smoothly, you see partners who are able to manage their discomfort while grappling with their differences. You’re able to tolerate that this other person isn’t you without attacking, blaming, or trying to overpower them. You’re likewise unwilling to accept being attacked, blamed, or overpowered in order to maintain an illusion of sameness or lack of difference.
Differentiation is the active process by which people define themselves to themselves and to their partner(s).
People who struggle in relationships largely fall into one of two camps. People who are anxiously attached are prone to try to please the other person in their relationships by shape-shifting and contorting themselves into the person they imagine their partner wants them to be. There is the conscious or unconscious belief that says, “If I have different needs than my partner, and express them, I am going to be abandoned.”
People who are avoidantly attached are overly distanced and self-focused, which causes them to be lonely and feel unconnected and unloved. The fear seems to be “If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.” As a strategy to avoid this fusion, people who are avoidantly attached keep themselves closed off and semi-detached.
Differentiation means doing the thing that is harder for you.
Thus, if you’re anxiously attached, that might mean realizing that your demands on your partner might be pushing your partner away, which is the very thing that you fear. It might mean learning how to self-soothe when you’re feeling anxious, how to create a wider network of support so that you’re not just relying on your partner, and how to risk being who you are to see if your partner can love that version of you.
If you’re avoidantly attached, it could mean opening up more to your partner, even though doing so is (unconsciously) terrifying. It could mean risking your vulnerability, and sharing the sensitive parts of yourself.
What Do Differentiated People Look Like in Relationships?
A differentiated partner can give space to their partner who is emotionally overwhelmed while also remaining close enough to be caring and supportive. Also, the more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. As a result, you can soothe yourself or reach out to be soothed by your partner in a helpful way.
It means that you don’t lash out at your partner. Rather than saying, “You’re such a jerk. You never spend time with me and it’s obvious you don’t care about me” a differentiated partner could say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and lonely. Could you give me a hug? Could we talk about some other ways that we can connect once you get back from your date?”
To differentiate is to develop a secure way of relating to your partner. This earned security is created both internally and developed within the context of a relationship. This requires being authentic with your feelings and need. It also requires having a partner who is responsive to you when you bring your authentic self.
There is nothing inherently more stable about monogamous relationships than polyamorous relationships. But you have to be willing to do the hard work of showing up as yourself in your relationships and allowing your partner to do the same.