Do people who practice consensual non-monogamy or polyamory have higher rates of jealousy than those who are in monogamous relationships?What types of people are involved in these types of relationships?
Find the answers to these questions and more as our host interviews Dr. Mimi Winsberg, the co-founder of Brightside.
Mimi Winsberg, MD, is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside, a telemedicine platform for anxiety and depression care. Dr. Winsberg is a Stanford-trained psychiatrist with more than 25+ years of clinical experience, and the former in-house psychiatrist at Facebook. Her first book, “Speaking in Thumbs,” which looks at the love language of texts, is available now.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today. We have Mimi Winsberg, M.D. Dr. Winsberg is the co-founder and chief medical officer of Brightside, a Stanford trained psychiatrist and the former in-house psychiatrist at Facebook. Dr. Winsberg, welcome to the show.
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here.
Gabe Howard: Many people believe, and somewhat forcefully, I might add, that the only valid relationship is between two consenting adults. And I want to mention that some people believe more forcefully that the only valid relationship is between a man and a woman. However, there is an entire culture of people that believe in relationships, even marriages, without monogamy. The two most common, at least from the research that I did on Google, seem to be polyamory and consensual non-monogamy or open marriage. Can you explain those to our listeners?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Sure. Yeah. Consensual non-monogamy is an agreement between usually two people that they’re not going to engage in a traditional monogamous relationship, but that they have mutual consent to not stay in that monogamous relationship. That may involve short flings outside of the relationship or all kinds of different activity outside of the relationship. It’s distinguished in some ways from the term polyamory, because with polyamory, the implication from the root part of the word, which is amor-y, meaning love, is that you’re having more than one love at the same time. And there may be a primary relationship, but the notion is that there are more than one ongoing relationship.
Gabe Howard: And this is different from polygamy, which I think everybody has heard of, because polygamy seems to be and again, please correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to be one man and multiple wives, whereas polyamory is all kinds of relationships. It’s really open for definition between the group.
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s interesting because I think we know that polyamory is in itself tricky. And in fact, the word itself belies its complexity because its root comes from two different languages. Poly comes from Greek meaning many and Latin comes from amory meaning love. And so not only is the concept complex, the word is complex.
Gabe Howard: Before we delve into jealousy, which is what I want to spend the majority of our time talking about, I think that we would be remiss if I didn’t address that some people believe that there’s just psychological damage in not being monogamous. That, in the word that I saw everywhere online, is that people who practice polyamory or ethical non-monogamy are deviants. And I know that that’s not the case. So I want to give you the opportunity to address it
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Deviant is a very loaded word. I think what the word deviant implies is that there is a straight or normal way to do things. And I think that we know that love is a very individual process and that it happens from one individual to other individuals. Why should there be a standard or one size fits all way to do it?
Gabe Howard: I’m really of the mindset that if it’s working for you and it’s involving consensual adults, then it’s really none of my business. And I’m so shocked that the world is involving itself in other peoples’ relationships that they are not in. I’m sure that you hear that all the time, but I wanted to address it because so many people just fall down the rabbit hole that they don’t even want to consider it. Or my personal favorite is that anything that happens in these, maybe atypical is maybe a better word or just something that we’re not used to. Everything that happens is because of that. So as we’re talking about jealousy, so many people are like, well, of course there’s jealousy. There’s five people. What do you think of people who use the fact that that is, again, atypical is the word that I’m going to use, an atypical relationship to explain the jealousy? What are they missing?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Well, you’ve brought up so many different points. And I think one thing that occurred to me as you were talking is this idea that love is sort of fraught with anxiety, that when we put ourselves out there, when we make ourselves vulnerable to another person, it’s natural for some anxiety to accompany that feeling. Falling in love is an uncertain process and can raise anxiety and then maintaining a long-term relationship when you’re dependent on somebody also can come with some anxieties. And when we have anxieties, we try to look for rules, right? That’s a natural tendency is give me the rules, let me understand. And there are certain things that are so complex that we don’t have one set of rules that apply to everybody. And I think that love certainly falls into that category where we can try to make up some rules, but those rules are inevitably going to be inadequate. What we’re left with then is self-examination and trying to figure it out for ourselves, which is that much harder. And some people love that notion and embrace it and say, this is great. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about myself. Others really want to look for rules, and people will vary on the spectrum of how much they want to be told what to do and what’s right to wanting to figure it out for themselves. And I think that gets to the heart of the matter here, is that if you’re somebody who likes to be told what the rules are and that’s where you feel comfortable, great, you can find rules to follow. If you’re somebody who wants to challenge the rules and come up with your own rules, you’re welcome to do that, too.
Gabe Howard: I spent many years in what I now know is called a consensual non-monogamous relationship or an ethically non-monogamous relationship. You know, back then we just called it an open marriage. Now, that relationship, that marriage did end, but there was no jealousy. And it didn’t end because of that. It ended because of a whole host of other reasons. But I am surprised at the number of people upon hearing that, that I was in an open marriage, the first question they have is, well, didn’t you get jealous? Isn’t that cheating?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Yeah. I think jealousy is such an interesting phenomena, and I think that passionate love and jealousy actually share lots in common because both are fueled by uncertainty. In other words, you know that feeling you have when you first fall in love with somebody where you just a little obsessed with them and you think they’re more perfect than they are?
Gabe Howard: I call that new relationship energy.
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: New relationship energy? I think that’s a great term and I’ve seen that term before, NRE. Yeah, so that new relationship energy is fueled on uncertainty. Do they like me? What are they really like? And as you become more sure of that person’s love and their flaws too, that new relationship energy evolves into something more mature: understanding, respect, acceptance. And with that, it loses some of its energy. Right? The same thing happens with jealousy is that when you’re wondering, is somebody cheating on me? Do they really love me or do they love somebody else more? Or do they think somebody else is sexier than I am? That’s what fuels that jealous energy. Once you become certain that maybe they are having activity outside the marriage, the jealousy evolves into something else. It might evolve into anger, or it might evolve into acceptance.
Gabe Howard: When it comes to managing jealousy, what can monogamous couples learn from non-monogamous couples?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: I think one of the things that is inherent to navigating an open relationship, a consensually non-monogamous relationship, or even a polyamorous arrangement is asking yourself tough questions before embarking on this journey. To your point about what can the monogamous couples learn is that I think it’s good to ask yourself these questions regardless, because sometimes if you don’t ask yourself these questions, they’re going to present themselves to you unexpectedly. And it would have been nice to have done some of that preparedness in advance. When I work with my patients around this, I challenge them to ask themselves questions along the lines of What does it mean when somebody loves me? What would it mean if they had sex with somebody else? Would they love me less? What do they owe me when we’re in a relationship together? How much do I get to control them? How much do I possess them? What does activity outside of our, sexual activity or friendship or romantic, other romantic feelings outside of our relationship imply about the quality of our relationship? And all these questions are really hard questions. But again, I think there’s a lot of value in asking yourself how you feel about these things before they come up in an acute and stressful way.
Gabe Howard: When we talk about non-monogamous relationships, are there any pitfalls that arise in those relationships that don’t arise in monogamous relationships that people should look out for? Is there like a cheat sheet of common mistakes that maybe people make?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Well, look, it’s a very sexy idea, right? Polyamory is a very sexy idea. It’s based on this notion that love is not finite. You can love more than one child, so why can’t you love more than one romantic partner? And so it’s part of a larger fantasy that many people may find appealing. Well, wouldn’t it be great to have two lovers? Three lovers? More? But obviously, it’s emotionally tricky. And I think that we’ve discussed what some of the pitfalls are, jealousy, and the flip side of that, of course, which is trust. Being able to build the trust that’s required to engage in those kinds of activities. We know that a lot of people attempt these practices. But I think a smaller percentage of people succeed. And what I think is obvious is that a lot of people get bruised in the process. And I think that what that means is maybe they’ve bit off more than they can chew. They didn’t really think through how their feelings would get hurt, the practical implications of what it might mean from a time spent together or availability of their partner to engage in this. What’s really interesting when you talk to people who do embrace the notion of consensual non-monogamy is they’re much more accepting about the idea of themselves practicing it than their partners. Everybody, or not everybody, but a lot of people like the idea of themselves being with somebody else. It’s less easy to digest when it’s your partner that’s practicing it. And so I do think there’s a lot of value in emotionally rehearsing these issues. And then as you do get into it, doing check-ins and asking yourself, Well, how do I really feel about this? And it at the heart involves a lot of communication.
Gabe Howard: I like that you brought up the communication piece, because one of the things that I think about is how difficult it is to communicate with one partner. I’m married and I think of all the times my wife and I miscommunicate. And I can’t imagine, like doubling that or even adding another person. Are there tips and tricks for that communication piece?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: If the couple decides that this is going to all get talked about, it’s going to involve a lot of talking and different people may have different understandings about what communication or what talking they will come to expect in an arrangement like this. I’ve seen couples where the arrangement they have is a Clinton policy, don’t ask, don’t tell. I don’t want to know. You’re welcome to do what you want. Just don’t let me find out about it and I won’t ask you any questions. And that can work for some people they know, but they don’t really want to know. I think others want to get the play by play and discuss, when do you have that date? And what was it like? And that’s going to involve a lot of talking and some people are up for that talking and some people are not up for that talking. And sometimes it’s going to involve talking between more than just two people. It’s a question of energy level that one wants to devote to this, and it can become a project to manage, in addition to what is already a complex project of managing your primary relationship. As you pointed out, communication in a long-term relationship takes time too, and that, of course, needs to be the priority if you want to sustain that primary relationship. And so it’s worth thinking through again, like, what kind of communication will this need to involve? Are we up for that? Do we have the skills for this? Do we have the outlets for it? And what do I need to feel comfortable with this situation?
Sponsor Message: Hi there, I’m Faye McCray, Editor in Chief of Psych Central. Whether you’re looking for free resources, quizzes or thought-provoking personal perspectives, Psych Central has what you need to join you on your mental health journey. Psych Central’s talented team of award-winning writers, editors and medical professionals are passionate about creating a safe, inclusive and trustworthy environment where you feel seen and heard. Visit us now at psychcentral.com, that’s psychcentral.com.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Dr. Mimi Winsberg discussing non-monogamous relationships. Dr. Winsberg, whenever something is considered atypical, it doesn’t matter if it is or not, or if it has anything to do with you. But whenever something is considered atypical, like, for example, mental health issues, there seems to be like a stigma or discrimination that arises around it. What are some of the stigmas that are surrounding non-monogamy and polyamory and relationships like that?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Well, I think the first one is this notion that maybe the people practicing polyamory are less committed or less committed to their relationships. And that’s just not necessarily true. You know, I’ve talked with many couples who are practicing polyamory and they’re in very committed, devoted marriages or relationships, but they have a clear agreement for why it helps them as a couple to get some of their needs met outside the marriage. And it may come down to things like different sex drives or different interests or different schedules, and they’re able to manage, as I said, very successful long-term relationships. So the first notion is just that it implies that the relationships are lesser than if they’re poly. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. The second thing is that the people who are practicing polyamory are somehow, to use your word, deviant or have strange sexual appetites. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true either. There are plenty of couples that are practicing polyamory where sex may not even be the primary thing they’re getting outside of the relationship. Sometimes it’s a sexual arrangement and sometimes it’s to meet other needs.
Gabe Howard: Looking through the lens of traditional relationships, the two people model. I think of all the infidelity, I think of all the cheating, I think of all the anger. So many relationships end because of cheating. Is this a solution to that problem?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Well, cheating, as my psychiatry office will attest, isn’t usually judged lightly. It’s often the deal-breaker in relationships. And to your point, it does have higher reported rates than consensual non-monogamy or polyamory. 25% of men and 15% of women report having had extramarital sex in the prior year, and 70% of Americans report at least one extramarital affair in the course of their marriage. So infidelity is quite common yet when married couples are asked whether their spouse would cheat on them, their estimates are very low. Very few would guess that their spouse would cheat on them. So we assume more fidelity than we actually perform, and we don’t assume that we’re going to have to encounter this in the course of our long-term relationships. By addressing the issue of consensual non-monogamy and asking ourselves the harder questions, it’s possible perhaps to avert some of these surprises or unexpected encounters with infidelity. And then I think the couple can have at least discussed their feelings about this and how they might communicate or act around the issue.
Gabe Howard: You know, one of the things that I read about infidelity is that it doesn’t matter how great the relationship was, you can have 20 years’ worth of perfect and beautiful and wonderful. If there is infidelity in the relationship, all of that is erased. It doesn’t matter that it’s one mistake against tens of thousands of happy, wonderful. It’s sort of like the nuclear bomb of mistakes. It just completely annihilates any good that was in your relationship. Do non-monogamous couples have a nuclear bomb like that? Is it only present in monogamous couples? Where does this all tie together?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: It’s an interesting point that infidelity, as we’ve said, is judged really harshly and can be a really pivotal issue in a relationship and a central issue to a breakup. But I don’t think that by engaging in consensual non-monogamy, you’re necessarily immune from feelings of jealousy or feelings of conflict that can arise from activity outside of the primary relationship. In either instance, there’s a lot of communication that’s involved and asking the harder questions of what does it mean to be involved with somebody? What do they owe me? How do I, what is expected in our relationship as a result of us being in love or involved? And how will that play out over time? How might needs change?
Gabe Howard: I’m hearing more and more about polyamory. Is it becoming more accepted? Is it growing? Are more people practicing polyamory or is it just a buzzword in the media?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: There’s certainly more lip service given to it. So I think that it’s become something people are more comfortable talking about and considering. And that’s a, that’s certainly a first step whether or not it’s being put into practice. The statistics would reveal that it’s still not a common practice, that it’s a small percentage of people who are, in fact practicing it and a smaller percentage yet that’s succeeding in practicing it. There are certain communities that have been, I would say, leading the charge. The gay community has been a little bit more embracing of this. When we look at the statistics, more gay men endorse practicing non-monogamy than straight couples and are doing it with more success. The prevalence rates for consensual non-monogamy are hard to gauge. But one older study found that at least a quarter of all straight men and straight women had an agreement allowing an open relationship, although only a small percentage of them acted on that arrangement. Rates are a lot higher in the gay population, with about 73% of gay men saying that they practice or have an arrangement where they’re open to practicing consensual non-monogamy and the majority of them are acting on it. So I think that there’s something to learn here. And it may be a needle that’s slowly moving. Millennials, certainly in a recent poll, endorsed that they’re more open to consensual non-monogamy than the prior generation. When I talk to my kids, they seem to have much more open mind about all different kinds of relationship arrangements. And so I think we are seeing some shifting norms.
Gabe Howard: I think that it’s great. Anything that makes people happy, I’m really, really all for. So I think it’s wonderful. It really sounds like every type of relationship has the same core. Everybody needs to be in agreement. There has to be trust. Communication is key. Everybody essentially has to be on the same page of what’s going on. In that way, these arrangements sound very much like, quote unquote, traditional relationships or traditional marriage. They just don’t seem that different to me. Yet I can, I can already kind of hear everybody around me saying they’re completely different. They’re not even remotely the same thing. But they sound on their foundation to be very similar.
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Well, a couple of thoughts. One is that there may be different arrangements that are more suitable for different times of life. And so when you’re raising children together, for instance, that’s a unique time of life where there may be more dependance and more trust that’s needed. There may be times of life when having an open relationship or a consensual non-monogamy or polyamorous relationship is less likely to be workable than other times in life. Either way, communication, trust and attunement do need to play a part in the arrangement you seek. And what I have seen in my office is that many times a member of a couple thinks that they’ve done the work around trust and attunement, but in fact, they haven’t. And the arrangement is a lot more likely to trigger jealousy, conflict and even the demise of the relationship if they haven’t put in that work to establish trust.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Winsberg, thank you so much for being here. Now, I know that you have a new book out where you address some of these issues and more. It’s called “Speaking in Thumbs.” Can you tell our listeners about that book and where to find it?
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: The book is called “Speaking in Thumbs: A Psychiatrist Decodes Your Relationship Text So You Don’t Have To.” And the premise of the book is that texting is a relatively new language. It took off in 2007, but it’s really now the dominant form of communication, particularly in romantic relationships. And so what I do in the book is I look at digital communications, text messages, and in fact, there are loads of examples throughout the book of actual screenshots of text messages between couples in which I analyze them.
Gabe Howard: That is awesome and so prescient to our times. What’s your website, Dr. Winsberg?
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here.
Mimi Winsberg, M.D.: Thanks for having me.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, because everything is, or you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to a friend, family member or colleague, whether it’s via social media, email, text message, or good old fashioned word of mouth. I would appreciate the assist. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@PsychCentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.