WHAT DO YOU DO
From intimacy to kink:
what it's like to be a polyamorous relationship coach
In the latest installment of our
anonymous interview series, we spoke with three polyamory coaches who help clients navigate being in love with multiple partners.
Coach A is a 20-year veteran of the field with a focus on empowering women and girls.
Coach B originally began her practice with her husband and has appeared on Montel and Tyra.
Coach C got turned on to the lifestyle after an annivesary ultimatum from her soulmate.
Author, as told to
COACH A: I got my Master's in Human Sexuality over 10 years ago. I came out of college as a feminist activist, and really wanted to empower women and girls. I decided it would have to be through sexuality. I've been in this field for over 20 years now, though what I've done has varied. I taught school kids for 12 years, I taught college students for 15; I taught in medical schools and at nonprofits; I've published books and written plays; I developed curricula and trained people in my first business. This is my second business, and like all of my previous work, it's focused on female empowerment. I've done a lot of things in the field, but they always have the same focus.
COACH B: Becoming a relationship coach was was a peripatetic journey. I never understood monogamy, even as far back as high school. I tried to be monogamous, and it didn't work very well for me: I ended up having an affair. Back then, there wasn't a term to organize my preferences around. I met the man who would become my husband in the late eighties and we had a threesome, but then we closed that part of the relationship. It came out of the idea that we should be involved in a particular form of relationship, and, again, it didn't work out. We're not ones to do things the easy way, so we decided to open our relationship while I was pregnant. Around that time, we discovered the polyamorous community locally and online. By this point, the term "polyamory" was gaining steam. We started attending various polyamorous dinners and potlucks. Then, we began hosting an event that we've been doing for 15 years now. People started inquiring about us: "You know, we really liked what you had to say. We'd like to pay you for your time."
COACH C: It began with my current relationship. I've known my partner for ten years and we've been together for three; I'd call him the love of my life or my soulmate. The day we now refer to as our anniversary, we were talking on the phone and he said, "Look, I'm poly. That's how it's always been. That's how it's going to be." I'd honestly never heard of it before, but the chemistry between us was undeniable. I kind of slid into the lifestyle because it made such sense to me. It just felt right. I finally had permission to be full-on me. In those initial months, there were a lot of conversations and negotiations. From day one, we've been 100% transparent in our communication. As we continued on this journey together, we found that our friends were always asking us: "How do you do it?" "How do you deal with jealousy?" "How do you handle timing and logistics?" I was already in a coaching program, so I figured, if I'm training to be a life coach, why not do it in this untapped niche?
COACH A: So much appeals to me about sexuality. It never gets boring, that's for sure. I get to work with clients who show me the most tender and vulnerable parts of themselves; I take that very seriously and try to honor it. I worked with young people for a long time because I grew up without access to information about sex and relationships. I didn't come out as queer until my early twenties, when I was in college, because there were no role models or resources available for people like me. I became polyamorous in my mid-twenties, when I was in grad school, and have been ever since then. This was in the late eighties and early nineties, and I really wanted to help them avoid the isolating experiences I had. As I got more and more into youth outreach, I began to see the struggles that adults have. The way I see it, most adults are just kids who never got a proper sex education but are now expected to simply know how to feel and act. My own experiences helped me realize that life was a series of developmental phases.
COACH B: Both my husband and I were already ordained through the Universal Life Church and we started toying with the idea of offering our coaching services to help people answer the kind of questions we were asking during our premarital counseling. After that, we founded a discussion group. Later, we created a workshop that was presented at the Loving More Conference, which is the longest running national event on polyamory (they'll be celebrating their 30th anniversary next year). Since then, it's really taken off. I've appeared on Montel and Tyra, and was interviewed by an outlet in Sweden. I began to feel like this was my calling. I got more training and received additional certification. Although my husband and I are no longer together, I'm still at it. Recently, I've had the honor of taking my work to Portugal, for Europe's first-ever conference on non-monogamy.
COACH C: Before I got into this line of work, I had a full-time teaching job. I was working with children and adults of all abilities. I've had experience in and out of the classroom. I've always found myself drawn to mentoring people. Most people feel uncomfortable in this middle ground but I thrive in it. My thing is, if you feel uncomfortable, let's tackle the issue head on instead of sweeping it under the rug. We can only change things if we're conscious of them. I'm an intuitive person. I know when people are talking out of their ass. All of my questions are targeted to coax them out of their negative patterns and victim narratives.
NUMBER of marriage and family counselors currently employed in the United States
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ANNUAL MEAN WAGE for marriage and family counselors in the United States
NUMBER of marriage and family counselors currently employed in the United States
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Anything but routine
COACH A: I have clients all over the world, so Skype is my preferred method of connecting with them. I keep my private coaching roster very small because I only have so much bandwidth. I'm an author, I'm a speaker, I'm a teacher. I have a virtual program and an in-person program, but my sexual empowerment programs are the bulk of what I do. That includes teaching classes and public speaking. I take on three to five private clients at a time, and work with them for six months each. I have a commitment to each individual, so it's important not to spread myself too thin.
COACH B: My day-to-day routine is a little less "routine" than it ought to be. Over the last few years, I've been dealing with depression and ADHD so it's somewhat flexible. I do most of my work over the phone or online. I will jump on a call for an hour-and-a-half, and ask people what they currently have going on in their lives and where they'd eventually like to be with regard to sex and relationships. I offer my tools and experience to help them get on track.
COACH C: My daily routine varies. Right now, I'm spending a lot of time marketing. People mostly find me online or through word of mouth. I've been spending more time doing outreach on social media and revamping my website. I'm open to both in-person and online sessions. If it's local, I'll meet people face-to-face. I'm really into FaceTime and Skype because, that way, people can do it in the comfort of their home. It's more intimate than a phone call or an online chat, but less limiting than physically having to be somewhere.
COACH A: My clients are a combination of people in polyamorous relationships, people in monogamous relationships and people who are single and identify as one or the other. I'd say it's a 50/50 split in terms of monogamous and polyamorous. Almost all of them are women. Some want to create a successful poly relationship while others are working to make an existing poly relationship better. Others come in with no specific agenda and are just looking to expand their sexuality, but then decide that polyamory is something they want to try. I've had clients who decided to become monogamous after being polyamorous, but I don't think they came in wanting to work on that specifically. Once in awhile, I have a really great guy show up who wants to do the work. But my experience is that women are usually more open to this sort of practice. Most of the men who come to me are part of a couple; very rarely do they come on their own accord. I do think it's changing, but there are a lot of cultural and gender norms that make it harder for men to ask for help.
Everyone is different, but there's certainly an average client profile that emerges. I know who I'm marketing to! People sometimes assume that I'm working with wallflowers or something, but they're not ready for this type of work. In reality, I'm working with self-actualized people. Most of them are creative and many are entrepreneurial. The reason for this is that entrepreneurs take risks. To ask for help with one's sexuality is a very risky thing, so these people tend to be fairly confident and self-aware. They're into self-improvement and spirituality. They are people with successful careers and families, who have built impressive professional and social networks, and they know they need to address their sexuality in order to fully embrace their personal power. They've been to yoga and meditation and healing and even therapy, but they want more. I'm queer and kinky, so the people who seek me out do so because they feel like I'm someone who can understand and help them without being judgemental. Although I'm poly myself, I don't promote any specific lifestyle over another. It's not right for everyone.
COACH B: I work with people who are in nontraditional relationships, hence the name of my business: "Love Outside The Box." That said, the typical client for me would be someone who is polyamorous or in an open relationship of some type or another, and they've probably been doing this for a little while. They usually won't come to me as new to the idea. Many of them are working on having a poly family. That might entail multiple adults, some of whom have children with other members of the group or from previous relationships. Since I've raised two kids in the poly context, that's something I know a lot about.
Sometimes, a client who came into my practice polyamorous decides that they're better off being monogamous. I have no problem with that: it's a matter of what works best for you. I'm not here to promote a polyamorous agenda, though it may look that way. What I am promoting is freedom of expression. Be who you are, and enter only those relationships that speak to you.
COACH C: My clientele varies. Some people are curious and want more information about polyamory, so they request a session or two to pick my brain. Some are actively in the lifestyle, but have made mistakes and want to do things in a healthy way. My favorite clients are the ones that are already aware of what they need to work on, but need a little help getting from point A to point Z. It could be that you have a couple that's been happily married for a decade or more, then all of a sudden one of them decides they want to branch out but are terrified of losing the relationship. It could be a couple that's already played with other people and now want to be more kinky in what they're doing. It's wide open.
This is where agreements come into play. Sometimes people come in monogamous and decide they want to be polyamorous or, more rarely, vice versa. I'm a big advocate for revisiting a situation once you've explored all the options. It's important to check in and make sure that everyone is getting their needs met. It's not instant gratification, but it's in the best interest of everyone involved. Once, I had a session with a person who wanted to be polyamorous but their partner was strictly monogamous. I asked them, point blank, why they were together. The answer was: "I'd rather be with my partner than pursue those desires." If that works for you, awesome. I'm personally not a big fan of labels, though I do consider myself polyamorous and call my business polyamory coaching for the sake of convenience. But I don't sell polyamory. I don't try to advocate for people to do anything other than what they want.
COACH A: The two most common problems people come to me with are issues of desire and issues of communication. They're related but not the same. The first vary from "my partner and I have differing levels of desire or things we desire" to "I used to feel desire but I don't anymore" to "I never feel desire—what's wrong with me?" Another thing is simply not knowing what it is you desire. The latter is pretty simple and involves people not being honest with themselves and others about their intentions. The other issue that's super common is women not being able to have orgasms, or in general, not being able to experience the pleasure they want to get out of sex. Depending on where we're at, I usually give them a worksheet or an oral exercise or a writing assignment. Sometimes I give them "homework," which usually consists of them trying a new practice or behavior in their lives. This could be a sexual strategy or technique or, simply, a conversation with their partner or partners.
COACH B: Often, people come to me wanting to resolve relationship issues. Maybe they're experiencing some sort of conflict, and feel like they can't even talk to their friends and family because maybe they don't understand their lifestyle choices. They're no longer having fun in the relationship that brought them to this lifestyle in the first place, so they're frustrated. They want help sorting it out from someone who actually understands polyamory. Fortunately, this is changing over time, but many traditional therapists don't support or even understand polyamory. As a poly person myself, I have the background to help.
COACH C: Most people that come to me are struggling with issues of identifying what they want or with pursuing it. It comes down to several things. One is presence: are you totally present in the moment? Another is connection: how connected are you with your partner or partners? Yet another is communication: how transparent are you about your desires and intentions? I call those my three pillars—they're the core elements I bring to all my coaching sessions. A lot of times, people have convinced themselves that a certain desire is wrong or bad or that their partner will be upset about it. They worry that this spells the end of the relationship or that their partner is going to fall in love with somebody else. All of a sudden, there's this backlog of pent-up doubt. People operate out of fear. It's scary to be vulnerable. There's a lot of uncertainty, but you get that in monogamous relationships too. The challenge—the beauty—with polyamorous and open relationships is that you have more options. Some people call it a "spiritual" or "conscious" way of being in a relationship, but it's just a healthy way. I find that the more open we are, the more free we are. I help people work through these uncomfortable emotions.
COACH A: There have been plenty of scenarios where I've had to turn people away because either they were not yet ready or would never be ready to do the work. There are certain red flags I've learned to look out for in terms of whether a potential client and I are just not a good fit. One of my team members will vet someone before I see them and I talk to them before they sign up for a group program or private coaching. We want to make sure that they're somebody we want to work with. After years of listening to people, I know what to listen for.
The big one is, if I hear a lot of victimspeak, I can anticipate that, eventually, I will be turned into the villain. That's risky, and I'm not going to put myself in that situation. It can come out in several ways: a person might not be willing to take accountability for things that have happened in the past or they feel like they have a lack of control over the present. They approach life passively, as if it's something that just happens to them. It's a question of maturity, which doesn't necessarily have to do with age. That said, I have very few clients in their twenties—most of them are in their thirties, forties and fifties—but the ones I do, already have a really strong sense of self and are emotionally and psychologically prepared to do the work.
Another big one is unresolved trauma that requires traditional therapeutic intervention. A lot of people who need help with sexuality have had traumatic experiences of sexual assault or being victimized for their sexual identity. People have to be in a certain place to embark on this sort of work. Often, what they really need is therapy and I'm not a therapist. I'm very up-front about that; there's a difference between relationship coaching and conventional therapy. If a more complex or severe issue comes up, I would just refer them. I'm not going to tell a person I can help them if I think they can be better served elsewhere.
COACH B: Occasionally, I have to turn potential clients away or tell them to come back later. I had a call with someone earlier this year, and we came to the mutual decision that it wasn't a good fit. In this particular case, she and the person she wanted to do the counseling with were not primary partners, which is fine by me. The problem was that they insisted on being closeted about it. I made it clear to her that I was uncomfortable supporting someone who was flat-out cheating, which was my assessment of the situation. Her assessment was that we just weren't professionally compatible. I had to agree.
COACH C: There's a lot of different terminology to describe various types of relationships. In a nutshell, there's monogamy, which is two people who are exclusively seeing each other. Then, you have an open relationship, which is two people who are primarily seeing each other but also open to exploring other romantic interests, alone or together. Then, there's polyamory, which means you can completely and totally fall in love with more than one person. There's a hierarchy in most romantic arrangements, even the most progressive ones, and polyamory breaks that mold. There's also monogamish and swinging. The exact definitions vary depending on whom you talk to. But the bottom line is always the same: what makes any relationship work is communication. If someone is unwilling or unable to communicate, I can't help them, period.
Lessons in love
COACH A: My degree is not a medical license. Psychiatrists are medically licensed to prescribe medication and psychologists typically have some form of advanced degree and go through a licensing procedure. There are a few important differences between therapy and coaching. Therapists are limited in how they can work with sexuality. Some coaches, but not all, might do some sort of hands-on healing work with clients. You're under more legal constraint as a therapist. Also, therapy is a long-term process; people can be in it for years! Coaching is a shorter-term solution, so it's more intensive. This doesn't mean we're ignoring the past, but it's mainly about moving forward. I've been to therapy and I don't think therapists ask as many proactive questions. What I do is more targeted and goal-oriented.
COACH B: One of the things I've discovered over the years is that these tools are definitely not specific to polyamory. It just so happens that when you're in multiple relationships at once it's sort of like turning up the heat on the experience, which makes certain issues manifest more rapidly and intensely. A favorite client of mine is a fellow who's not polyamorous and has no interest pursuing it. A mutual friend suggested he talk to me because he and his wife wanted to explore kink. She knew I was open-minded and kink-friendly. I've been seeing him for years now; we catch up every six weeks or so. Every time I see him, I'm showering him with handouts. "Here's a reminder to your wife that I'm not trying to make you poly." Relationships are relationships. They're all different, but they have a lot in common.
COACH C: People are relieved to find me. One of the qualms I hear all the time is that they can't get the guidance they need from a traditional therapist or relationship counselor. Those people will typically say, "All of your problems are because you need to stop being in a polyamorous or open relationship." Everything I do is applicable to any kind of relationship, even if I'm working with a single individual, trying to help them find their life partner or teach them to love themselves.
COACH A: Sometimes clients misinterpret the nature of our relationship as being something more than professional. It happens, and it's natural. People get crushes on people they trust and admire, like teachers. Whenever it comes up, we just address it. It's not something I ever want anyone to feel shame about, but it has to be addressed. None of my clients are too forward with me. I'm able to sense when someone is angling for something inappropriate and put a stop to it pretty quickly. I think it has to do with the fact that my practice is woman-centric. I used to get a lot of calls from people who would want me to engage in some sort of sex work, over the phone or on camera, and they were almost always men. We have a lot of checks in place now, so that we can see those red flags before anything has a chance to get out of hand. To be clear, I have no problem with sex work—it's just not what I do.
COACH B: I love the actual coaching work; it's awesome to witness someone have that "a-ha" moment, when they're finally able to see a pattern that they couldn't see before. It's so rewarding to have people thank me for my work. The part that I don't love so much is dealing with the business aspect of my practice. I didn't come into this wanting to be an entrepreneur, and yet here I am. I've been successfully avoiding computers my entire life, and now I can't seem to get away from them. I'm not crazy about that part, either.
COACH C: Polyamory is a hot topic, and that can be a problem. It's a new term for an old practice. It has a lot of search results on Google. We're really progressing as a culture and society. I think that was recently affirmed with the legalization of gay marriage. Similarly, the consciousness around open and poly relationships is starting to grow. And yet, a lot of people are still turned off by the word "polyamory." There's a lot of sensationalism surrounding it—a lot of judgment and bashing. You have to consider who's writing these articles. Are these people who have been programmed? Have they been hurt? Do they lack tools? There's nothing wrong with monogamy. It's a beautiful way to be in relationship. That's where I always come back to communication and connection. You just want whatever kind of relationship to be the healthiest relationship it can be.