Cultures tend to assume a dominant relationship style, usually a form of marriage, yet marital forms vary across cultures and ethnic groupings. Western cultures assume monogamy, yet evidence accrues that this form is seldom lifelong, and deviations much more common than we think. Conservative (often religiously based) estimates of non-monogamous relationships (usually due initially to an illicit affair by one or both partners) are that these are a minority and found mostly in minority cultural groups (such as gay/lesbian/bisexual communities). Convergent evidence from an array of ingenious studies suggest that extra-marital infidelities occur in a majority of relationships, perhaps as high as 80% over a lifetime, and by males and females at similar rates.
Whereas many relationships will fail subsequent to discovery of non-monogamous sexual expression, many relationships adapt and evolve into alternative forms accommodating the sexualities of the partners. An emphasis would be that, statistically and practically, traditional marriages fail at unacceptably high rates, yet alternative forms abound for those prepared to define their needs and continue to care for partners’ needs. The forms tend to be as varied as the people inhabiting such alternative relationships. Such relationships tend to evolve over time, require courage and persistence and adaptation, and most importantly accommodate values and principles of involved parties to the relationships.
An aspect of alternative relationships is the likelihood of increased complexity, and of powerful emotional involvement, often beyond the tolerance of those familiar with traditional marriages. Powerful emotions tend to be the driving forces bringing people to therapy, having failed to solve their upsets cognitively or rationally. In particular mastery of the so-called self-conscious relational emotions is required to be able to function in such complexity. Most obviously, jealousy disrupts any relational form when uncontained yet is also an indicator of the importance of the relationship. Other similarly powerful emotions – guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation – require increasing mastery to accommodate relational complexity. Additionally, such emotions yield important information about relationship dynamics and breaches of relational principles.
Research evidence suggests that alternative relationships have similar success rates to traditional versions, and tend to fail for similar reasons – failure to attend to basic principles and overwhelming (yet to be mastered) emotions. Participants in alternative relational forms cannot be distinguished from those in traditional marriages on the basis of psychopathology or demographic features.
CPCCPC psychologists and counsellors seek to facilitate relational forms to suit informed consenting adults, in non-judgmental manner. Said differently, the goal is to develop a relational form to suit the people in it, rather than to fit people into the traditional form. Further, relational forms are expected to evolve over time to suit the participants’ personal growth and needs.
B.Nursing, B.A. (Psych),
B.Soc.Sc (Psych Hons), MAPS
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools...