Chris and Sharon (all names changed to protect their identity) sit in my office discussing the future of their relationship. They have been married for 25 years and have three adult children and a grandchild.
A few months ago Chris joined a group that engaged in polyamory (non-monogamous sexual and often romantic relationships) and wanted his wife to join him there.
They are stuck in their positions. For Chris, this is a burst of mid-life thrill and excitement, but it is baffling for Sharon. She had gone with him to the group a few times and was not attracted to the lifestyle. Although she was miserably uncomfortable there, Sharon finds it difficult to explain to Chris what she wants or needs, and feels like a failure for “letting him down.” She needs a new skill: expressing what really matters to her.
Sharon wants to be a supportive wife
Sharon would not dream of leaving the house without stockings and a purse that matched her outfit. Where Chris is loose, relaxed and a bit reckless, Sharon is constrained and tense. She sees herself as “sensible.” Where Chris is anticipating the adventures of the group, Sharon is angry and fearful of disappointing Chris. She sees herself as a supportive wife and wondered if this role obligates her to agree with him.
Angry that she “wasn’t enough” for Chris, she thinks he is having a “mid-life crisis.” She is afraid he might “become a drug addict” or fall in love with another woman in this group, despite Chris’ reassurances to the contrary. Reluctant to join the group for many reasons, including her fear of sex with other men, and her revulsion at the idea of sex with women, she found the whole conversation on the topic extremely difficult and upsetting.
What is Polyamory?
Polyamory is defined as “the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved. It has been described as consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy.” A study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, (Volume 43, Issue 5, 2017) found that more than 20% of adults report engaging in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) at some time in their lifetime. The incidence was higher for men and for non-heterosexual participants.
It is difficult to find statistics on whether polyamory is good or bad for marriage. Some say that an open agreement to polyamory by spouses prevents the secrecy and betrayal of affairs and has some advantages over enforced monogamy. Others say that polyamory can undermine the marriage unless both parties are very strong and committed to a lifestyle that goes against societal norms. One study found that 92 percent of polyamorous marriages end in divorce, while others (JK Dixon) showed an increase in marital satisfaction. Steve Brody, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cambria CA, found that less than 1 percent of marriages are “open marriages.” Polyamory is much more common among unmarried couples.
A Simple Question—or is it?
As a therapist, my role is to facilitate communication between Chris and Sharon since they are at an impasse. I am neutral in the conversation, not advocating for either of them and withholding any judgment I may have about polyamory. Chris is adamant that he does not want to give up his participation in the group.
He is persistent in trying to convince Sharon to join him in the group, with many reassurances that she would “learn to enjoy it.” A part of Sharon feels she “should” go along with Chris to “make him happy” and to preserve their marriage. Another part of her is paralyzed with anxiety and rage.
The conversation seems to focus on Chris’ desires and Sharon’s unwillingness to agree. It is difficult to help Sharon explore her feelings because she keeps shifting to her judgments about morality, drug abuse, and her belief that Chris would leave her. At one point I ask her a simple question, “What is it that YOU want?” She is stumped. She really does not know what she wants and has never thought about it.
A year later Sharon told me that no one had ever asked her that question before.
This simple question was not simple at all for her.
I have found that many people simply don’t know what they want. Sharon was so focused on what Chris wanted that she hadn’t thought in terms of what she wanted. Like many others, Sharon was reactive instead of proactive. She knew more about what she did not want than what she did want. Sharon had lost touch with herself. She said, “I just don’t know!” So worried about upsetting Chris, she realized she had no idea what was important to her.
Expressing What Really Matters to You is Hard For Many Reasons
Why is it so hard to say what you want?
Is it fear?
Is your inner voice saying things like “You don’t deserve it,” “You are not worthy,” or even “You’re selfish”? Do you fear that you will be criticized, rejected, or even abandoned if you express a “want”? In anticipation of this, are you already feeling hurt, and then to avoid that pain, do you shut down, minimize or deny your own feelings, or compartmentalize your wants with a kind of magical thinking, “It’s not that important, I can express this later…”?
Maybe you feel ashamed or guilty for wanting what you want.
You don’t want to cause a conflict or to be seen as pushy or needy. Perhaps you drop hints or hope that your partner is a mind-reader: “If he really loved me, he would know what I want…” Maybe you avoid the conversation altogether by simply “going along to get along.”
If you are a pleaser, or shy or an introvert, expressing wants can be excruciating.
It takes energy and courage to ask for what you want. One woman told me that expressing her wants made her so nauseous that she nearly vomited. She felt humiliated by her own wants. She thought her spouse would see her as pathetic or needy.
The problem is that when your wants are unexpressed, there is a good possibility that they won’t be met.
Then you may feel anxious or resentful, and this can pile up over time to a mountain of unmet wants and needs. A client once said that she realized she had been self-medicating with alcohol to try to cope with her resentment and her inability to ask for what she wanted. Another told me that she had been “biting her tongue” since childhood, and now had a severe case of TMJ. Women are especially socialized to not express their wants, because they may be seen as demanding or aggressive or “not feminine.”
6 Steps to Identify and Express What Really Matters to You
First, Investigate and Identify.
Set your intention to discover what you really want. Not what you think you should want, or what you think others expect you to want. Start by sitting in a quiet place, perhaps with a journal, and allow yourself to notice what thoughts, feelings, and body sensations are present. Next, focus on the issue at hand.
For Sharon, it meant focusing on the question of integrating polyamory into her marriage, not on her husband’s wants. Pay attention to your body, particularly noticing your core. Your body may tell you quite clearly what you want. You might imagine that your head is like a snow globe, and with your eyes closed, you visualize the snow settling. This visualization helped Sharon “clear my head so I could get clear on what I wanted.”
Second, Clarify and Specify.
Try to define clearly what it is that surfaces as a want. If you catch your inner critic piping up, or a judgment about whether it is ok for you to want this, notice that and let it go. Dismiss the idea that you need to justify what you want. You don’t need to explain or rationalize. Defining what you want may come slowly or it may come all at once. Be patient.
Third, Write it Down.
See if you can put it on paper succinctly. After some time reflecting and visualizing, and paying attention to the tension in her belly, Sharon wrote, “I want a monogamous marriage.” She was now clear about what she wanted.
Fourth, Practice Saying It.
Say it in your head a few times. This is where courage comes in. With practice, you will feel more confident about saying what you want. “Fake it till you make it!” If necessary, acknowledge the critical or negative internal voice, and tell yourself “I have a right to ask for what I want.” Then practice saying your want out loud a few times. It will get easier with practice.
Fifth, Find the Time to Talk.
It is important to talk at a time when there are no distractions and interruptions. You could ask first, “Is this a good time to talk with you?” Say what you want in as kind, or neutral a way as you can. This is not the time to be accusatory or blaming. If possible, keep it short. It will also not be helpful to do a lot of explaining or justifying.
Sharon was not sure she could say what she wanted without being in a “safe place.” She waited until our next therapy session to say what she wanted. You may also decide to put your want in writing. After our session, Sharon wrote Chris an email that amplified what she wanted. She wanted to separate until he was ready to commit to monogamy, she wanted him to go to therapy, and she wanted to understand what her financial situation would be if they divorced.
Sixth, Time to Stop Talking.
After expressing what you want, just stop talking. You may be anxious about how you will be received, and when you’re anxious you might be tempted to fill the quiet space with words. Hold yourself back. Give the other person time to consider and respond.
You may need to ask several times. Don’t give up if at first, you don’t get the answer you want. Don’t conclude that your want is wrong or that you shouldn’t have asked. “You can’t always get what you want,” says Mick Jagger. And if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t.
Chris and Sharon Negotiate a Resolution
Sharon and Chris separated for a year. Chris wrote to Sharon after a few weeks that he wanted to reconcile and that he would agree to monogamy and therapy. Sharon wrote to him that she wanted to wait to see how her therapy and his therapy went before agreeing to reconcile.
In the meantime, she said, she wanted a financial specialist to collect all of their financial information and teach Sharon how to understand it. She wanted a lawyer to discuss what she would receive in a divorce. Chris said that he did not think that was necessary, and started to try to talk her out of this. Sharon didn’t react, she simply stated her wants again, and Chris agreed.
Sharon had learned to ask for what she wanted, and she was feeling proud and confident. When each partner can express and respond openly to each other’s wants and needs, their intimacy can grow and deepen. A year later Sharon and Chris reconciled after several months of couples therapy and renewing their “marriage contract.” They have a stronger, more stable marriage than before now that they are able to share a much healthier balance of power.