When we hold an expectation of our partner to be everything: best friend, surrogate parent, emotional processor, and the sole person responsible for supplying our life pleasure and happiness, things tend to go awry. We’ve been raised with these expectations, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. They are one of the symptoms of what’s called “toxic monogamy culture” and it tends to feed into patterns of codependency, and potentially dynamics of harm.
Whether you are exploring honest non-monogamy, or just wanting to do monogamy more consciously, building a healthy wider community of close relations is important, and there’s four people that are absolutely essential to make sure you include in your relationship landscape.
This is probably more likely to be a group of people rather than one single person. These are the experienced friend or friends (who you are NOT dating) who understand the relationship style(s) you are exploring. These might not necessarily be your every day friends, but might instead be folks you know from the local polyamory meetup, or it could be a discussion group online. They are the platonic relationships where you can vent or share and receive compassion, empathy, and compersion for your adventures. These folks might have anecdotal wisdom to offer you, but they aren’t going to try to swoop in and ‘rescue’ you with oodle of unsolicited, unhelpful, or judgemental advice. (btw, the people who do try to deal out the unsolicited, unhelpful and judgmental advice? Those aren’t the peers you’re looking for.) They might even be role models for how to do the kinds of relationships you aspire to, and give you goals for where your relationships landscape could go.
It’s important that you have some clarity for yourself about the difference between someone as a peer versus someone as a romantic interest. While it might seem like it would be great to engage romantically with someone who is a peer, be aware that if you do, then the whole dynamic between you changes. In polyamory, I’ve seen (and know for myself) how great it is to have friends I can talk to and process with. But when all those friends end up being people I am dating, or are also involved somehow in my polycule, it gets messy. When things are good, it might feel great; but when things are challenging, you can find yourself stuck in an endless poly processing vortex.
The Coach might be a good friend, a best friend who is slightly older or wiser or more experienced than you. Or they might be a professional whose services you seek, or whose advice you follow via their blog or social media page. Or, it could be that the role of coach is shared a bit between these. The coach is the person who helps you see the practical things you need to do in your relationship. They’ll give you the reality checks, the wise guidance on more effective ways of expressing yourself and meeting your needs, and they will provide the critical yet loving feedback that is essential if you want to be able to grow within a relationship. They’re gonna help you figure out the what of what you are doing in your relationships.
Definitely do not date your coach. There’s an inherent power dynamic between you and your coach: it can be challenging to navigate personal boundaries in a romantic relationship with the same person who is also teaching you what boundaries might look like in relationships. I’ve seen folks try to do this, and end up feeling voiceless against their confident and more experienced partner.
The Counsellor is there to hold space for your messy self. They listen to you, judgement-free, and reflect back what’s happening in your emotional landscape. This could be a professional counsellor or therapist. Or, it could take the form of peer-counselling. They will support you in recognising when you are acting from spaces of kindness, and when your shadow emotions are running the show. Rather than the coach— who looks at practical tools and techniques— the counsellor is going to help you understand the workings of your inner being, the why behind your what.
A huge piece of the monogamy hangover is about an expectation that your partner should also be your counsellor, the person who can fix and fill whatever emotional wounds you carry. This rarely works, not even when the partner is a professional clinical counselor. If your romantic relationship becomes dominated by emotional processing, or co-processing, it is easy to fall into patterns of mutual emotional triggering, and challenging to re-establish emotional boundaries.
The Somatic Healer.
Somatics is the art of the relationship between mind and body. A ‘healer’* in the most traditional sense is one who helps individuals bring harmony between the physical and the unseen. A ‘somatic healer’ is someone who can help you unpack any shame or blocks you have about being in your own body. There are numerous professionals who work in the realm of somatics: somatic movement, somatic experiencing, and somatic sexology. But your somatic healer doesn’t necessarily have to be one of these professionals. They help you unlearn what you have learned from society and mainstream culture about what joy in connection is.
*I feel that it’s important to mention here that you might want to substitute other words for ‘healer’. Depending on your personal beliefs, background, or situation, ‘mage’, ‘shaman’, ‘guide’ or ‘therapist’ might have more resonance for you.
Sexual repression in cultures often goes along side the repression of all other forms of pleasure- be it sexual or otherwise. And when authentic exploration of pleasure has been prohibited, we might find ourselves shutting down from the potential joy available in connections out of shame or fear of how good it might feel. The Somatic Healer helps us awaken all our senses, liberate us from our stories of shame, and step into embodied experiences that feel good.
A lot of previously monogamous couples who are opening up relationships might find themselves dating someone who meets the description of a ‘somatic healer’. Stepping out of monogamy and into polyamory involves a lot of unpacking of shame, and that’s a lot easier to do if you have someone to do it with who has already done their work with this. Your somatic healer might well be someone you experience sexual connections with, but sustaining long term relationships can be challenging. Sometimes these might feel like ‘adventure park’ relationships, where a partner provides a welcome vacation from your every day world, but you struggle to integrate that partner into your daily life.
Overcoming inhibitions, shame, and sensual disconnection doesn’t have to take the form of something sexual. Many people have found their somatic healing through things like dance classes (such as burlesque, tribal fusion, blues dancing) or an acting teacher who helps you move through your fears of speaking in public and helps you discover a love for poetry recital. They could be a skilled DJ or dance facilitator whose aural weavings guide you to a new relationship with your body in movement. Or, they might be a friend who prepares exquisite meals to share with you.
My recommendation? Take what you learn from your experiences with them and apply that in your romantic relationships so that you can grow together with your partners as equals.
You might notice, perhaps, an urge to find all four people in one, very special, amazing person, who you happen to already be dating. Resist this urge! Even though the romantic ideal many of us have been raised with is about finding that one person, holding the expectation that a partner should support, coach, counsel and heal you is a pathway to codependency, to stagnation in relationships, and a dynamic that enables and thrives on toxic and abusive behaviours.
Cultivating these kinds of intimacy with people who can meet us in ways that aren’t romantic— but that support our ability to be present and clear within our relationships— is an incredibly powerful way to overcome the hangover from cultural toxic monogamy stories. Rather than be drawn back into limited, narrow trajectories that rely on our partner to be the primary player in our support network, we can find ourselves integrated within a community of support, one where we might even become a peer, coach, counsellor, or somatic healer for others. And,it liberates us to be able to be fully present in all of our relationships.
Curious to know more about this? Then check out my online course, The Monogamy Detox!