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Rethinking Our Relationships with Dr. Heath Schechinger    

Rethinking Our Relationships with Dr. Heath Schechinger

Art by FISK

As our team was brainstorming story ideas for this month exploring Curiosity, we asked ourselves what we wanted to know more about. One area we kept coming back to was relationships – how our idea of them has shifted in recent years and what they might look like in the future. “I think relationships will be more queer and non-monogamous in the next 20 years,” predicts psychologist and educator Dr. Heath Schechinger. “Younger generations are much more likely to identify as LGBTQ and engage in consensual non-monogamy, and I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future.”

We spoke to Dr. Schechinger about the growing acceptance around consensual non-monogamy, what infidelity really represents in a relationship, and his advice for people who feel confined by traditional relationship expectations. 

Can you tell me about your inclusive approach to individual and couples therapy and how it's unique? 

The world is waking up to the ways that a “one size fits all” model of relationships isn’t working. Rather than assuming people are or should be monogamous, I seek to create a safe space to get in touch with their relationship orientation and clarify what relationship agreements are aligned with their values and desires. I follow the Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychotherapy, a body-centered approach that combines somatic awareness with experiential techniques to promote growth and well-being. Hakomi integrates principles of Buddhism and Taoism, emphasizing concepts such as mindfulness, loving presence, and empathy. With Hakomi, the body is perceived to be a window to unconscious psychological material, and I strive to help people identify somatic indicators of unconscious beliefs and then bring these indicators into their awareness in order to help bring about change. The focus is on slowing down, getting in touch with the present moment, and really giving people an opportunity to stay with a feeling longer [than usual]. So instead of analyzing something, I'm often pulling people back to the present moment of what they are experiencing in the here and now, in their body. The goal is to step out of your head and [stop trying] to analyze or make meaning of [whatever you’re thinking] and just be with feeling. That tends to evoke more authentic emotions. 

It seems like our culture is beginning to reconsider or at least interrogate the concept of monogamy more than ever before. Why do you think that is?

I agree. Relationship norms are constructs informed by culture that are consistently being negotiated and re-defined, and the ethical non-monogamy movement is another iteration. The arc toward greater tolerance and acceptance of ethical non-monogamy is rooted in the work of advocates for women’s liberation and LGBTQ rights, as well as the invention of birth control, and the internet has helped share information about ethical non-monogamy more broadly.

Most people want security and longevity in a relationship but our current cultural expectations about monogamy do not adequately prepare people to address our inherent desire for novelty. We know that sexual satisfaction tends to decrease over time in monogamous relationships, that 30-40% of relationships experience at least one incident of infidelity, and nearly one-third of couples come to therapy due to infidelity, so it’s not surprising that people would start to question how our cultural expectations regarding monogamy are impacting relationships and well-being. In light of this, I believe the field of psychology has an ethical imperative to explore this issue and challenge the stigma directed toward ethical non-monogamy.  

In what ways is monogamy limiting to a relationship? In what ways is it beneficial?

Monogamy and consensual non-monogamy are equally viable options for a relationship – one is not better than the other. Similar to how there is no ideal sexual orientation or gender identity, I don’t believe there is a universally ideal relationship orientation or structure. Granted, there are societal privileges that come with being straight, cisgender, and/or monogamous, but they are not inherently better or worse than being queer, transgender or gender non-conforming, or consensually non-monogamous. 

Do you think that it will be easier or harder for mainstream society to come around to the concept of consensual non-monogamy than it was for, say, LGBTQ relationships, which took decades?

That's a good question. I think that it will be easier because the path toward inclusion has already been clarified and our tolerance for divergence or difference has already been acknowledged. We've done this experiment with queer rights and affirming queer rights, and we know that one of the most powerful ways to shift people's perspectives towards being more inclusive is them having close contact with someone who has a minority identity. I think the safer that it becomes and the more that it becomes normalized as a valid relationship option, the more people will come out. But to get there, I think a big factor is that we've got to start making progress about adding it as an anti-discrimination status so that it is protected so people can't be fired from their jobs, etc. 

What have been some of your most interesting learnings on non-monogamous relationships?

Research has debunked a number of common misperceptions about consensual non-monogamy (CNM). For example, CNM relationships experience equitable levels of commitment, longevity, satisfaction, passion, and love, as well as greater levels of trust and lower jealousy compared to monogamous relationships. A big myth is that CNM relationships don’t last as long as monogamous relationships, but on average, they do. When people hear of a CNM relationship that ends, it confirms a pre-existing bias, but people don’t consider all the monogamous relationships they know that didn’t work, too. When monogamous relationships end people don’t blame monogamy like they do with consensual non-monogamy, so monogamy is privileged in this way. 

People in CNM relationships are also not any more likely to have current or past sexually transmitted infections than people in monogamous relationships. People engaged in CNM have more sexual partners on average but are more likely to use safer sex practices. Given the prevalence of infidelity and lack of communication about it in monogamous relationships, the numbers come out the same.  

How do you think our understanding of what a relationship "should" look like has shifted over the last decade?

Word is starting to get out that the experiment with the nuclear family model, with two parents and one or two kids, may not be as ideal as it was made out to be. It’s perceived and reinforced as the societal ideal but this wasn’t the way most people lived for thousands of years before the 1950s, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived since the mid-1960s. Today, only about 20-30% of households fit the nuclear family ideal. Having only one person to meet all of your needs—to be your best friend, lover, companion, co-parent, etc.—puts a significant amount of pressure on the relationship. In many ways, consensual non-monogamy seems more aligned with community-based models of relationships. Rather than having all your eggs in one basket, many people are finding that there is less pressure and more of their needs are being met when they let go of the assumption that we should meet all of our partners’ needs. My hope is that people will continue letting go of the idea that a relationship should look any one particular way. I think we will all be better off letting go of a one-size-fits-all model and accepting that there are multiple viable approaches to love and intimacy. 

Despite some of the strides made in our culture over the last 50 years, there continues to be pressure to fit ourselves into neat relationship boxes, particularly when it comes to getting married or getting married by a certain age. How would you advise people who are feeling that pressure, despite not feeling ready or wanting that at all?

You are not alone – your people are out there. It can feel incredibly isolating to lean into your truth and ask difficult questions, especially when feeling pressure to continue down the proverbial relationship escalator. But it won’t get any easier to ask these difficult questions further into the relationship. Start reading books, articles, and listening to podcasts to get a sense of what’s out there. Then find others who think like you and see where it takes you. Life is too short and you owe it to yourself to find a partner or partners who will love you for exactly who you are.  

Since we’re exploring curiosity this month at The Local Optimist, in what ways can increased curiosity improve or shift a romantic relationship? 

Curiosity can help strengthen connections old and new. When we express curiosity and ask questions, we may find out something interesting about another person, people open up more, and they also tend to return the favor. This can spark up a back and forth which can foster emotional closeness. One way to employ curiosity is to clarify what your relationship agreements are – whether they are implicit or explicit. You may also wish to be curious about the need or desire behind the agreement. 

You also work with individuals who are processing infidelity. How do you help people work through that experience? Do you have any beliefs you can share about what often leads to infidelity? 

There are a number of possible reasons for infidelity but in many cases, it stems from unmet needs. One partner may not be capable of fulfilling their partner's needs, but in many cases, those needs have not been expressed out of fear of triggering their partner or judgment from their partner. I strive to help people unpack the impact of infidelity while also understanding communication dynamics and any unmet needs that may have led a partner to stray from their agreements. Infidelity is often a catalyst of authenticity, and at times, with support, can lead to greater intimacy.  

Along the way, I think it’s important to fully acknowledge the impact of the breach of trust while being mindful to avoid vilifying the desire to connect with others outside of a relationship similar to how we wouldn’t want to vilify same sex attraction. Granted, desire for non-monogamy is normal, but it is not justification for violating relationship agreements. 

Do you think romantic relationships will look different at all in the next 20 years?

Yes, relationships will be more queer and non-monogamous. Younger generations are much more likely to identify as LGBTQ and engage in consensual non-monogamy and I anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future. I don’t anticipate that these currently minority statuses will ever become the majority, but I do expect we will look back and feel saddened by the stigma and discrimination perpetuated in our systems. As the stigma toward CNM lifts, I anticipate we will see more movement regarding the current workplace, housing, marriage/domestic partnership, and healthcare discrimination toward the CNM community.

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