Ask Page: Is Polyamory Simply a Side Effect of Trauma?

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Image by Joe The Goat Farmer / CC BY

Hi Page,

I was confronted regarding my polyamory. I was told that it’s nothing more than lack of healthy coping mechanisms involving a deeply abusive childhood & total lack of boundaries. Being told that polyamory is a trauma side effect hurts. Trying to process. Thoughts?

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I’m sorry to hear that someone said that to you.

Now, I don’t know you as a person at all, so I want to be clear that I can’t comment meaningfully on your life experiences, how they’ve shaped you into who you are, and what role (if any) they would play in your relationship style.

But I can weigh in on the growing body of research surrounding polyamory — and how polyamorous people and other folks who practice consensual non-monogamy (e.g., folks in open relationships, swingers, etc.) differ in personality compared to those who have monogamous relationships (or don’t).

Intimacy Issues? Probably Not, Actually

Now, I’m not sure exactly what reasoning or evidence the person you spoke to offered you to connect childhood trauma with a predisposition towards consensual non-monogamy in adulthood. If they’re like most people, I’m guessing they probably didn’t offer any evidence, really. Just spat out that conclusion without drawing clear contentions or making any cohesive argument.

But I’ve found that when people do cohesively argue something similar, they tend to lean on the idea that childhood trauma can lead to disrupted emotional attachment patterns and therefore intimacy issues in adulthood.

And I could see someone making a leap to that lack of intimacy playing out in polyamory because there’s a popular belief that people who practice polyamory can’t commit — that they’re more prone to intimacy issues and more likely to practice avoidant attachment.

However, as popular a belief as this is, it’s looking more and more like there’s no real basis for it. Interestingly, the research hasn’t borne this out at all.

One study conducted by Moors, Conley, Edelstein, et al., did find that people with avoidant attachment were more likely to be willing to engage in consensual non-monogamy (or CNM); however, that willingness didn’t convert over to actually having those relationships.

The working theory here is that while avoidant individuals might find consensual non-monogamy appealing in theory, the realities of working one’s way into a consensually non-monogamous arrangement typically doesn’t gel well with avoidant attachment. Instead of being a no-strings-attached sexual free for all, most CNM relationship systems are quite committed and collaborative social networks.

They take a lot of intimacy and interpersonal relating in order to form in the first place and to function properly once they’re established.

No Boundaries? Hardly

Furthermore, being polyamorous doesn’t indicate a complete lack of boundaries. The notion that all polyamorous people have no boundaries is something only a person who hasn’t had experience in polyamorous relationships could really humor for more than a few seconds.

True, being polyamorous does mean that you don’t have one common boundary that many others might find non-negotiable (that is, you don’t prevent your partner from having other partners), but personal boundaries are personal. And no two personal boundary systems look alike. We all have various degrees of comfort, different needs, different wants.

Furthermore, it’s clear that polyamorists can and do set boundaries with one another. And in large relationship systems, learning how to set first-degree (and occasionally second-degree) boundaries is crucial to interpersonal harmony. It’s particularly important as more people enter your life by proxy to learn how to set boundaries around problems that aren’t yours. Thankfully, models like “Mother-in-Law Boundaries” can help.

In any event, polyamorous people don’t lack boundaries. They just have different ones (and honestly, no two polyamorous people are going to have the same boundaries with other people, just as no two monogamous people would). And because they’re often working outside of traditional relationship norms, many experienced polyamorists become quite adept at explicitly setting and managing boundaries.

It’s So Inappropriate for Your Friend to Draw Pseudo-Clinical Conclusions About You

Most of all, I’m struck by how inappropriate it is for your friend to draw pseudo-clinical conclusions about your history and how it may be affecting your current behavior. I would suspect they’re a lay person with no background in research or clinical training, which would make their insights suspiciously founded at best. And if they are a professional, I would be even more flummoxed by their decision to weigh in (since that’s really inappropriate behavior, and someone with training should know better).

Is it possible for polyamory to be a side effect of trauma? Maybe. As much as it’s possible for an infinite number of other perfectly fine life choices that other people may nonetheless judge to be a side effect of trauma (for example, leaving the area you grew up in to go to a bigger city, dyeing your hair a different color, changing your name, etc.). But research has yet to establish any convincing link between polyamory and childhood trauma.

Unless you’re finding that consensual non-monogamy is exacerbating symptoms of a pre-existing psychological condition you have (for example, depression, anxiety, PTSD, a personality disorder, etc.) in a way that’s unmanageable, then you’re probably fine.

If you would like to talk to a counselor for worsening of any of the above conditions, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has a directory of Kink Aware Professionals available for anyone who would like to seek out a polyamory-friendly/consensual non-monogamy-friendly counselor (who are also well versed in BDSM/kink issues). If you find once you’ve searched their listings that’s there no one in your area in the directory, you can also contact NCSF via their website and ask if they can locate one for you.

But it sounds like a case of “haters gonna hate” to me. It hurts, but it says more about them than it does you.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a good opportunity to demonstrate healthy boundaries, getting rid of this joker might be it.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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